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In Virginia, Politicians Fish For Support At Old-Fashioned Event

At a time when new technologies and social media are transforming politics, we turn to a decidedly old-fashioned campaign event. It's an annual festival known as the Shad Planking, a spring rite of Virginia politics for nearly 70 years.

It's a must-attend event for state politicians, who practice the oldest form of retail politicking among tall pine trees at a dusty campsite.

In Wakefield, about an hour southeast of Virginia's capital of Richmond, shad fish have been roasting by on an open fire since 5 a.m. They're nailed to oak planks.

Former Sen. George Allen (center) greets attendees at the 64th annual Wakefield Shad Planking in Wakefield, Va., in April 2012. This year's Shad Planking featured Democratic Sen. Mark Warner as the speaker.
Steve Helber / AP
Former Sen. George Allen (center) greets attendees at the 64th annual Wakefield Shad Planking in Wakefield, Va., in April 2012. This year's Shad Planking featured Democratic Sen. Mark Warner as the speaker.

By early afternoon, these oily, bony fish, which are now seared onto the plank, need to be scraped off, chopped and served to the hundreds gathering here for the annual event.

At the entrance, Hank Pedigo greets attendees as he collects tickets. He's a one-man welcome wagon.

"Welcome everyone, tear your yellow ticket down the middle, hand your map in right up here on the right hand side. Thanks for coming," he says.

The Shad Planking is the premier occasion on the commonwealth's political calendar. And if you are a candidate you'd better show up, according to Pete Snyder, who ran for lieutenant governor last year.

He didn't win, but he's back this time for the sheer fun of it. Even in a big state like Virginia, he says, there's an intimacy to its politics.

"Virginia is a large state geographically, but it's a small state in political circles. And here you get to see all the candidates up close and personal, where you get to squeeze the Charmin of these candidates, put them on the spot and see what they think about issues," Snyder says.

Virginia isn't the only place where you'll find a big, old-timey event like this.

Iowa has the Harkin Steak Fry. Arkansas has the Gillett Coon Supper. Florida has the Wausau Possum Festival. Kentucky has the Fancy Farm Picnic.

But Snyder said the Shad Planking — held in the backwoods of Southside Virginia — is a timeless event that captures the essence of retail politics.

"It's a throwback to a bygone era when people have a beer, get to talk up close and personal, you don't need the filter of cable news to get to know your candidates," he says.

And what better way to get to know a candidate than over a cold brew? Even better if the candidate serves it to you free.

Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, was handing out beers while answering questions about energy policy and jobs and Obamacare. He's the likely GOP nominee for U.S. Senate this year.

Gillespie's opponent is the event's featured speaker — incumbent Sen. Mark Warner, who struck a light note with this Republican-leaning crowd.

"Looking at this crowd, I realize I'm here as an endangered species — a Virginia Democrat. Looking around the crowd, that's kind of like Republican women here as well — not many of either of us," Warner said.

This kind of good-natured rhetoric and the neighborly atmosphere won over Dee Hoy, a first-time shad planker.

Hoy admitted she wasn't a fan of the taste of shad.

Sitting in a camping chair with a bluegrass band — aptly named "Common Ground" — playing in the background, Hoy said she'll be back next year.

"I enjoyed it. I loved the music and the speakers were great. It was a good time. A very good time," she said.

It's a promising start to Virginia's campaign season.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.