Sen. R. Creigh Deeds was one of the incumbent legislators to receive applause as he entered the General Assembly for the July 9 special session on gun violence. No gun reform bills passed that day (and were instead directed to the state crime commission ahead of a reconvened session on Nov. 18), but his was the only gun-related bill to pass in 2018’s session. Perhaps what the 25th District Democrat is most known for as a longtime legislator has been his efforts to improve mental health care within the state.
The matter of mental health isn’t just Deeds representing his constituents — it’s also personal in the wake of his son’s death.
While Deeds reflects fondly on the memory of his musically multi-talented son and former campaign trail road trip buddy, Gus, he notes how the tragedy that struck his family has been a policy pusher.
In 2013, Deeds sought to hospitalize his bipolar son on the verge of a breakdown, only to be rejected due to a lack of available beds. Ultimately, Gus stabbed his father before shooting himself. Deeds feels Gus’ death could have been prevented if the systems in place to care for people were better. Shortly after the tragedy, Deeds returned to work in the General Assembly, where he established a commission and the STEP-VA plan, which will establish core mental health facilities statewide.
“It’s a very expensive proposition. We are still about $150 million short annually of accomplishing the goal of getting that fully implemented,” Deeds said. “We knew it was going to take time to get it done. We’re trying to solve some problems with overcrowding in our hospitals. We’ve got a huge need out there and that’s one of the things that eats up a lot of my time.”
Deeds says his work on mental health policies is the most rewarding but it also can be the most frustrating, due to the pace of change.
“The change is so incremental,” Deeds said. “But that’s the way that democracy works. Change is incremental, and things don’t always happen overnight. You just have to keep at it.”
In 2018, his gun-related bill also intersected with mental health. The bill treats minors aged 14 or older similarly to adults in regard to purchasing firearms after they have received mental health treatment. Until certified mentally competent, individuals would not be able to make the purchase.
“A lot of people already thought that was the law,” Deeds explained.
As gun-related bills often do not make it out of Republican-majority committees, Deeds says he spoke personally to its chairman to advocate for the bill and it helped it to pass.
“I said to him, ‘I understand the politics of these bills. I understand that you all do what you think you have to do, but I want you to look at this bill a little bit differently. It’s not impeding anybody’s rights, and it does what most people already think is the law.’”
When the 2019 special session convened in July, and Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City, submitted a gun-reform bill, Deeds says it gave him hope some progress would happen that day, until the bill was withdrawn.
“Who really knows what happened,” Deeds said. “It’s kind of like the line from ‘Hamilton,’ you know, you always want to ‘be in the room where it happens.’”
Deeds is a fan of the musical and has taken his family to New York to see it on Broadway.
“I’ve listened to the soundtrack probably a dozen times before I finally saw it.”
Though Deeds was born in Richmond, he resides in Bath County like many generations of his family. He went on to see his classmates from school become the teachers to his four children. Education is another issue where he wants to see improvement in the General Assembly.
“For the longest time, our goal was to pay teachers an average rate nationwide, but we’re not an average state,” Deeds said. “We’re the 10th or 12th wealthiest state in the nation. It was never my goal for my children to be average at anything. I wanted them to have the best opportunities. If we are serious, the most important investment we make is in the development of young people. We have to be willing to make sure our teaches our better paid because they are the most important part of the classroom experience.”
Deeds has also supported rural broadband expansion legislation, an issue that affects parts of his district, and one that has received bipartisan support at the local, state and federal levels. He is involved with BARC Electric Cooperative, which is also a client of his.
“It’s [broadband enhancement] as important infrastructure-wise as electric clients are,” Deeds said.
As he has worked in government for nearly three decades, changing times may have called some of his previous stances into question.
Elliott Harding, a lawyer and Independent candidate challenging Deeds in November, has criticised the senator for his past stance on the United States Supreme Court case Roper v Simmons, which ruled unconstitutional to impose capital punishment on crimes to those under the age of 18. At the time of the SCOTUS case, Deeds said death penalty sentencing belonged to states.
The case came as Deeds was running for attorney general in 2005 and affected the penalty of Lee Boyd Malvo, who was a minor at the time of the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks he committed with John Allen Muhammad. Virginia executed Muhammad, 41, in 2009.
“Attorney general is seen as the state’s top lawyer, and a Democrat is already being challenged as being weak on crime, anyway,” Deeds said. “So I said, ‘Virginia ought to be able to decide this.’
“That was 2005, though. When we debated it in General Assembly later on and I’m not sure which year it was — I think it’s been twice I’ve voted for bills that would have prevented children from being executed.”
In his tenure at General Assembly, Deeds says he’s honored and proud to have been involved in various legislation, but of course his policy to address mental health have been his most personally significant work.
“By elevating the discussion, I hope we have begun to tear down the walls of stigma to make it more likely that people are able to get treatment. We’ve dramatically increased the funding sources for mental health over the last five years, and we’re not done yet,” Deeds said.
Deeds and his challenger have noted how politics have become a much more partisan world than it used to be. But at the end of the day for Deeds, what keeps him inspired is policy.
“As I see it, politics is a means to an end,” Deeds said. “The end is to be able to make policy to improve the lives of the people you are elected to represent. I guess I started out thinking I really liked politics — and I like politics, but what I really like is policy.”
Having spent 28 years involved in politics, serving in both the House and Senate, Deeds said he approaches each election as incrementally as most policy is achieved. Should he be reelected, Deeds will continue to take things a day at a time. As both a lawyer and legislator, he feels he will never be done working for others.
The senator says he needs more time to continue his work at the state level, and that while he won’t be a politician forever, his service to others will go on much longer.
“Lawyers don’t retire,” Deeds said. “They work until they die.”
Deeds is running against Elliott Harding for state senate district 25. Election day is Nov. 5.
What inspired you to run for state senate?
I’ve always wanted to make a positive difference. That’s why I ran for the House of Delegates in 1991 and the State Senate in 2001, and I’m seeking re-election for the same reason. I am doing important work, and I want to keep doing it. I’m good at what I do and this crucial work needs to continue
Del. Toscano has submitted legislation that would allow localities their own authority on what to do with its monuments, such as the Confederate monuments in town. Are you interested in submitting similar legislation, and if so, how would you work to pass it through the Senate?
I cosponsored Delegate Toscano’s legislation. I strongly believe that localities ought to have the right to decide how their communities look and how they reflect history. The truth is that since 1904, Virginia state law has protected the monuments. We need to change the law.
On a broader scope, what are your thoughts on the Dillon Rule in the state of Virginia? What are some areas you feel localities should have more autonomy on outside of the General Assembly? Or do you support Virginia as a Dillon Rule state?
In general, I support the Dillon Rule, but I also support exceptions to allow localities more control over matters that are truly local. The Dillon Rule gives us consistency from locality to locality and is a useful in our efforts to recruit business from outside of Virginia and work to create jobs throughout the Commonwealth.
As more and more people rally in support of legislation to address climate change, what are some proposals you would consider drafting bills around?
We need to address climate change now. We’ve already procrastinated, ignored, and denied the problem for too long. We need to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions in the next 10 years if we are going to make any sort of significant change with respect to global warming. The Eastern Shore and Tidewater are facing rising waters and increased flooding, threatening precious natural resources, military installments, and entire neighborhoods. The urgency could not be clearer.
Immediately, we need to join RGGI with other states on the east coast to reduce our carbon emissions and invest in green energy. Our next manufacturing economy in the Commonwealth is in the manufacture of panels for solar energy and components for wind. We have the expertise already here in Virginia, and we must take advantage of it.
We also need to encourage recycling at every level and incentivize the markets for the reuse of materials in manufacturing. For example, I support tax credits or grants for the reuse of plastics in manufacturing to encourage recycling and keep materials out of our landfills, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
What do you see as some District-specific topics you’d like to tackle, along with some statewide issues you would like to work on?
Throughout my years as a legislator, I have worked closely with the localities I have been fortunate to represent to address local issues.
Mental Health: My top legislative priority remains improving the mental health system here in Virginia. My office receives calls, emails, and letters daily from families throughout the Commonwealth about their difficulties getting help for themselves or their loved ones. Every Virginian who needs treatment should be able to access help.
Redistricting Reform: For over 15 years I’ve been an advocate for redistricting reform. We finally took a major step forward during this year’s General Assembly session to amend the Virginia Constitution to create a Virginia Redistricting Commission to create more equitable, compact, and contiguous legislative districts. This legislation must be passed a second time next year before it can be placed on the ballot for the electorate’s approval.
Lower Health Costs: For the past two years I have worked with the Charlottesville for Reasonable Health Insurance group to brainstorm solutions to address the outrageous rate increases our region experienced. While we have been successful, I anticipate introducing additional legislation in 2020 to hold the Bureau of Insurance and health insurance companies accountable. Our laws should not allow a company to make exorbitant profits by gouging consumers.
Local Governmental Powers: I will continue to sponsor legislation to give local governments provide essential authority to address local concerns, such as determining firearm policies in public spaces, during permitted events, and in public buildings.
What are some state-level issues you think you would want to seek bipartisan partnership with on? Is there any incumbent Republican or Democrat delegate, that pending a reelection, you’re eager to work with?
People expect me to work to get things done. That means I have a responsibility to work with both Democrats and Republicans. That’s the only way the process works.
In 2014, I sponsored legislation creating the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century. I appointed Senator Emmett Hanger and Delegate Rob Bell, both Republican legislators, to chair the work groups. I have worked closely with them, and with every member of the Subcommittee, to improve our mental health system. And I have also worked closely with Delegate Chris Jones, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, on securing funding for our mental health system. In addition, I am currently working with Democrats and Republicans on the Small Business Commission to look for ways to enhance the small business environment around tax issues.
If I am reelected on November 5, I will work with any Democratic or Republican legislator in the House or Senate to continue that progress. Although most of the bills that garner media attention are partisan or divisive, the bulk of the bills we consider do not succeed or fail along party lines. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on good ideas.