City and state Democrats left their dog whistles at home last week when former President Barack Obama visited for a political rally at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
In less than two hours, elected officials and candidates took turns stoking the crowd until the finale of political pyrotechnics — Obama's closing speech to about 7,500 people packed into an exhibit hall.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney led off the speakers at the Thursday, Oct. 19, event with the night's first overt reference to President Donald Trump and, by comparison, his immediate predecessor.
"A year ago," he shouted, "we had someone in the White House who knew how to be president!"
Stoney pointed to the dichotomy at hand as voters go to the polls Nov. 7 to elect a new governor and lieutenant governor and, along party lines, perhaps return incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring to his office.
"We as Americans are watching the fragility of democracy right before us," he said. "Right? Every day. You see the images. You hear it. So we've got a choice, we have a choice. … You get what you put in. You put good in, you get good out."
Stoney handed off to U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, whom he christened as "a progressive champion" before the congressman strode onstage.
As the days tick down to less than two weeks, both campaigns should be in full-on attack mode, and the peppery rhetoric of the campaigners last week showed the willingness to go bare-knuckled at this stage.
McEachin wasted no time teeing up on Republican attorney general candidate John Adams. Conversationally, he pointed to his failure to renew his lawyer's license. "If you can't figure out how to get your law license renewed, in a big old firm like McGuire Woods, then I'm not sure you're ready to be the next attorney general."
The jab was just one of repeated digs that McEachin and those after him would insert into the crowd-rousing game plan against the GOP candidates. McEachin, referring to lieutenant governor candidate Jill Vogel's failed anti-abortion measure in the state Senate, stressed the operative words "transvaginal ultrasound" at least twice heavily into the microphone, drawing a roar. And he defended her Democratic opponent Justin Fairfax, whose intellect Vogel notably challenged in a debate.
Once onstage, following U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott of Tidewater's 3rd District, Fairfax cooled the fire, walking the line with a positive tone and mostly praising the attributes of his fellow Democrats. His reluctance to stir the pot was obvious — the crowd settled into his straight upbeat speech.
Of the statewide races generating Democratic angst, the focus of the night was on Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is running statistically neck-and-neck with Republican Ed Gillespie, according to recent polls from Christopher Newport and Monmouth universities. Surveys showing wider separation, with Northam up by double digits, may skew the average, though.
Herring brought back some volume and teeth as he dug into his opponent Adams' philosophical differences — on women's rights, marriage equality and Obamacare — earning a few choruses of boos.
Next up in the batting order, Gov. Terry McAuliffe added punch to the stage, previewing Obama's appearance with the comparison that Gillespie appeared to be treating Trump "like a communicable disease." The governor referred to his term and promises that he marked as kept — reducing unemployment, attracting investment and women's health access, among other hits.
A full hour in, McAuliffe introduced his lieutenant, and Northam recapped the work ahead, including shouted wishful thinking of winning a Democratic majority in the state legislature. The candidate riffed through an upbeat, animated litany of what he has to offer before he raised the tenor of the crowd and bellowed: "Are you ready to fight with me? Let's get it done!"
With that introduction, he welcomed the evening's star, the man who came to close the deal for him, and sat by as Obama began to assess the state of politics and divisiveness in American culture. "So, the question now," he said, "when our politics just seems so divided," Obama said with his arms spread and head shaking, "so angry and so nasty, is whether we can recapture that spirit, whether we support and embrace somebody who wants to bring people together."
It was a question in so many so many words that another former president, George W. Bush, seemed to ask at appearance elsewhere earlier that day.
The question is worthy and honest, it seems, although the political battle playing out before Virginians is likely to rage, and prolong partisan sniping for another few days yet. S