We rebuilt the Democratic Party of Virginia to exist for the benefit of its members and the citizens of this commonwealth. Does it still?
Since the modern era of Virginia political history began — in 1969 when two-party competition first started — Virginia Democrats have ended statewide electoral draughts before. As a matter of fact, in 1981 we ended a statewide gubernatorial draught by electing all three statewide offices, not just the offices of governor and lieutenant governor. That was the first of three statewide sweeps by the Democratic Party, of which I was fortunate to be a part of two.
Chuck Robb was the galvanizing force in bringing disparate groups and entities together in 1981 to end the 1970s dry spell. During a time when it was not so obvious, Robb showed Virginia Democrats they could have the opportunity to come to the table and experiment with participatory democracy in Virginia for the first time. I like to call this broad and diverse coalition the unity of variety and abundance.
Educators, labor and minority voters were free to form their own constituent groups within the coalition — fiercely independent of each other, but bound by the thread of necessity of coalition for the greater good. No group was above the other, and elected officials were not looked upon as a super category. Community leaders and activist within the coalition were accorded equal seats at the table.
None of that happened in isolation. We had great electoral successes in the 1980s, some setbacks in the 1990s, and resurgence in the 2000’s, but all of those victories were rooted in the party-building efforts that took place largely in the 1970s — following the passage of the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s.
Before the Voting Rights Act, the voting populace of Virginia was so small one observer of southern politics said this commonwealth made the notoriously voter-hostile Mississippi look like a hotbed of democracy. After the passage of the VRA, voters with darker faces and those without family wealth and prestige dating back to 1619 started to cast ballots in larger numbers.
Initially, that inured to the benefit of Republicans like Linwood Holton, elected governor in 1969. Holton absorbed votes from minorities, the poor, conservatives, moderates, and liberals — across the spectrum. That happened because many Virginians wanted to put an end to the conservative Byrd Democratic Organization that had long run the commonwealth by making sure no one but its “chosen few” had a voice in state government.
What followed during the 1970s was about a decade of the Democratic Party of Virginia slowly rebuilding itself from the ground up. This had to be done because the party was shedding the ultra-conservative Byrd elements that once had held all the levers of power, “from the court house to the White House,” but who by then were flirting with the Republican Party — many of those in the Byrd camp began to outright join the GOP, including a former Democratic governor.
How did we get to the point where we followed a decade of Republican governors in the 1970s with a 12-year period of Democratic electoral sweeps? It wasn’t easy or quick — as the poll results of the 1970s will attest. But it was smart. It involved old-fashioned grassroots organizing on just about a precinct-by-precinct level. Almost one voter at a time, we constructed a mainstream political coalition that appealed directly to the majority of Virginia’s voters. Strong voter-registration groups and organizations were
functioning in all areas of the state, and many people prominently associated with the Democratic Party were among their ranks.
That Democratic coalition was not built on personalities — though we had many a strong personality involved — and it was not built on the wealth of rich candidates constructing personal political organizations by pouring money into electoral campaigns.
No, instead the coalition was built upon ideas and issues. It was built by articulating a vision of where Virginia needed to be in the future. It was built by appealing to the moderate middle. It was built by the people for the people — not by and for any one candidate, governor, or president.
I started the “Black Democratic Caucus of Virginia” during that time and served as its first chairman until 1985, when I assumed the office of lieutenant governor. It was a most dynamic and influential group of individuals — comprised of elected officials, community leaders and the heads of organizations. The group had membership from around the commonwealth. It has been confused with the Legislative Black Caucus. That might be attributed, in some manner, to my also being the first Chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. Little, if anything, is heard of the statewide “Democratic Black Caucus” anymore. That does not benefit the Democratic Party of Virginia.
So now in 2011 — when the party has been swept out of power in dramatic fashion — the Democrats must again engage in an era of grassroots party-building to reinvigorate who we are and what we will be. How is that being done? Who is taking a lead and looking after the long-term interests of the party and its people, as opposed to specific candidates who do little but take advantage of the party-line on ballots? What is the plan for the Democratic Party’s next decade and beyond?
I find it unfortunate to say: It is not obvious.
There is an odd lack of organization at the Democratic Party of Virginia. I talk to Democrats — good Democrats — who have had no conversations with the party leadership in recent memory, and are not consulted in the process that chooses the leadership.
Why would that be the case? It might be suggested that today’s incarnation of the Democratic Party of Virginia is built for those who stand as statewide and national candidates, at the expense of its rank-in-file members and the ordinary voters of Virginia.
When a gubernatorial-primary candidate brought one of his campaign aides to my office during the 2009 election cycle, he noted that the gentleman was a former executive director of the Democratic Party of Virginia. I am an engaged political observer and participant, not to mention a former Democratic elected official. I had never heard that campaign aide’s name before nor had any occasion to converse with him privately or publicly
It is not a good thing when those actively involved in the political process have no idea who the executive director of the Democratic party formerly was, and cannot name a single thing that person did when he had the post.
I don’t say that because I think the leaders of the Democratic Party need to be beating down my door. To the contrary, I had hoped and still think that the vacuum can be filled with renewed commitment of new leadership. But as a former governor of Virginia who won several offices as a Democrat, on a continuous basis I run into people who want me to pass along their information. Those running the Democratic Party of Virginia don’t make it easy to know whom to direct these young, ambitious, and talented potential leaders.
Why have the leaders of today’s Democratic Party of Virginia not reached out to those who rebuilt it in the 1970s into a dynamic, unprecedented winner in the 1980s? There are people who know how to do these things. None of them look for, want, nor need recognition or favor, but rather an acknowledgment of what was, what is, and what needs to be.
Today’s Democratic leaders seem to have determined either: (1.) They don’t need that knowledge; or (2.) they have a different methodology for success. I can tell you, neither seems to be the case.
Young people on college campuses are crying out for help and support in organizing efforts. The usual throngs of people at public gatherings, and “Acres of Democrats” have seriously been reduced in size and energy. Instead we have bluster, bark and empty challenges and promises that reduce themselves to more of the same.
One elected Democrat said of my non-endorsement in the 1997 gubernatorial race that it was of “marginal importance these days.” That year’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate lost. I repeated that stance in the 2009 election in not endorsing the Democratic candidate for governor. He, too, lost.
Yet, this is not about me, but about objective analysis. And it brings no real comfort to me to be able to say, “I told you so,” when hopes and dreams for the Democratic Party of Virginia don’t materialize.
Who knows? It just might wake up. For the party’s sake and for Obama’s re-election chances, I hope so.