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Beyer Talks Up Life After Tobacco

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 1997; Page B01

Vilified by Southside Virginia farmers for supporting the national tobacco settlement and federal regulations against teen smoking, Donald S. Beyer Jr. is using his Democratic campaign for governor to push an economic plan for the region that points to a life beyond the Golden Leaf.

The lieutenant governor recently made his first presentation to farmers in Danville, not in a tobacco field, as his Republican opponent did, but in a community college library.

The place he chose spoke volumes. Although Beyer, a Northern Virginia businessman, is advocating lots of aid for tobacco farmers -- continued crop insurance and price supports and a "substantial" share of any settlement -- he emphasized a larger vision of office parks, high-tech centers, new roads and better schools. It would be his foundation for a "Southside Century."

Implicit in his pitch was this message: Tobacco is under assault in the United States, and it is gradually losing its importance in the region, so we need to look at new opportunities.

That's bitter medicine for people whose livelihood, for generations, has depended on the crop, which pumps about $186 million into the state's economy. But Beyer says diversification is key to the community's survival.

"The world's changed," he said, dressed in a business suit and standing next to a bank of computer terminals. "We need to make sure that people have the education and skills they need. The big-picture writing on the wall is that information and knowledge jobs are dominating this economy and will be for the next 100 years."

Political analysts say Beyer's message about a new Southside reality may be harsh for some, but those are votes he would have had difficulty snagging anyway. The implied theme of tobacco's decline aligns with the Democrat's philosophy on the future of the work force, they say.

"It's in concert with Don Beyer's overall message from Northern Virginia: that high technology is the wave of future economic development," said William Wood, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership in Charlottesville.

"For folks whose livelihood is dependent upon tobacco, Don's not going to get many of those votes. But he never was anyway. And he has a larger message which is consistent with his overall message: economic development."

Beyer's expressions of support for farmers were immediately dismissed by his GOP rival, former state attorney general James S. Gilmore III, as yet another example of Beyer flip-flopping on an issue, this time by trying to cast himself as farmer-friendly.

"He's a liberal politician with no credibility," said Mark Miner, Gilmore's spokesman. "He's been fighting tobacco farmers for two years now. Now he goes to Southside to make up lost ground."

Other GOP critics say Beyer is trying to play it both ways -- appeal to health-conscious voters in Northern Virginia and appease farmers in Southside. "He's a walking Mason-Dixon Line," said Mike Salster, spokesman for the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, John Hager, a former tobacco company executive. "He says one thing up north and another thing down south."

In an interview, Beyer said tobacco will always have a role in Southside Virginia. "But the jobs that we create in Virginia and America in the next 25 years are going to be based on what we know, primarily, much more than what we grow or what we get out of the ground," he said.

Back in Danville, two tobacco growers stood quietly to the side of the college library, taking stock of the politician. They cautiously praised Beyer's ideas for economic development but said they would reserve judgment until they had a chance to share his plan with other growers.

"This is really the first thing we've heard from Don Beyer," said J.T. Davis Jr., a crop insurance specialist, adding that he considered Gilmore "tobacco-friendly" for his opposition to Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco. "When it comes to voting, the tobacco growers are going to look at who best is going to meet their economic needs."

Out in the rolling hills of tobacco, a more raw sentiment emerges.

"No More Taxes or Bans on Our Tobacco," shouts a sign off Route 360 west, next to the Charlotte County tobacco farm of C.W. Vaughan and his 20-year-old son, Charlie.

It was the younger Vaughan who got so fired up about the federal assault on tobacco a year ago that he hand-lettered the sign and stuck it high on the road shoulder for all to see. He hopes Beyer takes notice.

"Don Beyer's coming down here to Danville, to tobacco country, to say all this about supporting us," he said. "Why isn't he saying it in Richmond?"

C.W. Vaughan, 56, grudgingly allowed that Beyer has a point about the changing economy. But it still hits him in the gut. "The future of tobacco doesn't look good now," he said. "It's been here 400 years. And all of a sudden it's gone."

A grower of flue-cured tobacco like his father before him, C.W. Vaughan farms 40 acres. He gave up cigarettes and said he doesn't want children to smoke. "But don't you think that's where the parents ought to come in?" he asked. "It ain't up to Uncle Sam to tell us how to raise our kids."

Charlie Vaughan said he fears for his father. "He's been in it for 30 years," he said. "He doesn't really know anything else. I can kind of go into something different."

In fact, the young farmer, who has a Virginia Tech degree in animal agriculture, has taken out a $220,000, nine-year loan to build hog houses. Just in case.

Beyer has proposed $40 million in economic development incentive grants for distressed regions such as Southside, Southwest and the Eastern Shore. He has proposed tax credits for businesses that retrain workers and a sports center to attract tourists to Southside.

Beyer would not say what percentage of the federal settlement he thinks tobacco farmers should get, but said that some of Virginia's share should be reserved for public health programs.

At a cantaloupe festival set amid the tobacco farms of Halifax County, just up the road from Danville, Beyer made a stop last week to greet prospective voters. A man who had noticed signs leading to the festival saying, "Don Beyer, Stay Off Our Farms," asked Beyer for his opinion of tobacco "in 20 words or less."

Beyer smiled wanly and launched into a well-rehearsed response. "Number one, we have to be aggressive in protecting children," he said. "I supported the FDA regs that are in the settlement now. . . . But I also think we need to make sure we support our tobacco-growing communities."

The candidate said he does not expect to be greeted with open arms by tobacco farmers. He knows his stands have made him unwelcome in tobacco country.

"The only way I can address it is to come to Danville and to Halifax and to show up and say, `I'm not the enemy,' " he said. "I think we're all striving for the same things."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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