Acrimony over Virginia's new state song contest has just risen another octave.
First came allegations from a Staunton songwriter that sausage baron Jimmy Dean bagged one of eight final spots in the competition because of campaign donations to at least one member of the song selection committee.
The latest discord over the selection process is sounding from Northern Virginia, where Ray Parker is alleging in federal court in Alexandria that his song, "Virginia Is for Lovers," never got a fair hearing.
Parker is suing Gov. James S. Gilmore III, the Virginia General Assembly and the committee in charge of picking the new ditty, alleging that he was not allowed to petition them to vote for his song.
Specifically, he says that they have engaged in "coercion, gross abuse of power and conflict of interest" and that they are "using the pretext of a state song contest as a political football to accept campaign contributions." Dean is not mentioned.
In the lawsuit, filed last week, Parker is seeking more than $10 million in damages and wants the state song contest declared "null and void." Parker, who is acting as his own lawyer, could not be reached for comment at his Alexandria home yesterday.
"I'll let them put me in jail before I put that fellow's song back in the competition," Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (R-Augusta), chairman of the song selection panel, said in response to the lawsuit yesterday.
Hanger said Parker's song was rejected by his panel during the first cut. "There's no merit in any suit of that type," Hanger said. "If he wants, I can have a copy of his song distributed to all members of the General Assembly, and I'm sure they would agree that it is not appropriate as a state song."
When the contest began in the spring of 1998, Hanger said, the panel was flooded with 360 contenders to replace "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia." For years, that song has been denounced for having racially offensive lyrics, with its references to "darkies" and "massas," and there was agreement that it had to go.
With so many entries, there was no way to make a recommendation on a new song last year, Hanger said, and the panel will make that decision in December. The legislature will have the last word.
As the selection panel began paring the list of finalists to eight, there were several threats of lawsuits from those who didn't make the cut, Hanger said.
"I've discovered that artists really take it seriously," Hanger said. "I'm not surprised with the lawsuit. We've had threats."
This year, allegations began swirling that Dean, who co-wrote the song "Virginia" with his wife, Donna, had influenced the song selection process. Bob Campbell, of Staunton, whose own tune, "Home Sweet Home Virginia," was rejected, pointed out that two of the panel members had introduced legislation supporting Dean's song two years ago and that one of them had received $1,750 in campaign money in the last 18 months. Dean has denied that he was trying to curry favor.
Campbell enlisted the chief prosecutor in Staunton to take his conflict-of-interest allegation to the state attorney general's office. A deputy attorney general responded that it was up to the General Assembly to investigate the matter.
Despite all the distractions, Hanger says he is having a ball with the process. Some of the songs have been posted on the Internet, and thousands of people are weighing in. Each of the eight finalists has been sent to a Virginia college, where students and faculty will rearrange and produce the song as they see fit and then send it back to the committee, he said.
Although he concedes that Parker is a good songwriter, Hanger can't say as much for Parker's entry. "It just didn't even come close," the lawmaker said.