WAKEFIELD, Va., April 20 -- Start with beer, bugs and bony fish. Add a few hundred lobbyists, more than a couple of would-be politicians, some reporters and a handful of genuine country boys. Put it all in the middle of nowhere, on a 90-degree day, and erect thousands of signs announcing the whole thing.
It's the Shad Planking, Virginia's long-standing political ritual, where governors were once crowned by a small group of white, male Democrats.
At the microphone, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore and his Democratic counterpart, Timothy M. Kaine, speak at the Shad Planking, Virginia's long-standing political ritual built on two foundations: politics and fish.
(Robert A. Reeder - The Washington Post)
Shad Planking: The Shad Planking began in the 1930s, near Smithfield, as an opportunity for white "Virginia gentlemen" to drink, tell tall tales and eat fish. The event was moved to Wakefield in 1949.
The state and the tradition have evolved. What once was a bastion of Democrats is now filled with Republicans. There are women here, and African Americans. But the twin essences of the Shad Planking remain: politics and fish.
Both were served up in abundance Wednesday afternoon, as the candidates for governor took lighthearted jabs at each other before the serious combat gets underway during the next six months.
Speaking to a slightly inebriated crowd, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore took note of Democrat Timothy M. Kaine's Kansas upbringing.
"We were talking earlier, and he said, 'Jerry, I've never been to this part of North Carolina before,' " Kilgore quipped. "Today's a big day for him."
Kaine, the lieutenant governor, needled Kilgore, the former attorney general, for refusing to agree to a series of debates. "I hope this isn't the last time we appear together on a stage in Virginia," Kaine said.
Overhead, a plane hired by the Kaine campaign dragged a banner that said: "Jerry: Real Leaders Don't Duck Debates."
The Shad Planking, named for the oily fish that are slowly smoked on planks of wood, began more than 60 years ago as a way to welcome the shad fishing season on the James River. It quickly became the kickoff for the spring political season and was taken over by the Wakefield Ruritan Club in 1949.
It was an exclusive event for years, a place for the state's powerful men to mingle and be seen. In the early 1970s, a few Republicans began to attend, and, eventually, so did women and minorities.
Some old-timers long for the days when the event was more authentically Virginian -- before the modern, urbane crowd turned the woodsy gathering into just another arts-and-crafts fair, with a rock-and-roll band and souvenir hats. "The Beatles at Shad Planking," said G. Paul Nardo, the chief aide to House Speaker William J. Howell (R), shaking his head as the band rocked on. "It's changed a lot."
The Shad Planking no longer serves as the gathering where party leaders anoint their candidates.
"The only purpose here is to pretend to work, schmooze and drink beer," said Steve Haner, chief lobbyist for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
But it still has meaning for the politicians. For years now, candidates have waged what their campaigns refer to as "the sign war," and they consider it the first real opportunity to build momentum toward a November victory.