Troubled Va. Town Gets Attention but Wants Action

Politicians Line Up to Visit Martinsville, But Promises Ring Hollow to Residents

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2009

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- No one in this tiny Southside mill town likes to be reminded of its tough luck, or its distinction of having the highest jobless rate in Virginia.

But there is a pushy group of job seekers who won't let anyone forget.

Politicians.

Ever since this city's textile and furniture plants collapsed a decade or so ago, political candidates of all persuasions have arrived for campaign stops that sometimes resemble bedside visits to a critically ill patient. The message is straightforward: In their hands, even the sickest will become well.

The attention has intensified with this year's race for governor. The three Democratic candidates in the June 9 primary -- R. Creigh Deeds, Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe -- have come calling. So has Robert F. McDonnell, the GOP's uncontested nominee.

In stump speeches, debates and bullet points, the city's 20.8 percent unemployment rate has become a set piece for a broader discussion of the state's recessionary woes.

What remains unclear to residents of Martinsville and similar textile towns across the industrial South is whether there is much of anything the politicians can do after the campaigns have passed by. Even President Obama, who toured Patrick Henry Community College's innovative motor sports training program in the fall with Gov. Timothy M. Kaine at his side, has not produced a prescription for the town's troubles.

Some have welcomed the public displays of concern.

"It's good if it helps bring attention to our situation," said Mark Heath, chief executive of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp.

Others resent serving as human bunting for a candidate's whistle-stop.

"Of course all the politicians show up in bandwagons," said Danny Turner, 53, who, as a City Council member and onetime aide to a former U.S. representative, qualifies as a politician himself. "You come down here, you better bring something. We're not your poster child."

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