n the spring, the scene was the Shad Planking--an old-time political fish fry in the piney woods of Southside Virginia. It was this audience of beer-drinking good ol' boys that Gov. Charles S. Robb lectured about the plight of unemployed black teen-agers in Richmond's East End.
In November, the scene was The Commonwealth Club--the all-white male bastion here where the walls are decorated with oil portraits of Confederate war heroes.
At a members-only luncheon, Robb urged the club to open up its doors and change its policies "so it wouldn't become a big issue every time I accept an invitation to speak here."
While hardly revolutionary, in tradition-bound Virginia these and other acts have signaled a changed tone emanating from the Democratic governor that is probably the most striking feature of Robb's first year in office. A cautious executive not otherwise known for dramatic flair, Robb has fostered a new mood in Virginia race relations, while catering to the black political constituency that helped elect him.
"The people who go to the Shad Planking are in large part the movers and shakers of the business community, a lot of Main Street is represented," Robb said during an hour-long interview in his office last week. "And to give them a message I didn't think they heard in many cases seemed to me to be important."
"I am obviously a fiscal conservative, yet on the issue of race I have consistently advocated a position that is in my judgment far more responsible," said Robb. "I am not standing in judgment of any of the decisions that have been made in the past or the individuals that have made those decisions . . . , [but] I am going to continue to exercise my option to provide leadership in this area."
It is leadership that, in many respects, stands in contrast to the status-quo nature of the rest of Robb's inaugural year.
Buffeted by a $305 million budget shortfall that will force him to announce this week sweeping cutbacks in state spending, the governor so far has reworked versions of old initiatives--reducing government regulations, for example--that were already begun by his Republican predecessors, many state legislators and political leaders say.
"He's a nice guy, an honest guy, but he's not likely to to do anything radical or go off into uncharted waters," says state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria). "He's performed much more in line with what I would have expected from a Republican governor."
While Robb's moves to expedite the state's first execution in 20 years brought him stinging criticism from civil liberties groups, his early efforts to cope with the recession-induced revenue shortage--such as a statewide hiring freeze and cutting agency budgets by 5 percent--won him praise from the financial community. He has, moreover, been careful not to offend his conservative friends in the business community, such as the state's coal barons who pumped more than $300,000 into his 1981 campaign coffers.
"Definitely, nothing has changed in Virginia," says Mark Squillace, a lawyer with the Environmental Policy Center, which has long been squabbling with the state over enforcement of the federal strip-mining law.
"The state still doesn't enforce the law and they let the operators get away with anything . . . . The only thing I can say about the Robb administration is that they're open and willing to talk to us."
Yet in the area of race, the presence of Lyndon B. Johnson's son-in-law in Virginia's Executive Mansion has made a mark in a state where the legacy of racial segregation still runs deep. By speaking out at conservative forums like the Shad Planking and The Commonwealth Club, by sending his three daughters to integrated public schools, by abolishing state tax exemptions for segregated academies and by naming an unusually large number of blacks to top-ranking state jobs, Robb has attempted to "raise the consciousness" of the state's conservative power structure, one of his aides says.
"Robb has presented himself as an 'I want to do something about Virginia's legacy,' kind of governor," says Jack Gravely, executive director of state NAACP. "I honestly feel that he's broken new ground. He's been placing blacks in places they've never been before. You can't jump up and down and get elated and forget about the legislature and other forces, but there's a controlled trust about what his intentions are."
They are intentions at least partly shaped by politics. Robb was elected governor largely thanks to an estimated 96 percent plurality of Virginia's black vote. And while paying off his political debts to black leaders, Robb also has enhanced his national stature as one of a handful of southern Democratic moderates who could be plucked for the party's 1984 national ticket--in his case, the vice presidency. (Robb insists he is not interested in the office, but he spent most of last summer on out-of-state campaign trips and declines to make a Shermanesque disavowal)
Yet in his appointments of minorities, some say Robb has gone beyond the call of political duty. Laurie Naismith, secretary of commonwealth who was charged with screening candidates to fill 1,307 appointments to state boards and commissions, says Robb named 301 women and 175 blacks during his first year. The latter figure--which doesn't include the one black cabinet secretary and six black state agency directors Robb appointed--is "absolutely" a record for a Virginia governor, Naismith says.
Some of those appointments were watersheds. In the past, says the NAACP's Gravely, black appointments in Virginia were concentrated in a handful of "safe" social service areas. "Gov. Dalton would appoint 10 blacks, but, hell, they'd all be to the health boards or EEOC Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ," Gravely said.
Robb has undoubtably broken the mold, naming blacks to previously all-white agencies ranging from the State Elections Board to the Alcoholic Beverages Commission. He installed a black legal aid lawyer from Hampton to chair a new black-majority Parole Board--a move that startled lawyers in Virginia's criminal justice system. His naming of Azie Taylor Morton, the U.S. treasurer under President Carter, as commissioner of labor and industry, one of the top regulatory posts in state government, stunned members of the state's conservative business establishment.
"Look at Azie Morton," says Betty Diener, Robb's secretary of commerce. "A black female from Texas with a labor background--add that up and, My God!"
While the racial and sexual makeup of state government has been transformed, there have been few changes in state policies. Indeed, many of the governor's critics say the most distinctive themes of his tenure have been a penchant for secrecy and an addiction to political caution on any issue that even hints of controversy.
"There's an unwillingness or inablity to take positions on issues that are important enough for people," says Wyatt B. Durrette, a former Fairfax County Republican legislator interested in running for Robb's job in 1985. "If you don't take a position on a coal slurry pipeline or on uranium mining, you're not going to get criticized . . . . I don't see that Robb is charting any course."
Robb, a stiff, upright former Marine officer, sees matters differently. There have been "fundamental" changes in the direction of government, he said last week, citing several advisory panels he has created, such as a commission on the future of Virginia and task forces on science and technology and regulatory reform.
"We have been able to put in place the mechanisms that are going to permit us to propose . . . what I consider to be the principal structural changes that are going to be necessary to allow us to have a realistic opportunity to deal effectively with the future," he said.
Whatever Robb has in mind for the future, his legislative proposals to date have been limited. He recently unveiled a hard-line, anticrime package, large parts of which have already been declared dead by House Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry). On regulatory reform, which Robb has put toward the top of his agenda, his administration's package this session appears less than ground-breaking. There will be proposals to eliminate outdated regulations on wood charcoal and canned pet foods and a proposal to transfer and merge several state boards dealing with drug counselors, social workers and psychologists.
Robb, restricted by state constitution to one four-year term, promises more sweeping changes in the sessions ahead, but says this year he doesn't want to "unnecessarily clutter" the legislature with bills that might distract from the state's budget woes.
"Everybody has their own style," says Robb. "I like to say mine tends to be evolutionary, not revolutionary."