By Bob Lewis
Democrat R. Creigh Deeds proposed a new scholarship that would cover half the cost of college tuition for students who do public service jobs in Virginia after graduation, and delivered the message directly to black college students over pizza on Wednesday.
Trailing Republican opponent Bob McDonnell in polls and looking for a signature cause for his campaign, particularly among young and minority voters, Deeds rolled out his Virginia Forward scholarship proposal at Virginia Union University, a historically black private college in Richmond.
McDonnell, meanwhile, faced a chaotic and at times contentious news conference with Minnesota's well-traveled GOP governor, Tim Pawlenty. The rushed event started 20 minutes late and was dominated by questions about a strongly conservative college thesis he wrote in 1989 and tried to renounce in a lengthy conference call and public events over the past 10 days.
Deeds sat in a chair in a campus dining room pitching his scholarship idea to a quiet group of students who talked of struggles to pay rising college bills in a faltering economy.
"When I left for college, I left home with four $20 bills that my mother gave me. Four $20 bills wouldn't buy you a biology textbook today," he said as several students seconded what he said.
Deeds said his proposal would cost the state about $40 million annually. It would defray half the tuition at state-supported institutions for any student who finished high school with a B average or better and agreed to work in such public service fields as law enforcement, public safety, teaching or social work in high-need areas after they earn their degrees.
Graduate student Reginald Terry noted what he called a widening gap between historically black private schools such as VUU and Hampton University and state-supported universities and asked Deeds what he would do to fix that.
Other than expanding access to tuition-assistance grants that aid students attending private schools, he said, state government options are limited. But two small private colleges--St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville and Virginia Intermont College in Bristol _ have been struggling to survive.
"The state, in my opinion, can't afford to let them fail," Deeds said.
Choosing the campus of Virginia Union--alma mater of L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor--was no coincidence for Deeds. He has struggled to motivate black voters, a key component of the Democratic coalition. Deeds and Democratic allies from President Barack Obama's White House to the state Senate continue romancing Wilder to endorse Deeds and help energize black voters.
Later at a Richmond news conference, McDonnell and Pawlenty spoke largely on partisan federal battles consuming Congress--the health reform debate, the cap-and-trade energy legislation and a bill Republicans regard as too pro-union.
Questions about how McDonnell would have managed $1.35 billion in budget cuts Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine ordered Tuesday competed with questions about the thesis in which he wrote that working women and feminists were a detriment to traditional families. The thesis also argued that government has a right to discriminate against "cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators" to protect heterosexual, two-parent families.
"We've talked about that. I've answered questions on that for a week. I've answered any question that any reporter wanted to ask over the last week," McDonnell said, opening a topic that would consume the next seven minutes as Pawlenty stood by silently, hands folded staring ahead.
On the state fiscal crisis, McDonnell blamed Kaine for revenue predictions that were too rosy. But he didn't note that some House Republicans two years ago accused Kaine of exaggerating budget shortfall projections, well before last fall's economic crash.
"In '07 and in '08, I think the projections were too rosy," he said. "But the decline in economic activity, the reductions in home equity value, the increase in unemployment was certainly something that very few people would have predicted at the end of last year, but I believe in conservative budgeting."
The news conference ended with reporters clamoring around McDonnell, who stopped to answer more budget questions. But Pawlenty, who was never asked a question, was hustled past the scrum and into a waiting car outside the hotel.