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 also is the 50th anniversary of the 1969 election of Linwood Holton, the first Republican governor in Virginia since Reconstruction. 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.
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., 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 elections of Holton and Wilder.
To better understand Virginia political history, a good starting point is 1869, when Virginia adopted a new constitution that was quite progressive and ushered in a brief and overlooked period of biracial government. Another is 1885, when the state’s conservative establishment won back control with the election of Fitzhugh Lee as governor, and began 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. From the late 1800s onward, Virginia was a one-party state run by conservative Democrats who brooked little dissension. And that brings us to 1949.
For the first time, the Byrd Machine faced a challenge from 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 against a political outsider named Francis Pickens Miller. Miller had grown up in Rockbridge, graduated from Washington and Lee University and awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. During World War II, he served on the staff of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Virginia had never seen anyone like Miller before — a well-credentialed challenger who questioned the very foundations of the Byrd oligarchy.
In those days more people voted in the Democratic primary than the general election because the 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.
In his book, “The Dynamic Dominion,” Richmond lawyer Frank Atkinson 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 1960s and 1970s further accelerated the realignment of Virginia politics.
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. Decades later, things would work the other way — with conservative Democrats abandoning their party to become Republicans.
That 1949 crossover vote worked. Battle eked out a primary victory with just 43% to Miller’s 35% in a four-way free-for-all. Battle went on to win handily in November, but Miller had cracked the system and Democratic liberals were emboldened — Republicans were, too. It took decades, but the Byrd Machine fell and the modern two-party system emerged.
Those are the politics that roiled 1949. But don’t forget the policies. One issue Miller ran on was schools, vowing to use the state’s budget surplus to help localities build modern buildings. Battle, once in office, understood the popularity of the issue and proposed his own school construction program. By the time he left office in 1954, some 400 new schools had been constructed. The 1950s saw a school building boom of unprecedented proportions — most of it paid for by the state. Today some of the buildings constructed during that era are the ones Gov. Ralph Northam called “crumbling schools” in his inaugural address.
Politics is funny. In 1949, a liberal Democrat was the strongest voice calling for new schools. Today, it’s a conservative Republican — state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin. Seventy years after that 1949 campaign, the need for the state to help with school construction has not changed. The odd thing is that the politicians of 1949 seemed more responsive to that than do the politicians of 2019.
— Adapted from The Roanoke Times