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GOP, Dems gather for Virginia political talk and bony fish

Friday, May. 2 | By Jonathan Hunley
Wesley Fisher, son of Fauquier County Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Fisher volunteered at the Ed Gillespie tent during the 66th Annual Shad Planking, at the Wakefield Ruritan Club in Sussex County on April 16. Photo by John Boal
SUSSEX – Wesley Fisher probably hadn't done a taste test in front of a reporter before.

But the 19-year-old amiably tried a bite of shad that had been affixed to a wooden board and smoked over an open fire.

The fish was bony, of course. But, Fisher said, "Other than that, it's really good."

He may not have gobbled up the southern Virginia delicacy before, but the James Madison University sophomore was no stranger to the talk of the day.

That was politics, a topic in which he became interested at age 6. Back then, his dad, Fauquier County Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Fisher, hadn't even gotten involved with campaigns and elections.

But now they're a fascination for the younger Fisher, who was one of hundreds who attended the 66th Shad Planking on April 16 to talk politicking and scarf shad, cole slaw and more.

The Shad Planking is the Old Dominion's major political gathering of the spring. It's held annually on the grounds of the Wakefield Sportsman's Club by the local Ruritan Club.

The crowd was smaller than in some years. But it still included folks from across the state who made the trip to Sussex County and its town of Wakefield.

Some had lunch beforehand at the nearby Virginia Diner, which also provides food for the Shad Planking. Former governor and U.S. senator George Allen already was there when waitress Janine Kennedy sneaked a peek at newspapers on the table of a couple of out-of-towners.

Long sleeves were prevalent at the outdoor shindig this year, but Kennedy said attendees have shown up in shorts in previous, warmer years.

The cooler temperatures and fewer throngs didn't sully the time for Fisher, though.

The 2012 Kettle Run graduate said he toiled with a GOP club while in high school and now chairs JMU's College Republicans.

He worked on Mitt Romney's presidential efforts and on last year's attorney general run by state Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg.

But his current Republican mission is to get former White House adviser Ed Gillespie elected to the U.S. Senate.

Fisher said Gillespie is one of the "most brilliant political minds in America."

The presumptive GOP nominee faces a stiff challenge in trying to unseat popular Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, but Fisher said that his man wouldn't be running if he didn't think he could win.

When Warner voted for Obamacare, Fisher said, defeating the incumbent became "something that people can actually do."

Gillespie and Warner both attended the Shad Planking. They briefly exchanged pleasantries at one point, but the incumbent was the only one who was scheduled to speak at the event.

Warner took a few jabs at Gillespie, who spoke to a group earlier in the day, and even made a Justin Bieber joke during a short speech, his fourth at a Shad Planking.

But he also mentioned unity, a notion that can seem lost nowadays as Republicans and Democrats fight over a state budget in Richmond.

"Today, we're not Democrats or Republicans," Warner said. "We're Virginians, and Americans, first and foremost."

He said that lawmakers need to forge bipartisan relationships because Americans see that as a sign of work done not for a particular party but for the nation.

"That's been the Virginia way," Warner said, "and that's what I hope will continue."

Former Lt. Gov. John Hager, a frequent Shad Planking speaker, noted that idea, as well, as he introduced the commonwealth's senior U.S. senator.

The Republican, who also served in the cabinet of the Democrat Warner, said that Virginians have "more that unites us than divides us."

It was a line that seemed to underscore a moment just before, as everyone paused to hear the national anthem sung.

Hands were placed over hearts, whether those hearts beat under green Gillespie T-shirts or blue Warner stickers.

And eyes looked through the smoke of cigars and fish-cooking toward a U.S. flag hanging from a pole stuck in a pine tree.

At one point, the banner seemed to flutter slowly, as if it knew it was being watched. Watched by residents of a state that's not just blue, or red, but purple.

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