A 21-year-old Democratic wunderkind with close connections to Southwest Virginia's stripmining coal industry says he was the author of Republican Gov. John N. Dalton's proposal calling on President Carter to suspend federal regulations on stripmine reclamation for at least a year.
"I wrote the bill for the governor," said Joseph (Jack) Kennedy Jr., whose late father operated several stripmines in Wise County and who numbers among his friends some of the top figures in the state's growing coal industry.
The coal industry, including many stripmining firms, was a major contributor to Dalton's successful campaign last year, giving, according to records, at least $78,500. His Democratic opponent, Henry E. Howell, received at least $38,000, according to records.
Coal money as become a pervasive influence in Virginia politics, be they Democratic or Republican.
For example, young Kennedy's mother, Bobbie, the administrator of her husband's estate, was the largest contributor - $500 - to the 1975 campaign of State Sen. Joseph T. Fitzpatrick (D-Norfolk), the state Democratic party chairman, who also employs Jack Kennedy as his legislative aide. Wiley Carroll, the surviving partner of the senior Kennedy's stripmining operations, gave $1,000 to the Dalton campaign.
Dalton made his proposal Tuesday after he declared a state emergency because of the nationwide coal strike. The proposal, introduced in the House of Delegates as a joint resolution, which does not have the force of law, urges Carter to suspend new stripmining regulations so "the coal industry and the nation's electrical utilities (can have) a reasonable opportunity to recover from the coal strike."
Within a few hours of the governor's announcement, the House Mining and Mineral Resources Committee quickly passed the resolution, 7 to 1, before a small audience that included some of Southwest's stripmine operators.
The only committee members to vote against the measure, Del. James B. Murray (D-Albermarie), said, "I think it's a bad resolution . . . I feel they're using the strike, trying to get every bit of mileage out of the strike, to stop the reclamation regulations."
The regulations, which began affecting new stripmine operations in February and cover old operations starting in May, were opposed by both the industry and the state government. On Feb. 9, Virginia sued the U.S. Interior Department, which enforces the regulations. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, charges that the regulations "are arbitrary and capricious and in excess of statutory authority . . . "
One of the most outspoken critics of the regulations is Jack Kennedy, who said he went to Washington last year to testify against the pending legislation embodying the rules, which are designed to reclaim land scarred by stripmining and protect prime farmland from digging operations.
"Don't get me wrong," Kennedy said. "I'm for proper reclamation. But I also see it killing Virginia's surface mining industry."
If President Carter were to suspend regulations, new operations could begin immediately in Southwest Virginia under the present - and less restrictive - state stripmining laws. Tougher state laws conforming to federal but if enacted, they heeded Dalton.
"New operators are waiting to get going," said Edward S. Grandis, codirector of the Virginia Citizens for Better Reclamation Inc., an environmental group that supports full implementation of the federal regulations.
Grandis, whose group opposes the Dalton-proposed resolution in the Genral Assembly, said, "I think the governor is acting in good faith. But I feel it is very inappropriate that the governor has allowed his people to be manipulated this way."
Kennedy said he gave his draft of the resolution to a Dalton assistant, Joy Manson, last Friday. The official resolution sponsored by a bipartisan group of delegates, including there from Southwest, incorporated his draft ivrtually word for word, Kennedy said.
Two attempts to reach Manson for her version of what happened were unsuccessful.
Although Kennedy is only 21 - he is studying for a master's degree in regional planning at Virginia Commonwealth University - he is already making a political name for himself in Virginia.
On March 18, he will introduce Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb as the main speaker at the annual meeting of the Virginia Surface Mining Reclamation Association, which represents the stripmining industry.
Kennedy said he is not involved with the operations of the coal companies that had been jointly operated by his late father. But he said because of his promotional efforts on behalf of stipmining with less federal regulation, "It's fair to describe me as pro-industry."