Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Another Virginia Primary Election

Today's Virginia primary election brings back vivid memories.  In June 1969 I was 21 and newly eligible to vote in that year's gubernatorial primary.  And what an election it was.  An insurgent liberal state senator was a candidate for the Democratic nomination, challenging the ordained candidate of the Byrd Organization which had dominated state politics for the past four decades and was notable for its support for segregation and extreme fiscal conservatism.

But in 1969 Harry Byrd was four years dead and Virginia, along with the nation, was changing.  The incumbent governor, Mills Godwin, was an Organization stalwart who introduced Virginia's first state sales tax, and increased spending for highway construction,state mental health facilities and a newly-created community college system.  Enough to make old Harry spin in his grave.

The Organization and its traditional politics still held much sway in Virginia and the Lieutenant Governor, was its preferred candidate.  State Senator Henry Howell from Norfolk was a long-shot candidate backed by labor unions, civil rights groups and Virginians who wanted to build on and expand the previous four years.  Howell challenged the prevailing political attitudes in Virginia and decried the cozy relationship between state government, big business and utilitiy companies.  That was shocking enough for Virginia.  Even worse, Howell was loud and brash, running a campain to "Keep the Big Boys Honest" and pointing out that "Mrs. Moneybags" didn't pay sales tax on her hair-dos but even the poorest Virginians paid sales tax on food and medicine.  Virginia ladies and may have haughily dismissed him as "Howling Henry" but I and others loved him for just that reason.

So concerned was the Organization about a possible Howell victory that some of its leaders encouraged a the son of a former governor to run as a centerist "moderate" candidate.  His primary qualifications were a recognized name and service as ambassador to Australia.  It was enough, though.  He eaked out a narrow victory over Howell in a three-way race and a slightly higher margin in a run-off election.  In the end, though, Virginians were ready for a change and elected Linwood Holton, the first Republican to serve as Virginia governor since Reconstruction.  In many respects, Holton was the second most liberal candidate for governor after Howell.

The 1969 gubernatorial election and Henry Howell pretty much defined my politics for the rest of my life.  Howell never did become Virginia's governor but he was a public official with a genuine concern for the disposessed and excluded.  His skepticism of the established order has always resonated with me.  So this year, when the entire nation is watching Virginia and Democratic candidates are as liberal as ever ran for governor, I can look back and see where it all started.

Labels: ,