DANVILLE, Va. -- George W. Bush promised there would be better times for people here. That's what Burnett Martin remembers. But as he loads and unloads an ever-shrinking haul of tobacco leaves at Motley's Warehouse, what the 62-year-old floor manager sees is a way of life that is withering away. The cavernous building where farmers drop off their yield for sale to dealers is filled with the sickly-sweet smell of tobacco. Once the crop filled more than a dozen warehouses, but now it barely fills this one.
Textile mills have moved abroad. They had provided jobs to a third of the people in this city of about 48,000 just north of the border with North Carolina. Today, their former employees struggle to find work.
Burnett Martin, 62, at work at Motley's tobacco warehouse in Danville, Va., says he plans to vote Democratic in November. He hopes change in the White House could help Southwest Virginia's struggling economy.
(Jay Paul -- For The Washington Post)
And so Martin says it's time for a change. Despite his support for President Bush's invasion of Iraq, Martin plans to vote for the Democrat, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, on Nov. 2. He's exactly the kind of voter Kerry needs to have a chance of winning Virginia's 13 electoral votes.
"It used to be, you got up every morning and you knew you were going to work," said Martin, who has lived just outside Danville all his life. "But now, it's all changed. Now, you get up and you don't know whether you'll be laid off today. I don't know how much [Kerry] can do. I don't know how much any of them can do. But I think it's time we make a change and find out anyhow."
A vote for Kerry is by no means a given here. In 2000, Bush won 56.6 percent of Virginia's rural vote, according to statistics compiled by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Al Gore won 40.3 percent of the rural vote. Four years earlier, former senator Robert J. Dole beat President Bill Clinton among rural voters.
Bush is a "first-class president," said farmer Roy Pritchett, 64, as he dropped off 6,018 pounds of tobacco from his 32-acre farm. Pritchett will get about $1.65 a pound for the leaves, many of which are destined for cigarette companies in Japan and elsewhere abroad.
"The other guy, all he does is promise," Pritchett said of Kerry. "You talk about flip-flops. I'm all Bush, I'll just tell you."
But Kerry, who supports a federal buyout of tobacco growers that farmers are pushing for in Congress, has many fans in this area.
Andrew Shepherd, a tobacco farmer who represents Danville on a national tobacco policy board, said he's decided to turn away from the Republican roots in his family and vote for Kerry.
"I was born and raised a Republican," he said. "I'm probably the only one in my family who would call himself a Democrat, and I've got 52 first cousins."
Shepherd said Bush initially expressed doubts about the proposed tobacco buyout but later said he supported it. He and other farmers said that has generated doubt in a community that strongly supported his campaign four years ago.
"Bush promised us a lot when he was elected four years ago," said Darrell Jackson, 42, who runs a tobacco farm in nearby Henry County. "So far, I don't see anything but my quotas going down and my expenses going up."
Jackson said he is "leaning toward" voting for Kerry, in part because of Kerry's choice of Sen. John Edwards of neighboring North Carolina for vice president.
"Edwards is from a textile family. So I'm thinking maybe he will remember where he came from," Jackson said. "I voted for Bush. Campaigned for him. That's the only reason I'd vote for the Democrats this time -- to get Edwards in there."