How not to unseat Virgil Goode: The Hummer story.

There are plenty of reasons why Rep. Virgil Goode should be replaced with a Democrat. Not one of those is the fact that he was recently in a parade in which somebody else was driving a Hummer.

It’s been frustrating to watch this story make the rounds of Democratic blogs during the past few weeks. That story, in a nutshell, is that Goode was riding in a Hummer at the Scottsville Independence Day parade last month. It made it to The Daily Show a few days ago:

The trouble here is that it’s not Virgil Goode’s Hummer. He doesn’t own it. He didn’t drive it. He didn’t ride in it. He had nothing to do with it, other than that its owner lent it to a friend to drive in the parade, with signs mounted on it supporting Del. Rob Bell, my delegate, and Rep. Virgil Goode, my representative. Hummer owner Chris Fairchild told his story on Coy Barefoot’s show the other day. (By way of disclosure, Chris is a member of the 2008 class of the Sorensen Institute Political Leaders Program, of which I’m a graduate. His son was in this summer’s Sorensen College Leaders Program; I spoke to his group about blogging and politics.) Goode, no dope, knows that politicians mustn’t ride in parades, but walk all the way, shaking hands and offering greetings.

Given the amount of time and energy that I’ve expended to get Virgil Goode out of office over the past seven years, I’m not thrilled to have to write a defense of him. But, as I said, there are plenty of reasons why Goode should be replaced with his challenger, Tom Perriello. Here are the first few that come to mind:

  • What’s he done for the district? Looking at the bills that he’s introduced it’s clear that the answer is “damned little.” He’s introduced, by my count, just one bill in the past year and a half that would have any positive impact, but he’s done nothing but introduce it—no legwork to actually get it passed—so it’s been without action for fifteen months. The district’s economic situation is only getting worse. The man can’t be expected to lift the whole area up on his back, but it’s fair to expect him to do something other than shake hands and brag about how little time that he spends in Washington. It must be noted that he left the Democratic Party in exchange for a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee; I have to wonder if any member of that committee has done less benefit for their district than he.
  • His racism and xenophobia are an embarrassment to the district. Objecting to Mexican restaurants displaying the Mexican flag? Really? His hateful, bigoted comments about his colleague, Rep. Ralph Ellison, served only to make him look foolish. A very real part of the process by which people decide where to start or move businesses (some analyses say the biggest consideration) is based on where they want to live. By associating Southside with his widely-publicized comments, he’s surely done the region no favors with the fashion in which he’s garnered the area more national attention than it’s had in a long while.
  • The district is best served by being represented by a member of the majority party. This isn’t my opinion: it’s Virgil Goode’s. While still an independent, he accepted the Republican nomination for reelection to the House in January of 2002. His logic for the switch, he explained, was that as a member of the majority party, the “district can be better helped.” I didn’t buy that logic then, and I don’t buy it now, but what’s good for the goose is good(e) for the gander.

Rep. Goode’s closest analog is Del. Watkins Abbitt. Abbitt is a Democrat-turned-independent whose district extends from just south of Charlottesville down to Prince Edward, sprawling east to Fluvanna and West to include all of Nelson. As Goode is Virgil H. Goode Jr., Abbitt is Watkins Abbitt Jr—both inherited their political reputations from their identically-named fathers, who enjoyed political careers before them. As Goode has also proved difficult to unseat, so has Abbitt, and for the same reasons. My wife was campaign manager for an effort to unseat Abbitt some years ago, and I became familiar with his political career then. Abbitt, like Goode, has no legislation of note, and does virtually noting for his district. My old friend Connie Brennan launched a well-funded, all-out campaign against Abbitt in the last election. She worked very hard, had lots of volunteers, started early, and raised money from a broad base of supporters in the district. Connie was defeated soundly, with 39.66% of the vote. That, coincidentally, is only 0.27% less than Al Weed got in his 2006 race against Virgil Goode.

The difficulty with defeating guys like Goode and Abbitt is that their reputations are not political, they’re social. Goode brags that he spends little time in Washington. To politicos like you (you’re reading this blog, after all), that’s galling. But to regular folks, that’s great—it’s how they know he’s not tainted, but the same Virgil Goode that they’ve known for decades. Goode has no legislation of note, but he’s not expected to produce any legislation of note. He says foolish things about Mexicans and Muslims, but they’re really only offensive if you’re Muslim or Mexican, or you have friends who are Mexican or Muslim; there are few of either in this district.

Virgil Goode is the mayor of the 5th district. Watkins Abbitt is the mayor of the 59th district. Candidates can run against these guys and gain oodles of support—I know Connie had lots of people who quite agreed with her stances on important state issues—but it doesn’t matter, because they’re functionally running for a completely different seat than these guys are perceived to occupy. I’ve met more than a few people who simultaneously believed that they were going to vote for Al Weed and that they were going to vote for Virgil Goode. They weren’t dumb—there are a lot of seats, we have elections constantly, and it’s tough to keep up. They just knew that they agreed with Al, and they sure liked Virgil. No doubt when they got in that booth, and realized that they were running against each other, they pulled the lever for Goode.

Criticizing Goode for driving a Hummer is stupid, because a) the notion of him driving such a vehicle is laughable, b) such a vehicle is a sign of personal economic well-being, which is widely perceived as a virtue, and c) it smacks of socialism, the idea that there’s some reason why he should be prevented from driving whatever vehicle that he sees fit.

If we’re going to win this race, it’ll be necessary to stick to the facts, and not invent new ones, no matter how much they might amuse us. It will likewise be necessary to recognize that this race will not be won by insulting the incumbent, that we can’t browbeat Republicans and independents into supporting Perriello through sheer force of logic, and that this isn’t a race for congress: it’s a race for mayor.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

32 replies on “How not to unseat Virgil Goode: The Hummer story.”

  1. I agree almost entirely.

    The momentary elation of an event like seeing the candidate mocked on the Daily Show fades all too soon to the realities you have listed.

    I have struggled this year to try being appropriate and not trashy in my criticisms. However, the things you listed and more are hard to present in ways that doesn’t either criticize (or appear to) the culture of Southside Virginia residents, or seemingly criticize the residents themselves for supporting him this year or previous years. I am one of those residents, but my mind is already made up, and I am tone deaf sometimes as I did not grow up here.

    There is a delicate line to be walked in terms of getting it right to get the message across, and not doing it in a way that uses less than stellar evidence that might alienate potential voters, or in some cases, be stretching the truth.

    I think it is an age old question. I will continue to, and step up my publishing of, facts about Virgil Goode that try to hit all the marks.

    I hope you can understand this, as it was hard to write and feel like I got MY point across.

  2. Not to nit-pick, but it was Rep. Keith Ellison, not Ralph, that Goode made his ignorant comments about. Actually living in the 5th CD, I don’t care what Goode is attacked about as long as it is constant and unrelenting.

  3. Oops: Ralph Ellison wrote “The Invisible Man,” but Keith Ellison is the representative—thank you, Jim. And, yes, Rob Bell’s district is the 58th, while Abbitt’s is the 59th—thank you, Mark.

    To the substance of your remarks, Mark, I particularly appreciate this observation:

    However, the things you listed and more are hard to present in ways that doesn’t either criticize (or appear to) the culture of Southside Virginia residents, or seemingly criticize the residents themselves for supporting him this year or previous years.

    I don’t want to pretend to have all—or even some—of the answers here. Though I know what not to do, that doesn’t mean that I know what to do. If I had all of this sorted out, I’d be a high-paid campaign consultant, not a blogger. :) Running against Goode is not for the faint of heart; that’s as true now that he’s a Republican as when he was a Democrat. If we can just stop repeating the same mistakes, perhaps that will give us room to try something new, something possibly successful.

  4. Waldo:

    First, the Perriello campaign did not produce the video. They were as surprised as everyone that it got onto The Daily Show. As I said in another post on another blog, the Virgil-and-the-Hummer story is of interest to those of us on the outside of the campaign looking in because the notion of a Republicans and Hummers fits into a broader picture — Republicans drive SUV’s, Republicans don’t care about gas consumption, Republicans opposed raising CAFE standards, etc. When I first saw the video a few weeks ago, I was thinking about it in terms of the difference between Republicans and Democrats, not the difference between Virgil and Tom.

    For The Daily Show to pick it up and make it farcical was funny stuff, and the fact that they spent the first minute or so talking about Virgil was a little off the point of the rest of the piece — that rappers and Republicans share a love of, among other things, Hummers that fits into the stereotype that has developed.

    Mind you, if the Republican float had been pulled by a Ford F-150 truck, which probably gets about comparable gas mileage, no one would be making fun of it. But a silver Hummer? That’s a joke just waiting to be written.

    That said, not every joke is newsworthy. The video didn’t make the mainstream media; the only thing that has made the mainstream media is Virgil’s response, saying that he didn’t even know what a rapper is (note that he is responding to The Daily Show story here, not to the video), and then saying that Tom is a celebrity candidate.

    Even that is hard to get terribly excited about as a “newsworthy” story. It’s a sideshow, though it is still kind of funny.

    So — you’re right that you won’t beat Virgil by falsely portraying him as driving a Hummer. Fortunately, the Perriello campaign is not trying that strategy. You are reacting to a sideshow, not to the campaign.

  5. I guess I’m a little puzzled, Lloyd. I didn’t state, nor did I mean to imply, that the Perriello campaign had the first thing to do with the video. There’s no reason at all to believe that’s the case; I imagine they’ve got better things to be doing than this. If there’s any modification that I can make to this blog entry to make that clear, I’d be happy to make it.

  6. Actually, Waldo, I felt you were very clear in saying that Democratic blogs were talking about the Hummer incident and not the Perriello campaign.

    I also have to agree with you on many points you make, unfortunately. Here in my small, rural corner of the boondocks, it is not so much which party you represent at times, but if you’ve been here in the county where people can see you. There’s nothing like having Virgil or Watkins at a party you’re throwing to make your “social capital” go up. One of my friends (a long-time Democrat) called me in a panic two years ago because both were at her party and she didn’t have a camera. I offered her one, but refused to attend and take the pictures.

    Likewise, being able to say you’ve met someone on the ballot goes a long way toward getting a vote. Surrogates do not count in situations like that. They want to be able to vote for someone who took the time to come out to the Christmas Parade, Patriot Day, or a local’s party. I understand that the 5th District is the largest district in the state and that the economy of campaigning means that locations with larger numbers get more face-time, but that’s the reality of living where I do.

    I guess we can be considered the new “Southwest Virginia” here in my neck of the woods. Since Mark Warner went out to the southwest and made lots of friends, candidates drive right by our county on their way to that area of the state now. Oh, well, I guess some day a candidate (besides Watkins, Virgil and Connie Brennan) will decide that my county is worth a couple of trips in order to get votes. And, unlike a DNC employee stated at a gathering in Norfolk, some candidates will come out for even 10 people.

  7. C’mon Waldo… you cannot possibly be this obtuse.

    The Hummer was the Republican vehicle in that parade. Virgil Goode was the highest ranking Republican in the parade and he walked alongside the Hummer.

    Republicans – across the country – are out of touch. Virgil Goode is no exception.

    Think about the contrast: Perriello in a bio-diesel tractor.

    As for the rest of your post, ugh. I’m afraid you may be right. It sucks that people are so far removed from politics that they’d vote for the guy they’ve grown to be familiar with than the person that will work to make their lives better.

    How do you think Martinsville will vote?

  8. I don’t know what to tell you, Mike—everybody who was there says that Goode had nothing to do with that Hummer, and I can’t find anybody with evidence (or even a claim) to the contrary. All of those who prefer not to let the truth get in the way of a good story will surely continue to repeat this, but it won’t make it any more true.

    By way of comparison, imagine if Tom Perriello showed up for a parade and found that the vehicle in front of him was sporting signs for a few Democrats, including him, and it turned out that vehicle was being driven by, say, a wanted felon. It would be totally unreasonable for Republicans to attack Perriello for that, claiming that Perriello is a soft-on-crime liberal who’s willing to harbor a felon if it benefits his campaign. It’s not his vehicle. He doesn’t know the guy. He had nothing to do with it. How’s it his fault?

    If we sanction or employ these tactics ourselves, then we’re obliged to tolerate them when they’re used against us. (This is why we have Geneva Conventions.) That may seem worth it to win an election, but I prefer to take a longer view.

  9. This plays into the Democrat reputation for regulating the minutia of people’s lives, like what car they drive.

  10. The analogy to mayor may be more apt than you think.

    There is an old story — probably apocryphal, since I’ve heard it told in various contexts, although in one case by a Member of Congress who claimed it happened to him — about a congressman who went to a town hall meeting with constituents.

    At the beginning of the meeting, he introduced himself and members of his staff, explaining how they could help with constituent services. “If you have a problem with the federal government, like not getting your Social Security check or veteran’s benefits, please give us a call,” he said.

    After the formal part of the meeting ended, the congressman opened it up for questions. An elderly lady raised her hand and said, “My trash hasn’t been picked up for several weeks, and I wonder if you can help me with that.”

    The congressman smiled at her, somewhat condescendingly, and said, “Well, as I explained at the beginning of the meeting, I’m here to help you with any problems you might have with the _federal_ government. To solve your trash pick-up problem, you’ll have to contact the mayor.”

    To that, the lady replied, “Oh, I don’t want to go that high up. I shouldn’t bother someone that important with my problems.”

  11. Well, so does pushing for improvements in CAFE standards (well, it does if you’ve got a semi-competent campaign running against you). Can’t say that I’d back down on that for that reason.

  12. I appreciate your reasonableness in this post. It’s very frustrating when folks want to perpetuate “stories” that aren’t true for some other agenda.

    If one wants to promote a particular candidate, then do so by telling the truth…whether it’s truth about your candidate or the opponent. But perpetuating flat-out lies just makes you look like a fool when you are found out and destroys your credibility and the credibility of those whom you represent.

    Thank you for this post.

  13. No, complaining about one person’s car won’t, in itself, have a major environmental benefit. But political stories are filled with symbols, and if someone wants to use a Hummer as a symbol of what’s really gone wrong, I think it’s fine (which isn’t necessarily the case here, for some of the reasons you’ve outlined). The bigger point, however, is that- at some point – we’re going to have to get over this crippling fear of maybe offending someone like Freddie because a policy proposal might be characterized as conflicting with his god given right to blow through town in a 6400lb 9mpg rig.

  14. Well, I think the difference is that pushing for improvements in CAFE standards can and will have a major environmental benefit. Complaining about one person’s car won’t.

    It’s not just complaining about the car–it’s complaining about the person himself. It’s taking a perfectly reasonable point that even many Republicans are starting to come around on (“we need more fuel-efficient cars because it’s better for the economy if we reduce our exposure to wild fluctations in the oil market and better for the environment to reduce our carbon emissions”) and making it into an unreasonable point: “we don’t like people who drive Hummers; let’s punish them.”

    I’m not a resident of the district, but I would wager that with price inflation and soaring energy prices that there’s room for a debate on the merits of fuel efficiency standards and tax breaks for people who improve their energy conservation in this race. But that’s not what the Humvee story is about, it’s about trying to embarrass Virgil Goode.

  15. There’s a forest here, amongst the trees. Check it out! A hopelessly ridiculous caricature of usefulness, ignorant of circumstances, atavistic, a fanciful imitation of “toughness” and “independence”. Not constrained by conventional paths, intimidating, with a handsome shine. Out of step with the needs and the times – the Goode Hummer.

  16. And Bubby nails the usefulness of the symbol. Of course, if you follow Ms. Wigal’s link, you’ll see that those things are viewed as wonderfully American and worthy of celebration, in some circles.

  17. So, MB, are suggesting that Freddie — or anyone else who can afford it — doesn’t have the right to drive a vehicle that gets 9MPG?

  18. Of course, if you follow Ms. Wigal’s link, you’ll see that those things are viewed as wonderfully American and worthy of celebration, in some circles.

    And that’s really my point: While you and I view driving a Hummer as a personal flaw, the very people in the district who must be persuaded to vote for Perriello view it as an virtue.

  19. Well, you certainly know that district better than I ever will. But I suspect I know a couple quite like it. In those places, I’m having a hard time imagining that you’d offend a majority of likely voters with the suggestion that a Hummer is a ridiculous bit of excess that symbolizes so many of today’s poor choices.

    But if the concern is about not offending any voters, well, I can’t say that that’s worked out too well for Dems. Some things are just plain old bad ideas that are worthy of mocking. Virgil Goode’s one of them.

    (and I quite like the ajax editing function. gracias!)

  20. But if the concern is about not offending any voters, well, I can’t say that that’s worked out too well for Dems.

    Well, I’m OK with offending the hard-core Dems. And the hard-core Republicans. But if we could just keep the malleable center happy, that’d be a good way to win an election.

    Some things are just plain old bad ideas that are worthy of mocking. Virgil Goode’s one of them.

    Now that we can agree on. :)

  21. Campaigns are as much about visceral emotion and imagery as they are about policy and governance. The reason Virgil Goode wins, over and over again, despite espousing policies that hurt his constituency is that he is adept at managing the way people in the district “feel” about him.

    Look what’s going on with Obama right now… He gave a speech; one line in it repeated a prescription from the White House’s own energy page: Keeping your tires properly inflated can save you about 12 cents per gallon.

    Republicans are running all over the place with tire gauges claiming that’s Barak Obama’s energy plan. And they are winning the day.

    Another blogger made a great point: John McCain recently extolled the virtues of sunscreen. By Republican logic, Democrats should be out there claiming that “More sunscreen” defines the beginning and end of John McCain’s plan for health care.

    Back to Virgil. As I said, he’s been adept at managing perceptions. To many people, an argument can be made that he (and the Republican Party) are out of touch on the basis of the vehicle that they used to carry their brand in that parade. There is absolutely nothing dishonest about that statement.

    For me, it was about 16 or 18 years ago that I had a 1979 Chevy Caprice Classic – my first car. It got me around, but it swallowed a decent amount of gas too. I was single and I had a job that paid about $5/hour and gave me 37 1/2 hours a week. If I remember correctly, my takehome was about $140/wk. I paid about $200/mos in rent at an apartment I shared with my cousin. Our heat and electric bills took another $60/mos. or so… I was left with about $75/wk to pay for food, gas and whatever movies I rented, etc. Gas was under $2/gallon.

    But there were times I couldn’t afford to drive 40 miles to see my mother; I just didn’t have the extra money.

    Today, minimum wage gives you a check that allows you to take home about $70 more a week than I did. But rents are up. Food prices are up – way up. Gas prices are, of course, up – way up.

    Maybe I’m just uninformed; maybe people scratching out a living in Southside struck with admiration (and aspiration) when they see a Hummer roll by plastered with Republican branding and Virgil Goode signs… Maybe it is a New England thing to be put off by ostentatious displays of wealth; up there we prefer to live more plainly and to never let anyone know what you have. So maybe I’ve totally misread this part of the country.

    I just think it was bad imagery and in campaign season, there’s nothing dishonest about drawing contrasts.

    PS: the criminal analagy falls short for me. The Hummer was 6,000 pounds of steel shining in the bright sun. It was branded Republican and carried Virgil’s campaign signs. If Perriello knew the criminal was driving the vehicle and didn’t make a stink, well… if the Republicans wanted to make a stink, I wouldn’t begrudge them the politics of it. I’d do my best to repel the attack (and I’d hope that people that were on my team had my back if I were to counter-attack), but I wouldn’t complain about the politics. It is, after all, politics, not policy.

  22. This is Southside were talking about – the place is full of people yearning for a return to yesterday amid busted tobacco fortunes, rusted mills, and political nepotism. Riches to Rags in three generations, and there never was any secret recipe beyond indenture, slavery and low wage mill workers.

    Everything has changed except for the politics – a fraternal elite run the show, call the shots, fund the campaigns, and through their bumbling incompetence prove that “government doesn’t work”. So while Hummer-boy crows about his boot-strap pulling skills, the fact is; Southside is suckling the taxpayer teat, and living on the Tobacco Settlement. Virgil Goode, or Watkins Abbitt will not lead these folks from the desert. In fact, they are there to protect the status quo.

    It is particularly galling that while Southside continues with record unemployment, and remains a tax dollar suck-hole, their U.S. Representative runs around flipping Muslims, and “non-European immigrants” the bird. What captain-of-industry could watch the Goode Sideshow and decide to move his people to Southside? Taxpayers have a right to expect better leadership – since we’re paying for Southside’s cheese line.

  23. Mike, I think you and I agree just about entirely on this, with the exception that you think it amounted to effective imagery against Goode, whereas I think it’s the sort of thing that makes Democrats look worse. (And, again, that Goode apparently had nothing at all to do with said Hummer.)

  24. Waldo,

    Thanks for the clarification. When the video first came out, I corrected several blogs. But I guess the escilation in the media is now doing that for me. Those who created this video are dishonest, they saw Virgil’s PT Cruiser pass by first, then turned the camera toward my Hummer. The only hope, whether this type of stuff comes from Repubs or Dems, is that the truth gets told and the damage created teaches people lessons. Perriello does not need this, it did not help him. Maybe it hurt. And the goofey part is that most who have seen the original video are Dems anyway, already drinking the Kool-Aid. So, the producers were lying to their own party.

    Regarding the comments that followed from others basically stating that Hummers seem to be a Republican flaw, please see the attached link regarding Delegate Lucas – D

    Are Democrats still using gas powered lawn mowers, instead of the old push types like grandpa used? ;-)

  25. Got one, here.


    So, is it politically helpful or not to call Chris a douchebag? Does it make a difference whether or not I desperately wished I were as successful as him?

  26. Nice try Mr Fairchild, but whatever distinction you are trying to draw about who was driving the Hummer, and why is now completely beside the point. You’ve been rolled over by a larger image:

    “Republicans are just like Rappers; they love money, they love guns, gay people scare the shit out of them, and every other word out of their mouths is n*gger”.

    There’s enough truth and irony there to dent every panel on your brand. Especially in Southside. But never mind that, you have real problems my man; your people think the PT Cruiser is a “gay car”!

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