Bath County: Creigh Deeds' sense of place

Four-wheel drive is recommended to get up the driveway. The front yard around the 1917 farmhouse needs mowing, and if the lawn looks a tad untidy, that's because state Senator Creigh Deeds hasn't been home to Millboro Springs for the past 12 days.

Cats keep popping up to greet him as he strolls to the barn, and 10 equines graze in a field on his 13-acre farm that looks up at Rough Mountain across the road. This is the first summer Deeds hasn't had time to plant a garden.

It doesn't get much more rural than Bath County, population 5,000, stoplights– none. And yet from this county that's closer to West Virginia than it is to parts of his own 25th District, like Charlottesville, Deeds has launched a statewide campaign for attorney general.

He seemingly came out of nowhere in 2001 to win the late Emily Couric's senate seat. Now he's challenging Delegate Bob McDonnell for the AG post, which, like lieutenant governor, is traditionally a stepping-stone to the governor's race.

So how does a politician from remote Millboro Springs intend to win state office?

"People have said before, 'This guy from Bath County can't win,'" says Deeds. "I'm planning on winning."

He's sitting in a rocking chair in his living room, where the bookshelves are heavy with histories and political biographies, including Means of Ascent from Robert Caro's series on Lyndon B. Johnson.

At age 27, Deeds was elected Bath County commonwealth's attorney and served for four years. McDonnell also was a prosecutor, but Deeds' campaign is quick to point out that McDonnell was not elected to that job.

When Deeds decided to make a run for the House of Delegates in 1991, "The Democratic powers that be in Roanoke thought I was too unknown," he says. "They thought this was the middle of nowhere. To me, it's the middle of everything."

Indeed, as he drives from Lickety Splits ice cream shop in the heart of Millboro Springs, where he meets visitors because of his challenging driveway, he mentions that he went to high school with a woman who works there.

Along the drive to his house, he points out Nimrod Hall, which his great-grandfather bought in 1904.

Down Highway 39 in nearby Millboro is the circa-1803 brick home he grew up in, where his mother still lives.

His ancestors have been in Bath County for generations. In fact, he points to a map in a book called The Valley Road, which shows that a portion of the county used to be called "Deeds Country."

Clearly, sense of place is important to Deeds. "My wife says I talk about it too much," he admits. "But that's important for me to have and my children to have."

His grandfather's house– the old home place– was the first in the area to have electricity, thanks to the rural electrification program. "I know the power government can have on people's lives," he says.

His grandfather worked for the Virginia Division of Forestry, and young Creigh was always aware of government work. "I knew very early on I wasn't going to be satisfied just complaining about things," he says.

His first election was to a 4-H post in the fourth grade. Did he win? "I'm sure I did," he says. The loss he remembers: 11th grade class president.

When Democratic insiders didn't think the young man from Bath County was the candidate to take on the Republican incumbent in the House of Delegates, Deeds was undeterred. "I worked hard and won the nomination," he says. "Then it was a matter of mobilizing a grassroots base." Deeds has been expanding that base ever since.

A "Deeds for House of Delegates" bumper sticker still adorns a bucket in his yard, a reminder of his 10 years in that legislative branch.

"He was a well-known quantity," says Delegate Mitch Van Yahres. "He had credentials– he was Democratic caucus chair for the House. He made his mark there being a good, outspoken, honest delegate."

And when Couric's state senate seat, which includes Charlottesville, came open following her death in 2001, this time, says Deeds, several Democrats here approached him and suggested he run.

He saw it as a logical move, even though he was an unknown in the eastern end of the narrowly redistricted Democrat-heavy 25th District, which stretches from Bath and Rockbridge to Buckingham and Nelson counties.

"I live 50 miles west of the Blue Ridge, and 75 percent of the district lives east of the Blue Ridge," says Deeds. Despite living two counties away from Albemarle, he handily won the seat.

Deeds sees the attorney general's job as a natural progression from his days as commonwealth's attorney. And once again, he's in a race in which name recognition is key.

"The guy I'm running against, his name recognition is low even though he spent $2 million in a primary.... He got no bang for his buck for that," says Deeds, avoiding mention of McDonnell's name.

His opponent came to office in 1992, one of the right-to-life Republicans who have come to dominate the General Assembly. Deeds ticks off the differences between the two of them.

A big one is the contentious budget battle that kept the General Assembly in session an extra 105 days last year before approving an extra $1.4 billion for education and public safety. "The budget fight was one of those critical tests of leadership," says Deeds.

"This fellow talks about being tough on crime," he continues. "Everybody does. We had cops– state cops– living on food stamps. I voted yes [for the budget]. This other guy voted no."

As for social issues, there's a "whole panoply" of differences, he says, the most notable being abortion. "He would deny women the right to choose, even in cases of rape or incest," he says.

McDonnell's campaign headquarters did not return phone calls from the Hook. Local Republican chair Bob Hodous refuses to criticize Deeds' record, instead preferring to praise McDonnell and his "focus on the positive."

The two candidates share one thing in common: large families. McDonnell has five children; Deeds has four. Does that make McDonnell more pro-family? "He has twins, so it was four pregnancies," points out Deeds, competitive even in the childbearing race.

His wife, Pam, is a counselor at the community college in Clifton Forge, and their three girls and one boy range in age from a junior at JMU to a seventh grader.

"Pam said I could do anything in politics, but it wasn't going to affect the children's lives," he says. Of course, his kids have grown up with their father on the road– in the run for AG alone, he's put over 80,000 miles on his Ford Explorer in the past year.

"I get to do this because of my wife," he says.

Deeds is animated talking about family, both his own progeny and the generation that settled in Bath County in the 1730s.

He mentions that his school bus driver used to live here in his house, and if asked, he probably could trace the bus driver's lineage as well.

The house burned in 1984 and sat empty until 1989, when the Deeds moved in and remodeled. That didn't include installing air conditioning. And they still heat with wood.

Deeds has made a concession from the days when he used to chop, split, and stack the firewood that keeps the family warm. Now his busy life means he must buy cords of wood instead.

Bath County is a place where the start of hunting season is closely tied with the schools' week-long fall break. "I grew up hunting and fishing," says Deeds, who sponsored an amendment to the state constitution that protects Virginians' right to hunt and fish.

That effort earned him an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, a group not known to give its blessing to many Democrats. (Deeds got an "A" on the NRA's report card, while McDonnell recently dropped from an A- to B+.)

Deeds' farm is close to the Cow Pasture River, but he declines to name his favorite fishing holes. "That's kind of a personal question," he protests, and only generally lists a couple of spots on the Jackson River, the Cow Pasture, a couple of creeks, and a couple of ponds.

Over the Labor Day weekend, the candidate's schedule leaves little time for fishing. He barely has a few minutes to greet Pam and youngest daughter Susannah before heading off to the Highland County Fair in Monterey, and then back to the football game at Bath County High to catch his son's marching band performance in the half-time show.

After Labor Day, the campaign really heats up. UVA pundit Larry Sabato calls 2005 a slow-starting election because "the major gubernatorial candidates don't excite anyone." (They are Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jerry Kilgore, with an independent bid from Russ Potts.)

Sabato's crystal ball has no predictions whether it'll be Deeds or McDonnell in November, but he sees the possibility of a ticket election, which will bode well for Deeds if Democrat Kaine wins.

But for down-ballot candidates like those in the attorney general's race, "No one pays any attention," says Sabato. While McDonnell probably has better name recognition because of the primary, "That's not saying much," adds Sabato.

A mid-September Mason-Dixon poll gave Deeds 33 percent of the vote, McDonnell 36 percent, with a whopping 31 percent undecided. The candidates tied in name recognition at 30 percent each in the poll, which has a four percent margin of error.

The attorney general's office did provide name recognition for gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, who had to deal with the 2002 Republican eavesdropping scandal, in which Deeds was one of those Dems overheard on a conference call by Republican state executive director Ed Matricardi.

What would Deeds do differently if he found himself in the same situation with his own party's operatives acting illegally?

"I wouldn't have had to make phone calls to find out what to do next," he replies. "I would have immediately advised those people they were breaking the law, and I would have called the state police. [Kilgore] found out on a Friday and turned them in on Monday."

Deeds is intrigued with the law enforcement aspects of the job and the potential to use the office as a bully pulpit.

He wants to take on methadone labs, the scourge of the Shenandoah Valley, by stiffening penalties, seizing assets for environmental clean-up, and putting easily obtained main ingredients, such as over-the-counter decongestant Sudafed, behind the counter.

Two of his children have asthma. "We've gone through lots of Sudafed," he says. "There's no reason you can't put it behind the counter."

Deeds co-sponsored Virginia's sex offender registry in 1994 and sponsored Megan's Law legislation in 1998. As AG, he'd like to use GPS technology to track the whereabouts of sexual offenders.

"The registry has to mean something," he says.

McDonnell has his own platform for dealing with sexual predators and the "scourge of drugs."

Deeds' campaign was pleased that the Richmond Times-Dispatch called him a "moderate to conservative Democrat," a label that could work well in a Republican-dominated state.

"Creigh is very wrapped up and totally dedicated to the office he's running for," says Van Yahres.

He calls Deeds a very down-home speaker who couldn't talk without his hands. "He's so damn sincere," says Van Yahres. "What you see is what you get. He's willing to be honest with voters– that's something we politicians have a hard time doing."

As for his rural roots, compared to McDonnell's more metropolitan home base in Virginia Beach, Van Yahres sees another plus. "I think people are looking for fresh faces. He's rural, and I think we like someone coming out of the countryside. There are no airs about Creigh."

In the country, it's okay to park an aging Toyota truck with a "YELA DOG" license plate in the large driveway. An oval "Cree" sticker adorns another vehicle, and Deeds proudly displays newly minted "Sportsmen for Deeds" bumper stickers.

He hasn't slapped one yet on his Explorer, which serves as office and closet and is packed with a healthy CD collection for those hours on the road.

Cult country-rock star Gram Parsons is in the CD player, and Deeds insists visitors listen to Parsons' version of the Rolling Stones' classic "Wild Horses."

"Gram Parsons owns this song," Deeds enthuses. Parsons partisanship on "Wild Horses," however, did not keep Deeds from attending last week's Stones concert in Charlottesville.

Neither did a tiny hometown in the far reaches of the state stop the last elected AG– Kilgore– who came from the even-more-remote Gate City in Southwest Virginia.

Deeds, too, does not see being a country boy as a hindrance to his million-dollar statewide campaign.

"That's all I know how to be," he says simply.

Creigh Deeds unbridled, in his Millboro Springs pasture


Deeds doesn't often get to sit back and relax at home– he's usually driving all over the state. "It's a big state," he says 84,000 miles later.


Pam Deeds does the heavy lifting to keep the household together while Creigh pursues his passion for politics.


Harry S. Truman, the token donkey among Creigh Deeds' four horses and five ponies, is perfect for photo ops for the Democratic candidate– when he's in a cooperative mood.


Bob McDonnell held a thin lead in mid-September polls, with a whopping 31 percent of the voters undecided.


Deeds wants the AG job in Richmond– but his roots will remain in Bath County.