Virginia Democrats met yesterday in schools all over the state to elect delegates to their June convention, and proved once again that the best laid plans of an organizer can dissolve like tissue paper in water when confusion reigns.
With about 85 percent of the delegates counted last night, former attorney general Andrew P. Miller had won at least 800 delegates in the running for nominations as U.S. senator. The day's most surprising element, here and in other areas, was the support generated for G. Conoly Philips, a Norfolk car dealer and City Council member who is running as an Evangelicial Christian.
In many places Philips' supporters, most of whom have not previously been involved in politics but feel "called by the Lord" to work for their candidate, changed not only the tenor but the size of the meetings.
"There are people here we've never seen," said Virgina Beach party worker Wanda McCullough. "They've never voted; it's like of sad," Conoly Philips' supporters, led by a quartet of floor leaders from city's 3,000 member Rock Church, prayed and sang hymns during the meeting.
There was praying and hymn singing in Northern Virginia too, and consternation among groups committed to other candidates who managed to turn out large numbers of supporters only to be thwarted when they had less than 20 percent. (The rules of the meeting required each candidate to have one-fifth of all the Democrats who showed up before he or she would be entitled to any delegates).
In Arlington, for example, Miller supporters made up over 16 percent of the 1,076 people at the meeting at Wakefield High School, but Miller ended up without a single delegate. Rufus Phillips, however, started out with less than 10 percent of participated support at the meeting, but ended up with 29 delegates, after his frantic supporters entered a last-minute coalition with those of Conoly Phillips and Carrington Williams.
Supporters of the five losing candidates waited anxiously outside the music room, where Conoly Philips' 128 supporters, more than 16 percent of the people at the meeting, prayed and pondered what to do.
At the sound of "Amazing Grace" from the caucus in the music room nearly drowned out the vote-trading in the hall, it became clear that only Clive Ducall II had a clear shot at a majority of the delegates - he ended up with 66. Miller's forces were joined by the handful of uncommitted participants and feminist Flora Carter's small band, but missed the crucial 20 percent by less than one percentage point.
Meanwhile, the three other groups were stymied over which candidate would get the coaliton. William's supporters refused to align under Conoly Phillips' banner, and threatened to go over to Miller. Then with only seconds left before the final count, the Conoly Phillips supporters decided to go along with Rufus Phillips, and the die was cast. "Come back, come back," cried a William supporter as her comrades headed for Miller headquarters in the cafeteria, "They're going to Rufus."
But it took two hours of arithmetic and negotiations to figure out a way that all three sides could get a proportional share of Rufus Phillips' 29 delegates after the first ballot at the June convention. (All delegates must vote for the candidate they are pledged to on the first ballot but are free to support someone else after that if there is no winner.)
"It's unbelievable that Rufus and Carrington are letting themselves be used to support Conoly," said former Del. Ira M. Lechner, a Duval supporter, as he watched the shouting matches and cajolery going on in the halls. "It's horse-trading without principle. They don't care who they're supporting. I thought the whole idea of this was to get it out in the open, out of the smoke-filled room. Now instead of the back room it's the back of the church.
In Northern Virginia, DuVal locked up more delegates than any other candidate, winning a total of 231 delegates from the jurisdictions of Fairfax County, Arlington, Falls Church, Fairfax City and Alexandria. He was the only candidate to pick up delegates in every jurisdiction.
Among the other candidates, Miller got 62 delegates, Rufus Philip 54, Williams 44, and Conoly Philip 5. Thirty-six people were elected as uncommitted delegates. Crater, Fred Rabson and Hunter Andrews did not get any delegates.
Meanwhile, hassles of a different type were going on in Alexandria, where Williams' group found themselves one short of the 138 supporters needed to stay in the running, and were forced by the rules of the meeting to leave.
The inability of the Williams delegation to get one more vote in the horse-trading after the first ballot meant that they were entirely shut out.
Del Richard R. G. Hobson, the delegation head, tried to say that the Williams people really meant to be uncommitted. Although this was accepted by the chair, the ruling was overturned by a vote of 368 to 264.
In the end, only DuVal and Miller were able to amass committee delegates - 38 for Duval and 18 for Miller. Although the impact of the Evangelical Christian was a surprise throughout the state, in Northern Virginia Colony Phillips ended up with only five delegates committed in his own name out of 433.
It is clear, however, that by adding to the numbers of people at the meetings, thus changing the number of people each candidate needed to have 20 percent for a caucus, the Evangelical Christian affected the hopes of all the other candidates.
At some meetings there was open hostility between the traditional party faithful and the born-again Democrats, many of whom, the faithful charged, were really Republicians.
"I'll bet 90 percent of them voted for (Republican governor) John Dalton," a DuVal leader at the Henrico County meeting outside Richmond said. The Conoly Phillips supporters, who turned up in sufficient numbers to capture a majority - 34 - of the delegates in Henrico, leaving Miller with 32 and 28 uncommitted, cheered jubilantly when the tally was announced.
"I'm a Republican," said Norma Sedgewick, who showed up with friends from the Unity Church in Lee District in Fairfax County, to run as a Conoly Phillips because "He's a man you're not," said her friend.
"This is the first time I've ever attended a political function," said Sandy Brandt at the meeting in Roanoke. Wearing a denim jacket with "Jesus is Lord" written on the back, Brandt said she was there to support Conoly Phillips delegate. "Not today, of God. I can't wait to have a man of God in office."
Party leaders, meanwhile, seemed to be trying to cope with the influx of new Democrats without an outbreak of open hostility. At the Lee District meeting for example, state Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan, a Miller supporter, stressed in a speech the importance of everyone being prepared to support the Democratic nominee whoever he might be.
"We assume that these are honest people and that they know what they are committing themselves to," said Robert Richards, executive director of a Norfolk teachers' group and a former Democratic congressional candidate, referring to the party loyalty statements the delegates must sign.
Conoly Phillips himself spent the day working on his lawn, going inside his home later in the afternoon to pray. He called his showing a "miracle." His press secretary said plans are being made for a massive prayer meeting in Williamsburg on the eve of the convention. "It's not going to be like any Democratic meeting in the state of Virginia," she said.
Inevitably, there were problems in conducting the meetings, which any registered voter could attend.The Lee District meeting, for example, was delayed because whoever was supposed to unlock Key Intermediate School didn't do it. Eighth District chairman Pixie Bell waited outside the locked school until a Democrat who happens to be a teacher at the school showed up and had a key.
Participants crowded into hall, looking up their names in books of registered voters, lining up by handlettered signs announcing each precinct in the district.
During the coalition-building efforts at the Arlington meeting, one Conoly Phillips supporter explained her position by saying, "we're going with Jesus."
"I didn't know he was on the ballot," muttered DuVal supporter Marianne Karydes."