On the way down from Richmond, sitting cramped in the back seat of a colleague's Datsun, Sen. Clive DuVal II (D-Fairfax) revealed his skepticism about the events before him today.
In all of his 17 years in the state legislature, DuVal had never once been to the Wakefield Ruritan shad planking held in the heart of rural Southside Virginia.
"It used to be a Byrd frolic," he said. "They wouldn't let blacks or women in--everything that was against my principles. It always struck me as obnoxious, a lot of people drinking branch water and bourbon, standing ankle deep in mud."
But today the 69-year-old, Manhattan-born liberal Democrat ventured into the pine forests of Sussex County and joined 4,000 political movers, shakers and hangers-on at the state's most venerated annual political gathering.
Every year in Virginia there are a series of feasts--the fish fry in King William County, the bull roast in Hanover County, the chicken feast in Crewe and finally in June, the pork extravaganza in Emporia that typically draws 12,000 guests. But of all these, the shad planking has come to symbolize Virginia politics--not so much for the marinated pieces of boney fish placed on wooden planks and grilled over an open fire, but because it is the grand gathering of the state's "good old boys," who for decades dominated Virginia politics.
Some of that has changed, which is why DuVal said he felt comfortable attending this year for the first time. It's been five years since blacks were first invited to the function; women were admitted not long after that.
And this year Gov. Charles S. Robb, the guest speaker at the shad planking, broke new ground with his Southside audience by warning of the "long hot summer that might result from high black unemployment rates induced by national Republican policies."
"For the last 12 years Republican governors in Virginia have come here wailing over Democratic presidents," said one Democratic politician. "Robb has given that a new twist."
Some traditions, however, never change. Today, politics were the main topic of conversation as people lined up to eat 1 1/2 tons of shad and 1,000 pounds of rockfish, coleslaw and corn pone. State Del. Owen Pickett (D-Virginia Beach) and Republican Rep. Paul S. Trible were here, busily shaking hands and making contacts for their campaigns for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated next year by independent Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.
As evidence of the efforts of the Trible and Pickett organizations, the farmers, businessmen and local politicians were decked out in political stickers, advertising themselves as supporters of Trible or Pickett.
Most of the politicians ate their shad dinner in the clubhouse, where they were given special treatment by the organizers of the event. "Charlie Waddell Democratic state senator from Loudoun County was going around sticking Pickett stickers on everyone in there," said a bemused DuVal. "He had one on former Republican governor John Dalton's back for 15 minutes before Dalton noticed."
DuVal, who has run in two statewide elections, conceded by the end of the afternoon that the event had immense political attraction. "If you made an earnest effort here to get some votes you could do some real damage," DuVal said. "You could probably meet a couple of hundred people who would remember that you'd asked them for their votes." Until recently, DuVal said, the shad planking in Wakefield was not an event that attracted Northern Virginians.
"I don't think Northern Virginians would ever pick up much support here . . . Look at the faces. These are real good old boys from down South. Can you imagine them up in Northern Virginia? Taking the Metro, for instance?"