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At a time when new technology and social media are transforming politics, we turn to a truly old-fashioned campaign event. It's an annual festival known as the Shad Planking, a rite of spring in Virginia politics with nearly 70 years of history. It's a must-attend event for state politicians, who practice the oldest form of retail politicking among tall pine trees at a dusty campsite. NPR's Brakkton Booker traveled to the Shad Planking and sent this report.
BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: In Wakefield, about an hour southeast of Virginia's capital of Richmond, shad fish have been roasting by on an open fire since 5:00 a.m. They're nailed to oak planks. By early afternoon, this oily, bony fish, which is now seared onto the plank, needs to be scraped off, chopped up and served to the hundreds gathering here for the annual Shad Planking.
At the entranceway to the event, Hank Pedigo greets attendees as he collects tickets. He's a one-man welcome wagon.
HANK PEDIGO: Welcome everyone, tear your yellow ticket down the middle, hand your map in right up here on the righthand side. Thank you for coming.
BOOKER: The Shad Planking is the premier occasion on the commonwealth's political calendar. And if you're a candidate, you'd better show up. That's according to Pete Snyder, who ran for lieutenant governor last year. He didn't win, but he's back, this time for the sheer fun of it. He says, even in a big state like Virginia, there's an intimacy to its politics.
PAUL SNYDER: Virginia is a large state, geographically, but it's a small state in political circles. And here you get to see all the candidates up close and personal, where you get to squeeze the Charmin of these candidates, put them on the spot and see what they think about issues.
BOOKER: Virginia isn't the only place where you'll find a big, old-timey event like this. Iowa has the Harkin Steak Fry. Arkansas has the Gillett Coon Supper. There's the Wausau Possum Festival in Florida and the Fancy Farm Picnic in Kentucky, just to name a few. But Snyder says the Shad Planking, held in the backwoods of southside Virginia, is a timeless event that captures the essence of retail politics.
SNYDER: It's a throwback to a bygone era when people have a beer, get to talk up close and personal, you don't need the filter of cable news to get to see your candidates.
BOOKER: And what better way to get to know a candidate than over a cold brew? Even better if that candidate serves it to you for free.
ED GILLESPIE: Thanks for being here today. Can we get you anything? Do you need a beer, popcorn? (Unintelligible)
BOOKER: That's Ed Gillespie. At his tent, he's handing out beers while answering questions about energy policy and jobs and Obamacare. He's a former Republican National Committee chairman and the likely GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate this year. Gillespie's opponent is the event's featured speaker, incumbent Senator Mark Warner. Warner struck a light note with this Republican-leaning crowd.
SENATOR MARK WARNER: Looking at this crowd, I realize I'm here as an endangered species, a Virginia Democrat. Looking around the crowd, that's kind of like Republican women here as well, not many of either one of us. I knew I'd get them.
BOOKER: That kind of good-natured rhetoric and the neighborly atmosphere won over Dee Hoy, a first-time shad planker. She admits she wasn't a fan of the taste of shad fish. Sitting in a camping chair with the aptly named band, Common Ground, playing bluegrass in the background, Hoy says she'll be back next year.
DEE HOY: I enjoyed it. I loved the music and the speakers were great. It was a good time, a very good time.
BOOKER: A good time and a promising start to Virginia's campaign season. Brakkton Booker, NPR News.