Long before he acknowledged that he would be a candidate for the U.S. Senate, Oliver L. North came to Denbigh to turn his considerable charm and fund-raising abilities on supporters of political novice Melvin Bailey.

North’s appearance at a barbecue helped Bailey raise $2,000 for his House of Delegates race, a tiny amount by the standards of the Iran-Contra figure’s money-raising machine, but plenty for Bailey, who called it the “crowning event” of his unsuccessful campaign last fall.

Bailey isn’t going to forget it.

Next month, he and some of the others who went to the barbecue will have a chance to repay favors from North. Bailey is among as many as 14,000 delegates expected to converge on Richmond for the Republican Party convention to pick a nominee for the U.S. Senate.

North is the front-runner in a race against James C. Miller III for the nomination, in large measure because of the Mel Baileys of Virginia, the friends North has made and the gratitude he has earned at literally hundreds of such gatherings he has attended since 1991.

Bailey said he would have been in North’s camp anyway, even if the former Marine hadn’t helped him out. But North’s visit didn’t hurt. And, in any case, North had a chance to meet 140 other people at the Colony Friends Church that afternoon last September.

“It helped me raise the money I needed to raise,” Bailey said. “And, of course, he’s meeting people that he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to meet. It does two things: it helped him and it helped me.”

North has crisscrossed Virginia repeatedly, attending fish fries, barbecues and breakfasts, speaking at Republican dinners, signing autographs, shaking hands and posing for pictures with fans who want a brush with celebrity.

In effect, he has been running for office for more than three years, though he officially announced his candidacy only in January.

He has traded on the fame he gained from the televised congressional hearings into the Iran-Contra scandal. Throughout his travels, he has carefully built relationships with the grassroots Republicans who will choose the party’s Senate nominee on June 4.

Republican activist Jim Ferreira of Abingdon in Southwestern Virginia said North has made three major tours in his area. Ferreira calls it party building, and he said North did a great job of it.

“This guy has taken the opportunity he was given and used it to help us,” Ferreira said, referring to North’s fame. “We appreciate it.”

When North showed up in some of those rural areas, his well-known face had a galvanizing effect on many people, Ferreira said. North attracted heavy press coverage and big crowds, all of which substantially helped the Republican Party, he added.

North devoted enormous amounts of time and more than $1 million in cash to building support. He was able to do so because of the celebrity he had won for his controversial role in the Iran-Contra affair – and because of the donations he could extract from conservative sympathizers, most of them from outside Virginia.

North’s fund-raising abilities were proven when he went to the public for money for his legal defense fund to fight his prosecution on charges stemming from the Iran-Contra affair. Those charges resulted in convictions but were overturned because he had been granted immunity from prosecution in return for congressional testimony.

In 1991, a group of his supporters began to tap into North’s proven appeal to conservatives by launching a political action committee called For Liberty in American Government PAC. Its name was later changed to V-PAC. North was listed as “honorary chairman” of V-PAC.

V-PAC not only gave North plenty of cash to disburse to Republican candidates but allowed him to fly around Virginia in a private plane at no cost to him or the candidates he was helping.

A spokesman for North’s senatorial campaign, Mark Merritt, said recently that V-PAC had given about $750,000 in direct contributions to candidates over the years. These gifts included $2,500 to George Allen’s successful campaign for governor and $3,500 to Mike Farris’s unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor, both last year.

But North’s organization doled out plenty of money in local races, too. For example, in December 1992, when Jim West, a Newport News city councilman, was running unsuccessfully for the state Senate, North’s V-PAC gave him $4,000.

And during last year’s general election campaign, V-PAC passed out $33,000 to 44 candidates for the House of Delegates, in contributions ranging from as little as $250 to as much as $2,000.

V-PAC’s total expenditure exceeded $1 million after the costs of transportation, meals and lodging for North and his staff, said Merritt, who was executive director of the PAC when it was founded.

North’s painstaking cultivation of political activists around the state, especially in the more rural areas, has been perhaps the shrewdest aspect of his bid for the Senate, said Robert D. Holsworth, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

“Certainly when somebody with the celebrity status of Oliver North goes to parts of the state that are not so well-trodden, that’s remembered,” Holsworth said.

“He demonstrated a concern for the ordinary rank-and-file Republicans,” Holsworth said. “And he accumulated a lot of chits which I think he hopes they will repay.”

It is unclear when North decided he would run for office. He declined a request for an interview for this story and did not respond to a series of written questions that Merritt said North would answer.

But as far back as 1990 North formed an “educational foundation” that he said would deal with politics on a grassroots level. At the time, he told a newspaper in Loudoun County, near Washington, that he had no political aspirations of his own, but coyly added: “My daddy used to tell me, `Never say never.’ “

By the following year, North was making regular forays into small towns around the state for political events. After one such fund-raising luncheon for Suffolk Republicans in October 1991, North deflected questions from reporters about whether he would be running for office.

Without denying an interest, North replied that he already held “two of the highest offices in the nation: those of husband and father.”



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