Even before the crowd started gathering for last month’s shad planking--Virginia’s most celebrated bipartisan political ritual--it was clear that this year’s edition of the customarily convivial cookout was not going to be any love feast.
Not with the 1994 contest for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Charles S. Robb threatening to rend both political parties asunder and send a warning to nervous Democratic and Republican leaders around the country.
The star attraction at the festival here was Iran-Contra protagonist Oliver L. North, who has sharply divided the GOP by his front-running bid for its Senate nomination.
Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia’s highest-ranking Republican officeholder and the main speaker here, has warned that he will support an independent candidate if, at its June 4 convention, the GOP nominates North--who was convicted of aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress’ investigation of the Iran-Contra affair.
On the Democratic side, incumbent Robb has been so damaged by allegations of extramarital dalliances and attendance at cocaine parties that he faces a stiff primary challenge in his bid for a second term.
And he knows that if he wins the party’s June 14 primary, former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is already positioning himself to oppose Robb as an independent candidate in the general election.
Illustrating the dissatisfaction with both front-runners, a poll of 610 likely voters by the local polling firm of Cooper & Secrest showed that about twice as many people expressed negative opinions as positive opinions about both Robb and North.
The turmoil in the Old Dominion reflects the widespread discontent around the country with politics and with the two major parties. This was signaled by the 19% vote for Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential candidacy, the biggest share of the electorate to back any third-party candidate since ex-President Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912.
“It’s another example of the two parties’ being out of touch,” said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “A lot of voters are saying, ‘We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more.’ ”
“Virginia is at an advanced stage of what’s going on in politics throughout the country,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, Johns Hopkins University specialist in elections and political parties. “Parties mean less and less, and each so-called party is breaking up into various wings.”
The shad planking is not what it used to be. Conceived about 50 years ago as a beer bust for good ol’ boy Democrats, it has expanded in recent years to take in women, blacks and, finally, even Republicans. Over time, some say, the event has also surrendered some of its folksy charm. At a planking, shad are nailed to boards and cooked over smoky trench fires.
“Mostly now you got politicians, lobbyists and reporters looking behind each other and trying to find some old guy in bib overalls to interview,” said Robb’s campaign press secretary, Bert Rohrer.
Old-timers grumbled that even the shad is no longer quite the same. The oily, bony fish that once flourished in local waters now must be imported from Delaware.
But a more serious complaint among the 4,000 who were here concerned the erosion of political stability.
“There’s a lot more commotion and controversy than we used to have in the old days,” said Nelson Jarrett, a retired engineer and political buff from Richmond. “Apparently morality and ethics aren’t what they used to be. And the political parties haven’t produced like they did before.”
Some characteristics of the Virginia Senate campaign reflect complaints with the political process everywhere.
One is the emergence of powerful interest groups on both the left and the right that are accused of using the political process to advance their agendas. In the Republican contest, many feel that the religious right has provided the core of support for North.
“People are tired of the same old thing,” said GOP state chairman Patrick McSweeney, who has remained neutral in the contest. “They really do believe in their frustration that this kind of politician (North) can make things change. They want someone who will not be sucked into the vortex.”
North’s aides say he has lined up about 60% of the delegates to the convention--leaving his chief rival, James Miller, former budget director for President Ronald Reagan, only 25%. The rest are undecided.
Miller says the contest is closer than that. He points out that his differences with North on issues are few, and he is basing his hopes on the argument that he has a better chance of beating the Democrats in November.
“We can’t take the chance of losing the Senate seat,” Miller told the crowd at the GOP reception. “We have to go with the conservative who can win.”
Miller’s aides distributed copies of the Cooper & Secrest poll results showing him defeating Robb while North would lose. They also handed out copies of a letter from Reagan saying he was “getting pretty steamed” by North’s statements about Iran-Contra.
North, a member of Reagan’s National Security Council staff, has always claimed he was acting on orders from higher-ups in directing secret arms sales to Iran and diverting the profits to the anti-leftist Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. “I never instructed him (North) to mislead Congress on Iran-Contra matters or anything else,” Reagan wrote in a letter made public by foes of North.
North has acknowledged that he hid the truth from congressional investigators who first questioned him in 1986 about reports that he was secretly assisting the Nicaraguan rebels. His conviction was later overturned on technical grounds.
Another zinger at North came from Warner, who in delivering the featured address at the shad planking contended that voters would choose “integrity” over “party” if given the choice.
Warner and other Republicans who oppose North are already planning to raise money and gather signatures to put an independent Republican candidate on the ballot in November to oppose North. Their likely choice is J. Marshall Coleman, the GOP’s defeated nominee for governor in 1981 and 1989.
Meanwhile on the Democrat side, Robb has benefited from his incumbency, another trait of the party system that at times appears to frustrate the majority of voters. Critics claim that the special advantages of fund raising and string pulling that go with Robb’s Senate seat discouraged most potentially formidable opponents from challenging him.
His only opponent for the nomination to hold public office is Virgil Goode, a state senator from southern Virginia who is little known outside his own region.
Robb has been plagued not only by allegations of sexual improprieties and drug parties but also a 19-month grand jury probe of his involvement in the tapping of phone conversations of Wilder, with whom he was feuding.
Robb was not indicted, but the electronic eavesdropping episode seems to have wrecked any prospect of healing his relationship with Wilder.
The two sat next to each other on the flatbed truck from which Warner delivered his oration here, stone-faced until Warner asked the crowd, “Why aren’t they smiling at each other?” a comment that drew laughs from them both.
“Many people have called me to say we need people to fight for our state,” Wilder said in an interview, explaining his interest in running. “They are very concerned, and I am too. We fought for our state to be a symbol of progress, not to be a mark of derision.”