When Henry E. Howell won the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia on June 14, he was also won, it appears, the right to be regarded as the principal spokesman for the state's Democratic Party.
This is not as simple a matter as its seems. Since anyone can vote in a party primary in Virginia, regardless of party affiliation, the winner is not necessarily the choince of the party majority.
Moreover, there are many Virginia Democrats, most of them conservatives, who are willing to resign themselves to the fact that Howell beat moderate conservative Andrew P. Miller and even to promise nominal support for Howell in the general election, but are not willing to concede that Howell's voice is the of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
One source of support for the notion that Howell is the legitimate party spokesman is an election day survey of $1,700 voters conducted by the The Washington Post at 21 precincts throughout the state.
One in four of those voters did not respond to a question about party affilion , but of the rest, six out of ten said they were Democrats and one out of four considered themselves strong Democrats.
Of the Democrats, six out of ten said they voted for Howell. Among strong Democrats, support for Howell was even greater. Two out of three of those who considered themselves faithful party people voted for the former lieutenant governor.
These results must be discounted to some degree because black voters, who were almost unanimously for Howell, were slightly over-represented in the survey's random selection of precincts. Nevertheless, the survey buttresses the vote itself in suggesting that the role of party spokesman should go to Howell over Miller.
That conclusion is especially supported by voter answers to a segment of the questionnaire dealing with the candidates and particular voter issues. When asked whether they thought Howell or Miller would do a better job of keeping down taxes, dealing with utility companies, handling racial matters and providing honest government, the surveyed voters responded decisively in favor of Howell. Even white voters, who the survey showed favored Miller by 55 per cent to 45 per cent, rated Howell as better able to deal with three of the four issues. As to dealing with racial matters, white voters were equally divided between Howell and Miller.
Whites who said they were either Democrats or strong Democrats, however, chose Howell over Miller as being better able to handle all four issues. In addition, the 55-45 Miller majority disappeared among whites when independents and Republican crossover voters were left out of the tally. Among white Democrats surveyed, Howell beat Miller by a narrow 50.549.5 margin.
Among all voters, then, there clearly was a significant number who cast ballots for Miller even though they had a higher regard for Howell's stand on selected issues. This result seems to enhance Howell's claim on the role of party policy spokesman.
There are, of course, influential Democrats in Virginia who would object to the concept of a party spokesman.
Del. James M. Thomson (D-Alexandria), the House of Delegates majority leader, presided over a post-primary unity meeting of Democrats in Richmond on June 18 and chastized Republicans for using their primary in Fairfax County to eliminate incumbent Del. James H. Dillard because he appeared to some to be too liberal to represent GOP thought.
"That's the great thing we are here today to pay tribute to," Thomson said. "The Democratic Party is big enough to cover the spectrum of all political thinking."
The Thomson view of the Democratic Party hardly suggests the need for a party spokesman since it does not require a Democrat to believe in anything in particular except his right to take any political position without losing his party identity.
There is nothing about Henry Howell's long career in Virginia politics that suggests he shares the Thomson view that a Democrat can believe in anything.
Howell has spent much of that career trying to change the directions of a singularly conservative and at one time racist Virginia Democratic establishment. Howell perceived a party dominated by the old Byrd organization that was too attentive to business interests and too dedicated to preserving disproportionate political influence for a rural elite.
He wanted instead a Virginia Democratic Party that drew its strength from black voters, urban residents, blue collar workers - especially organized labor - and dissatisfied consumers.
When conservative Virginia Democrats shunned such Democratic presidential candidates as Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey, Howell stuck with the national ticket. And when Howell ran twice for statewide office as an independent, he said he had not lost his identity as a national Democrat.
In a recent interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, Howell acknowledged that he had been uncompromising in his political battles as a party figure and a legislator. To have compromised with the establishment, he said, would have defated his purpose in politics.
His purpose has been to impose on Virginia Democrats the necessity of making an unequivocal choice between mutually exclusive courses for the party.
Now that he is at last, for the first time in his life, the Democraticnominee for a statewide office, and the highest office at that, it is significant to recognize that he also is the legitimate spokesman for Virginia Democrats.