Driving while distracted (by Virginia politics)

August 9, 2013

Motorists beware. If you drive on Interstates 95 and 195 passing through Richmond you will be traveling through a political battleground and could be distracted to your detriment.

A group called Virginia Flaggers plans on fixing a 10 by 15 foot Confederate flag atop a 50-foot pole just south of the city next to I-95.

Also, the state’s Democratic Party has put up a billboard near I-195 demanding that Republican Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Kenneth Cuccinelli return gifts he received from Jonnie Williams Sr., the business executive who figures in a scandal involving Cuccinelli and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

It certainly isn’t the first time signs and flags have greeted drivers passing through Richmond, which brings together the north-south I-95, connector I-195 and the east-west I-64. Usually, however, the displays hawk motels or emergency room waiting times, with the occasional offbeat evangelical religious message mixed in.

The flag and the sign have stirred controversy.  Showing the Confederate flag is especially sensitive given Richmond’s history as the capital of the Confederacy and its broad Monument Avenue featuring statues of Southern generals. The timing is also a factor, since it is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Susan Hathaway, a member of Virginia Flaggers, which is planning the display for September, says it will commemorate soldiers from the South who died in the war, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch. “It would be an embarrassment,” responds King Salim Khalfani, the head of the state NAACP.

The Cuccinelli sign shows a turkey, an island home and a jet, representing some of the $18,000 in gifts Cuccinelli accepted from Williams, head of dietary supplement maker Star Scientific. The attorney general enjoyed a gift of a catered a Thanksgiving meal while staying at Williams’s Smith Mountain Lake vacation home. He also rode in Williams’ corporate jet. The sign urges Cuccinelli to give the gifts back or pay for them.

Cuccinelli’s press secretary says the signs are hypocritical because a prosecutor has cleared Cuccinelli of any wrongdoing in accepting the gifts. She also counters with an attack on Cuccinelli’s opponent, Terry McAuliffe, who she charged has “rented the Lincoln Bedroom and Air Force One, [and] used his political connections to make millions while others lost their jobs.”

The displays are curious, but critics are missing another problem: safety. Virginia has just cracked down on drivers who text at the wheel. What would happen if drivers take precious seconds from watching the road to get an update on state politics?

Maybe you should avoid driving through Richmond.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

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