Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wasn't That a Time*

This June marks the 40th anniversary of my first vote. The Virginia Democratic primary in June 1969 was Virginia’s first truly contested gubernatorial election since Harry Byrd and his Organization came to power in the late 1920’s. Forty years later, all was in flux. Change was even coming to Virginia. No wonder that I recall that election as momentous.

In my (then) short lifetime, Virginia politicians passed through a succession of offices to either attorney general or lieutenant governor and then governor. It was all predictable and orderly. Harry Byrd controlled most all politics in the Commonwealth of Rich White Men who controlled everything else. It was a sweet deal if you were on the winning side. Most were not. All persons of color were excluded, except when it came to heavy labor, as were a good many whites. The very few Republican office holders were remnants of the anti slavery Virginians in the western mountains and valleys. They did not count, either. Nothing much had changed in a long time.

Starting in 1965 everything changed. Byrd stood down as senator in 1965, replaced by his son, Harry Junior. Black Virginians were entering the electorate as the Voting Rights Act broke down barrier to their franchise. Legislative representation was shifting away from rural areas in the wake of the Supreme Court reapportionment cases. In 1966 A challenger defeated long-time Byrd stalwart Senator Willis Robertson (Pat Robertson’s father) while another almost took out Junior. A liberal legislator defeated yet another conservative icon. Mills Godwin, a Byrd Organization loyalist, defeated a “liberal” Mountain-Valley Republican, launched a massive modernization program funded with a new sales tax and bond funding. In 1969, Godwin was leaving office after his allotted single term with a legacy that included expanded higher education, a new statewide community college system, modernized state hospitals and an ambitious arterial highway system. (No doubt Big Harry was spinning in his grave to which he went not long after retiring.)

The Byrd Organization accepted those changes as a natural evolution that would keep Virginia in safe, reliable hands. Godwin’s program may have been dramatic but hardly radical. The Old Guard could live with that. But the many who had long been excluded were just beginning to ask questions that challenged the established order. None more so than State Senator Henry Howell of Norfolk, who challenged the anointed successor for governor in 1969. By Virginia political standards of the era, Howell was a Bolshevik (or worse) who would destroy all that was Good and True in the Commonwealth. It was no coincidence that his challenge came at a time of great ferment and upheaval in the nation. Which, of course, is what attracted me to Howell.

Howell was an annoying candidate, with a harsh voice that asked difficult questions about the sales tax on food and medicine, about zero interest state deposits in private banks, about the cozy relationship between utility regulators and the utilities. He was especially annoying to the guardians of “The Virginia Way” which was all calm and accepting of order. Howell, and those of us who supported him, were anything but accepting. Change was in the air, riding along on a tide of discontent and awakening consciousness. Politics, the competition ideas and public debate were the core of my political science major; they were playing out dramatically in my 21 year old world. before me. The times were indeed a-chaning.

The Anointed Successor seemed hopelessly out maneuvered in the face of Howell’s onslaught. Where Howell was all enthusiasm and fire, Lieutenant Governor Fred Pollard was stodgy and uninspiring. (Inspired leadership had not been a requirement in the Byrd Organization; it was discouraged.) To salvage something, “moderates” convinced, John Battle, a former ambassador and son of a 1950’s governor to run as a third candidate. The hope was to force a run-off primary where Battle would win a two way race.

The strategy worked, sort of. Howell and Battle did go into a run-off that Battle won, but he lost the election. The winner was the same Mountain-Valley Republican who had lost four years earlier. Virginia had its first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Henry Howell continued to be a thorn in the side of the Way Things Are Done in Virginia well into the 70’s. He lost a heartbreakingly close election for governor in 1973 and won the Democratic nomination in 1977 but lost resoundingly as Republicans cemented their appeal to conservative Virginians.

Henry Howell never became governor but I would argue that he influenced positive change in Virginia simply by asking the right questions and reaching out to the disenfranchised and excluded. He left a legacy of inter-racial political cooperation and solidarity with labor. The sales tax on food and medicine was finally removed. The cozy, unchallenged relationship between business and government became a liability as informed citizens began to demand accountability.

That first ballot, cast in a time of change and uncertainty, is a memorable one. I still recall the sense of possibility and hope that I had in those days. Like any artifact of those times, that hope and possibility is well worn but it still burns in my soul. That’s probably why that June primary election 40 years ago remains so vivid. No election or candidate has so inspired me since.


One other candidate has also inspired me, George McGovern. The difference is that, as much as I wanted it to happen, I never expected him to win the 1972 presidential election. Henry Howell was a much more live prospect in 1969 and 1973. In the annals of state both are losers. I would argue that in both cases, America lost.

*With all due respect to The Weavers



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