- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

RICHMOND — Democratic attorney general candidate R. Creigh Deeds emphasized his support of last year’s $1.4 billion tax package while Republican opponent Robert F. McDonnell touted his efforts to rein in frivolous lawsuits in a debate yesterday.

The two veteran state legislators met in the opener of a debate double-header sponsored by the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. The second debate featured Republican William T. Bolling and Democrat Leslie Byrne, the candidates for lieutenant governor.

Mr. Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, mentioned the 2004 budget reform on several occasions, saying it provided a crucial boost for law enforcement and preserved Virginia’s healthy business climate and its treasured AAA bond rating by Wall Street.

Mr. McDonnell, a delegate from Virginia Beach, was not among the few Republican delegates who sided with the Democratic minority to pass the tax increase.

“He was an obstructionist,” Mr. Deeds said.

Mr. Deeds also noted that Mr. McDonnell served on a Republican-dominated legislative panel that studied tax reform for three years, then disbanded in 2003 without making any recommendations.

“When the going got tough, they just plain quit,” he said. “He had his chance to lead. He chose not to lead.”

Rather than respond to those accusations, Mr. McDonnell leveled a few of his own: that Mr. Deeds “voted against bills to rein in prisoner lawsuits, which eat up a lot of time in the attorney general’s office,” and that he opposed giving prosecutors the right to appeal certain court rulings.

Mr. McDonnell said he has championed bills to reduce frivolous litigation. That prompted Mr. Deeds to mention the state Republican Party’s lawsuit against its insurer for refusing to cover the nearly $1 million the party paid to settle a Democratic suit over political eavesdropping. He said that before the settlement, party officials claimed they didn’t have insurance.

“That’s a frivolous lawsuit if ever I’ve seen one,” Mr. Deeds said.

Mr. McDonnell also said Mr. Deeds once supported tripling the state’s $1 million cap on medical malpractice awards. Such an increase would have driven many doctors out of business because malpractice insurance would be unaffordable, Mr. McDonnell said. The cap eventually was raised to $1.5 million, with annual increases of $50,000 for seven years and $75,000 for two years, taking the limit to $2 million on July 1, 2008.

Mr. Deeds also has supported legislation allowing state government employees and managers to “meet and confer” on labor matters, Mr. McDonnell said, adding that the proposal would lead to collective bargaining by government workers.

“I will never support collective bargaining for public employees,” Mr. Deeds said. “I voted for meet and confer because I see nothing wrong with people sitting down and talking.”

The candidates were asked what they would do to help prevent a slow government response to a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. McDonnell said his proposal to conduct drills testing the state’s plan for responding to a terrorist attack also could apply to natural disasters.

Mr. Deeds again brought up the 2004 budget deal and the money it provided for law enforcement, saying, “We’re better prepared today than we were four years ago for a disaster.”

The candidates for lieutenant governor exchanged pointed charges and drew even sharper distinctions between themselves during a clash remarkable for its candor and hostility.

Mrs. Byrne assailed Mr. Bolling in their hourlong debate for ties to a medical malpractice insurer whose collapse prompted state and federal criminal probes.

“I [have] had three successful businesses in Virginia, and I have done it without declaring bankruptcy or committing fraud. I know that’s not a very high standard, but on this stage it is,” Mrs. Byrne said in closing remarks.

For 20 years, Virginia-based Reciprocal of America employed Mr. Bolling. Its collapse in 2002 left more than $700 million in unpaid claims to doctors and hospitals in several states. Mr. Bolling, however, was never implicated in any wrongdoing.

Mr. Bolling, his face reddening, accused Mrs. Byrne of employing slash-and-burn tactics to mask “an extreme form of liberalism that we have never seen before in a statewide candidate in Virginia.”

He noted her attack in 1996 on fellow Democrat Mark Warner when she unsuccessfully opposed him for a U.S. Senate nomination.

“She threatened to file a complaint against him with the U.S. Justice Department accusing him of voter fraud. Her quote was, ‘He may have won the rat race, but he’s still a rat.’ Well, it hasn’t hurt Governor Warner, and I don’t think it’s going to hurt me,” Mr. Bolling said.

Mrs. Byrne made no secret of her disdain for the right-to-work law that corporate and business leaders and the state’s majority Republicans cite as the foundation of Virginia’s robust economy.

“The thing I don’t like about it is it encourages freeloading. It creates the idea that someone who is nonunion can live off the bargaining power of unions to get better wages and better benefits,” she said.

Mr. Bolling, by contrast, said he strongly supports Virginia’s anti-union business climate and accused Mrs. Byrne of backing collective bargaining, even for state and local government employees such as teachers.

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