Al Weed has been doing a lot of thinking.
Since November 2004, when he lost his U.S. Con-gressional bid to Fifth Dis-trict incumbent Virgil Goode, Jr., Weed has been pondering the big question: What’s wrong with the Democrats?
“Politics are not like I thought they were,” says Weed. “Demo-crats think if they just tell people the truth, we’ll win. That’s not true.”
This week, Weed—a Vietnam veteran, Yale graduate and Nelson County winemaker—announced that he will take another shot at Goode’s Congres-sional seat in 2006. While Tim Kaine’s gubernatorial victory over Jerry Kilgore last week has bolstered Dem hopes for a resurgence [see story, page 9], no one thinks it will be easy to unseat Goode, the epitome of political entrenchment.
Weed, however, has ideas. “It’s never too early to get out there when you’re running against an incumbent,” he says. “A year will go by very fast.”
Back on the Virgil Goode Highway
Last year, during Weed’s first campaign for Con-gress, C-VILLE traversed Virginia’s Fifth Con-gressional District to see for ourselves what he was up against.
His first obstacle is geography. The Fifth District is the size of New Jersey, stretching 140 miles from the northern tip of Greene County all the way down to the North Carolina border, where the district is about 150 miles wide. The district includes Char-lottesville—one of the most liberal, affluent pockets of the Commonwealth. Most of the district, however, is rural, conservative, wracked by tough economic times and likely to view Charlottesville as “effete intellectual snobs who won’t build a bypass,” according to John Fisher, a columnist for the Danville Register Bee.
The Fifth District is “an example of the problems of
partisan redistricting,” says Connie Jorgensen, legisla-tive aide to retiring Dem Delegate Mitch Van Yahres,
and who sits on the Fifth District Democratic Committee and teaches political science at Piedmont Virginia Community College. “It was definitely incumbent protection. They were able to negate the Democratic influence of Charlottesville.”
Not only is the Fifth District friendly to conservatives, but Goode has carefully crafted a good ol’ boy image that builds on the district’s reverence for his father, the late Virgil Goode, Sr. Highway 220 (which Weed must drive when he campaigns in the Fifth) is named the “Virgil Goode High-way,” after the Congressman’s father.
Goode, Sr. was a Commonwealth’s Attorney in Franklin County and a legend in southern Virginia politics. Groomed by his daddy, the junior Goode won a seat in the Virginia Senate in 1973 as a Democrat. After go-ing to Congress in 1996, Goode became a Republican in 2002 and cast his lot with the ascendant right-wing. Meanwhile, he’s mastered the art of down-home politics.
“Everywhere you go, people talk about Virgil like he’s their best friend. It’s hard to oust your best friend,” says Shelia Baynes, who sits on the Fifth District Democratic Committee in Danville. “If you ask people what he’s doing, they can’t tell you, but they like him.”
Facetime is the key to politics in southern Virginia, says Baynes, “and Virgil has already beaten Al to it. People here have met Virgil, talked to him. He hands out pencils at the country store. That’s tough to tackle.”
In a culture where most people don’t know the names of any elected official besides the president, Goode’s popularity is considerable. During C-VILLE’s excursion into the Fifth District, we found that everyone from bartenders to tobacco farmers to hotel clerks know “Virgil.” Frustrated Democrats even have a name for his almost mythic popularity—“the Goode mystique.”
Reframing the Goode mystique
In November 2004, Goode smoked Weed by a huge margin—64 percent to 36 percent. Goode even beat Weed on his home turf, winning Nelson County by 458 votes. In fact, the only Weed stronghold in the entire district was our own hippie haven, Charlottesville, where Weed took 71 percent of
In the same election, George W. Bush won by a narrow margin over John Kerry, despite the fact that Bush had spent the previous four years giving tax breaks to the rich, ballooning the deficit and taking the country to war on false pretenses. Republicans also added to their majorities in the House and Senate, and easily passed 11 State ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage.
For Weed, 2004 was a wake-up call.
He believes that the problem for Kerry, and many other Democrats, is that they have approached politics too much like marketing—picking issues like Social Security or prescription drugs, studying which ones sell best across the political spectrum, then running on those issues. The result is that Democrats end up sounding as if they have no moral foundation or overarching beliefs.
“You don’t energize the Democratic base like that, and you don’t convert Republicans,” says Weed.
Democrats across the country have been wringing their hands over Bush’s re-election. Weed, like many others, found refuge in George Lakoff’s recent book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley and progressive political activist, argues that Republicans have dominated recent elections because they understand better than Democrats how language influences politics.
For example, immediately after the Bush inauguration, Republicans started advocating for “tax relief.” Newspaper reporters and even Democrats began repeating the phrase, oblivious to its metaphoric resonance. “Relief,” says Lakoff, implies that taxes are an affliction and the reliever is the hero, while anybody who opposes relief must be a villain.
Lakoff suggests Democrats could reframe the issue by talking about taxes as “paying dues.” When viewed through this frame, taxes are the dues that Americans pay to live in a civilized society with a stable infrastructure. Rabid anti-taxers would appear not as heroes but as cheapskates trying to get something for free at the expense of the country. Lakoff points out that Republicans have been crafting and articulating their frames since the early 1970s, and Democrats must take the same long view if they hope to regain control.
Weed took this to heart when he founded the nonprofit Public Policy Virginia last year. The mission, according to PPV’s website (www.ppvir.org), is to “show the contradictions between the conservative moral structure and Republican governance; to construct and articulate a compelling moral structure, buttressed by both secular and religious philosophy; and to provide focused information on selected issues important to Democrats.”
To compete with Goode’s pencil distribution, Weed plans to rent an apartment in Danville this winter, which he hopes will give him more time to talk with people one-on-one. When he does, Weed says he’s going to talk about “building a strong foundation” in the community.
“Most folks have just been left behind [by conservative policies],” says Weed. Instead of acting like watered-down Republicans, he says, “Democrats need to show strong support for a decent living wage. We need to support unions.”
One of Goode’s favorite tactics is exploiting the Southside’s resentment against illegal Hispanic immigrants. Globalization is an important issue in the Fifth District, where the economy has never recovered from the collapse of the tobacco industry and the relocation of factories to Mexico in the wake of 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement, a Republican initiative. Weed argues that Goode stokes animosity against immigrants without trying to help southern Virginia relieve double-digit unemployment.
On economic issues, Weed says he’s ready to play offense. He will continue pushing the Commonwealth to create a major new research university in Danville that will revitalize that city the way UVA and Virginia Tech invigorate Char-lottesville and Blacksburg. “Globalization and free trade are here to stay,” says Weed. “These are jobs that won’t get exported.”
Weed also wants the Fifth District to cultivate switchgrass, a perennial plant that can be either burned with coal or processed into ethanol to produce cleaner energy. It may sound like a far-out idea now, but if Democrats frame alternative fuels as “energy independence” and stay on message with the same discipline as the GOP, progressive ideas could gain traction even in conservative areas.
“The most important thing is to identify yourself before your opponents do,” says Weed. “There’s opportunity right now, because Republicans are on the defensive.”
Uncertainty in the Fifth
Even as Weed arms himself with frames and talking points for another contest with Goode, he must first win a fight within his own party. Not all Fifth District Democrats want to see Al run.
Danville’s Baynes, for example, believes Goode is “pretty much unbeatable,” and suggests it would be a better for Democrats to wait until Goode retires or seeks another office (Virginia Senator John Warner is soon to retire, and rumor has it Goode wants his seat). In the meantime, money could be better spent on more competitive races.
“I’m not sure if going after [Goode] every year is the best strategy,” says Baynes.
“I know Al is sincere in wanting to help the Southside, and that will make an impression on people,” she says. “But I’m not sure if it’s going to be enough to oust the thinking that Virgil is the good ol’ boy and that they have to vote for him. People in Charlottesville don’t realize that’s how people in my area feel.”
In May, the Fifth District Democratic Committee elected Fred Hudson as their chair. Hudson, who leads the Albemarle County Dems, reportedly sought the position because he wanted Democrats to run a more aggressive campaign against Goode.
“It does not help anything for Mr. Goode to be given a bye when the status of this government is in such question,” says Hudson. Noting that Kaine carried the Fifth District last week, Hudson says that “we have every reason to believe that with the proper message and the proper candidate, we can replace him.”
Weed will have some competition for the candidacy. Bern Ewert, a former city manager in Roanoke and deputy city manager in Charlottesville, also wants to challenge Goode. In May, a convention of about 200 Fifth District Dems will choose their candidate. Hudson says that Southside Dems have a strong volunteer organization in place in the wake of Kaine’s victory, and that bodes well for whoever runs against Goode.
With Democrats smelling blood, Weed says now is no time to play conservative. “I’m not waiting around,” he says. “[Goode] has this idea that he’s a statewide candidate, but I think there’s a lot stronger Republican candidates out there. I’d rather drive on.”
Who is Al Weed?
This week Al Weed announced he would make another bid to oust Republican Virgil Goode, Jr. from his Fifth District seat in the U.S. Congress. Here at C-VILLE, we’re psyched because it means another batch of “Weed for Congress” yard signs. Some Democrats, meanwhile, think Weed has the resumé to win in rural Virginia.—J.B.
Albert C. Weed II
Military Service: 1962-1966, with service in Vietnam. In 2002, Weed retired from the Army Reserve as a Command Sergeant Major, Special Forces. Decorations include Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.
Education: Yale University, graduated 1968; Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, graduated 1970.
Work: Worked for two years at the World Bank, then worked for a year as a private investment banker before founding Mountain Cove Vineyards in Nelson County in 1973.
Family: Wife Sui Ling is a retired UVA nurse. Son Albert III is a general surgeon on active duty in the U.S. Army. Daughter Julie teaches middle school science in Albemarle County.
Religion: Member and Senior Warden, Trinity Episcopal Church, Oak Ridge.