Wakefield, Va. — Robert Bain stood holding a bourbon in a red plastic cup as Virginians munched on smoked shad and a bluegrass band called Common Ground played amid the pines.
The Shad Planking — the commonwealth’s long-running annual political meet-and-greet — was winding down Wednesday after months of work corralling volunteers and drumming up ticket sales, and Bain, a burly real estate broker, allowed a potentially Pollyannaish sentiment to emerge.
Sen. Mark Warner (D), in boots and rolled-up sleeves, had given the keynote address behind red, white and blue bunting, the fourth time he has spoken here in this Republican-leaning community in southern Virginia. And Warner’s highest-profile potential challenger in November, longtime GOP strategist and former White House adviser Ed Gillespie, had made the rounds among the crowd of old friends, mostly Republicans but some Democrats, too.
“People say, if the people lead, the leaders will follow,” Bain said. “If we can come out here and all get together . . . maybe those folks up in Washington and Richmond can do the same, take a lesson out of our playbook.”
At a moment when Virginia’s Republican-dominated House of Delegates is deadlocked with an evenly divided state Senate and a Democratic governor over the issue of expanding Medicaid, and when Washington has ground to a halt, the tradition-laden event offered the promise of a little bipartisanship. Or, at least, a chance to enjoy the music and the sun and a piece of bony fish that had been nailed to a plank and basted with a somewhat secret sauce of pepper, lemon and Worcestershire.
“Today, we’re not Democrats or Republicans; we’re Virginians and Americans, first and foremost,” Warner said, thanking the Wakefield Ruritans for raising money for rescue squads, Little Leagues and scholarships.
“Of course, looking at this crowd, I realize I’m here as an endangered species, a Virginia Democrat,” he added, pausing a bit for the laughter to subside.
“Looking around the crowd, that’s kind of like Republican women here as well — not many of either one of us,” Warner said, smiling to a burst of energetic female screams meant to prove him wrong. “I knew I’d get ’em,” he said.
Gillespie, on his first foray into the land of the state’s favorite fish, also went for a light touch. “It’s not a place to go around pontificating and giving speeches,” he said in an interview. He’s not much of a fish guy, he said, but the shad was not bad: “It’s Lent, and I’m Catholic, so eating fish is kind of the thing to do right now.”
That is not to say there were not sharp edges among those gathered.
Dot Moyers, 86, of Chester spoke to Warner and plans to vote for him again, as she has in the past. The retired hairdresser voted for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. “Not Obama, I’m sorry,” Moyers said. The president, she added, has spurred a culture of government dependence among young people.
“We all had to work, and it didn’t hurt none of us,” she said. “It made us smarter and more knowledgeable about the world. They just take it for granted that they’ll be taken care of.”
It was Moyers’s first time to the event, brought by friend J.W. Simon, a retired worker at a nylon plant. Simon, a Warner supporter, said he liked meeting politicians face to face in such a setting.
If you meet them “up front, you don’t have to second-guess them” later, Simon said. About Warner, he said, “he lets you know how he stands, straight up.”
“You sure?” asked his old friend Loris Longest, a Republican wearing a Gillespie sticker. “Did you see the signs: ‘Mark Warner betrayed Virginia’?” It was a reference to road signs slamming Warner for voting for Obama’s health-care law, which Longest strongly opposes.
Still, the afternoon was about more than what many call Obamacare.
“It’s always fun,” Longest said. “A bunch of us meet here every year. We don’t see each other but once a year.”
There were some remnants of an earlier time. Standing in the smoke beside 72 planks nailed with two shad apiece, Republican James Boykin of Henrico County wore Confederate flag stickers on his chest that read “I support Confederate History Month.” He has been coming to the shad planking for decades.
“It used to be coat and tie, by invitation only. Now it’s ticket purchases,” Boykin said. “It used to be all white and all male, and now it’s integrated and has females.”
Such changes are “just part of life,” he said. “The whole country’s transitioned.”
The stickers were meant to indicate “I’m clearly on the side of my family’s heritage and states’ rights,” Boykin said. Heritage as in “Southern,” he added.
Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D) has been to the planking 15 times. It’s a chance to meet state officials, politicians, lobbyists and old friends. “It was a different event 50 years ago,” Scott said. “Virginia has changed. It’s a very diverse group of people. It’s just grown with the times.”
Bain, the Wakefield Ruritan Club’s shad planking chairman, said that, according to lore, there once were more than 4,000 people in the crowd. He doesn’t quite believe it.
“We couldn’t feed that many people,” Bain said. He estimates there were maybe 1,500 this year, down a bit from recent years. He likes the shad — and caught one himself several days ago.
“We had a good day,” he said.