By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009
WAKEFIELD, Va., April 15 -- One of rural Virginia's most venerable political traditions, known as the Shad Planking, attracted gubernatorial candidates, campaign enthusiasts and a pack of political reporters Wednesday.
But on a soggy day, when the crowd was smaller than in past years and one of the gubernatorial candidates skipped the event, some questioned whether the curious festival named for a bony, oily fish held onto its election-year luster.
The diminished importance of the Shad Planking, noticeable even from four years ago, when every candidate for governor attended, is stark evidence of the political decline of rural Virginia. The state's fast-growing urban areas, particularly Northern Virginia, have become crucial to winning statewide office.
After six decades, the Shad Planking is an enjoyable curiosity.
"It's a big social event," Guy Smith of Chester said as he sipped Scotch. "It doesn't make a difference in politics."
Eight weeks before the state's hotly contested Democratic primary, hundreds assembled in the piney groves of tiny Wakefield, a setting brimming with beer, cigars and, of course, plates of shad smoked on wooden planks.
Three of the four candidates for governor -- Democrats Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran and Republican Robert F. McDonnell -- walked slowly through throngs who sought their autographs or a couple minutes of their time. Later, the three gave brief, lighthearted speeches in which they roasted each other.
R. Creigh Deeds skipped the event to embark on a seven-stop tour of southwest Virginia with the region's popular congressman, Rick Boucher (D), to woo undecided voters. A handful of his staff members attended in his place.
Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, who specializes in targeting rural voters, said candidates attend the Shad Planking for media attention, not votes. He said the only people who attend these days are "political junkies" who have long since made up their minds about the candidates.
The Shad Planking dates to the 1930s, when a small group of friends gathered to celebrate the migratory running of the shad in the James River. As the event grew in popularity, the Wakefield Ruritan Club took it over in 1949 and moved it to a woodsy sportsmen's club in Sussex County, one hour southeast of Richmond.
For decades, the Shad Planking was a good-old-boy event where the state's Democratic machine anointed Virginia politicians. It has evolved into a place for candidates to mingle with political insiders, many of whom drive down from Richmond.
Republican George Allen, a former governor and U.S. senator, described the event as equal parts county fair, tailgate party, sporting event and political convention.
"In the days before I ever went to it, it was supposedly a big deal who did well at the Shad Planking," Allen said. "These days, there are way more people involved in deciding who gets elected."
Many of the hundreds who attended Wednesday have been coming for years, had already made up their minds about the candidates and did not bother listening to speeches.
Barry Myers of Richmond came for the first time in 10 years to see old friends. He supports McDonnell and said nothing he saw or heard at the event would change his mind.
In recent years, the Shad Planking has offered a gauge of each campaign's organizational strength and resources, with candidates competing to put up thousands of signs in the surrounding area.
McAuliffe dispatched 60 staff members and 38 volunteers, many arriving more than a day early, to erect 25,000 signs extending 20 miles. He flew a plane overhead with the words: "New Energy. New Jobs. Vote Terry." A sea of supporters in blue T-shirts cheered him on, chanting, "Go, Terry, go!"
McDonnell joked about McAuliffe's well-funded campaign, which has posted a record number of campaign aides in offices across the state. "I want to thank him for doing his part to stimulate the Virginia economy," he said to laughter.
McDonnell erected 6,000 signs, and Moran and Deeds declined to compete in the sign wars, choosing instead to send a handful of aides to pass out beer. Moran staff members played the song "Can't Buy Me Love" and handed out plastics cups that read: "Money Isn't Everything. Fighting for Virginia Is."
"It goes to show, if you have too much money, you waste it,'' Moran said.
Most statewide candidates, including those for lieutenant governor and attorney general, set up booths and doled out free beer and campaign literature.
Former governors Allen and James S. Gilmore III (R) as well as former lieutenant governor John H. Hager (R) were on hand. Allen received the loudest applause. At least one of his supporters was looking beyond this year's Shad Planking by carrying a sign that read: "2012 Allen for President."