Former Senator Ken Stolle tells a tale that hints at Virginia Democrats’ lack of savvy. It makes one seriously consider Thelma Drake’s assessment that 2008 was simply the Democrats’ turn. Insiders undeservedly expect deference from and take credit for grassroots efforts. Too many in DPVA circles are all about themselves.
Paul Lanteigne, who had his eyes on the position, approached Republican Stolle some years ago about making the Virginia Beach Sheriff a High Constable. A Sheriff who is also High Constable keeps the money collected during service of process. Other Sheriffs send that money on to State of Virginia. For Virginia Beach that amounts to almost $700,000 a year. Stolle never thought he would be able to get this initiative through the Senate because it was a presented bill and on scrutiny, he figured it would not pass due to the funding aspect. Stolle expected that he would be asked why he was carrying the bill and if his motive was challenged he was unwilling to be less than honest that it was about the money. Once the cat was out of the bag, he knew everyone would want a piece of the action and that would kill this and any future such initiative.
Frank Drew was the Virginia Beach Sheriff at the time. Stolle was the chairman of the Public Safety Subcommittee in the Courts and Justice Committee and as politics works, as a committee chairman carrying a bill, the Senate asks very few questions when a bill is presented. So he took the bill over to the House of Delegates and presented it to the Courts and Justice Committee. Kenny Melvin, a Democratic Delegate from Portsmouth, asked the question Stolle feared” “Ken, why do you want to make Frank Drew the High Constable of Virginia Beach?” Stolle thought, “Well, this is it,” but just as he was about to explain, Delegate Ward Armstrong interrupted the proceedings sarcastically, “He wants to do it because Frank Drew has an ego as big as this damn building!” And Kenny Melvin pivoted off the witty jab with, “No need to say another thing, I forgot about Frank’s ego.” The bill passed out without further scrutiny. Later, upon the realization of the impact, Virginia Beach’s Sheriff was made the last to be so designated.
One of the distinguishing attributes of the DPVA and many of its local committees is a certain disdain for the grassroots; the lack of a welcome mat; the insular attitude. Few of the independent grassroots workers from the Webb ’06 effort or the Obama ’08 steamroller are active members of either today. One of the harder workers in the Hampton Roads region during the Webb campaign, a former Republican and somewhat irascible retired Naval Officer, Zeke Burns passed away months after the election and no one representing any local committee attended his funeral. It was uncomfortable visiting with Ralph Parrott, an early and key Webb grassroots volunteer afterwards. He like many others had traveled a long way to pay his respects but the local committee officials hadn’t made it to the services. Zeke was never part of the club.
It was the Web candidacy then the Obama experience that drew many to active political activity. My initial experience with Virginia Democrats was during the run-up to the 1976 elections and was in Henrico County. That year I experienced the disconnect between the Party and any grassroots; the clubiness. Forty years later, not much had changed and there was an underlying sense that the regulars expected the Webb supporters to fade away after the primary; yes, the primary because Harris Miller was going to be the nominee. But as support for Webb grew, the establishment became uncomfortable. A few of the members of the Central Committee started wondering whether they had wagered on the wrong horse and began to warm to a Webb candidacy. But they suspected a closet Republican behind every new face. There were solid Webb supporters on the Central Committee from the beginning, but most of those had real careers and did not rely on party largesse (aka lobbying and campaign work) for a living.
Jeff Shapiro’s remarks about winning with the winds at our backs resonate. Those winds in 2005 through 2008 were gale force. And despite that, Democrats could not wrest control of the House of Delegates even with successive victorious gubernatorial campaigns setting the stage. During that period, the failure to embrace new supporters and bring them into the fold during the good years did what the establishment wanted: leaving them the “big fish” in a small pond. Then Terry McAuliffe (we’re talking whale force) swam in and the pond got very muddy and eventually bloody. Brian Moran, who accepted credit for the effects of those gale force winds when he should have been reticent, started the mud slinging. Disappointingly, Terry eventually followed suit. In Terry’s shoes, I might have gone nuclear, but that is why I don’t run campaigns or for office and I’d hoped he wouldn’t; he should have consulted Dorothy (a dolphin, of sorts).
“We hit a bump in the road last year and got a bust in the snout. I’ve been around politics long enough to understand that those are cycles” – Dick Cranwell in the Richmond Times Dispatch
During those times, even new Democratic members of the General Assembly found themselves treated as outsiders. Where a fellow like Stolle graciously reached across the aisle to help new members, even Democrats, become oriented, there is little anecdotal evidence that Democratic members were as helpful. A baptism of discovery learning was more the norm; it helped remind each of their neophyte status. Never mind there was work to be done on behalf of a Democratic Governor and precious little time to get on board.
But all of this is to say only: any insider deal to choose a new Party Chair is a formula for maintaining the status quo. That status quo is this: Democrats win when the other guys and gals screw up so badly that the electorate becomes disgusted. Democrats lose in a predictable counter-cycle. Cranwell says as much. That’s not leadership but that is what we are being offered again. Stolle’s vignette reveals that those who consider themselves leaders of the DPVA are not always the most luminous fish in the pond and they tend to surround themselves with even dimmer lights. From the outside, they appear most concerned with feathering their nests and that is why the grassroots have no genuine connection to the DPVA.
Therein lies a problem with Brian Moran, even without the Harris Miller baggage and lack of portfolio since losing the primary (if he were really a force in Democratic politics he’d be making his debut in this chapter at the Virginia Beach Democratic Committee Elephant Roast later today; not with his brother on Wednesday). But Brian, the guy who implied McAuliffe was no more an entrepreneur than he, is a fish whose oxygen supply is Harris Miller. He does, however, have a well-placed brother and some see utility in the cut of his jib. That is not enough to carry the day for the party but enough for whoever is behind this for whatever motive. Shapiro points to Mark Warner. Terry McAuliffe may be able to play well with others, but he has a much broader outlook than most in the grassroots. Moran has a tough row to hoe even with a forgiving McAuliffe. And Brian will end up being very disappointed when he realizes that some of his support for the position is there because it eliminates him as a peer competitor and that his agent will be satisfied just having control over him. Then again, not being a member of the club, maybe there is more to it.