Revolution in Virginia Politics

Populism and Pot

IT HAS BEEN a long time since anyone has used the word "populist" in a contemporary political context. With the death of Tom Watson at the turn of the century and Louisiana's charismatic Hucy Long after the depression, "populist" unity between poor whites and blacks faded. Southern politicians turned instead to bland personality-filled appeals designed to appease, if not energize, the white ruling class.

The emergence of a viable moderate opponent to the conservative Byrd machine for the Virginia governorship this summer was not terribly startling. He would fit into the old mold if the Organization couldn't win the election. There was a third candidate for governor-but most political observers considered him "too far out."

Fiery middle-aged Henry Howell, sounding a bit too much like Hubert Humphrey with a Virginia accent, seemed somewhat eccentric for the Old South with his anti-establishment, anti-clite record as a State Senator. In Richmond, Senatorial colleagues frankly considered him an idiot for his efforts to tax country-club memberships and banks instead of food and clothing.

But outwardly, Howell didn't strongly offend any of Virginia's middle class by wearing his poverty on his sleeve. He didn't seem to mind comforts, driving a Lincoln-Continental around his native Norfolk district and conducting a massive television campaign during the summer primary.

Nor did his more moderate opponent, William C. Battle, evoke any vast groundswell of opposition. A colorless inarticulate friend of the Kennedys (he served as JFK's ambassador to Australia) , Battle carried the demeanor of another in the long line of bland Southern politicians.

But in the July primary, the two candidates sent the conservative Byrd machine, which has controlled the state's politics for half a century, down to a humiliating defeat. Lieutenant Governor Fred Pollard, the Organization's candidate for governor, managed to garner only 23 per cent of the votes in the election, and a new populists' revolt was on.

Revolution is a heavy word to use these days-especially for an election. But what else can one call what happened to Virginia last summer when:

Black voters and labor members turned out in unprecedented numbers for the election-primarily to back in creasingly more daring Howell. Until this summer no state-wide candidate in the Democratic Party had considered himself brave enough to publicly accept the endorsement of the Virginia AFL-CIO or the Negro Voters Crusade. Their backing had been seen previously as the vampire's kiss to any aspirant for public office. This summer, however, they were both prominent in the campaign.

Instead of down-playing his left liberalism, Howell ran a campaign on the anti-establishment, anti-elite slogan "Keep the Big Boys Honest." Although not so bold as to be anti-capitalist, the slogan was interpreted by a few Virginia radicals as more than just a small step to the left.

Running on a progressive platform, Howell fell only a few thousand votes short of defeating Battle in the August run-off and only after conservatives in the state consoled themselves with the impression that Battle was a moderate.

THE ELECTION forced the politicians to recognize that Virginia had changed drastically since World War II. No longer was it really part of the Old South, or even part of the new South, the South of Atlanta and integrated football teams at Ole Miss. It had progressed even further.

In many ways it has become a microcosm of America two-thirds of the way through the century. The "South-side," the Southern central half of the state where tobacco is still a cash crop, was no longer the base for the Byrds-the elite-who had ruled the state for so long until 1969. Like the South of today, black voter registration has upset the old formulas. The area has the same problems-integration, hunger, and a white voting majority (but one which has to deal with a higher percentage of Negrovoters) -that most of the rest of the South is now suffering from.

The Hampton area-Norfolk with its massive shipyards, Virginia Beach, Newport News, and Hampton-at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay has all the problems of any industrial urban area of the nation. Despite cooperation along the picket lines in an anti-racist strike at the shipyards two years ago, tension was high between working class whites and blacks last summer.

Where the Negroes in Southside have only recently merged from a "colored" status, the blacks in the Hampton area have emerged from a "Negro" consciousness. It parallels the diversity in black political thinking between the rural South, with its Charles Evers and Julian Bonds, and the urban North with its Black Panthers.

The Hampton area suffers from all the same plight of many urban areas. With tens of thousands of sailors in bars and tattoo parlors, crime in the streets and heroin are major problems.