“We simply looked at what we were — tobacco, textile — knew that would be no more, and we started focusing on technology and energy and other kinds of projects for our city,” Mayor Sherman Saunders said recently as U.S. Senate candidate George Allen (R) was visiting Danville.
“We also focused on education, worker training and retraining.”
Two hundred and fifty miles to the north, the challenge is decidedly different in Arlington County: Workers are hard to find.
“We’re blessed and cursed, because we’re in Northern Virginia, where unemployment is effectively zero,” John B. Spirtos, chief executive of the energy-management firm GridPoint, told Timothy M. Kaine when the Democratic Senate candidate visited the company’s headquarters in bustling Clarendon.
The state’s jobless rate, at 5.9 percent, is among the lowest in the country, but it masks the reality that there are two Virginias. One, concentrated in the thriving Washington suburbs, has escaped much of the economic turbulence that buffeted the rest of the nation. The other, nestled in the southern and southwest regions of the state, is struggling to adapt to a world where manufacturing is no longer king.
For Allen and Kaine, popular ex-governors with deep ties across Virginia, success will be measured by how well each campaigns in both places. Polls give Kaine an advantage in Northern Virginia while Allen leads in the southern part as both campaign hard in the battleground state.
The race to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D) — one of the most anticipated Senate contests in November — is essentially tied, and in poll after poll, Virginians say jobs and the economy are their No. 1 concern. But that answer can mean something very different to different parts of the state.
“To have my tech friends in NoVa and my coal-mining buddies here and my oystermen on the Eastern Shore — that’s the part that’s really amazing about Virginia,” Kaine said recently in Floyd, southwest of Roanoke. “There are different challenges, [but] people want to talk about the same issues: economy, deficits, the budget and working together.”
Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said it is normal for large states to have some economic disparities.
“I think what’s maybe a little unique to Virginia is that the distribution is so one-sided: It’s Northern Virginia versus the rest of the state,” Fuller said, although he allowed that Hampton Roads “is not too bad economically.”
At GridPoint, Spirtos urged Kaine to work on allowing more H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers, a frequent topic of discussion in Northern Virginia’s technology sector.