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Virginia Politics Runs Through The Wakefield Shad Planking

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WAKEFIELD - Thousands of people have walked the grounds of the Wakefield Ruritan Club in Wakefield for the Shad Planking. As the 66th anniversary of the event passed last week, a sense of tradition was the festivities' underlying theme.

The event, which started as a tribute to the state of the county's fishing season, gained traction and continues to be seen as the critical event to start the political year for candidates running for local and state offices.

"Over the years, the gathering has evolved into a political gossip festival, a place for candidates to see and be seen and for the curious to speculate about the likely winners and losers of the year's coming campaign season," the event's website read.

Virginia politicians, both past and present, make their way to Wakefield, some for the first time as they start their political careers, others who are veterans of the event and, almost, connoisseurs of the wood planked-smoked, bony shad fish.

Former Lieutenant Governor John Hager has become an icon of the Shad Planking events, and, in an interview, he explained why he returns to Wakefield every year.

"The Shad Planking is a good Virginia tradition and an opportunity to reach out to southside Virginia and the rural community," he said.

In past years, comments have been made by Washington beltway newspapers that the Shad Planking is an aging event that should be discontinued. When asked, Hager disagreed with that viewpoint.

"I think if people are saying that, then they need to wake up to reality. We need to preserve what has made Virginia strong as we move forward."

Out at the event, many politicians from both sides of the aisle use the Shad Planking to spend time with one another and are able to discuss issues with voters and residents directly. That is something that former Governor and U.S. Senator George Allen enjoyed about the event.

"I love coming here. It is a reunion of so many good friends throughout the years."

Allen said that he has been coming to the Shad Planking since he was a state delegate and through his time in public office. Allen has spoken four times at the event since 1996.

"You get to see folks eye-to-eye, and they can ask you questions and discuss issues," he commented. "People are cheerful and smiling. The Ruritans are a great organization that helps out a lot of community projects here in the area."

"It is the way politics ought to be," Allen continued. "Having easy access to who are serving and those who seek to do so."

Republican State Senator and 2013 Attorney General Candidate Mark Obenshain echoed similar points as Hager and Allen when interviewed.

"It is great. It had been a long time since I had been at the Shad Planking. I had a great time last year," he said. "It is like a big family reunion because you get to see a lot of friends that you don't get to see very often, and everyone has a great time."

"[The Shad Planking] is a Southside Virginia institution, and it is a great opportunity for the Wakefield Ruritan Club to give back something to the community, and it is a great opportunity when the politicians take advantage of the event for both parties come out and meet-and-greet folks in the area," Obenshain commented.

Both parties were represented at this year's events, along with members of the Libertarian Party, including 2013 gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis speaking with voters. In an interview, he talked about why it was important for him to talk with voters at the Shad Planking as he bids for the U.S. Senate.

"You meet a lot of people [at the Shad Planking] and, since I have been here, people have come up to me and said they were excited about the campaign and were happy to see more choices on the ballot," he commented.

Mark Warner, who spoke at last week's event, marking his fourth speaking appearance at the Shad Planking, tied with Allen, remarked about the impact he sees the event having on Virginia politics.

"We are here celebrating a great Virginia tradition," he said. "We are not democrats or republicans; we are Virginians and Americans first and foremost," the former Governor said.

"We get together in these pines to celebrate that tradition and, also, the great work of the Wakefield Ruritans," Warner continued.

"Southside Virginia is a special part of our Commonwealth. I think about Bobby [Scott] and George [Allen] and those who have worked in politics for a while, the ties you get down here by serving in public office are important," he asserted.

As the event closed, Allen summarized the need for the Shad Planking to be apart of the Virginia community for years to come.

"I think politics has become too much about ongoing fundraising, racing from place to place, and there is not enough time to have a full discussion with people. [The Shad Planking] is a very casual and informal way of doing things," said Allen.

"The history of this event is the progress of Virginia, in many respects. People from all backgrounds are here now, and that is very positive. That makes [The Shad Planking] a very unique tradition that has adapted to the greater opportunities that we all aspire to for all Virginians," he closed.