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Fishing for Votes at the Shad Planking

By Gordon C. Morse
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page B08

Bony fish. Pine trees. Signs. Pols. Hacks. Dust. Beer. More signs. Speeches. More beer. Press. A thousand or so assorted Virginians.

These are the unvarying components of the shad planking, during which on an April afternoon each year, fish and democracy are fed to those assembled outside the Southside town of Wakefield. The shad planking is an excuse to enjoy the spring weather, yak about politics and drink free beer. Sometimes, it's a place to learn something too.

About the governor's race, it appears that Democrat Tim Kaine, the man Republicans would love to peg as a liberal urbanite, will not concede the rural vote. As a demonstration, his campaign marshaled about 50 or 60 volunteers, Kaine says, and valiantly fought the "sign war." Each year state and local campaigns try to outdo one another in papering the entry points to the wooded site where the local Ruritan Club smokes shad, yes, on planks. Or at least all the campaigns once did. Republican strength in rural Virginia has had Democrats sometimes taking a bye on signage exertions, asking themselves, "What's the point?"

Four years ago Gov. Mark R. Warner answered that question by bringing a bluegrass band to Wakefield. It was part of his outside-the-urban-crescent strategy that included cozying up to NASCAR, staying mum on guns and always speaking passionately about economic development -- i.e., jobs -- in Virginia's economically depleted rural regions. Warner's implicit message -- I respect your culture, honor your values and will work to build a better economic future for you -- helped get him elected governor. It was a page out of an old book.

The Kaine campaign seems to have taken a lead from at least part of that strategy. It got its crew in early, plopped a few zillion signs along the road and had a banner-dragging plane circle the crowd with a challenge to the likely Republican opponent, former attorney general Jerry Kilgore, to get out and debate.

Kilgore's reaction was a pained throwback to a once-familiar style of Southern politics. His campaign sent out an e-mail Wednesday morning that included photographs of automobiles with out-of-state license tags. "Sadly, those rumors are true," it said: Kaine had sought help from non-Virginians.

Kilgore then got in a couple of digs about Kaine's above-the-Mason-Dixon-line cohorts and, speaking to the crowd, broadened the slander to include the sitting governor.

"We hear Governor Warner may be interested in running for president. He's been taking advice from a lot of national politicians, and I understand he's wind-surfing right now off the coast of Massachusetts."

That inspired a few titters, but Kaine saw his chance. When he got his turn to speak he happily congratulated Kilgore on his own out-of-state chums; a New Yorker and a Tennessean happen to be Kilgore's two largest donors.

Nice, but no three-pointer.

Here's the thing. At the end of every shad planking, the candidates go on campaigning and the local folks go home to wonder about the future. Tactics, maneuvering and signs by the truckload are fine, but neither the Kaine nor the Kilgore campaign has yet spoken about what Virginia could or should be.

Virginia is two states today. One Virginia -- the strip that runs from Northern Virginia to Richmond and east to Hampton Roads -- is thriving. The other -- made up of medium-size cities, small towns and rural counties -- faces less-than-encouraging economic prospects.

Warner came to the shad planking four years ago selling hope and purpose, and he has labored since to make good on his promises. Kilgore's appeal to outback parochialism came as Warner was hunting up jobs in Japan and preparing to lead 60 Virginia business leaders on the first state trade mission to India.

Kilgore, nearly within the same breath, promised to cap local property taxes and increase public spending on education. The audience -- meaning the locals, not the partisans bused in -- received the news with a notable lack of enthusiasm, suggesting that rural Virginians may not be as thick as Kilgore appears to assume.

Kaine, instead of trading shots with his opponent, could have told the crowd that it won't be the last time he brings non-Virginians to town, that attracting outside interest is the idea and not a particularly new one at that.

Kaine could have reminded the shad plankers of the kid who grew up 25 miles down the road, became governor 40 years ago this year and then traveled to Brussels to open the state's first overseas trade office. That was Democrat, later Republican, Mills E. Godwin, the rural conservative stalwart who doubled spending on public education, built roads, created the community college system and bolstered higher education to new levels.

Godwin made a cultural connection with rural Virginians. He neither patronized nor pandered, but told his neighbors that low taxes, low wages and low skills would not win the future. Virginia, he said, needed to connect with the world economically in order to get ahead. Warner said and did likewise, with beneficial political results. Kaine and Kilgore have yet to figure this out.


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