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.
The Shenandoah Valley and the mountains surrounding it are tied primarily to Appalachia. The violent battle for the leadership of the United Mine Workers (UMW) last summer, the black lung disease, and all the problems of Appalachian poverty present a different set of problems for a political candidate entering the area. For years the mountain people had appeared satisfied to the politicians in Richmond, but food stamps and a sellout union are no longer acceptable to them a decade after John F. Kennedy focused attention on the area's problems in his West Virginia primary.
Though Shenandoah and Hampton haven't changed too much-it was more the old problems had been exacerbated by a rising tide of militancy-Richmond and "Northern Virginia" (or suburban Washington as most non-Virginians see it) have changed at great deal. They no longer have any real ties to the South.
Richmond might as well be Indian-apolis or Des Moines. Of course the old monuments are still around-Robert E. Lee's home and Thomas Jefferson's graceful state capitol-but they have no effect on the modern city. The city appears as all-American as any medium-sized integrated city in the nation. The whites are moving to suburbia-toward Chesterfield and Ashland in the north and west-while the blacks are coming into the city seeking work from the nearby Southside. The lower middle-class whites resent the blacks, but can do little about it except vote for "law and order." Highways also are cutting through the black gheto forcing blacks areas and adding to the problem.
And then to Northern Virginia. New sub-developments of ticky-tack are going up nearby the site of Bull Run. A group of about one hundred enraged teeny-boppers stoned the police headquarters in nearby Falls Church, a pretty upper middle-class city about ten miles from the District of Columbia border, in mid-August. The police had busted a bopper for beating up on one of their informers who had recently turned in a few other boppers for pushing grass and possession.
The area has all the markings of Long Island or the Newton-Wellesley-Concord complex suburban living. High schoolers in the area estimate that upwards of 70 per cent have smoked grass in the past year. It makes pot and enforcement a political issue.
Northern Virginia, the four counties of suburban Washington, has mushroomed in the past two decades. It now comprises 12 per cent of the state's population. Where a couple of hundred thousand inhabited the area at the time of Pearl Harbor, the numbers have now jumped into the millions. Most of the millions have little connection with the South of old, they look to Washington for work and culture. They have moved to the area from all over the nation and were tired of hearing about the old Byrd machine in 1969.
THERE HAD been hints in 1965 and 1966 in the state and senatorial elections of the new vote from Northern Virginia and the Negroes and blacks. A moderate-then called a liberal-William Spong upset the Byrd Organization man for a Senate seat in 1966; a Republican had come close to winning the 1965 gubernatorial election. But though the Byrds looked in trouble going into 1969 (Virginia state elections are held the year following Presidential elections), all the political observers thought they would make a good battle of it.
They didn't. Several hundred thousand people turned out to vote on a hot, cloudy July day and smashed the Byrds. Nobody seemed to notice. It was a terrible turn-out; one which should have helped an old organization. Everybody seemed glued to the tube for the moon shot leaving the next morning. The revolution seemed effortless.
Experts expected Battle to lead the three-man race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomnation. Instead, he barely managed to beat Howell (by a few thousand votes). The two candidates went into a run-off.
Howell's campaign merged populism with the humanistic liberalism of the McCarthy campaign. The Virginia political pros finally realized in July that Howell had managed to do something which they thought was impossible. He united poor rural Negroes with the working class blacks and whites of the Hampton area, a few poor rural whites in Shenandoah and even racist Southside, with the liberal ethos of suburban Washington. After the primary, stories began appearing about the "new populism."
Of course, Howell was red-baited. Not by the Organization, however-they just labeled him a "leftist" -but by unconnected hatemongers who always seem rampant in Southern summers.
Literature was distributed proving that Howell was a "communist" -both agent and tool. For some reason, possibly because America had changed and wants more change. the stuff never appealed to Virginia voters.
Adding to the changing tide there was another race in the run-off election. One Byrd candidate had survived the primary -Guy O. Farley, the candidate for attorney general, but he came in a poor second to Andrew Miller, a young Shenandoah lawyer.
It was a mind-blowing race for a pot-smoking student radical to observe. Farley attacked Miller for being "namby-pamby on law and order." He asked for-time and again- "taking the handcuffs off the police and putting them on the criminals." He said that liberals like Miller liked to "coddle" criminals.
Farley felt that any attorney general of Virginia should tell the people-especially the potentially dangerous students-where he stood on campus disorders. He showed pictures of Columbia and the auditorium burning at Berkeley, in a television advertisement, promising to stop these sorts of things in Virginia.
Miller, though wary that he might be going too far to the left, occasionally attacked Farley for "slandering our fair youth." It was not the sort of campaign one would expect a new trend toward legalization of pot to emerge from.
BUT VIRGINIA and America have changed in the last year or two. Too many white kids are smoking pot: too many kids of the old clite and the new suburbanites (who could decide whether the Byrds could last just one more election).
To the unperceptive ears of the parents, Miller and Farley both vowed a crackdown on "pushers." But to those who were listening, they never mentioned a crackdown for possession.
Under questioning both took stands which would have been considered truly amazing a year ago. Farley, the Byrd man, said, "I will enforce the law as long as it is on the books." But he indicated by winking and a smile that he could see a change in the books of Virginia laws.
Miller, a 36-year-old Princetonian with a patrician and liberal background going back to the Revolutionary War, hedged on his crackdown-on-pushers stance even more. Although reluctant to push a pro-pot platform, Miller did say that the possession part of the law-for pot-was unenforceable. He said that he favors devoting a good deal of money to the non-criminal type of home rehabilitation for people addicted to the harder stuff.
"And." Miller conceded one night in early August, from the divided medical opinion I hear on whether pot is harmful or merely like liquor, I could see doing an in-depth study and changing the drug law if the report shows that it isn't harmful." That is going pretty far for a "liberal" who advocates shooting looters if the situation warrants it.
Battle beat Howell in the August run-off 52 per cent to 48, and Miller walloped Farley 64 per cent to 36.
Howell did not win, but he came close; and Miller, who might have sounded like the typical law and order candidate, had also exposed Virginians to left-leaning statements on the pot issue. All in all the politics of Virginia showed some pretty radical trends.
The trends would not be significant in the silk-stocking district of Manhattan. But Virginia had marched out of the dark ages of the Byrd machine. And everyone was surprised at how far the match got before it was halted.
In an age, when political analysts are looking at Minncapolis, Los Angeles, and New York City and philosophically accepting the new swing toward conservative politics, Virginia is an exception. It might be the exception that proves the rule. But it could be the wave of some not too distant future.