According to a 53-year-old tradition the Shad Planking, sponsored by the Wakefield Ruritan Club, is held on the third Wednesday of April. The event's roots go back to the early '30s, when only a certain breed of cat was invited. Today it's an open-to-the-public outdoor throwdown featuring ample libation and regional taste treats aplenty. But it is politics, undiluted statewide politics, that draws the crowd each year to the Loblolly pines of Wakefield, Va., the self-proclaimed peanut capital of the world.
Although the scheduled speechmakers are always politicians, 2001 marked a Shad Planking first, in that active gubernatorial candidates were at the top of the speaker's card at the Wakefield Sportsman Club.
Thus, when they weren't perched on the flatbed dais provided for honored guests and speakers between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Democrat nominee-in-waiting Mark Warner and his two Republican rivals, Lt. Gov. John Hager and Attorney Gen. Mark Earley, worked the rustic soiree with their campaign-sign-holding entourages at their backs every step of the way. Wherever the trio of hopefuls wandered among the many booths and displays, the same strategy was evident: Every potential photographic vignette had to be filled to the edge of the frame with the team colors. An invisible yet pervasive aspect of the occasion was the unprecedented backdrop of the much-reported budget stalemate that has Gov. Jim Gilmore at odds with legislators of his own party, most notably Sen. John Chichester of Stafford. News of the twists and turnings of the day at the General Assembly session rippled through the crowd of 3,000-plus during the seasonally cool, partially cloudy afternoon.
Sustenance and Sauce
With the price of admission, $14 in advance or $16 at the gate, one could eat and drink to his heart's content. Peanuts in bushel baskets, flavored this way and that, were easy to find. Crab cakes were available at one booth; cups of Jack Daniels were poured from a tailgate setup. Dressed with a squirt of Dr. Nettles' Secret Shad Plank Sauce, the same peppery slather that's brushed onto to the Shad as it's smoked on oak planks, deep-fried shad roe whetted the tongue perfectly for a taste of cold beer. Open taps on beer trucks were provided by the campaigns of several candidates. For what it's worth, Forbes offered the Coors line, Kilgore made his statement with Miller brands, and Hager, Warner and Diamondstein chose Bud. In a contrast of styles, the Earley booth offered hot coffee.
Candidate Warner, the Northern Virginia venture capitalist, also provided the party with a portion of its musical fare: the Blue Grass Brothers, featuring on vocals former congressman Ben Jones, who may be best known for his television work as Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Between tunes, one of which was a semi-rousing campaign song for Warner, Jones japed that he was an "independent Democrat." Then, with the timing of a seasoned pro, the country crooner claimed former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, of Georgia, liked to say "I was as independent as a hog on ice."
About 2:45 p.m., the event's staff, more than 200 volunteers participated in some way, began to dole out plates of smoked shad, fried trout, coleslaw and corn muffins to the long lines of party-goers.
Politics in the Air
As he autographed a souvenir Shad Planking baseball cap for an admirer, John Hager mentioned he'd missed only two Shad Plankings in the last 22 years. From my vantage point, of the three men seeking to occupy the Governor's Mansion, Hager seemed the most at ease with the opportunity to chat off-the-cuff in a social setting.
Asked for his opinion on the imbroglio over tax-cut percentage points, Mark Warner was eager to offer some advice, "You don't negotiate with press releases. Everybody's got these intractable positions, and nobody can budge."
On the now-familiar 55 percent vs. 70 percent topic, Mark Earley said, "I think a lot of them [Democrats] don't want a budget because they want an issue for this fall."
However, it was U.S. Sen. George Allen who had the most interesting comment on the subject. As he dealt with my question, "How can the eventual GOP gubernatorial candidate turn the negatives of the car tax phase-out problem into a plus for him in the fall campaign?" Allen seemed to open the door to the notion that the time is nigh for Gilmore to find a way to cut a deal.
"I'm not the one negotiating and drawing lines in the sand, and all of that," Allen said, boot-scooting through the minefield carefully.
"In your mind, could there be a number other than 70 percent?" I pressed.
"There are ways it can be finessed, if people will negotiate in good faith with one another," he replied good-naturedly.
As the Shadows Lengthened
By 6 p.m., more than half of the attendees had had their fill and made their way to the parking area. Since I bailed out about that time, I can't say when the last of the diehards left the party.
However, it's not every day that one can have one-on-one conversations with so many active candidates, office-holders and operatives of both major parties. Also at the gathering were U.S. Sen. John Warner, former-Gov. Gerald Baliles, former-U.S. Sen. Paul Trible, Richmond Mayor Tim Kaine, and many other current and former elected officials.
I can't help but think it would be a better world if there were more happenings like the Shad Planking, where politicians of all stripes are so accessible.
Bottom Line: In spite of the considerable difficulty of negotiating one's way around the countless tiny bones in a shad, I have to give the affair itself an enthusiastic two thumbs up. George Allen will be the speaker for the 54th Shad Planking.