- The Washington Times - Monday, October 26, 2009

RICHMOND | Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates are working overtime to appeal to black voters, an influential voting bloc who helped win Barack Obama the presidency but are shown in polls as not being excited to vote this year.

The two gubernatorial candidates came to address the NAACP’s 74th annual state convention in Richmond on Friday night after a gospel choir performance. But only a few more than 100 people stayed to hear Democrat R. Creigh Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell speak, a lack of interest that has been repeatedly documented in polls.

The majority of black voters identify themselves as Democrats, which means overcoming that kind of apathy is particularly important for Mr. Deeds.

The latest poll, released Oct. 21 by the nonpartisan Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., showed that only 68 percent of blacks support Mr. Deeds and only 41 percent were “very excited” about the upcoming election.

In a poll by the same company taken between Oct. 21-23 last year, Mr. Obama had 88 percent of blacks supporting him. The question of excitement about the election wasn’t asked.

At that time, blacks, who make up about 20 percent of the state’s population, represented 30 percent of newly registered voters.

A lack of excitement in the polls isn’t the entire story. Those queried by pollsters tend to be likely voters, which translates into people with a history of voting in multiple elections. It won’t be known until Election Day how many of last year’s first-time voters will turn out this year.

In Richmond, those convention attendees who spoke to The Washington Times said they are motivated voters, who mostly identified themselves as Democrats.

Ruth K. Thierry, 73, who lives in Richmond, said, “I wouldn’t dare let the time go by and not vote.”

The president of her residents’ association, Ms. Thierry said she helps educate her neighbors about the election, but as a member of the Democratic Party she said it’s rather obvious for whom she will cast her vote.

Mr. Deeds clearly had his rock-star moment at the convention as people stopped him in the hallways and paused to take pictures. During his speaking time, the audience gave him the longest sustained applause.

Galen Harris, a 58-year-old retired postal worker who lives in Chesterfield, just seven miles from Richmond, stopped Mr. Deeds in the hallway to offer his support.

The self-described Democrat, who contributed to President Obama’s campaign, said he supports Mr. Deeds enthusiastically.

And he added that everyone he speaks to is supporting the Virginia Democrat as well.

“This election is a historic election, too,” he said. “This election is very important because if he does win that will be strength for Mr. Obama.”

Although they politely listened to Mr. Deeds and his opponent, as well as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and the Republican candidate for attorney general during the hour-long candidates’ forum, few said they had any intention of voting for a Republican.

“I’m not happy with Creigh with the guns in bars,” Ms. Thierry said, referring to the candidate’s vote on legislation that would prohibit people from bringing their weapons in to bars.

Both campaigns have spent millions of dollars to reach black voters.

Rodney Tull of Alexandria, who was in Richmond but not attending the convention, said both parties have been “blowing up” his phone. During the last few weeks, he said, he’s received dozens of phone calls and mailings.

After shaking hands and chatting with Mr. McDonnell, Mr. Tull and his friends all used a hand sanitizer but they said it wasn’t because of his party, but rather concern about swine flu.

As to why a Republican would work so hard for a vote he has very little chance of obtaining, Mr. McDonnell said after he spoke that his campaign made a decision to concentrate efforts on creating a message that would reach all voters.

“We made the decisions very early on in the race that we weren’t going to write off any vote,” he said.

Mr. Deeds, meanwhile, is aware that he’s not Barack Obama, as he said several weeks ago.

“That was a different sort of election,” he said.

But this year, he said he’s very confident he can bring the votes together from around the state, including those of blacks.

“I’m met with excitement everywhere I go,” he said.

Asked if endorsements — or the lack thereof — from high-profile blacks such as the president, former Democratic governor L. Douglas Wilder and BET Networks co-founder Sheila Johnson have any bearing on the candidate they have decided to support, most people said no.

Milondra Coleman, 38, a teacher who lives in Richmond, said that “you need to find out who you are voting for, be independent, not unduly influenced by national, state and entertainment figures.”

Mr. Wilder publicly announced that he wasn’t going to endorse either candidate for governor, but in a statement he specifically said he wasn’t endorsing Mr. Deeds because of his views on guns and taxes. Mr. Wilder’s non-endorsement of Mr. Deeds might not have been clear to everyone; one man said he’s waiting for Mr. Wilder to make his traditional last-minute endorsement of the Democratic candidate.

Roger Cox, 61, who owns a heating and cooling company in Charles County, said he was disappointed in Mr. Wilder’s decision.

“He was all for the Democratic ticket when he was running for office, and he [doesn’t] know. Sometimes, it’s not the person,” he said.

Ms. Johnson has been publicly campaigning for Mr. McDonnell and also appears in a television advertisement.

President Obama is campaigning in Norfolk at Old Dominion University on Tuesday for Mr. Deeds. In August, he headlined a rally in Northern Virginia for the candidate. Democrats have launched an advertising campaign featuring Mr. Obama in a television ad airing in the Richmond and Hampton Roads markets. Additionally, they sent e-mails signed by the president to a network of supporters.

Over the weekend, both candidates spent time in areas with high concentrations of black voters.

But the question of being able to get out the vote remains. Ms. Coleman said she barely heard about the NAACP event. “I wish it had been publicized more. I put it on Facebook.”

She added that this year’s election certainly doesn’t have the same kind of excitement as the 2008 presidential race.

“You could feel it in the air last year,” she said. “That hasn’t been reproduced this year, and it’s more important to vote for state government. The level of excitement just isn’t the same.”

Her friend, Sharon Mosley, 28, is hopeful. “Maybe the Obama visit will hype it up,” she said.

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