Virginia’s Ed Gillespie Lands First-Round Voting Lead — But Has the Democratic Primary ‘Memory Fail’ Disconnected Voters From History?

In a district on Virginia’s outskirts that President George Washington once occupied, Democrat Ralph Northam has the election of his life. A mediocre Republican, Ed Gillespie, is the surprise front-runner. But Mr. Northam’s connection…

Virginia's Ed Gillespie Lands First-Round Voting Lead -- But Has the Democratic Primary 'Memory Fail' Disconnected Voters From History?

In a district on Virginia’s outskirts that President George Washington once occupied, Democrat Ralph Northam has the election of his life. A mediocre Republican, Ed Gillespie, is the surprise front-runner.

But Mr. Northam’s connection to George Washington goes way back. A long time. Back decades.

Federal buildings — on land once owned by Mr. Washington — are around the corner from his home and garden. A statehouse at the center of Capitol Square is named after him. Even the city where he served as governor, when he only held the power of executive agreement, still has a street named for him.

Just ask historians. And voters.

In a true masterstroke of political political-history whiplash, former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe — not long after Mr. Gillespie launched his campaign in early 2016, contrasting his experience in the private sector with his rival’s lack of political experience — upended Virginia’s political landscape by suggesting Mr. Gillespie had no business claiming responsibility for the work of two sons of the very man who served as Virginia’s first and longest-serving governor.

“I didn’t seek the office. I was asked to serve,” Mr. McAuliffe said then, referring to Mr. Washington, who had served only four years after being elected to an unprecedented two-year term in 1796. “And here in Virginia, two sons of Washington started the foundation of America’s General Assembly. George Washington didn’t want them to get into politics because he didn’t think it was good for them.”

Indeed, George Washington did not accept the office. (Nor, for that matter, did Thomas Jefferson, who after serving in the House of Representatives in Virginia was elected governor of Virginia by his state’s chamber of assembly, Congress’ precursor.) Instead, the eldest son, Patrick, and the youngest, Philip, both served for a year or so as legislative deputies, up to the day that he was assassinated in 1799 at Mount Vernon.

But more than a decade earlier, Mr. Washington and the others who would begin the modern tradition of sending one or more members of the Washington family to the Virginia General Assembly had opted for a different path — a more traditional path.

Both Patrick and Philip had been U.S. consuls, but based in Philadelphia, and decided to take jobs in the Commonwealth as legislative assistants to their father. (The Washington boys had once thought about pursuing politics.) That’s how they managed to see him for the first time in two decades, on July 24, 1793, in Yorktown — the site of the deadly battle in which Gen. George Washington had defeated British troops. After barely a year, however, they all moved on to become George Washington’s horses.

“Mostly, they ran from politics and Washington was the one who made them into a way of life,” George Mason, a prolific Democratic politician of his time, wrote in his autobiography, describing the political career of Patrick Washington.

In fact, the Washington politics involved a lot more than getting elected. The Washington boys built their statehouse building on what was said to be an old orchard.

So much so that Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who served briefly as the basis for Lafayette in Melville’s “Moby Dick,” took over the horse business after Patrick Washington’s death. Though Forrest’s tenure as governor ended after just three months, the political lore in Virginia dates to his challenge of Washington in 1797.

“He’s in one of the first purported campaigns of public financing,” said Paul Wathen, a Virginia history professor and historian. “It would have been quite an achievement to finance a gubernatorial campaign.”

Richmond actually got its first legislative building in 1769, from the same “father,” Thomas Jefferson, who gave the cause his name. And thus began the tradition of handing down the selection of the state’s political horses from one Washington to the next.

Asked after Mr. Gillespie announced his presidential campaign in May 2016 about the old school Washington politics that had led to their campaign team, Democrats and Republicans alike say that Mr. McAuliffe had no business suggesting that Mr. Gillespie would have been bad for the country and was therefore clearly an outlier.

“It’s so wrongheaded,” said Todd Haymore, an independent who lives in the district, about 15 miles west of the capital. “He’s being a political opportunist.”

— James Edwards is a San Antonio-based correspondent for Fox News Channel. He formerly covered the statehouse for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter: @jasetownsend

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