As Lee Gladwin recalls, he was only to do a political chore when he encountered Richard G. (Dixie) Dick, the portly Democratic Party chairman of Virgina's Frederick County.
"He grabbed me by the shirt and ripped it open. Then he lifted me by one leg and tried to throw me over the railing of his sundeck," says Gladwin, who claims he was attempting to deliver some petitions for former Arlington legislator Ira M. Lechner's race for lieutenant governor when the tussle occurred.
Dick won't discuss the incident. "When your privacy is disturbed at midnight, it's hard to be hospitalable," he says. Nonetheless the meeting, which could serve as a scene for televisions's "Dukes of Hazzard" comedy, is being cited by Lechner and his supporters as an example of how serious party leaders now regard his challenge for the Democratic Party's nomination.
Until a few weeks ago, few would have given Lechner, a former state legislator who ran for the state's No. 2 office four years ago, much of a chance of wresting the nomination from former Portsmouth mayor and businessman Richard J. Davis. But Lechner, who is regarded as something of a maverick liberal by Virginia standards, says he may have changed that.
The two men today will get an indication of how successful their campaigns have been as Democrats gather in mass meetings to select some 70 percent of the delegates for next month's state nominating convention in Virginia Beach. The remaining delegates will be chosen in meetings Monday night.
Davis, 59, gained much of his support as the state party chairman who helped direct Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb's effort to give the party a conservative image.But organizers in Lechner's low-budget campaign claim to have lined up more prospective delegates to the state convention than did the well-financed Davis group.
"Clearly Ira is a formidable, visible candidate," says Darrell Martin, state campaign coordinator for attorney general candidate Gerald Baliles. "He was virtually invisible . . . It was done very adoritly, not showing the flag. Then he emerged after pre-filing as a very strong candidate."
The sudden show of strength for the 46-year-old New York-born Lechner has startled some part regulars, who saw his appeal to Northern Virginia voters and Labor as too limited for a statewide race. "It's going to be hair, teeth and eyes all over the road," says State Del. Clifton A. Woodrum, a Roanoke Democrat.
Lechner is claiming that his campaign has signed up 2,843 candidates for the 3,503 convention delegate slots to be elected this weekend, leaving 2,596 for Davis and 915 uncommitted. Davis earlier this week had conceded that Lechner was ahead, but now ways recent filings bring his total to 2,767, with 2,746 for Lechner.
Both say the two other candidates in the race, State Sen. Dudley J. (Buzz) Emick of Fincastle and former delegate C. Donald Dunford of Tazewell in Southwest Virginia lag far behind with roughly 250 and 2, respectively.
After the delegate filing figures began showing sign of strength for Lechner this week, Davis campaign manager Bobby ywatson went to law enforcement authorities with charges that the Lechner campagin had signed a number of people has delegates without their knowledge or permission.
Lechner has filed complaints with the FBI and the Justice Department over what he called "dirty machine politics" in Norfolk where, he charges, Democratic Chairman Bill Williams refused to allow Lechner supporters to count the number of delegates committed to Davis. Lechner also says that two of his campaign workers have received telephone threats, and charges that a Davis telephone campaign is giving a misleading impression that the conservative Robb wants to keep the Lechner off the ticket.
Robb, who is unopposed for the party's nomination for governor, has pledged to remain neutral until the nominee is named.
Davis, a white-haired lawyer who is a self-made millionaire, is the type of candidate many Democrats say the party must have if it is to shun the liberal image it developed when Norfolk populist Henry E. Howell was regarded as its titular leader. Davis has been credited with revitalizing the state Democratic party, considered by many to be vastly out-organized by Virginia Republicans.
To many, Lechner seems an unlikely candidate for statewide office in a state with an decidedly a conservative electorate as Virginia. Where most Virginia candidates argue about the length of their Virginia bloodlines, Lechner's speech still carries traces of his boyhood ramblings on New York's lower East Side.
Where most Virginia politicans abhore the thought of public employe unions, Lechner favors collective bargaining. And where most Virginia politicans are avid budget cutters, Lechner wants to see increased state funding to education.
But that contrast means little to lechner, who started his combative political career on the Arlington Tenant-Landlord Commission. "I like the challenge," he says. "People have always said why don't I move to Maryland, where I could be successful as a politcian. I probably could, but the challenge is too great here."
From Arlington, Lechner's political fortunes led him to the Virginia House of Delegates, where in 1977 he saw his colleagues kill 19 of the 27 bills he introduced -- prompting House Majority Leader Thomas Moss to comment: "I told him he had a bill for every special interst group in creation except blind epileptics."
Many in Richmond at the time suspected Lechner was using the bills to build support for his 1977 lieutenant governor campaign. He won the support of the Virginia Education Association and the state AFL-CIO, but even a 300-mile walk across the state, from the North Carolina border to the Alexandria waterfront, wasn't enough give him an edge over Robb in a primary contest.
This time Lechner is boasting the campaign assistance of 18 labor unions, including several of the clients of this Georgetown law firm, and the support of the VEA.