Has the Valley become a political battleground?

Story by Chris Graham

If you believe what you read in the papers and the blogs, George Allen got run out of Staunton last month – and by local Democrats, no less.

The facts in the story about the Republican senator’s decision to cancel a scheduled Aug. 25 appearance in downtown Staunton are, of course, more complicated than just that.

But there is no spinning this – Democrats are making themselves seen and heard more across the Shenandoah Valley this year than maybe at any time in the past decade.

“Something’s happening in the Valley that I haven’t seen before in my 10 to 15 years of involvement in this – but I don’t know what it is. I was just talking to another local Democrat about this today, and neither of us quite know what it is that we’re seeing taking place,” Dave Wiens, a Harrisonburg Democrat and former chair of the city’s Democratic Party committee, told The Augusta Free Press.

Augusta County Democratic Party chairman Tom Long has an idea as to what might be going on.

“I think a lot of Democrats are feeling like, in some respects, we’re on the wrong path – and we want to make it right. And the way to do that responsibly in our system is to get involved politically – whether it be through a party, as we are, or through interest groups, which are a little more narrowly focused on an issue. I think that’s really the driving force,” Long said.

Another factor in the Dems’ local resurgence, according to Long, has to do with the changing demographics of the Valley.

“We’re getting people here of different skin colors, of different religious backgrounds, people who are coming from different parts of the U.S. and have different attitudes and opinions on a variety of issues. And some of those people are coming our way,” Long said.

The newcomers are bringing new life to the local Democratic Party, to hear Long tell it.

“It’s an interesting mix of old and new. We don’t agree on every issue. We have our differences – but I think we do agree fundamentally that some of the directions that the country is going in at the moment are not in the best interest, that they’re not what we believe America is all about,” Long told the AFP.

Augusta County Republican Party chairman Kurt Michael, for one, isn’t surprised to hear that the newcomers that Long talks about as injecting new life into the party are clashing with old-line local Democrats – given the role that he sees the liberal activist group MoveOn playing in the rebirth of the local party.

“What we’re seeing is MoveOn.org is playing a big role in the local Democratic Party – and MoveOn.org tactics do not work in the Valley. Dressing up like a banana and a monkey and walking the streets of Staunton, for example, is not something that will go over well here in Augusta County,” Michael said, referring to the scene at the event in Staunton that was to feature Sen. Allen last month, for which two local Democrats dressed up as a banana and monkey to draw attention to an incident at a rally in Southwest Virginia in which Allen called a staffer for Democratic Party Senate nominee Jim Webb by a nickname that is a racial slur.

“I’m not happy that the MoveOn.org people are moving into the Valley. They’re changing the nature of how politics have been done here historically. It’s been civil, pretty much – and now we’re starting to see a little bit of Northern nastiness coming down into the Valley. I hope Tom Long talks to some of these people and tells them that what they’re doing is not at all appropriate,” Michael told the AFP.

Conservative blogger Steve Kijak, for his part, is among those actively welcoming the challenge that Democrats appear to be ready to bring to the local political scene.

“Competition is a good thing – so I say, Bring it on,” said Kijak, an Augusta County Republican who maintains the RightsideVA Web log.

“I tell you what – with what we’re seeing from the other side, we’re not going to get complacent. We’re not going to just say, Well, we’re going to win this race easy, so we don’t need to do that much. That’s what I think we need to focus on – and this is going to help us maintain that focus,” Kijak told the AFP.

Harrisonburg Republican Party chair John Elledge, for the record, thinks talk of a Valley Democratic resurgence is old news.

“I was getting more and more concerned about Democrat candidates picking up local offices – but whatever early successes they had seem to have run away,” said Elledge, noting, among other things, the much-publicized efforts of local Democrats to run candidates for a slew of Valley seats in the Virginia House of Delegates in the 2005, all of which came up well short.

“I think the fear of the past couple of years that perhaps the Democrats were making inroads that we were uncomfortable with has kind of invigorated us. Fortunately, we think that was a false alarm – but reinvigoration is a great thing,” Elledge told the AFP.

Staunton Democrat and MoveOn organizer Lee Godfrey wouldn’t mind it if local Republicans continued to look at local politics through that narrow lens.

“When I’m out talking to people about the Senate race or health issues or whatever issue it happens to be, I am finding that there are quite a few people who are telling me that they’re Republicans, and they say that they’re just not happy with what’s happening, and they’re planning to vote Democratic in the fall. Now, they don’t say it terribly loudly – but they will engage in conversation. And some of them, while they won’t say that they’re going to vote for Jim Webb, they’ll say, I’m going to give him a look,” Godfrey told the AFP.

“I think people in general are really disturbed by the direction this country is taking – and I think a lot of people are starting to feel the effects of high gas prices on their pocketbooks and the effects of the real-estate market starting to slump and that sort of thing, and they want to express that. If Republicans don’t want to take that seriously, then it’s their loss,” Godfrey said.

(Originally published 09-04-06)

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