If one approaches Wakefield, Virginia, on the third Wednesday of each April, turns at its stoplight, and heads out to the Ruritan Club, it's apparent that Shad Planking day is no ordinary Wednesday. Miles away, signs lined the roadside yesterday like the highway to Wall Drug in South Dakota: "Support hunting." "& fishing rights?" "Must be." "George Allen." The blue signs with white stenciled letters denoted not a rally, or even a party convention, but the unique event in Virginia politics known as the 58th Annual Shad Planking.
A mix of beer, strange fish, and politics, the Shad Planking is best described as a political picnic, as one attendee put it. Banks, restaurants, state political interest groups, local parties, and candidates set up tents and hand out food, beer, and even cigars in exchange for sticker real estate on T-shirts. The Shad Planking ticket earns attendees a plate of shad, beans, coleslaw, corn bread, and even shad roe for the brave. A live country-rock band plays throughout the afternoon, while politicians mingle with constituents of all ages and backgrounds. Then these pols replace the band on the stage for an hour, and make their speeches.
It wasn't always so. Shad Planking began as an exclusive event of the Wakefield Ruritan Club. (Ruritan Clubs, pronounced "ruhr-tan," are like rural Rotary Clubs.) Scheduled for the day of the General Assembly veto session, state politicians could conclude the morning's business and have a beer in hand by mid-afternoon. Only white males were allowed, but no Republicans were invited to speak. The stage opened up to Republicans in the 1970s. In 1977, then-State Sen. Douglas Wilder, now Richmond mayor and former Virginia governor, became the first black to attend, and a Washington Post reporter became the first woman.
Men or women, black or white, yesterday's Shad Planking was a Republican show. Specifically, a George Allen show. For campaigns, Shad Planking marks the unofficial kickoff of the Virginia political year. Thanks to its odd-year gubernatorial and state legislature elections, every year is a campaign year in Virginia. Shad Planking is a chance to show popular support, stare down the opposition, and perhaps gain some momentum.
SOME CANDIDATES TAKE THE SIGN war bait, some don't. Last year, the major candidates for governor escalated the sign war to absurd heights on the roads leading to the event, Shad Planking veterans said. Jim Webb, President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Navy and now Democratic candidate for Allen's Senate seat, went all out, planting hundreds of wire signs. His opponent for the nomination, Harris Miller, a Washington technology lobbyist and former Fairfax County official, apparently didn't get the memo.
Was Miller throwing off the burdens of Shad Planking? No signs, no visible operation, and no candidate until well into the afternoon. I bumped into an uncomfortable-looking man flanked by a couple young men with gelled hair and correctly guessed that he was the candidate. So why no signs? "I'm a businessman. I don't waste money," Miller said, apparently frustrated to hear that question again. "Everyone here today has made up their mind." Miller said his time would be better spent canvassing voters, so he would be leaving shortly. But lest anyone doubt his enthusiasm, he threw out, "It's a great event. I'm glad to be here."
Sen. George Allen's campaign peppered the roads with a few well-placed large signs, but this candidate needed little introduction. In addition to the blue-shirted army prepared for his arrival, Allen bused in additional troops from Northern Virginia. As he made his way up the dusty drive in boots and belt buckle, crowds gathered for hugs, autographs, handshakes, and slaps on the back. He couldn't move more than a few feet before another well-wisher or plaintiff constituent approached -- making a distance of a few hundred yards take well over an hour to navigate.
And Allen has all the time in the world. He humors a libertarian pushing a national retail tax. He greets old friends from his career in politics, like former lieutenant governor John Hager. He reacts warmly when an older gentleman with a Virginia Cavaliers straw hat introduces himself as J.E.B. Stuart IV. "James Ewell Brown," Allen beams. Stuart reassures him, "Fifth and sixth are on the way." Allen moves a man's campaign sticker to where it's visible and sends him off, "Thank you my friend." He spots a man wearing a bolo tie and tells him, "If you're gonna wear a tie, that's the tie to wear." The man replies, "It proves you're a conservative," and Allen modifies, "And independent minded."
Jim Webb's entourage of about 30 people (a motley crew including long-haired young men and a screaming flower power girl -- not looking like they were "from 'round these parts") passes by. Webb's in the group somewhere, but he goes unnoticed. The mob is focused on Allen.
AS WITH MILLER, YESTERDAY was Webb's first Shad Planking. Near his small outpost tent with a competing bluegrass band, Webb declares his approval. "It's all about the beer," he said. "It's only incidentally political."
George Allen would beg to differ. He's attended the Shad Planking for over 25 years, beginning as a state delegate. A reporter asked if President Bush's unpopularity will hurt his campaign, as fans in blue shirts pressed in on all sides. Virginians want "leaders that are active," he replied. "They've always called it winning the Shad Planking. Looks like we won.... These folks know me.... camaraderie, there's a comfort."
A comfort indeed. Granted, this is a self-selecting crowd. But they're devoted, and some to extraordinary lengths. One young man found the Senator as he departed, handing him a flag he flew over his Marine camp in Hit, in the Anbar province of Iraq. Sgt. Howard Cook, a West Point, Va. police officer in the Roanoke reserve unit, had Allen in mind for the flag while serving in Iraq. "I know he's a big supporter of the troops," he said.
A woman with similar thoughts on her mind offered Sen. Allen a warm hug, like an old friend. During Allen's announcement tour stop in Harrisonburg last week, Rhonda Winfield gave him her son's dog tags. L.Cpl. Jason Redifer, of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, Alpha Company of Camp Lejeune, died January 31, 2005, in Iraq. On his last mission, nine days before he was due home, an IED detonated near his Humvee.
Winfield had last seen her son six months before he was killed. Had anyone suggested she would hand Redifer's dog tags to Sen. Allen, she would have said, "Absolutely not." But as she stood in line to meet him in Harrisonburg, "It dawned on me that he's the epitome of the ideals and beliefs that my son gave his life for." Even as the war looks increasingly precarious, Winfield trusts Allen's decisions and support for the war. "You can't say you believe in it, then change your mind when your family pays the price."
Allen's enthusiasm for Shad Planking seems to derive from his genuine enthusiasm for the people there. And they return it in kind. That, as the football coach's son might say, makes his a tough team to beat.