There is more than local interest in the outcome of today's Virginia State Senate election in Newport News, held to fill the vacancy left by the election of Republican Herbert H. Bateman to the House of Representatives.
If Democratic state Del. Bobby Scott wins, he will become the second black in the 40-member senate and the first to carry Newport News in a one-on-one race.
He is being challenged by Republican William Haskins, 50, a veteran city councilman and a lifelong employe of the local shipyard, who achieved prominence by heading anti-busing groups and managing the 1976 campaign of Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr (I-Va.) in the city. The Democrat, 35-year-old Scott, is a Harvard-educated lawyer, a three-term member of the House of Delegates and son of a prominent doctor who was the first black to serve on the Newport News school board.
It is an unusual election, held between two holidays when voters have more on their minds than politics. To make the campaigning even more difficult, many residents were out of town this week, taking advantage of a vacation that comes each year when the giant Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. shuts down for two weeks.
Both Scott and Haskins have been grousing over the timing of the special election. And each blames the other side: Haskins complains that Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb could have set the date a week later, while Scott argues that the election could have been held earlier if only Bateman had decided to resign his senate seat before Dec. 15.
Although neither candidate agrees, local observers say that race will be a major factor in the voting today. Mary Sherwood Holt, a Democrat on the city council, says a number of white residents are coming up to her, whispering that they plan to support Scott. "Finally, I started telling them it was okay to come out of the closet and say they were going to vote for a black," she said, "but the fact that they felt they had to whisper told me something. There are a lot of folks who are afraid to say out loud they are going to vote for a black."
The issues, and the candidates' records, have also helped focus a classic battle between a conservative and a moderate. Haskins has accused Scott of being soft on crime, while Scott has attacked his opponent for cutting funds in the local school budget.
Few expect Scott to get anything but solid support from black voters who make up about 31 percent of the district.
Both sides yesterday concluded that victory depends almost on the ability to turn out the vote. "If it is light, I'm going to be the one sweating right up to the end," said Haskins. Scott estimated that 50 percent -- or about 20,000 -- of the city's registered voters will go to the polls.