Virginia Democrats talk of a comeback over Jefferson-Jackson Dinner

February 12, 2012

You sure couldn’t tell Virginia Democrats had lost the last three elections.

At their biggest party of the year Saturday night, a lively crowd of lawmakers and activists from across the state brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Democratic Party and shared a few drinks with longtime friends.

They also couldn’t help but decry the new Republican rule in Richmond.

Even U.S. Sen. Mark Warner — the Virginia party’s de facto leader who earned his reputation by staking out a bipartisan tone — took more than his share of swipes at the GOP, which as of last month controls the governor’s mansion and General Assembly.

Warner, the popular former governor, derided the “mean-spirited proposals” coming out of the state capital that he said would chip away at abortion rights, gay rights and voting rights.

“One of the things that concerns me now is that [the] same kind of politics that you talk about sometimes in Washington is creeping here in Richmond,’’ Warner said.

A springboard

Democrats hope that their black-tie Jefferson-Jackson Dinner will be a springboard for a comeback for the beleaguered party, which lost statewide races in 2009, congressional seats in 2010 and the state Senate in 2011.

They’re looking for big victories this year as former governor Timothy M. Kaine competes for an open Senate seat and President Obama hopes to win Virginia’s crucial electoral votes for the second time.

Kaine, the likely Democratic nominee, is expected to face former Republican governor and senator George Allen in one of the most competitive Senate races in the nation. He was greeted by campaign music, a video and hundreds of supporters, almost all of whom wore “TK4VA” stickers.

Kaine said his views stand in stark contrast to Allen’s on fiscal responsibility and finding common ground in Washington. “The word bipartisan has never been put in the same paragraph as George Allen’s name,” he said.

Allen’s campaign later responded to the criticisms by Kaine, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Chairman Kaine championed every significant failed initiative to come out of Washington in the last three years . . . and it’s not surprising he’s saying whatever he can to avoid taking responsibility for the results,” Allen spokesman Bill Riggs said.

About 1,300 activists from across the state braved the snow to fill every seat at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, raising $350,000 for the party. In past years, Republicans have criticized Democrats for the dinner, which falls in the middle of the legislative session, when state law forbids lawmakers from fundraising.

Montana Gov. Brian ­Schweitzer, former head of the Democratic Governors Association, who gave a memorable and lively speech at the party’s 2008 national convention, served as the keynote speaker. The ­Republican Party of Virginia used Schweitzer to poke fun at Kaine, saying the moderate Montana governor is far more mainstream than Kaine.

“These Virginia Democrats are going to decide who’s going to be the next president,’’ said ­Schweitzer, dressed casually in jeans and a bolo tie.

In past years, Virginia Democrats have hosted Obama, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former president Bill Clinton at the dinner.

The state’s three Democratic congressmen, Reps. Gerald E. Connolly, James P. Moran and Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, attended. But retiring U.S. Sen. James Webb canceled because of a family obligation, even though there had been talk about honoring him at his last Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.

Looking ahead

Some activists were already gossiping about 2013 as several Democrats looking to run statewide — for governor, lieutenant governor or attorney general — made themselves known, as they are expected to do at the event.

Terry McAuliffe, a businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman who is looking at a second run for governor, bought six tables at $2,500 each. (That doesn’t quite compare to 2009, when he bought 39 tables, hired a marching band and rented a nightclub for an after-dinner party.) Hundreds of supporters wore blue “Run, Terry, Run” stickers, which McAuliffe said he was not responsible for — really.

Aneesh Chopra, who just stepped down as the first White House chief technology officer and who is eyeing the lieutenant governor’s job, gave a talk earlier in the day on technology and politics. And Sen. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (Fairfax), whom some would like to run for governor, attended.

Former House minority leader Ward L. Armstrong, who lost his reelection bid in November after Republicans eliminated his largely rural Southside district and who is interested in being the state’s top lawyer , was also at the dinner. As were political adviser Rich Savage and Arlington County lawyer Mike Signer, who both ran for lieutenant governor in 2009, and may to do it again.

“It was a rough election for Democrats, but it’s time to rebuild,’’ McAuliffe said.

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