Naivete doesn't suit Charlie Diradour. A stocky man with a tightly coiffed salt-and-pepper head of hair, the local real estate developer and longtime political adviser has an intensity that teeters on aggressiveness. He spent a career advising Democratic political campaigns, mostly local ones, from Mary Sue Terry's successful run for state attorney general in 1985 to Bill Pantele's unsuccessful bid for mayor a year ago, and is something of a busybody. When Diradour speaks it's as if the volume is stuck -- forceful yet restrained, like that of a ballpark vendor.
Sitting on the brick steps in a pin-striped suit at 13th and Cary streets last Wednesday, 18 hours after launching his campaign for the 7th District of the U.S. House of Representatives, Diradour tries to mute the volume.
"I issued an apology because it's the right thing to do," he says, subdued. "We didn't know the technical logjam that was involved here."
On Sept. 15, Diradour announced he was running for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Henrico, the party's minority whip and one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress. Diradour, who has never run for public office, kicked off his campaign with a shout, claiming that during President Obama's health-care speech Sept. 9, Cantor was on Twitter, nattering on about his TV interview schedule. The attack was central to Diradour's message: Cantor puts his political career ahead of important public policy. Turns out the time stamps were off and Cantor wasn't on Twitter during the speech. He says he was using his Blackberry to take notes.
It was an embarrassing mishap but not exactly a lethal one. Within hours, however, another story broke with more potential as a campaign killer: that Diradour doesn't live in the 7th District. His home in the Fan is in the 2200 block of Monument Avenue, about 10 blocks outside the 7th District's eastern border. While it's not a legal requirement to run for the office -- lawmakers are required only to live in the states they represent -- living in the district is generally considered a political requirement.
"In some way he is going to have to establish some residence in the district to be taken seriously," says political analyst Robert D. Holsworth, president of Virginia Tomorrow, an online political forum. "The Cantor people are going to refer to it every single time they speak about the race."
Diradour insists it isn't an issue, and that he lives in the 3rd District is the result of gerrymandering. Where he lives makes little difference, he says. That hasn't stopped Cantor's campaign from making it an issue.
"He ought to reset this campaign and start over," says Ray Allen, a senior strategist for Cantor, adding that the Democratic Party's recruitment of Diradour smacks of desperation. "They couldn't find someone who actually lives in our district?"
There's still plenty of time for Diradour to get his upstart candidacy untracked. On Wednesday, a day after the launch, Diradour spent the afternoon at Rocket Pop Media in Shockoe Slip shooting a new video, posted on his Web site and on YouTube, attempting to broaden his appeal. He paints himself as a civil, middle-class businessman who wants to bring civility back to Washington, and send home ideological "career politicians" such as Cantor, who "were milking the system while they voted for policies that cost Virginians more jobs than at any time since the Great Depression."
The somber start, however, may be a precursor of things to come. The wave of anti-Republican sentiment that swept Obama into the White House has all but dissipated, and 2010 isn't shaping up to be a good year for freshmen Democratic candidates facing entrenched Republican incumbents.
"This is a real long-shot campaign," Holsworth says. "You're running in a heavily Republican district against an individual who is extraordinarily well-funded and probably reflects the overall views of the district as well."
Indeed, in addition to the anti-Democratic sentiment that's emerged as Obama's health-care plan takes a beating in Washington, Cantor isn't just well-funded, he's also "one of the best fundraisers in Congressional history," Holsworth notes. Diradour says he's well aware of Cantor's ability to raise money, and estimates he'll need at least $1 million to fuel a serious challenge.
"He'll need a million for sure," says Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, who doesn't rule out the possibility that Diradour can pull off an upset. Going into a race as an underdog, however, Diradour must be willing to "take some chances," Sabato says, and embrace his "vulnerabilities."
Even so, Diradour will need more than $1 million to compete against Cantor, Holsworth says. "Cantor is a fundraising juggernaut. It's one of the reasons why he rose to power in the House," Holsworth says. "Cantor can raise five to 10 million dollars without batting an eye." As for funding promises from the national Democratic Party, Holsworth says in the heat of battle the party can become "ruthlessly pragmatic."
"He believes that he has some promises on the national side for dollars, but you have to see how that materializes. In the allocation of national money, you fund the campaigns where you think you really have a chance to win," he says. "If challengers can't prove that they are going to be competitive, the decision making is very tough-minded."
Not everyone sees money as Diradour's biggest impediment. David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democrat strategist from western Virginia who helped engineer Mark Warner's gubernatorial campaign in 2001 and Sen. Jim Webb's victory over former Sen. George Allen in 2006, says there are plenty of state and national donors who would ante up against Cantor.
"Anybody running against Eric Cantor is going to get money," insists Saunders, who met with Diradour about a month ago and came away impressed. "He comes off as a bit aggressive, but the voters I know are aggressive. I think he can articulate policy in a good way. He's a very good retail politician."
Saunders, who isn't working for Diradour's campaign, says his advice would be to paint Cantor as the "establishment" and stay on the attack. "If I was working for him, I'd advise him to get a hold of Eric Cantor and don't let go," he says. "Because a pit bull could beat that boy."
By next year, Saunders predicts the anti-Obama sentiment that's dogging Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds likely will have dissipated. And that should bode well for Diradour, who will try to paint Cantor as out of touch with his district, as the ultimate Washington insider.
He may be a long shot, but if Diradour is anything he's persistent. His campaign, after all, was spawned in part from his success earlier this year as one of the leading opponents to the proposed $363 million ballpark development in Shockoe Bottom. After months of public criticism led in part by Diradour, the proposal's developers, Highwoods Properties, pulled the plan in July.
In mid-May, during a public meeting sponsored by The Richmond Times-Dispatch, Diradour led the debate against the developers largely by questioning the project's financing, and attacking assertions that the ballpark could become an economic catalyst. Afterward, Diradour says a woman approached him and offered a compliment.
"Somebody came to me and said, 'You ought to run for office,'" he recalls. "I went home and told my wife and she said, 'Duh. You should.'"
While last week's opening bumbles hurt, Holsworth says, "He has plenty of time to try to recover and run a credible campaign." S
Correction: In earlier print and online versions of this story, we misidentified Rocket Pop Media.