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News & Record endorsement: Deeds and Signer for Virginia

SoVaNow.com / June 03, 2009
Next Tuesday, June 9, Virginians will head to the polls to choose the Democratic Party nominees for governor and lieutenant governor in the upcoming November general election. The winners will run against Republican candidates who, at least for the moment, must be rated as mild favorites to take the state’s top two offices. Virginia is one of only two states to elect a governor in 2009, and our off-year ballot always receives a great deal of attention following the election of a new president. While timing alone is reason enough for outsiders to take notice — eager as the media is to declare a backlash against the party in power in the White House — it pales in importance to the need to choose the right person to lead the Commonwealth in these economically bedraggled times.

Of the three Democrats running for governor — Terry McAuliffe, Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran — only one candidate, Deeds, hails from rural Virginia and truly understands the challenges facing small communities like Mecklenburg County that lie outside the state’s prosperous Golden Crescent. In contrast to Moran and McAuliffe, both residents of Northern Virginia, Deeds also gets the culture of rural Virginia: If, for example, gun rights are your bag, then Deeds is your man. The NRA endorsed him in his 2005 run for Attorney General, a race Deeds lost by the achingly close margin of 360 votes to the Republican candidate, Bob McDonnell, who today is running for governor. Deeds fell short in that race despite being outspent by McDonnell 2-1, and with Democrats on the offensive across the nation no one need worry that the party’s nominee — whoever he is — will pull up short in the money chase this time around.

In many ways, Deeds is the most electable of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates — less saddled with political baggage than McAuliffe, who even friends pay the backhanded compliment of calling a huckster, and an easier sell statewide than Moran, who has struggled to break out of the box of being a regional, Northern Virginia candidate. Northern Virginia is key to the Democrats’ hopes in November, but there’s no reason to believe Deeds would fare any worse than Moran or McAuliffe in Virginia’s bluest region. By the same token, there are good reasons to believe that Moran or McAuliffe would struggle to gain support outside of their Northern Virginia base.

But saying that Deeds has the best chance of winning or should be the party’s nominee because he’s “more like us” completely misses his chief virtue: Alone among the Democratic candidates, Deeds has a record of standing up for what is right for Virginians regardless of regional or even party considerations. The Washington Post, in endorsing Deeds two weeks ago, made the important point that the senator from rural Bath County — which doesn’t even have its own stoplight — has been more willing than his opponents to propose tangible fixes for Virginia’s broken transportation system, which has choked off growth in Northern Virginia but ranks as a top concern in rural Southside, too. Deeds has made politically difficult votes to raise the gas tax, the simplest and most direct source of revenue for road improvements. While McAuliffe goes around the state talking about his plans to build a new energy economy around chicken waste — a joke that writes its own punchline — and Moran shies away from any suggestion that higher gas taxes might be needed to fix paralysis in his home region, Deeds has showed the courage and conviction needed to get things done. There may be little separation among the candidates on the issues, but there are huge differences in the way they approach the fundamental demands of leadership. On that score, Deeds has proven himself the best candidate by several miles.

Whether the issue is transportation, or his admirable sponsorship of legislation to form a non-partisan commission to draw legislative election districts, or his top-of-the-order commitment to higher education, Creigh Deeds has proven himself worthy of leading Virginia for the next four years. We wholeheartedly endorse his candidacy and encourage all voters — Democratic, Republican and independent — to support Deeds in the open primary next Tuesday.

***

For lieutenant governor we support the newcomer, Mike Signer. Signer is running as something as an upstart, having joined the race late and lacking the establishment pedigree of the other candidate still in the running, Jody Wagner, former Secretary of Finance in the Kaine Administration. On paper, Wagner should be an easy choice for Democrats. A Virginia Beach resident, she narrowly lost a politically challenging race for Congress in 2000 and from there segued into top-rank jobs with the Warner and Kaine Administrations, allowing her to claim some credit for Virginia’s designation (by Forbes magazine) as the best-run state in the nation. Signer, by contrast, is a national security consultant, a published author with a new book out about foreign dictators, and a former political aide to Tom Perriello in his upset victory over former Fifth District Congressman Virgil Goode. In other words, Signer’s been around, but he lacks the sort of record that Wagner has accumulated.

What turns the choice on its head, however, is this: Signer represents a breed of Democrats willing to stand on principle, a sharp contrast to the cautious, meek-to-the-point-of-useless style adopted lately by Wagner. Signer displays a pugnacious intellect and daring that makes him similar to Virginia’s Jim Webb, who in our book rates as the most valuable member of the U.S. Senate despite (or perhaps because of) approaching the job almost as an anti-politician. Signer is much smoother and more conventional than Webb — and he’ll make an energetic campaigner this fall against the Republican incumbent, Bill Bolling — but he shares an admirable willingness to challenge the status quo that Virginia’s senior senator has demonstrated in spades.

One issue where Signer shines is economic fairness. Virginia is a relatively wealthy state, with the ninth highest per capita income in the nation, but its social safety net is shamefully weak, as anyone who has ever accessed Medicare (47th highest spending in the U.S.), the mental health system (whose shortcomings were addressed only after the Virginia Tech massacres) or the unemployment office (shafted in the Republicans’ rejection of $125 million in jobless benefits in the stimulus bill) can attest. Wagner and Signer would seem to agree on the nature of these problems, but only one candidate has made fixing them a priority in this campaign. Wagner’s focus on her role in managing Virginia’s financial affairs is all well and fine — although she may run into problems on that score this fall, given the state’s current dire fiscal straits — but it is no substitute for a vision for how the state can improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Signer not only speaks eloquently on these issues, he has proposed solutions that would greatly favor areas of the state (such as our own) that need all the help they can get.

Democrats face a choice as they shift from reacting to the absolutist free-market, reality-challenged mantras of the Republican Party to implementing their own ideas for fixing the problems that confront Virginia and nation: they can play the me-too game, or they can put forth plans that require courage and commitment to carry through to fruition. President Obama has shown admirable skill in this regard (even if he hasn’t gone far enough to reign in the excesses of the robber baron culture on Wall Street) and our next governor and lieutenant governor will be asked to do much of the same. There is no hope of meaningful change if the Republican candidates — Bob McDonnell and Bill Bolling — win, and electing the milquetoast Wagner or a classic corpucrat such as Terry McAuliffe would sorely diminish any hope that Virginia government will complete the evolution from a Byrd-era relic into an entity that responds to the needs of the many, as opposed to the whims of the privileged few. Creigh Deeds and Mike Signer offer not only the best hope for a Democratic ticket that can win in the fall, but one that will make a difference during the next four years in office. For those reasons and more, they will get our vote.


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