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Va. Democrat from Appalachia hopes to quell anger among voters

Rep. Rick Boucher, right, talks with Del. James M. Shuler (D-Montgomery) after an announcement about stimulus funds.
Rep. Rick Boucher, right, talks with Del. James M. Shuler (D-Montgomery) after an announcement about stimulus funds. (2009 Photo By Eric Brady/roanoke Times)

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By Amy Gardner
Thursday, February 18, 2010

WISE, VA. -- The anger at Washington that is seeping across the country registered a while back in the high ridges of Appalachia, a once-indomitable Democratic stronghold where voters turned away from President Obama in 2008 just as overwhelmingly as they embraced him most everywhere else.

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Voters in Virginia's 9th Congressional District are mad that the government has spent hundreds of billions to fix an economy that seems only to deteriorate around them. They're fearful of a federal takeover of health care. They're petrified that proposed emissions limits would destroy the coal industry that provides most of the region's jobs. And they want no part of a president they view as elitist and unlike them.

That anger, combined with the area's traditional Democratic ties, makes this mountainous region -- and a wider, rural arc from southern Ohio to Arkansas -- a prime battleground in this year's congressional elections. Democrats have been losing ground here for a generation, but 2008 brought a seismic party shift that Republicans hope to make stick in November. Already, four of the region's remaining Democrats have announced their retirements.

Even Rep. Rick Boucher, a 14-term incumbent who hasn't faced a strong challenger since the Reagan years, is in peril, prompting him to shift into campaign mode months earlier than usual and before Republicans have chosen his opponent. Whether he -- and other Democrats like him -- can hold on will probably determine whether his party can continue to control Congress.

In the "Fightin' 9th," Boucher's support of the coal industry and efforts to modernize the local economy give Democrats their best chance to hold a seat they can't afford to lose. But in a year when incumbency appears to be as much a burden as a boon, Boucher's race will be a test of whether the intensity of anti-Washington anger will outweigh the power of long-standing service.

To win, Boucher will attempt to keep the race local, focused on what he has done for his district in his years in Congress. Republicans will attempt to nationalize the race, casting Boucher as just another Democratic vote for a socialist president and his liberal friends in Congress.

"It's a challenging time, undeniably," Boucher, 63, said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office, where O. Winston Link's photos of Appalachian steam engines evoke the region's past glory. "The economy is foremost; that creates a huge amount of angst, uncertainty and disquiet. That, I think, is the largest single problem that anyone in government faces."

'A damn dictator'

In Wise County, about 400 miles southwest of Washington, the area's Democratic loyalties have faded with the decline of coal and the union workers who manned the mines. That trend has been exacerbated by an aversion to Obama, who has precipitated a dramatic shift in party leanings and an open antipathy.

Over biscuits, grits and eggs at the Huddle House restaurant on a recent snowy morning, home builder Wayne Sturgill said 2008 was the best year his business ever had -- and 2009 the worst since the 1970s. Sturgill blames Obama: "We got a carbon copy of Jimmy Carter up there," he said, prompting his pals to nod in agreement.

Richard Holmes, 61, a property manager sitting in the next booth, leaned around with a wide grin that was followed by an off-color joke about Obama and stimulus spending.

"Oh, yeah," construction worker David Graham, 34, said, laughing. "If you think you got an extra dollar left, he'll come back around for you!"

Residents talk often of their "pridefulness" and independence. But they feel like criminals when politicians try to take their guns away, like children when they're told they need health care and like villains when coal is blamed for destroying the environment although it provides most of the region's jobs and half of the nation's power. They assume that Obama doesn't get any of this -- or doesn't care.


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