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Va. Democrat from Appalachia hopes to quell anger among voters

By Amy Gardner
Thursday, February 18, 2010; A01

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.

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.

"He wants to be a damn dictator," said Alex Hill, 70, a retired miner, police officer and onetime moonshiner, while getting his hair trimmed at Peoples Barber Shop on Main Street in Wise.

Race is also a factor. Sometimes it's subtle, such as when Obama is described as un-Christian or un-American. Other times, slurs directed at Obama are part of the normal conversation.

Race adds another challenge for Boucher, who enthusiastically endorsed Obama early in the 2008 Democratic primary. In a year when defining himself apart from Washington is crucial to his survival, Boucher has chosen to align himself with a president whom some of his constituents will never support.

"Candidly, yes, I think some people are motivated by these more traditional attitudes," Boucher said. "It's unfortunate, but it's a fact."

An advocate for coal

Boucher is a native of Abingdon, Va., about 10 miles from Tennessee, but his horn-rimmed glasses, woolen trousers and absence of mountain twang contribute to a professorial demeanor that can seem out of touch with the gritty reality of his district.

Boucher might not look the part of 9th District congressman, but he is well-known and well-liked as an advocate for the coal, tourism and music industries. He voted against the House version of the health-care bill because it would have threatened several hospitals in his region. He has a long record of trying to produce jobs to replace those lost in the coal industry. And he is credited with helping transform southwest Virginia into one of the most wired rural regions in the country.

But Republicans promise that history will be less potent this year, in part because of Boucher's support for the American Clean Energy and Security Act -- commonly known as cap and trade and seen here as a fatal blow to the coal industry.

The dominance of coal is everywhere in this region: in the reflective stripes on the cuffs and knees of the miner buying his breakfast; in the bumper sticker on the pickup that reads, "Earth First: We'll mine the other planets later"; in the Wal-Mart on the high, flat plateau that was once a mountaintop before a coal company blasted it away.

Mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining, is a testy topic in these parts. It is seen by environmentalists as a water-quality catastrophe, but most residents view it as essential to their livelihood and the nation's energy capacity. It enrages residents that Obama doesn't seem to get that.

"You can't just snap your fingers and make it go away if you don't have anything to replace it," said Vince Justice, who said he will not vote for Boucher because of his position on cap and trade.

Voters such as Justice deeply frustrate Boucher because he agrees with them. Boucher is at odds with Obama over surface mining, and he is trying to persuade regulators not to impose new rules that he said would delay permits, close mines and put miners out of jobs.

Boucher's support for cap and trade was good for his district, he said, because he negotiated major concessions for the industry. And if Congress does not begin regulating carbon emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency will -- without those concessions, Boucher said.

"On cap and trade, there is real misunderstanding on my role and what the bill was designed to do," he said.

A Republican opportunity

Like dozens of Appalachian communities, Wise County defied the national trend in 2008 and voted overwhelmingly more Republican than it had four years earlier. Republicans hope to capitalize on that and take down a long-serving incumbent.

"This is a district that has been in the hands of the Democrat Party for decades," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, who represents Virginia's 7th District. "A reversal of that and election of a Republican will speak volumes about the success that we look forward to having in November."

Some constituents who know Boucher well say they will support him even this year.

"He has brought jobs to the area. He has brought technology to the area," said Matt Taylor, the owner of a small information technology company, who comes from a mining family and did not vote for Obama.

Back at Peoples Barber Shop, Robert Breeder, 70, a retired miner, said he isn't sure whether he'll support Boucher, primarily because he's a Democrat.

Over the buzz of clippers and George Jones singing "He Stopped Loving Her Today," Breeder and Hill, the other retired miner in the shop, made clear how strongly they feel.

"You know there's very few homes around here that doesn't have weapons," Hill said. "The bigwigs up in Washington don't want us to have guns."

"You wonder why they don't," Breeder said.

"I know why," Hill said: Guns equal power, and this government doesn't want regular people to have power.

"The Republicans gave the Democrats the majority -- why? Because they didn't know how to keep their hands out of the till," Hill said. "But the Democrats, they're trying to push all these things on the American people. And we don't want it."

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