Running for the U. S. Senate

With U. S. Senate elections swinging into full gear, and race relations at the forefront of the news, I am often reminded of a time very early in my career when I worked on a campaign for the Senate from my native state of Virginia where race was definitely a factor.

One-term incumbent Senator Paul Trible, a Republican, faced a challenge from very popular former Democrat Governor Charles S. Robb, who was the son-in-law of President Lyndon Johnson, a hero to African Americans due to his overseeing the passage of both the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and later the Voting Rights Act. Trible surprised voters by announcing early in the year that he would not seek reelection. Many felt he was avoiding a likely loss to the popular former governor, but his stated excuse was to spend more time with his family. However, it later came out that Trible had a poll in the field the day of his announcement in order to determine if voters would support him in a run for governor the next year. And he in fact did seek the Republican nomination for governor in 1989, losing to former Attorney General Marshall Coleman, who lost the general election in a squeaker to then Lieutenant Governor L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat who became the first elected black governor in America since Reconstruction.

With Trible’s announcement, several Republicans around the Commonwealth considered throwing their hats in the ring at the June nominating convention, with the two top candidates being Andrew Wahlquist, the chief of staff for Virginia’s other U. S. Senator, John Warner, and a former minister, Dr. Maurice Dawkins, an African American minister and former associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. While Wilder had been lieutenant governor, Dawkins would have been the first candidate for statewide federal office from Virginia, its capital city, Richmond, having been the capital of the Confederacy. So, this was a huge moment for Republicans in Virginia.

Dawkins was popular among religious conservatives around the state, who were in full force that year because one of their own, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, of Virginia Beach, had run for president, coming in third behind Kansas Senator Bob Dole and the eventual nominee and president, George Bush.

I worked as the personal driver for Robertson at the time. At the state GOP convention held at the Roanoke Civic Center, Robertson gave a keynote speech the morning before the delegates prepared to vote to choose the candidate. I had the Lincoln Town Car idling at the ready in the lower level convention center parking area, when he left the stage and came down to the car.  As he settled in the back seat beside his wife, Dede, Robertson aide David Hummel leaned in and asked, “Pat, who do I tell our people to vote for?” “Dawkins,” Pat said, as if there had never been any doubt, as I stepped on the gas and we sped away en route to Virginia Beach.

Pat had a personal interest in this race in addition to its eventual outcome.  His late father, A. Willis Robertson, had served as Virginia’s junior U. S. senator in the 1950s and 60s, following a long career in the House. John Warner currently held that same seat, and later eclipsed Pat’s father’s statewide vote total. Also, Pat and Warner had served in the Marines together decades before during the Korean war.

Dawkins was running, of course, for the other seat, which had long been held by the famous Byrd Machine, passing from father to son, Harry Flood Byrd and Harry Jr., both conservative Democrats, with the son later becoming an independent.  If Dawkins won that seat, it would be quite ironic, as the Byrds had strong ties to Virginia’s negative history with race relations.  So, this Senate race proved that politics is often indeed a very small world, and an ironic one as well.

Dawkins won the nomination over Warner’s chief of staff, much to the credit of the Robertson endorsement and other religious conservative delegates. His general election campaign then became a joint effort between the state Republican Party headquarters and the Republican National Senatorial Committee, although few, if any, insiders really thought he stood a chance against Robb.

As the campaign prepared for the general election and began hiring staff, I was offered the position of personal aide to the candidate due to my Robertson ties.  With the Robertson campaign over, I accepted and moved temporarily to northern Virginia to be near the Dawkins base in Arlington County.

I have many memories of that campaign, working for Dr. Dawkins, who has since passed away, and crisscrossing the Commonwealth with him from campaign event to campaign event, from state party headquarters to national party headquarters, and from church to church, which we will discuss later.

There are many stories still very vivid in my memory.

One evening late in the campaign, after Dr. Dawkins spoke in southwestern Virginia, and his wife was along, we needed to get dinner as we drove back to northern Virginia. Seeing only a truck stop open along I-81, I exited and pulled into the parking lot. We walked in as a trio, Dr. Dawkins and I wearing business suits, and Mrs. D. in a white fur coat. (She served as an assistant secretary at the Department of Agriculture at the time, and later was appointed by the above-mentioned President George Bush as U. S. agricultural representative to Trinidad and Tobago.)

As we waited for our food, she looked around and observed, “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a truck stop before. Joel, have you ever been in a truck stop?” I chuckled, because she had no way of knowing that my father was a long-distance truck driver, and actually, a few years shy of retiring, could possibly have even been there that very night.  “Yes, maam,” I replied, “Many times.”

Dr. Dawkins campaigned in black churches almost every Wednesday evening and Sunday morning that year and, on one Sunday, as we searched for a church south of Petersburg, Va., driving down U. S. Hwy. 460, he became alarmed as I passed a particular church with several people in the parking lot.  “Turn around, that was it!” he exclaimed. “That can’t be our church,” I said, “Those were white people.”  He burst out with a big belly laugh and said, “Joel, I can speak in white churches too!”

Dr. Dawkins lost that race, getting trounced by LBJ’s son-in-law Robb by a margin of about 71% to 29%, and getting an even lesser percentage of the black vote, despite all the church appearances. But he considered having secured the nomination to represent his party and blacks not only in Virginia but around the country, as the capstone of his career.

I learned so much about race relations from Dr. and Mrs. Dawkins, and attended events where I was the only white person present, including one late night gathering of Richmond black city fathers, where he asked me to wait in the car.  I saw the very strong allegiance of black voters to the Democrat Party (hugely due to the legacy of FDR and LBJ), and had reinforced what I already knew, on a person to person basis, that whatever their race, people are people, all facing similar problems, all made in God’s image.

I learned much and met many people, both continuing to benefit me decades later, and I remain very honored that I was able to serve Dr. Dawkins, the Commonwealth, and the Lord, for those months.


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