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A Tale of Two Campaigns 

Racing down to the wire, Gillespie and Northam steer through polarized political terrain and keep drama to a minimum, with well-orchestrated audiences and well-rehearsed messages. It’s politics as usual, but maybe it says more about us.

click to enlarge Virginia candidates for governor Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie at a Sept. 19 debate.

Photo courtesy The Washington Post

Virginia candidates for governor Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie at a Sept. 19 debate.

This is a story with a prologue that begins in a newsroom in 2009, when Republican Bob McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds were running to become the 71st governor of Virginia.

At the time, this story's author worked as an editor at another Richmond publication, teamed with a reporter whose assignment was to profile both candidates. Asked about her progress, she gave bad news: Only one candidate seemed to welcome a profile feature — McDonnell. As it turns out, the Deeds campaign had been repeatedly unresponsive to her inquiries.

The conclusion of both journalists: The Deeds campaign was broken, unable to play ball.

Here, now, eight years later, it appeared déjà vu all over again. In the late-summer-to-early-fall churn of dueling campaigns — those of Republican Ed Gillespie and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam — one candidate's campaign gives a somewhat cold shoulder to the obligatory mainstream coverage as Election Day comes nearer.

There is at least a touch of irony that 56-year-old Gillespie, the former chairman of McDonnell's successful gubernatorial campaign, now appears the less media-friendly candidate. Like years before when another reporter tried in frustration to coax Deeds out of the shadows, local journalists now have shared gripes of the same experience with this year's GOP player.

Yet, it's not so much madness as method: disciplined communication and tight reins on the candidate's message. And it's not so much one-sided as it is the state of things.

click to enlarge Recent polls have shown Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, at left, and Ed Gillespie within 5 percent of each other in the Virginia gubernatorial race, within the statistical margin of error. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Recent polls have shown Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, at left, and Ed Gillespie within 5 percent of each other in the Virginia gubernatorial race, within the statistical margin of error.

A New Jersey native, Ed Gillespie's origin story as a politician, he says, goes back to his part-time job parking cars in a U.S. Senate parking lot, when he was a student attending Catholic University in Washington. His valet job stepped him into a congressional internship for a Democrat, but as his boss, Andy Ireland, jumped parties in the mid-1980s, so did he.

The career path led him to another job working for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, and then to the Republican National Committee. In the late 1990s, he crossed over to a lobbying firm, beginning a two-step dance between K Street and roles in GOP leadership, strategy and campaigns — including those of President George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole, Mitt Romney and John Kasich.

Gillespie, in repeated appearances, routinely touts the fact that he is the son of Irish immigrants with no college education and that, in one generation, his family rose from his father's night-janitor job to the son's role as a counselor to the U.S. president, George W. Bush.

Northam, part of a Democratic triumvirate that aims to sweep the state's elections on Nov. 7 for attorney general and the top executive seats, has only 10 years in politics, he says, beginning with his run for state Senate in 2007, taking on a two-term Republican incumbent in the 6th Senate district that he notes had a 58 percent GOP majority at the time.

"If you look up the definition for 'gerrymandering,'" he quips, "you'll find a picture of the 6th District."

The Eastern Shore native from Nassawadox — a hometown he jokes doesn't ring a bell with anyone — has his own pat story line. He's a 58-year-old pediatric neurologist who graduated from Virginia Military Institute. In 1992, he founded his own medical group in Norfolk, Children's Specialty Group LLC, after serving as an Army doctor for eight years, including a stint during Operation Desert Storm.

One characteristic evident in both candidates as a sign of current-day political lessons taken to heart is how to avoid narrative gaffes and outbursts that even hint of anything Trumpian.

And perhaps nowhere was this more on display than on the night of Oct. 11 at University of Richmond's Queally Center, where each politician took a turn onstage answering the same set of questions from the university's president, Ronald Crutcher.

click to enlarge Northam, joined by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, fourth from left, and Delegate Betsy Carr met with a group of young Democrats on Oct. 7 at a cafe in Richmond’s Fan District. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Northam, joined by state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, fourth from left, and Delegate Betsy Carr met with a group of young Democrats on Oct. 7 at a cafe in Richmond’s Fan District.

Gillespie's first turn in the conversation brought out his favorite lines, even if they were not direct answers to Crutcher's questions. The former Republican National Committee chairman makes easy references to his 19 different plans for Virginia — visit his website, he adds — should he take over the governorship in 2018. Pieces of his plans become easily parroted after a few events listening to him on the stump.

On the opioid crisis, he notes his connection to friends and loved ones touched by the epidemic and gives a four-principle plan that includes memorable lines that would make a trial lawyer envious.

"We're talking about sick people who need to get well, not bad people who need to get good" he notes. And: "We can't arrest our way out of this problem."

On the topic of job creation and economic development in Virginia, Gillespie points to the state's slide in recent years' rankings. "We used to always lead, and now we're lagging."

How would Gillespie work with the president, who offered his Tweeted endorsement?

Acknowledging the divisive opinions that split voters, the candidate slips out of the conflict with his turn of phrase: "The job is not whether to be for or against Trump," he says. "It's to be for Virginia."

Northam's visit to the interview chair with Crutcher offered him an opportunity at sawing his favorite neutral lines, especially about the fury surrounding Confederate statues in recent months. "If they are divisive," he ventures, "they need to be in a museum." His footnote, of course, is to leave it up to the localities.

How does Northam view the efficacy of the state's Standards of Learning tests? His fallback: "They really penalize children that come from disadvantaged homes."

What we learn from both men, in this tense era of polarization, is that the undecided voter rules, and that the fine line between wooing and offending them demands rigorous balance.

click to enlarge Gillespie answers questions put to him by University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher on Oct. 11 in an event at the school. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gillespie answers questions put to him by University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher on Oct. 11 in an event at the school.

For this story, the spot of access granted by Gillespie's communications director, Dave Abrams, amounted to a 20-minute telephone interview, given by the candidate on a dodgy cellular connection while traveling down Interstate 95 toward Norfolk for a campaign stop.

But Gillespie's message is loud and clear, says Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

"My sense is that his strategy from the beginning of the summer has been: 'I'm fighting an uphill battle. I've got winds against me. I have nothing to lose, so I'm just going to engage.' But engage with voters and opportunities to engage with voters, not necessarily the media," Kidd says. "And that may be driven by sort of a suspicion with the liberal media establishment."

To engage voters, Gillespie traveled statewide in late September and early October on his " InformED Decisions Tour" — seven events in an eight-day span where he took questions directly from voters. Despite the up-close-and-personal design of the events, the Washington Post reported in late September that his campaign limited attendance by asking interested attendees to register for a lottery. The writer, Fenit Nirappil, didn't get an answer as to whether or not lottery registrants were screened.

What a less intrusive and combative reporter, including this writer, gets from the Republican's campaign is a flurry of news releases inviting one to see Gillespie give the same basic presentation of his vision at downtown events, where he arrives just in time with an assistant or two and leaves soon after. Any sense of a personal touch, at least in these settings, does not happen. Perhaps one might have seen otherwise if they happened to win the lottery to a past InformED Decisions discussion.

Swimming in a sea of likely Democratic supporters, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam's tour of Richmond opens the window into the demeanor of the good doctor politician, a soft-spoken, folksy gentleman who hasn't lost his Eastern Shore accent. In places where he is invited and scheduled, Northam walks comfortably straight into the masses on a very busy Saturday in early October.

When Richmond thumped with fall events on Oct. 7, Northam took 20 minutes to sit down with a reporter before holding court among a room of organizations at the Action Alliance in the Fan. The session focused on women's issues — domestic violence, notably, and sexual assault — and included nonprofit and agency directors from around the state, all but a couple of them women, Northam's biggest demographic of supporters.

click to enlarge Northam greets voters in Jackson Ward on Oct. 7 at the Second Street Festival. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Northam greets voters in Jackson Ward on Oct. 7 at the Second Street Festival. 

For all the pageantry and preening that seasoned campaigners smooth into their persona, Northam comes across as genuine and attentive when an agency director speaks of the growing need for outreach programs that reach sexually active teens, despite an inverse resource of funding and personnel. The same concern is shared in turn by others around the table of more than 20 attendees, and at the end of the hour-long roundtable, Northam puts on his lieutenant governor hat, offering some measure of solace. "We have an open door policy," he says of himself, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who chaired the session. He urges the group to be in touch with him and state legislators, especially as they enter a budget year. "Hopefully, it will land in my lap after November," he says.

The morning for Northam moves a block west to a coffee shop on the edge of Virginia Commonwealth University where his campaign has arranged a sit-down with a half-dozen young Democrats from local high schools, VCU and UR. The students push Northam on college affordability; he bounces immediately to the fact that "my opponent lobbies for lenders" — a quick open jab.

A UR student, Robert Ostrom, mentions the issues of same-sex rights and other cultural issues that loom. "We can choose wherever we want to go," he says of future graduates like himself.

Northam takes the opening to stump on the record of his boss, McAuliffe, who he says vetoed 120 pieces of legislation that would have discriminated against Virginians. He notes that it's an economic issue because companies considering the state for new locations like to check officials for how inclusive the state is. "They're watching," Northam says.

After the visit with the students and a group photo on several smartphones, the lieutenant governor and his entourage move farther downtown to a closed session — no reporters allowed — with community leaders to talk about the city's recent rash of gun violence.

click to enlarge Gillespie speaks at a downtown event to business and education leaders, Growth4VA, on Oct. 11. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Gillespie speaks at a downtown event to business and education leaders, Growth4VA, on Oct. 11. 

An hour later, when he and his party emerge, Northam ambles north into Jackson Ward, taking questions along the way. He has two grown children — daughter Aubrey, a Web developer in Richmond, and son Wes, a College of William and Mary graduate who's in medical school. His wife, Pam, is a former elementary and middle school science teacher. He has two pets, a cat and a dog. His political mentor? Sen. Tim Kaine, with whom he served in state government when Northam was a legislator and Kaine the governor.

Is faith as important to him as it seems to be to his political hero? Yes, it teaches him the value of acceptance and inclusivity — a personal buzz word — and that informs his approach to government.

Within blocks, though, Northam is immersed in a frenetic swirl of activity — it's the Second Street Festival. The streets are teeming with happy festival attendees and city residents, most of them African-American. As the candidate makes his way to the intersection of Second and Clay streets — orchestrated by his campaign aides — he is joined along the way by local political royalty. State Sen. McClellan and Delegate Betsy Carr, who've been on-board since earlier in the day, are eventually joined by U.S. Sen. Donald McEachin, City Councilman Michael Jones, Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Justin Fairfax, Mayor Levar Stoney and other community figures.

All the while, Northam presses flesh, closing in on willing victims — voters eager for a word and handshake. In the better part of an hour, he makes barely a block of progress, posing for group photos and joking with strangers.

It's this image that the politician cultivates — where every next person is the most important person in the world, in that moment.

It's the difference between going where you are honored and avoiding those places where the audience is unknown.

As of Oct. 16, poll numbers around the state showed a separation of barely 5 percent between Gillespie and Northam, well within the margin of error, Kidd notes.

"I think the race is tightening," he says. "I always thought it was not going to be a blowout."

The narrowing margin of the race, Kidd says, is partly due to the political fatigue of voters who tune out until just weeks or days before Election Day.

The fact that either candidate would find it wise to tread cautiously with the media, shows the precious count of votes, and perhaps Gillespie's shrewdness.

Kidd points back to Gillespie's near defeat of Sen. Mark Warner in 2014, coming within 17,000 votes of him.

"It's unfortunate," Kidd says, "but the reality of our politics today is that we are so massively polarized as a people. At nobody's direct fault, the media has been pulled into that. We have had for decades Fox News, which was an overtly sort of partisan news outlet, and we've had the same sort of things on the left -- but not as mainstream as Fox News, not as popular. … But now almost every kind of news outlet is being pigeonholed, in one way or another, whether they like it or not, for being in a partisan corner." S

Note: This story has been updated since its publication in the Oct. 18 issue.

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