For the past year, hundreds of students and citizen activists have been traipsing through neighborhoods in Northern Virginia and across the state, asking homeowners to contribute money to Virginia Action--an ambitious new political coalition that said it was dedicated to fighting the evils of "big corporations."
By some yardsticks, the populist sales pitch proved a spectacular success in conservative Virginia. During 1982 alone, more than $456,000 was collected by Virginia Action canvassers and a large chunk of that came from the Washington suburbs. According to the director of the group's Falls Church office, its Northern Virginia troopers sometimes will bring in $5,000 to $6,000 in checks and cash a night.
But Virginia Action, part of a growing nationwide network of liberal political organizations, also has suffered its share of setbacks. While pledging to take on the state's entrenched power structure, the group recently has found itself wracked by internal dissension. It also is $64,000 in debt, including $30,000 to the Internal Revenue Service, and about 20 of its original board members (the precise number remains in dispute) have resigned.
There also is a feeling by some that the group has squandered much of the good will that surrounded its founding and dealt a serious blow to the state's small and fractious political left. The group's problems are in many ways a case study in the pitfalls of progressive politics in a state without a a strong progressive political tradition.
"Virginia Action started out as a very bright hope and I haven't given up yet," said Rick Cagan, chairman of Rural Virginia Inc., who has, nonetheless, resigned from the board. "But my patience is wearing thin."
Among the bill of particulars cited by Cagan and others is that Virginia Action claimed credit for a legislative "victory" to stop uranium mining that, the critics say, was considerably less than a victory and had relatively little to do with the group's own lobbying.
In raising its money, moreover, Virginia Action canvassers, particularly in Northern Virginia, stressed its work in battling the Virginia Electric & Power Co.--a sure-fire winner among beleagured utility ratepayers. Yet, until recently, very little of the group's time or energy has been devoted to utility issues, the critics say.
"They never did any work on that Vepco ," said Alma Barlow, the executive president of the Richmond Tenants Organization, who resigned from the Virginia Action board recently. "They may have talked to a few people, but there was no major effort. . . . I hate to see outsiders come in and take people's money and then not use it on issues they promised people they were going to work on."
For their part, Virginia Action leaders acknowledge some of the criticism but claim it has been blown out of proportion by dissaffected members who have gone to the press.
"In coalition politics, you're always walking on eggshells," said Stephen Retherford, spokesman for the group in its Richmond office. "We've had our problems, we've made mistakes. But that's part of the growing pains of a coalition organization. There's always infighting in organizing. The only difference is that this time, it's been taken outside the organization."
The reason, in large part, revolves around the personality of some of its leaders, particularly Fritz Wiecking, a strong-willed community organizer from Indiana who, along with North Carolina folk singer and author Si Kahn, helped found Virginia Action more than two years ago.
Wiecking recently resigned as the group's executive director to take a job with Citizen Action, a Washington-based national organization with which Virginia Action is affiliated.
"I'm personally angry and offended," said Wiecking, who has borne the brunt of the criticism. "I feel I'm on the wrong end of a mudslinging fight."
As Wiecking describes it, the Virginia Action feud stems from a "significant philosophical disagreement" over how to achieve "social change" among the more than 110 organizations, including labor unions, civil rights groups and local tenant groups that had agreed to join Virginia Action.
On the one side, he said, were 1970s-style anti-poverty workers, such as Cagan, whose view of social change rests on the funding of "professional advocates" for the poor. On the opposing side, Wiecking's side, are those who believe the job of progressives is to create organizations that "are controlled by low-income people" who can speak on their own behalf, he said.
In the internal Virginia Action struggle, Wiecking said his view won out. "The people who lost are angry, hurt and bitter and this is how they've chosen to deal with it," he said, referring to the criticism.
All this may seem somewhat irrelevant in a state where, public opinion polls show, President Reagan maintains the affection of a majority of the electorate and signs of liberalism are treated as political heresy. But to some of Virginia Action's critics, that is precisely the point. Gordon Morse, the director of Common Cause of Virginia who has steadfastly refused to join Virginia Action, said he was sure the group was never going anywhere once he heard about its first annual convention in Roanoke six weeks ago.
At the convention, which attracted delegates ranging from nuclear freeze advocates to Democratic Socialists, an Episcopal priest delivered an invocation offered to "Yahweh or the Great Spirit, He-She or The One Who Is."
"Once you've got people saying that sort of thing in this state, you're dead," Morse said.