Opinion: Primary elections take shape, with McAuliffe at the fore

Gordon C. Morse, The Virginian-Pilot
·4 min read

Wonderful word, “mishmash.” A hodgepodge, right? A jumble. A muddle. Perhaps, even, a pastiche.

All would roughly capture the current state of Virginia politics and the evolving campaigns for state office this year. Many, many people are running for one thing or another, and occasionally, upliftingly, you even encounter someone roughly qualified for the office they seek.

A quick non-commercial commercial: You can vote. Now. At least, you can in the Democratic Party primary and I promised some kindly poll workers I would underscore that fact.

Other folks like them — friendly, caring, generous of democratic spirit — await your appearance.

You get a “I Voted” sticker for free, just like following a vaccine shot, which appeals to me enormously, because why should uniformed military personal be the only ones to display their accomplishments on their chest?

So, go vote, and be grateful Virginia has this work steered in the right direction, meaning in favor of opening the franchise rather than limiting access to it. It wasn’t always so.

A favorite story on this subject comes out of a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, published almost 40 years ago, about voting efforts in Hopewell.

The Rev. Curtis Harris, a Surry County native and veteran of civil rights battles in central Virginia, ran for Hopewell City Council six times over a 16-year period, from 1962 to 1980, but never successfully.

Harris was a tenacious soul (an understatement) and in the 1978 and 1980 council contests, he polled more total votes in the two Hopewell precincts with significant Black populations than any other candidate on the ballot.

But it was never enough and little wonder why. There were no voting places in the Black community and polling for one precinct took place in the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall.

“It’s like having the polls at a country club,” Harris said, who eventually did make it onto Hopewell City Council, in 1986, and 14 years later became the city’s first Black mayor.

Harris just would not give up and that’s often what it took back then. Courage was a prerequisite for progress. Yes, recent advances in voter access have moved Virginia forward, but the great struggles occurred years ago and homage ought to be rightfully paid.

Does that sometimes fail to happen, in the exuberance of the present era? You betcha. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Petersburg no less than a half dozen times, to work with Harris, and help clear the path that others now stroll upon.

But you can say this: At no time in the past has Black political leadership in Virginia exhibited more sophistication and discipline. You can see it in Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for governor.

Set aside your feelings toward McAuliffe, plus or minus, and just recognize that when it comes the art and science of politicking, the man is putting on a master class. McAuliffe faces three Black opponents for the Democratic nomination and all indicators say he’s running away with it.

How’s he doing that? With prominent Black support and don’t think for a second that was automatic, McAuliffe’s previous tenure in the governor’s office notwithstanding.

All successful democratic politics involves coalition-building and maintenance. Should you imagine this to be simple labor, try it sometime. You may get the pieces pulled together, but some weird political physics always works to send them skittering apart.

Which is to say that getting the door open to voting is one thing, getting enough people to walk through that door it is a second thing and the constant dogged effort to hold them together once there is the vital, essential third thing.

McAuliffe is getting it done and, so, take notes. What you’re seeing is a true American politician, operating at the top of his game.

Meanwhile, bless ‘em, Virginia Republicans say they have 53,524 delegates registered to participate in Saturday’s multi-venue, nominating convention. That’s impressive by itself, assuming it produces competitive candidates.

One of the GOP candidates for governor, Glenn Youngkin, wonders whether this was the way to go. “Shouldn’t we have 300,000 people participating in this next choice, not 50,000?,” Youngkin told a reporter, measuring the difference between a primary and a convention.

It’s a fair question, but what immediately follows the GOP convention will truly shape the party’s fortunes in November — and we’ll know very quickly. Shyness has never been a Republican characteristic.

Without many smiling Republican faces and much clutching together, they will be sore-pressed to handle McAuliffe’s textbook operation.

After writing editorials for the Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co., the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is gordonmorse@msn.com.