Poisson, Longtime Hill Operative, Is Seeking a Richmond Address

Posted October 24, 2005 at 6:24pm

While Capitol Hill has long been a breeding ground for ambitious would-be politicians, David Poisson’s 15-year journey from staffer to candidate is somewhat atypical in that it has taken a little longer than most. But he wouldn’t have done it any other way.

Poisson, a one-time aide to then-Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.) and then-Rep. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in the late 1980s, is running as a Democrat for the 32nd district House of Delegate’s seat in the Virginia General Assembly. He is challenging four-term incumbent Del. Richard Black, one of the most conservative Republicans in Richmond, in a contest that will be decided Nov. 8.

Although Black is still considered the favorite, Poisson’s campaign has garnered considerable attention and the contest for the traditionally Republican seat appears to be closer than once expected down the homestretch. Poisson recently campaigned in the district with Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the party’s gubernatorial hopeful.

“I’m clearly the underdog in the race, there’s no question about that. But I think that I’ve given him a good run for his money,” Poisson said in an interview last week. “It’s a very tight race. … Certainly one that a lot of people four months ago were not paying very much attention to

and today are paying a great deal more attention to.”

Poisson left the Hill and Durbin’s office in early 1990 to become executive director of government and legal affairs at the Electronic Industries Association’s Consumer Electronics Group.

From there he went on to hold top jobs with several trade associations in the electronics and automotive industries. In 2000, he left that business to become vice president and general manager of the Virginia office of RR Donnelley & Sons, handling government sales.

Two years later Poisson entered into private practice, and he currently is of counsel at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Howe, Anderson & Steyer and is president of Jenkins Hill Partners, a Dulles, Va.-based public affairs research and communications consulting firm.

Before going to work for Durbin in 1988, Poisson was legislative director and chief counsel to Sanford, whose first Senate campaign he ran in 1986.

While Poisson noted the deluge of transportation problems facing the Northern Virginia region, he said that his concern about the current “lack of attention being paid to education issues, especially higher education” is ultimately what drove him to enter the race.

He also said his interest in education can, in part, be traced to his tenure with Sanford, a former president of Duke University.

“I think that’s perhaps part of the influence that Terry Sanford had on me … that education is truly an investment,” he said. “That is something that was bothering me, that anti-tax rhetoric had reached a point where it was literally blinding people against the importance of making investments, which is what higher education I think truly represents.”

The tax debate has also played a major role in the race. One of the reasons Democrats targeted Black is because of his strong opposition to Warner’s $1.4 billion tax package, which passed the Legislature in 2004 with the help of 17 House Republicans. Polls have shown that the measure, which funded education, health care and public safety initiatives, was favored by a majority of voters in the state.

Poisson describes himself as a moderate Democrat and takes great care to distance himself from any “pro-tax candidate” label. He argues that he is better positioned to represent the interests of the district’s growing electorate than Black, whom he charges has catered to a narrow agenda pushed by social conservatives.

In a four-page letter to his constituents earlier this month Black painted his opponent as an extreme liberal seeking to “raise taxes, encourage abortions and press radical new homosexual ideas” — themes that Black has successfully used against other opponents.

Because of its explosive growth, the eastern Loudoun County district is believed to be the largest in the state. While state House districts are redrawn every decade to include about 70,000 people, the 32nd district now has more than 100,000 residents.

As the demographics have changed, so have the issues, Poisson said, with education and transportation at the top of the list.

“I thought these are the types of things that need to be addressed and my opponent wasn’t paying any attention to these things at all,” he said. “Having spent most of my life in the public policy arena, I came to a point where I said, “Well, I’ve been in the stands, it might be fun to try to find out what it’d be like to try to get on the field.’”

A native of southeastern Massachusetts, Poisson has a master’s of education from the University of Massachusetts and a Ph.D. and J.D. from the University of Arizona.

While the former staffer admits he has harbored political ambitions ever since his days wandering the Congressional halls — “I don’t know anybody who’s ever worked on the Hill who hasn’t had that thought cross their mind,” he said — he also believes the timing would not have been right to run for office before now.

For one, he no longer has young children. But more importantly, he has been able to establish real roots in the community — a Tip O’Neill-esque concept that he says many starry-eyed political aides fail to understand.

“When you’re a Hill rat, you don’t know anybody except the people that run on the Hill,” Poisson said. “So it sounds good to run for something. But who would elect you? We can’t all run on Capitol Hill. So you’ve got to establish your bona fides somewhere and that takes time.”

Still, his Hill experience has come to play a role in the race — although it’s not been portrayed accurately, according to Poisson.

He said that Black’s campaign has circulated a flier suggesting that Poisson’s ties to now-Senate Minority Leader Durbin are much more current, accusing him of helping to author Durbin’s controversial June floor speech in which he compared the alleged abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to techniques used by the Nazis, the Soviets and the Khmer Rouge. The Senator later apologized for his remarks.

“[It says] I am part of a cabal that involves Durbin, [Sen.] Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and [Sen.] Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and that I sat there at a table and I colluded with them about how we might go about denigrating the reputation of our Army,” Poisson said.

Poisson shakes off the charges, while attempting to explain to voters what his non-glamorized Hill duties really entailed.

“Richard Durbin was respected but a pretty obscure Congressman from the 20th district of Illinois,” Poisson said, referring to his tenure from 1988 to 1990. “My principal responsibility as his chief of staff was to get his smoking ban on airplanes passed. It was a lot simpler time.”

While Poisson said he doesn’t spend a lot of time hanging out on Capitol Hill or in Durbin’s office these days, he has gotten advice from his old boss as well as financial help from some of the people he once worked with.

“Interns have grown up and become successful lawyers and they’ve remembered and sent me checks for making sure that I took such good care of them when they were interns,” he said. Poisson estimates that he’s raised about $230,000 for his campaign so far. Meanwhile, Black had raised at least $315,000 through the end of September, making it one of the more expensive legislative races in Virginia this year.

Putting it all in context, Poisson recalls that the amount of money he’s raised for his race is similar to what Durbin spent to get re-elected while he was working for him in the late 1980s. In fact, the future Senate Minority Whip spent $252,000 in 1988.

“That used to get you a Congressional seat, now that gets you a small House seat that pays $18,000 a year for a session that lasts eight weeks,” Poisson said. “It’s very odd. I don’t understand it.”