The Virginia Bar Association has been hosting debates between candidates for statewide office literally for decades. The first was held in 1985, and 2017 marked the ninth time candidates for governor squared off at the VBA summer confab.
The VBA’s just-completed meeting at The Omni Homestead featured a dust-up between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee, and Ed Gillespie, the Republican standard bearer. Judy Woodruff of PBS was back to serve as moderator.
But this debate was different – it very likely was the first time the normally decorous affair featured an interloper.
On July 22, the parties met and after Gillespie gave his opening statement, Northam began his initial remarks…until a bearded, bespectacled man with a backpack made his way to the front, passing the rope line between the press section and the audience.
First reaction: What’s in the backpack? Could he have a bomb?
Backpack Man quickly made it clear he was protesting the two proposed natural gas pipelines through Virginia – the Mountain Valley Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Northam was getting the brunt of the insults and accusations of complicity with energy companies.
Attendees looked around. Wasn’t anyone going to shut this joker down? Apparently the governor gets a protective detail, but not the lieutenant governor.
“Where is security?” Rich Garriott, VBA board of governors chair, said he asked his wife Lisa.
“You ARE security,” she said. “Get up there.”
Jim Guy, VBA immediate past president, was already on his way to the heckler. Guy is the longtime leader of an Irish pub band, and the smart money says he knows a thing or two about dealing with hecklers, be they drunk or obnoxious or shouting insults.
Guy arrived at Backpack Man, followed by Garriott, member Rhodes Ritenour, VBA counsel Mike Quinan and Steuart Thomas, VBA president-elect.
You could read the collective thought balloon from the grim faces of this impromptu security team: “Not in our house, bucko.”
They hustled Backpack Man to the exits, while he kept shouting about the power companies and the need for “no pipeline!”
Backpack Man may have some entirely valid arguments; opponents of the pipelines include landowners, environmentalists and hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Fracking can be part of the natural gas drilling process. And despite claims that fracking is perfectly safe and environmentally responsible, ask people in Oklahoma if they had as many earthquakes before energy companies started fracking there.
But here’s one problem with people like B.M.: sometimes the way they choose to express their views becomes the story instead of their views.
Since when do rude manners and hurled insults make effective politics? Actually, don’t answer that question.
There will be a time and place for inquiries for Northam about the contributions he accepted from Dominion Energy, and his relationship with Dominion. Ditto for Gillespie, who also received a big wad of Dominion cash. Questions about the pipelines need answering; environmental agencies need to do their assessments and reports (and to do their jobs free from political influence).
Be thankful for websites such as the Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks contributions to politicians. Be thankful for the journalists who will continue to pursue and to write those stories.
Backpack Man kept yelling and yelling, but he killed his own message. As Guy and his colleagues were taking him out, he continued screaming.
Woodruff sought to re-establish decorum, joking, “I think we got his point.”
Maybe not. Backpack Man left a lasting impression that I don’t think he intended.
Returning to the ballroom, Guy and the others opened one last door, and one last time, B.M. yelled from down the hall, “No pipeline!”
The packed room erupted in laughter.