The Byrd Grip on Virginia Loosens
(Wayne Woodlief, a Nieman Fellow concluding a year at Harvard, is a general assignment reporter for the Norfolk, Va. Ledger-Star. His assignments reporter for the Norfolk, Va. Ledger-Star. His assignments have included race relations and politics. He has followed the Virginia senatorial campaign through newspapers from his state and correspondence with politicians.)
There was a time when men could count on certain apparently eternal verities. The Yankees would win the pennant, Notre Dame would go undefeated in football, and Virginia politics would march to the tune of U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd.
Yet times and men change, and the old truths of Virginia politics have slipped further than the Yankees or Notre Dame.
As Virginia nears the rare chance to choose both its U.S. senators in the same year (for the first time since 1911), vote-catching in the Old Dominion has assumed an Alice in Wonderland character:
* Mills Godwin, a Suffolk lawyer who in 1959 favored closing public schools rather than having them integrated, was elected governor last year by a coalition of Negro, liberal, and Byrd Organization voters.
* The Virginia Conservative Party, an ultra-right organization created last summer to oppose Godwin, race-mixing, and "Socialism," will not support Virginia's incumbent senators, A. Willis Robertson and Byrd's son, Harry Jr., though both have been poison to liberals for years.
* The Virginia AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE) has endorsed both senate challengers, Armistead L. Boothe, who is opposing Byrd, and State Sen. William B. Spong, Robertson's opponent--though both say they favor state right-to-work laws.
Thirty-five seats in a changing U.S. Senate are at stake in primaries this summer and general elections in November, and in Virginia the stakes are the life or death--or further fracturing--of a political organization which controlled the state for nearly 40 years.
Harry F. Byrd Sr., the man who built the machine and set it running when he was elected governor in 1926, retired from the Senate last November after running unopposed for reelection in 1964. Seventy-eight years old and stricken with arthritis, he had outgoing governor Albertis S. Harrison appoint "Young Harry," 51, to take his place. Virginia liberals and moderates railed against the "hereditary succession" and prepared to take on Byrd Jr. and Robertson in the state Democratic primary July 10.
Byrd Sr. lives quietly among his apple orchards in the Shenandoah Valley now, and from all reports, is aloof to the changes sweeping through the state he so firmly controlled as recently as 1963.
'Sixty-three seemed the year of lost hope for Virginia liberals. Gov. Harrison and Lt. Gov. Godwin had defeated a liberal ticket in 1961. The "Young Turks"--Boothe of Alexandria, Toy Savage of Norfolk and others--who had fought the Byrd Organization's segregation and tight budget policies during the '50s--were beaten and tired and did not run for the state legislature in '63. The conservatives who did run and were elected ignored a state constitutional mandate to reapportion the legislature.
Those were deceptively sweet days for the Organization. A constitutional amendment, banning the use of the poll tax in federal elections, had been passed by Congress and was moving toward ratification by the states.
By the summer of 1964, the abolition of the poll tax for federal elections merged with another singular event, the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwaver for President. It proved to be an explosive mixture in Virginia.
The state had passed the poll tax at a constitutional convention in 1902 for the stated purpose of disfranchising Negroes. The new law required the $150 a year to be paid six months before an election. If a prospective voter had never paid poll taxes, he must pay them for the preceding three years. With penalties for non-payment attached, the price of a vote was $5.85.
The nomination of Goldwater gave Virginia Negroes a target and the abolition of the poll tax gave them a chance to shoot. Negro registration doubled, reaching an estimated 200,000 by November, and Negro votes carried Virginia for Lyndon Johnson. More than 100,000 Negroes voted--about 95 per cent of them for Johnson--and the President won the state by 74,600 votes.
Virginia Negroes used the same kind of political muscle last year in the conversion of Mills Godwin.
Sidney Kellam, the congenial, Maciavellian political leader of Virginia Beach, the state's fastest-growing city, had stored up credits among Negroes when he desegreated Virginia Beach's public accomodations, almost overnight, six months before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Last year he guided Godwin through a series of meetings with Negro leaders.
Godwin, who can count and sensing other stirrings of change, began demanding better education, mental health, roads, etc. for "all our people." An estimated 80,000 Negroes voted last fall, about three to one for Godwin, who defeated his Republican opponent by 55,000 votes.
The Organization had begun to bend--and crack. Thousands of conservatives who had clung to Harry Byrd's Democratic party found no home in the party of Godwin and Kellam. Last July, thy created the Virginia Conservative Party and attracted more than 70,000 votes for their candidate, William Story, an assistant school superintendent (since retired) and John Birch Society member. Last week they announced their own ticket for the Senate and urged their supporters to stay out of the Democratic primary.
Virginia's political picture this year is far more uncertain than it was last fall. Kellam and other leaders of the Organization tried to persuade Robertson, 79 years old today, to withdraw in favor of a younger Organization candidate. Kellam failed, and has endorsed Robertson and Byrd Jr.
Whether he can throw many Negro votes their way is questionable. Boothe, in virtually every speech this month, has reminded his audience that he voted in 1959, as a state senator, for the plan which reopened public schools closed during a desegregation crisis, while Byrd Jr. voted against the proposals. (The plan passed the State Senate by one vote.) Robertson has consistently opposed civil rights legislation during his '33 years in Congress.
Negro politicians also are beginning to wonder about Godwin. His first legislative session produced record spending for education, highways, and mental health, but he has not yet named a Negro to a major state job.
The first weeks of the campaign have produced no solid disputes over issues. All four candidates, for the present at least, support President Johnson's Vietnam policy. All have declared their support for the right-to-work law, perhaps because Virginia is still industry-hunting and because organized labor has yet to show any real political pull in the state.
Rather, it has been youth vs. age (Spong is 45) and a sort of mixed liberalism against a newly-defined conservatism. "On fiscal matters I'm as conservative as he (Byrd Jr.) is," Boothe has declared. "But where funds were available (in the state senate) and needed--truly needed--I was willing to appropriate them." Byrd Jr., who likes to talk about what he's doing in the U.S. Senate rather than what he did in the Virginia senate, calls himself a "forward-looking conservative."
There are also differences in style, as perhaps brief sketches of the candidates will show:
Robertson seems stung by charges that he's too old to be in the Senate. He stumps the state, telling of his hunting and fishing abilities, swinging bats as well as throwing out first balls at Little League openings, and reminding the people how valuable congressional seniority can be. A senator since 1946--and facing his first real opposition this year--he is chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. If he is beaten, that post would go to Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois--provided Douglas, 74, beats another young contender, Charles Percy, 46, in his state.
SPONG is a pragmatist who is projecting a kind of semi-Kennedy im-