Last summer, Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, killed a 270-pound black bear with his car near the little Appalachian town of Millboro, where the two of us grew up in the 1970s. The bear had lumbered out of the woods and Deeds couldn't brake fast enough. The bear died instantly. The candidate's car didn't fare much better. The news went out over the police scanner, and within a few hours most everyone in rural Bath County knew all about it. It wasn't long before Deeds started receiving urgent calls from locals. They weren't worried about him. They wanted to know what he was going to do with the bear. "People kept coming up to me for days," Deeds recalled recently when I traveled around the state with him. " 'Can I have your bear, Creigh, can I have your bear?' " They wanted to use it to train bluetick hounds for hunting, or to make a rug, or to eat.
For more than 20 years, Deeds has served the people of Bath County locally and in the Virginia Legislature. They like him in part because he is one of them, and because he's nothing like the picture that pops into your head when you think of a politician. Deeds is the opposite of slick and rehearsed. His accent is country South, not Southern genteel. His campaign speeches ramble. He sometimes tells stories that are funny and endearing, but that don't seem to have a point. "People said a fella from Bath County can't be the nominee," he told a crowd in Danville last month. "Now they're saying a fella from Bath County can't be governor." The punch line of the story: "But I know you gotta do right by people … I grew up on a dirt farm. We ate hogs and deer."
In many respects, Deeds is a Democratic political consultant's dream candidate for a Southern state like Virginia. He's more conservative than many Republicans. He fishes and hunts, and knows the parts of a hog without consulting Cook's Illustrated. In previous races for governor, political handlers made big money trying to make candidates look like authentic Southerners. Mark Warner, the popular former Democratic governor and now U.S. senator, was a Harvard Law grad from Indianapolis who'd made millions incell phones. But on the campaign trail, he talked about guns and NASCAR to appeal to voters like the ones Deeds grew up with.
Deeds doesn't need to fake it. Voters like my parents and their neighbors know he's the real thing. People tell stories about the year he knocked on nearly every door in the county when he was running for his first elected office. They remember how he was nearly killed at 12 years old, when he was struck by a runaway truck that rolled down the steep hill in front of the school during the homecoming football game. Deeds lay in a coma for 16 days, then suddenly woke up.
Everyone knows his mom, Emmie, a letter carrier, who still delivers the mail to my parents. My mom, who has a beauty shop in her house, used to cut Deeds's hair. My dad has served with him for years in the Millboro Presbyterian Church. (Deeds was three years ahead of me in school. We played basketball and rode the same schoolbus, but we weren't close friends.) The people back home supported Deeds, 51, as he worked his way from local commonwealth's attorney to state delegate to state senator. Now that he's running for governor, the people of Bath County still like him.
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