The whispers started months ago. And now, with Virginia's political campaign season under way in earnest, they're getting louder. It's about those Democrats, and what may be happening to the party as it puts together a ticket for Campaign '85.
At the top, for governor, is the current attorney general, Gerald L. Baliles, whose contest against the lieutenant governor, Richard J. Davis, was threatening to split the party until Davis bowed out on Friday to become state party chairman. Party leaders who have relished the Charles Robb years of Democratic control in Richmond are delighted at this arrangement, which should turn the June convention into a ratification love feast.
Yet some of these very same party faithful who were praying hardest for peace at the top of the ticket quietly wish that the selections of nominees for the other two spots -- the offices now held by Davis and Baliles -- weren't quite so cut-and-dried already. Barring some unforeseen surprises, the balance of the ticket will be State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder for lieutenant governor and House of Delegates member Mary Sue Terry for attorney general -- and therein lies a brand new test of party and voter attitudes around the Old Dominion.
It isn't that these candidates aren't "qualified" for the jobs they seek. On the contrary, each has been at the center of Virginia politics and government -- in leadership roles -- for years. And each has pledged to support the party ticket that emerges. So what is worrying the whisperers?
This ticket would bring together -- all at once in the traditionally white man's world of Virginia politics -- a black man and a white woman. This, the whisperers advise, is a combinan that could well spell defeat for the Democratic Party, from the top of its ticket down to who-knows-how-many seats in the state legislature.
Allow that to happen, they say, and so much for any capitalizing on the Democratic sweep of four years ago, when Robb became the first Democrat to win the governorship in 16 years and Davis and Baliles captured the two other offices.
But is it really a sure thing that the mere presence of "a black" and "a woman" on the ticket will kill it?
Neither Wilder nor Terry is about to concede this -- obviously. In separate interviews, each was quick to emphasize that the idea isn't to stage a party exercise in quota systems or a demonstration of kamikaze politics. Each happens to feel ready for a statewide run this year, and that is coincidence.
More important, were Wilder and Terry white males with their same qualifications, cheers would replace those whispers. Each does claim diverse support around the state that, if it ever coalesced, might propel the whole ticket to Richmond in a walk. If voters look closely, they will see more than the stereotypes. Wilder is a political insider, and enjoys respect among legislative colleagues who don't mind calling themselves conservatives. Terry is even stronger in these circles, and long has had close ties to statehouse insiders -- most notably House Speaker A. L. Philpott. She is a lawyer/legislator whose experience, style and politics are markedly different from those of two women candidates who were not popular in Virginia last year: Geraldine Ferraro and U.S. Senate candidate Edythe C. Harrison.
Terry's background is rural. She was born and raised in the "crossroads community" of Critz, in Patrick County. "My parents were two of the 10 teachers in the high school. There were only 36 in my graduating class. Only a handful of us ever had the opportunity to go on to college."
She went to law school at the University of Virginia (same class as Robb), to a job as an assistant commonwealth's attorney and civil practice, and to a seat in the House of Delegates, with service on four major committees. She is perhaps best known around the state for her work in strengthening Virginia drunk-driving laws and pushing for assistance to victims and witnesses of crimes.
"I am an attorney who happens to be a woman, a legislator who happens to be woman," Terry says.
Wilder shares a faith in Virginia voters' ability to look at candidates' qualifications rather than their sex or race. "I would imagine Miss Terry is saying 'I'm running' because she feels it is time for her to run. In my instance, after having served 15 years, after having received the plaudits of my peers, after having been rated as being one of the top or influential legislators in the assembly, I don't know what would stop me from running. For me to accept the badge of inferiority because of some predetermined classification wouldn't make me a man.
"If Virginians are really given the opportunity, then they may surprise some people. I refuse to believe that I talk to that many prejudiced people on a daily basis. I have lived here all my life, and I have always gotten along with all people. I refuse to believe that people I get along with are such hypocrites that they would say these things to me -- to my face -- that they would work with me, deal with me, be my neighbors and then say, 'Okay, wait a minute, I forgot, he's black.' I represent a district that is the seat of the economic interest in Virginia, not just in Richmond. I represent Main Street."
Neither Wilder nor Terry is worried about the composition of the ticket. Terry says the issue is continuity under the Democrats. "I'm satisfied that the party will nominate and support a ticket that can run well and carry Virginia so that we can continue to build on the type of strong foundation that the Robb-Davis-Baliles team has put together over the last four years."
This, and not sex or race, is a proper question for Virginians to consider and answer in November.