Sunday, June 18, 2006

More on the Virginia Bloggers' Summit

You didn't think I would limit my discussion of the second annual Summit on Blogging and Democracy in the Commonwealth with just a few comments and a few more photos, did you?

After reviewing my notes -- mostly from the plenary sessions -- I realized I had enough material for an article that I could submit to the Metro Herald in Alexandria. So I drafted it and, a few minutes ago, I emailed it to the publisher along with some of the photos I took. (Don't worry, James, yours was not among them -- but I'll have them print it in the newspaper if you ask.)

So here is what I wrote. Comments are always welcome.

Political Bloggers Convene in Charlottesville
Rick Sincere
Special to the Metro Herald

(CHARLOTTESVILLE) – Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb gained “a movement of volunteers and benefited from national attention that was blog-driven,”Jerome Armstrong, an Alexandria-based blogger ( and political consultant, told the second annual Sorensen Institute Summit on Blogging and Democracy in the Commonwealth.

Armstrong, co-author of Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, was pointing to Topic A of the informal discussion among the nearly 100 bloggers, consultants, and political activists who gathered at the University of Virginia during the weekend of June 16-17. Was Jim Webb's primary victory on June 13 due to the influence of Virginia's extensive political blogosphere?

Robert Holsworth, a political scientist from Virginia Commonwealth University, echoed the question when he opened his own remarks about the 2006 Senate race by noting that “bloggers are taking credit for the Webb nomination.”

If attendance by leading political figures is any indication, the influence of bloggers on politics is being taken quite seriously. Three members of the House of Delegates – Kris Amundson of Fairfax County, Bob Brink of Arlington County, and Brian Moran of Alexandria – attended the conference, as did two statewide officeholders.

Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (who won a close race in November 2005 against state Senator Creigh Deeds, with results known only after a recount), gave the opening speech at the conference.

McDonnell, who admitted his own unfamiliarity with the medium by saying he was “just figuring out how to use a PC and email,” seemed far more comfortable addressing legal issues like defamation and copyright protection than he did in discussing the technology of blogging. His discomfort showed itself when, while reading from a prepared script he mispronounced the name of Waldo Jaquith, one of the most prominent Virginia bloggers, and the word “netroots” as “neat roots.”

Still, McDonnell – or his speechwriters – acknowledged the growing importance of blogging as a form of information technology, telling the conferees: “You are at the cutting edge of a new medium” and “an important part of the political equation.”

McDonnell singled out liberal blogger Kenton Ngo – a 15-year-old high school student from Fairfax County – as an example of how “blogging is a great way to empower youth.” As McDonnell put it: “He can't vote, he can't drink, but he can blog.” He then made a special effort to take a photograph of himself with Kenton (whose blog is called “750 Volts”), who had recently reported that he had just taken a picture of himself with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, McDonnell's chief rival for the 2009 Republican nomination for governor, spoke to the conference on its second day. Tongue-in-cheek, Bolling offered some praise: “Bob McDonnell is doing a great job as Attorney General – so much so that I hope the people demand that he serve at least eight years!”

For his part, Bolling seemed much more familiar and comfortable with the subject of blogging and using internet technology as a political tool. He admitted that “a year ago, I didn’t even know what a blog was, and now I’m looking at blogs and reading blogs and I’m worrying about whether you are saying nice things or nasty things about me on blogs,” adding that he is now doing blog interviews.

Bolling said that while blogging is “a great tool to communicate with voters and citizens,” it also can be used to “hold elected officials responsible for doing the things we say we're going to do” during the course of a campaign. Blogging, he said, “can be used to keep campaigns honest.”

In his own remarks, VCU professor Bob Holsworth offered analysis of the state budget crisis, the 2006 Senate campaign, and the prospect of two former governors (Mark Warner and George Allen) running for president in 2008.

On the 2006 budget crisis, Holsworth said it differed from the situation in 2004 (when Warner was still governor and 17 Republicans in the House of Delegates crossed party lines to support his budget proposals) because the issues are different.

In 2004, he said, the budget priority was education, something that brought apparent benefits to all localities, so all Delegates and Senators could go home and justify to their votes to raise taxes to their constituents.

In 2006, the top priority is transportation, which has limited regional benefits for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Legislators in other parts of the state have difficulty explaining to their voters that they are raising their taxes so that other people, elsewhere, can benefit from them.

Moreover, he said, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia have different economic situations, with Northern Virginia having a higher-than-average household income while Hampton Roads' is just below average. Northern Virginians, therefore, have both the means and, to a certain extent, the will to pay higher taxes to get better roads. Taxpayers in Hampton Roads do not share that affluence, even though their transportation challenges are similar.

Finally, even though Governor Tim Kaine won by a greater margin than his predecessor, even winning more votes in what used to be largely Republican parts of the state, he did not campaign on transportation so much as he did on education issues, for which he has a passion. Thus Kaine does not have a mandate from the voters to act on transportation, leading to a dearth of leadership and a protracted budget negotiation.

In regard to the 2006 Senate race, Holsworth said that Democratic candidate Webb faces “an uphill challenge” while incumbent George Allen is a “first-rate campaigner.” Allen, he said, “loves” to campaign; “he enjoys it.”

The Democrats, Holsworth explained, made a strategic choice in voting for a candidate whom they felt best stood a chance to beat the incumbent. They nominated someone, he said, “who looks great as a concept, but can he translate that concept into an actual candidacy?” Put another way, “Can he translate a virtual candidacy into a practical candidacy?”

Predicting the course of the campaign, Holsworth said that Webb will run a “national campaign” on issues like the war in Iraq, while Allen will “localize” his campaign, running “on what he has done for the Commonwealth and portraying Webb as an outsider who happens to live in Virginia.” He made a comparison to 1994, when Oliver North was a candidate known nationally who happened to live in Virginia, running against an incumbent with deep Virginia roots, Chuck Robb.

George Allen's name came up again in Holsworth's discussion of the 2008 presidential race, in which he and former Governor Mark Warner are both considered potential candidates for their respective parties.

The leading candidate for the Democratic nomination now is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, because she has a strong base of support within her party, would like to see a lot of challengers who will split the vote during the primary and caucus season.

Warner, said Holsworth, has to “fine-tune his message to get beyond the strategic orientation” (of who can win the general election against a Republican candidate), since much of the appeal of Warner's potential candidacy is in his background as a Democratic governor in a Republican-leaning Southern state, with a reputation for moderation and pragmatism. Democratic primary voters, on the other hand, may be looking for a liberal standard-bearer, such as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who is challenging Clinton from the left.

Holsworth explained that, to win the nomination over someone like Senator Clinton, Warner has to “appeal to the Democratic heart as well as the Democratic head.”

Allen does not face that sort of challenge with Republican voters. Holsworth said that George Allen's message already appeals to the Republican base, but the GOP primary voters will still be looking for a candidate who can win in November, which is why Arizona Senator John McCain is still touted as a frontrunner. The major question for Allen now is whether he can overcome the name recognition of McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and others who may join the field.

Democratic activist and author Jerome Armstrong argues that there will be a strong anti-McCain movement among conservative bloggers. He believes, he said, that George Allen and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee are the two potential Republican presidential candidates who can best “tap into the evangelicals on the 'Net,” who already have a strong, well-organized presence.

Armstrong predicted that, during the 2008 campaign, we will see “local bloggers covering the campaigns,” particularly in key states like Iowa and New Hampshire, which will result in those states famous “retail politics” gaining a national focus. These bloggers, Armstrong predicted, “will be ahead of reporters” and little will occur locally in the primary states without acquiring national interaction among bloggers and other commentators.

Other speakers at the conference included Washington Post correspondent Michael Shear, editorial writer Gordon Morse of the Newport News Daily Press, Josh Wheeler of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, campaign finance experts Chris Piper of the State Board of Elections and Claire Guthrie GastaƱaga of the Commonwealth Coalition, and Daniel Glover of Technology Daily.

The Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership sponsored the bloggers’ summit, which was partially underwritten by Verizon. For more information, visit

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Rick Sincere, a frequent contributor to The Metro Herald, blogs about politics, arts, and culture at


For more on the bloggers' summit, Bob Gibson, who attended the conference start-to-finish, has a report in the Sunday Daily Progress, as does Philip Stewart on WCAV-TV Channel 19.

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