This year marks significant anniversaries of three important governor’s races in Virginia, all of which still have relevance today.
This is the 30th anniversary of the 1989 election of Douglas Wilder, the first African American elected governor in any state. This is symbolic, although not particularly substantive. In the three decades since, there’s only been one other African American governor elected anywhere — Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. This also is the 50th anniversary of the 1969 election of Linwood Holton, the first Republican governor in Virginia since Reconstruction. This is both symbolic and substantive. Holton’s election smashed what had been a one-party system in Virginia and created a modern two-party democracy. And, finally, this is the 70th anniversary of the 1949 election of John Battle as governor. This isn’t particularly symbolic, but is quite substantive.
The 1949 election is important in two ways. It saw the first serious challenge to the political machine of U.S. Sen. Harry Byrd Sr. that ruled the state, a challenge that failed at the ballot box but set in motion changes that ultimately brought down the Byrd Machine — and indirectly led to the election of Holton in 1969 and Wilder in 1989.
In a way, if you want to understand Virginia political history, there are several good starting points. One year is 1869, when Virginia adopted a new Constitution that was quite progressive for its day and ushered in a brief and overlooked period of bi-racial government. Another is 1885, when the state’s conservative establishment won back control with the election of Fitzhugh Lee as governor, and set about instituting what we know today as Jim Crow. Yet a third year is 1902, when that same establishment threw out the state’s Constitution and simply proclaimed a new one that disenfranchised blacks and poor whites alike. From the late 1800s onward, Virginia was a one-party state run by conservative Democrats who brooked little dissension. And that’s what brings us to 1949, which is where our modern history really begins.
For the first time, the Byrd Machine faced an unprecedented challenge from what seemed an entirely new force — liberal Democrats. John Battle, a state senator from Charlottesville, was Byrd’s anointed candidate for governor. In normal times, that would have been sufficient for victory. Instead, Battle found himself fighting for his political life against a political outsider named Francis Pickens Miller. Miller had grown up in Rockbridge County, graduated from Washington and Lee University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. His background was in foreign affairs: During World War II, he served as a colonel on the staff of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. After the war, he came home to Virginia, determined to challenge Byrd’s dominance of Virginia politics. Virginia had never seen anyone like Miller before — a well-credentialed challenger who questioned the very foundations of the oligarchy that governed Virginia.
Here’s something to keep in mind about those days: More people voted in the Democratic primary than the general election in November because the Democratic primary was all that mattered. There weren’t many Republicans then, and the state Constitution kept even the primary electorate quite small. Miller, who had fought for democracy abroad, was determined to fight for it at home, too.
The best account of the election is found in “The Dynamic Dominion” by Richmond lawyer Frank Atkinson. He recounts how the 1949 election inspired a generation of young, left-of-center Democrats to get involved in politics. Among them was Norfolk lawyer Henry Howell: “Until I met [Miller in 1949], I was like most Virginians. I couldn’t have cared less. Politics was nothing in Virginia . . . Miller pointed out more graphically that our government was a closed society.” Howell, of course, later went into politics in his own right, and his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns in the ’60s and ’70s further accelerated the realignment of Virginia politics into the configuration we know today.
That realignment really started in 1949. For a time, Miller seemed in danger of winning the Democratic primary. Conservative Democrats were so alarmed that they did the unthinkable: They reached out to the state’s Republicans and asked them to vote for Battle in the Democratic primary. There weren’t many Republicans then, but Byrd needed every vote he could find for Battle and where else could he turn? Decades later, things would work the other way — with conservative Democrats eventually abandoning their party to become Republicans.
In 1949, though, that crossover vote worked. Battle eked out a primary victory with just 43% to Miller’s 35% in what had become a four-way free-for-all. Battle went on to win handily in November, as Democratic nominees always did then, but Miller had cracked the system in ways that couldn’t be repaired. Democratic liberals were emboldened. Republicans were emboldened, too. It took decades, but eventually the Byrd Machine fell and the modern two-party system emerged — with Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right. Those are the politics that roiled 1949 and years that followed. But let’s not forget the policies. One of the issues Miller ran on was schools. Specifically, he vowed to use the state’s budget surplus to help localities build modern buildings for a new economic age. The school construction program was unexpectedly popular in post-war Virginia. Battle, once in office, understood those politics and co-opted them by proposing his own school construction program. By the time Battle left office in early 1954, some 400 new schools had been constructed — and more were on the way. The 1950s saw a school building boom of unprecedented proportions — most of it paid for by the state. There hasn’t been anything like it since, and now some of those buildings constructed during that great era of school construction are the ones often cited as examples of what Gov. Ralph Northam called “crumbling schools” in his inaugural address.
Politics is funny sometimes. In 1949, it was a liberal Democrat who was the strongest voice calling for new schools. Today, it’s a conservative Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County. Seventy years after that consequential 1949 campaign, many things have changed in Virginia politics, but the need for the state to help with school construction has not. The odd thing is that the politicians of 1949 seemed more responsive to that than do the politicians of 2019.