The two dozen campaign workers singing "Vepco Loves Me" (to the tune of "Jesus Loves Me") this morning in the local Holiday Inn needed no identification of two Vepco executives parodied in the song - John McGurn and Justin Moore - any more than they needed an introduction to the silver-haired man leading the singing.
He was Henry Evans Howell Jr., who in his three races for Virginia governor has helped make McGurn, chairman of Virginia Electric and Power Co., and Moore, president of the Richmond-based utility, as well known as any corporation executives in the state.
As unorthodox as singing may seem for a politician in a state where tradition is often regarded as a virtue second only to conservatism, Howell has made such acts commonplace in his race against Republican Lt. Gov. John N. Dalton.
Today, as Howell ended two days of campaigning across Virginia's conservative Southside, he likened himself to the late conservative U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr., saying Byrd would "shudder" at the "deficit spending" Dalton is doing in his current race.
It was the latest of Howell's efforts to assure Virginia voters, many of whom still revere Byrd's image, that he is sincere in his pledge to avoid new taxes as governor. He repeated that promise throughout the day, partly in hopes that it will help blunt the impact of the record $1.2 million Dalton's campaign has raised and will spend. Part of that money will be spent on advertising picturing Howll as a free-spending liberal.
Moments after invoking a prayer for "the great Virginians" working for his election. Howell began attacking Dalton's list of contributors and his opponent's stands on consumer legislation.
This morning Howell was supposed to give a consumer speech to an early-morning meetings of campaign workers, but he thrust it aside to give his workers a lecture on his conservativism, an important issue here. "Henry has been more conservative with people's money than any other person in the history of Virginia including Sen. Harry Byrd Sr.," he told them.
"Hah," scoffed Dalton press secretary Richard Lobb when asked about Howell's statement. "That's an absurd statement on its face. Henry Howell has spnsored numerous tax increase proposals that would have the late, great Harry F. Byrd spinning in his grave."
Despite Lobb's claims, Howell insisted today that he was the conservative in the race and pointed to the $210,000 in loans that Dalton's campaign committee has arranged as proof that Dalton is "a deficit spender who cannot meet his budget." In the primary, Howell lent his campaign about $28,000.
At his morning meeting, Jim Gibbs, Howell's assistant campaign manager, offered Howell bumper stickers with the proviso: "You've got to promise to put it on your car - they cost a lot of money." Howell himself stopped in a parking lot to pick up one of his campaign flyers a voter has discarded near the Prince Georges County Courthouse and urged every voter to whom he handed a flyer: "Pass it along to a friend, will you?"
As his campaign camper, dubbed the "Howell Cannonball," cruised to country stores on the outskirts of Petersburg, Howell repeatedly lectured his staff about the necessity to place his campaign newspaper "Plain Talk" and a flier on gun control in the stores. "It's not important that people see me, but that this material gets in their hands," he said.
Only on Voter Howell encountered during the morning told Howell he was "voting for the other guy," although numerous others were non-commital. Dalton's supporters claim to have made inroads among conservative Democratic voters in Southside, but Howell today suggested he will run stronger there this year than in 1973 when he ran as an independent against Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin.
One reason is that local Democratic office holders here are supporting him for the first time. Yet, when two elected Petersburg officials appeared today at Howell's breakfast to show their support for him, he had to be introduced to them, unlike many of the other Howell workers whom Howell called by their first names.