It always catches up with him, as inevitably as the tide finding the shore. Six years after the "macaca" incident, the stigma still hits former governor and senator George Allen, this time while he grips and grins beneath the pine trees last week at the 64th annual Shad Planking in Wakefield.
It's Virginia's oldest political rite of spring. Hopeful candidates, reporters and other politicos from across the state gather to drink liquor and exchange stories from the front. This year it's a decidedly Republican affair: Former Gov. Tim Kaine, Allen's Democratic opponent for the U.S. Senate this fall, declined an invitation.
Later in the afternoon, everyone gathers in long lines to be served filets of shad, fish that have spent the better part of the day crucified on a wooden plank and smoked. By the end of the day, the event will raise more than $25,000 for the Wakefield Ruritan Club.
Allen headlines the event, six years after his mouth in part cost him his seat in the U.S. Senate. For the better part of an hour, Allen glad-hands supporters inside a scrum. He arrives midafternoon, walking silently past rival Jamie Radtke on his way toward the stage. Radtke, who will challenge Allen in the GOP primary, made her first pilgrimage here last year.
While Allen flirts, some of the outliers from Radtke's camp take it upon themselves to flank him. Some hold signs. Some others have opted to hold Confederate flags. They jockey for position on the edges of the throng, while visibly annoyed Allen campaign volunteers wearing yellow T-shirts try to box them out.
One of them is Karen Cooper. Wearing a camouflage cap with the rebel flag stitched to the front, slung low over her eyes, the diminutive Cooper is like many attendees — a supporter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Unlike the rest of them, she's black. I ask her and the other flag-wavers about the point they're trying to make by holding Confederate flags aloft over Allen's head. "After the macaca thing, he was trying to make up for what happened and said something about the flag," she says, referring to Allen's post-macaca damage control in 2006, when he downplayed his affinity for the rebel cause.
True, Allen has gone on record in recent years to express regret for his previous embrace of Confederate symbols. It's made him the enemy of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group whose members now may be disinclined to support him come the November election. But it's unclear whether Cooper and the flag-wavers are intent on reminding Allen of his past or using it as a cudgel.
There are those who take offense. "This is just retribution by a fanatical wing of neo-Confederates," says Ben Marchi, former director of the Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers' advocacy group that doled out millions of dollars for attack ads on Democrats during the 2010 elections. Marchi is an Albemarle County native who's been attending the Shad Planking since 1994. "This is the first time I've ever seen people being so in-your-face about this issue," he says.
From the stage, Allen calls the event one of the "pre-eminent bipartisan political events in the state." Based on the attendees, and the booths, and the various candidates for office with a presence at the event, it would seem that Allen is only half right.
On this day there's no candidate or advocacy group in attendance — and no Kaine — who could be associated with the political left. It's a one-party party. With Allen and Kaine polling so closely, perhaps a galvanizing cheerleading session is what the Republicans need.
While he ambles over to the Allen tent for another free beer, Marchi explains why he's unbothered by the homogeneity. "Look how divided this is," he says, nodding in the direction of the Radtke camp. "We don't need Democrats around to see that." S
Correction: In earlier print and onine versions of this story, we misidentified Ben Marchi, who is the former director of the Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity.