Local Commentary

Richard Barton: Our Man in Arlington

Well, it’s over! The Democratic nomination battle, that is. It was a hard fought race, and as it progressed it developed some corrosive animosities between hard core Obama and Clinton fans.

I am particularly disturbed that more than 20% of Clinton supporters say they will support McCain in the fall election, though I believe that number will drop substantially as we move closer to election day. Hillary Clinton’s very strong statement of support for Obama and her commitment to work hard toward his election will certainly help that happen.

The animosities were not so apparent in Arlington. This has not always been the case. I still remember vividly the Democratic nomination campaign of 1972.

I was the chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee and, therefore, chair of the 1972 Arlington Democratic mass meeting to select delegates to the Virginia Democratic state convention.

The two major contenders for the presidential nomination were Senators Edmund Muskie and George McGovern. There were, however, twenty-two candidates at one time or another. Arlington ultimately elected delegates committed to at least four of them – the other two were John Lindsay and Shirley Chisholm. (Jean was a Chisholm delegate!)

Muskie was the obvious front runner as we began to plan for the mass meeting,. However, in the interests of party harmony, the Muskie and McGovern leaders met and crafted a series of rules that fairly apportioned membership on the various committees among elected delegates of all candidates. Other rules were made to assure that everyone had an opportunity to play a role in the leadership of Arlington’s delegation to the state convention.

The mass meeting began at 11 a.m. on a balmy early spring day in the auditorium of Wakefield High School in south Arlington. More than 1100 people crammed themselves into the auditorium, up to that time by far the largest political caucus ever held in Arlington.

It was very complicated. We had to elect more than 100 delegates to the state convention. The ballot contained several hundred names. The casting and counting of the ballots took more than eleven hours.

Just before the meeting began, we discovered that all of the Muskie sample ballots had disappeared. They miraculously reappeared just before the balloting began; all boldly stamped HUMPHREY – MUSKIE CONSERVATIVE COALITION. We had no choice but to pass them out. To this day, no one will admit having done such a dastardly deed, though I have a very good idea.

As the count progressed through the evening, it became obvious that the McGovern forces were going to get a majority of the delegates. Word was leaked to the local television stations, and I had the wonderful experience of being shown on the eleven o’clock news announcing the defeat of my own candidate.

In the days following our debacle, the McGovern forces took control of the delegation, unceremoniously ousted me as chair, as well as all Muskie delegates from committees and leadership roles. I cannot describe the outrage expressed by my compatriots in a family newspaper.

We eventually came together again, at least many of us did. But the immediate result was disastrous for our campaign efforts in the fall. Nixon took Arlington handily with 39,000 votes to McGovern’s paltry 26,000, partly because of a very lackadaisical effort on the part of Arlington’s Democrats.

Democrats around the country must make sure that similar animosities do not tear the party apart this year. To fail to do so could lead to defeat in November.