Va. candidates walk Labor Day parade in search of votes

September 2, 2013

The race for Virginia governor entered the fall home stretch Monday as Republican, Democratic and Libertarian rivals glad-handed their way down Magnolia Avenue in this Shenandoah Valley town’s annual Labor Day parade.

Along with firetrucks, a marching band and a three-kid contingent of Boy Scouts, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe shared the parade route with their statewide ticketmates and Robert Sarvis, the little-known Libertarian candidate for governor.

All the candidates gave speeches in a barn at the end of the parade route, and none seemed to relish the opportunity more than Sarvis, who has not been invited to participate in gubernatorial debates.

“Neither Republican nor Democratic politicians have been fighting for your freedom,” said Sarvis, 37, a former software developer from Fairfax County. “More often than not, they’re fighting for their monied backers.”

As the Libertarian tried to tap into dissatisfaction with both ­major-party candidates, parade-
goers said they were struck by the dearth of political signs — an indication, they said, that party activists were not excited about McAuliffe or Cuccinelli.

Since the mid-1960s, when Buena Vista opened a new park with a Labor Day celebration, the town’s parade has been a command performance for any statewide office seeker. It is part of a political trinity that includes the springtime Shad Planking in Wakefield and the summertime Old Fiddlers’ Convention in Galax. Some parade-watchers lamented that the event has dwindled in recent decades, with elaborate floats lost over the years along with textile, furniture and auto-parts manufacturing. But aspiring governors, lieutenant governors and attorneys general still show up and walk the route, even in sweltering heat, dashing from one side of the street to the other, offering sweaty handshakes and asking for votes.

All the candidates had placards stuck in the ground along the route, but it was a mere sprinkling compared with normal, when even the small island in the middle of the Maury River gets plastered with signs. One of the most prevalent signs appeared to be for Cuccinelli but was actually meant to mock him. Those were posted by an environmental group that also sponsored a plane to fly over town trailing a banner that read: “Dirty Money OK. KensVirginia.com”

Martha Kennan, 82, a retired court clerk, took in the parade from a stretch of grass where signs normally prevent her from planting a chair.

“They were out in the middle of the river, through both ends of town,” she said of signs in previous years. “Usually it’s every two inches, it’s another sign.”

Dane McBride, who decades ago was a Mormon missionary in France with a young Mitt Romney, said the signs were “much thinner.”

“There’s not the unity of the Republican Party this year that there was in 2009,” said McBride, who has a son in Buena Vista.

Yet McAuliffe and Cuccinelli found their brief post-parade speeches warmly received. They kept them to about three minutes apiece.

McAuliffe, who went first, steered clear of the criticism he often directs at Cuccinelli. Warning that Virginia’s defense-heavy economy could take a big hit with automatic federal spending cuts known as sequestration, he vowed to expand and diversify the state’s economy. He said he would achieve that by improving transportation, health care and education.

“Education is an investment,” he said. “It’s not an expense.”

Cuccinelli highlighted some of his work fighting for veterans, people with mental illness, victims of sexual assault and “the little guy against the big monied interests.” But he also took some shots at “Obamacare” and McAuliffe, saying that the Democrat had contended that the federal health-care law did not go far enough.

As governor, Cuccinelli said, he would make sure Virginia stays “as disengaged with that federal health-care debacle as we possibly can.”

Tim Beverly, 55, dressed like a sequined Uncle Sam, complete with glued-on gray goatee, stood near the end of the parade holding aloft a sign that read: “Wanted: A few honest politicians”

“I’m just fed up, and I think the majority of Americans are,” he said.

The gifts scandal hovering over Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has contributed to Beverly’s frustration, though with a wardrobe of similar get-ups, he has been pushing the dishonesty theme for about 20 years.

The incumbent governor, who is the subject of federal and state investigations into gifts and loans that a Virginia businessman provided to him and his family, was on the minds of some parade-
goers as much as his would-be successors.

Robert Thomas, 71, a native Buena Vistan who retired in his home town after working to enforce zoning laws in Fairfax County, said the scandal had made him a grouch — a reference to the welcome sign on one end of town, where Buena Vista playfully proclaims itself, “Home to 6,002 Happy Citizens and Three Old Grouches.”

“In reality, it’s probably 6,000 grouches and three happy citizens,” said Thomas, who has run unsuccessfully for the city council.

Many voters said they were undecided but already weary of negative television ads.

“I just get so sick and tired of these slinging-mud campaigns,” said Angela Campbell, 51, an administrative assistant. “And we’ve got to go till November.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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