Members of Virginia's Democratic Party lustily cheered Henry E. Howell, the party's maverick liberal, today and then proceeded to dump two of his closest political allies from party position in an attempt to assume a more conservative image.
At the same time the party members approved a spate of resolutions that some conservatives said will give Republican ammunition to charge that the party remains far to the left of the mainstream of Virginia politics. Among the measures approved were condemnation of Virginia's independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., a former Democrat; a call for approval of a black federal judge in the state, and collective bargaining for school teachers.
Although Howell, the still-popular former lieutenant governor made a rousing appeal on behalf of incumbent national Democratic committee members George C. Rawlings of Fairfax and Ruth Harvy Charity of Danville, a majority of the state party convention delegates decided to back a slate of four others endorsed by prominent party members and legislative leaders.
"In the 1980s there is no reason to have the people who will speak for us in the future be the same people who spoke for us in the past," state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, a longtime Howell supporter, told delegates as he nominated one of the four slate candidates.
In a pointed reference to both Howell and Rawlings, Wilder argued that the party needed the leadership of Democratic officials who would not threaten to "move on" when they didn't get their way. The charge was a response to Howell, who warned last week that liberals might attempt to form a third party in next year's gubernatorial contest if Rawlings and Charity were the casualties of a party purge.
When the emotional speeches wound down today, however, the convention easily elected Dels. Benjamin Lambert of Richmond and Alan Diamondstein of Newort News as national committeemen and Fairfax County Supervisor Sandra Duckworth and Louise Cunningham of Lynchburg as national committeewomen. Duckworth, an incumbent on the national committee, received the highest number of votes.
The bitter intraparty leadership dispute virtually overshadowed the selection of delegates to the Democratic National Convention in New York City this summer.
Despite a challenge from supporters of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, President Carter got all 20 of the at-large delegates chosen today, giving him a total of 59 -- compared to five for Kennedy -- of Virginia's 64 national convention votes.
The Kennedy camp, saying it deserves more convention delegates, promised to appeal its case to the national convention.
In making his bid to keep a voice in the party for his most ardent supporters, Howell seemed to revel in the challenge of what many regarded all along as an uphill fight.
"Hey, hey, hey -- there's life on the floor yet," Howell shouted as he waved to acknowledge an enthusiastic greeting from the convention crowd. In renominating Rawlings to the national committee, he reminded the delegates that the 58-year-old Fredericksburg attorney and Fairfax resident had been in the forefront of Howell's three unsuccessful attempts to be elected governor.
"Those days were good days," Howell reminisced. "We did something for our fellow women and fellow men." He talked about how close he had come to winning the gubernatorial prize and said that he believed the party could yet be successful.
Howell repeated his warning that the party could only be successful if it maintained a progressive tradition. "If (Lt. Gov.) Chuck Robb is going to be elected governor, and if Dick Davis is going to be elected lieutenant governor, you can't do it with an eagle that flies with one right wing," he said. Davis, the party's chairman, sat on the stage behind him shaking his head.
Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb of MacLean and Portsmouth Mayor Davis are considered the party's likely statewide candidates next year, and Howell and Rawlings have both accused the two party officials of engineering a conservative shift in the party leadership. Howell exhorted the convention crowd to let Rawlings have a say in the future party victories. His departing cries of "Let's do it, let's do it, let George do it" brought many of the delegates to their feet but failed to sway enough votes.
"He's telling them the games he's played in -- but he's not telling them the scores," one Fairfax County delegate was overheard grousing as Howell concluded his speech.
"What can you do?" complained another county party activist, "when someone sets himself as the only true spokesman of the liberals in the party and says the whole liberal movement will fall apart without them?"
Rawlings, sitting in the Richmond Coliseum bleachers with other delegates from the 8th Congressional District, sat impassively as his defeat was announced. Asked later if his ouster would hurt the party he replied: "It's not going to help it."
Though insisting he intended to stay involved in party politics as a member of the State Central Committee, Rawlings spared no criticism for those he felt were pushing the party to the right.
"I think it's a disaster to put the party in the hands of a General Assembly leadership that never does anything to pass the kind of legislation the state needs," he complained. He singled out Robb, accusing him of playing a role in his ouster and warning that a lot of Howell-type liberals would now feel unrepresented.
"I don't think he's using good judgment," said Rawlings. He said that he would like to challenge Robb for the party's gubernatorial nomination "if you get me a million bucks."
He said his support of Kennedy had probably contributed to his difficulties in a party hierarchy filled with Carter supporters, but he said there was "no chance" that he or others would bolt from the Democratic organization. w
Robb refused to be drawn into a sparring match with Rawlings, saying he had had no involvement in the national committee election. "What has transpired is just a natural evolution of the party," he said. Both he and newly elected national committeeman Diamondstein stressed that the new party leadership would appeal to a broader segment of Democratic voters and should not be viewed as moving the party to the right.
In other convention business, delegates adopted a slew of progressive resolutions. Statements of support for the Equal Rights Amendment, collective bargaining for teachers, President Carter's nomination of John Sheffield, a black, to the federal bench, and the ouster of Virginia's senior independent Senator Byrd from the Senate Democratic caucus were all approved.
A resolution praising the Virginia General Assembly -- whose leaders have been known foes of some of the resolutions the delegates approved -- almost went down to defeat by voice vote.