With Senate and congressional primaries occurring throughout the state, many of which are likely to be decided by narrow margins, grassroots campaigns to woo every voter have been in full swing.
But one electoral contest has been particularly hotly contested. Its electorate is tiny, only 28 people, and the stakes are high, because the office of “state fruit” has no term limit. Since February, Kathleen Norton’s fourth grade class at Waynewood Elementary has been narrowing down a slate of candidates until only two emerged as nominees: apple and cantaloupe.
Bucking recent voting trends, this electorate is passionate about participating and has done extensive research into the different candidates. The students used encyclopedias and on-line sources, and consulted agencies like the Etymology Department at Virginia Tech, the state’s Department of Agriculture and the Library of Virginia. Considerations in selecting the candidates included the fruits’ earning power for the state, potential appearance on a license plate, historical importance, uniqueness in the field of state fruit, chances of acceptance by the legislator and taste.
But informal polling showed that uniqueness was the issue of greatest concern to the students. Taste was also a major consideration. By a margin of 19 votes to 9, cantaloupe was chosen by the students as the fruit they would present to State Senator Toddy Puller and Delegate Kris Amundson.
“No other state has it for their state fruit,” explained Avery Donahoe. In addition, Clare Spitnale said, “Cantaloupe has vitamins A and C, which helps your lungs and your eyes.”
The students found a pleasing symmetry in these health benefits, “We chose cantaloupe because it helps your lungs, and tobacco’s our cash crop and smoking hurts your lungs,” said Andrew O’Hern.
BUT AS HAPPENS so often in politics, the initial groundswell of grassroots support for cantaloupe may not be enough to carry it through to a victory in the statehouse. When Puller and Amundson came to visit the class on May 31, apple was back in the running. Concerned about cantaloupe’s electability at the state level, Norton, who wields major clout in the class’s fruit politics, used a teacher’s-privilege by law to return apple to the running.
The voices speaking out for apple were small in number, but they managed to wrest control of the debate. In an impassioned speech, Robbie Snow pointed out that apples were portable and could be eaten quickly, whereas cantaloupes require laborious slicing, and their rind is awkward to dispose. “We grow more. We make more money off it,” Snow said of apples. When cantaloupe proponents tried to get back on message, touting their fruit’s health benefits, Snow was able to spin the issue to his own fruit’s strength. “An apple can help stop cancer,” he said. “And it’s this big.” He made an apple shape with his fingers.
Both sides wooed the women with food. Apple crisp on one side. Cantaloupe balls on the other.
IN DELIBERATION, Puller said both sides had “done a lot. [But] I’m probably leaning towards the apple.”
Amundson agreed. “I think the students were persuaded by the uniqueness angle. But the roots in Virginia would be much more important to the General Assembly.”
“When you think of the valley of Virginia, you think of apples,” Puller said. One pillar of the apple advocates’ argument was the “ginger gold” apple, a unique variety discovered in Nelson County in 1988.
Historical associations aside, the race may come down to money. According to the class’s research, Virginia apples earned $29.2 million in 2004, while in 2001, cantaloupe brought in a paltry $1.5 million to the state.
When asked to rate the chances of the state fruit legislation’s passage in the General Assembly, Amundson did not raise hopes. “It could be difficult,” she said.
The General Assembly has decreed to the state a glut of symbols, including the state dog (American fox hound), state boat (the Chesapeake Bay deadrise), state dance (square dance), state shell (oyster), state fossil (Chesapecten jeffersonius) and state beverage (milk). Puller specifically mentioned the adoption of the state bat (the endangered Virginia Big Eared Bat) in 2005 as the saturation point for the Assembly. “It’s harder now,” she said, adding, “I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the House anymore.”
Amundson said she hoped that her position on the Rules Committee, where she predicts the bill will end up, may help her shepherd it through.
But regardless of the outcome, she praised the students’ effort, and their acumen for Virginia’s political mores. “They both found a way to make clear Thomas Jefferson grew [their particular fruit,]” Amundson said. “So they’re ready for the General Assembly.”