It looked like the opening scene of "M*A*S*H" as the three helicopters fluttered down toward the big house on top of a scalped mountain here in the heart of Virginia's coalfields. But this was not war, at least not the kind where people get killed. The battle here is political, and the prize is the governorship.
Democrat Charles S. Robb came here last week in a skyborne convoy to proclaim that "coal will be the cornerstone" of his administration's energy policy. Less than 24 hours later, his opponent, Republican J. Marshall Coleman, also dropped into far Southwest Virginia, declaring the state's coal industry "a natural resource" that would be developed to the fullest if he is elected.
No single interest group has contributed more to Virginia's gubernatorial candidates than the coal industry, making the political power of Virginia's black diamond akin to that of Texas oil. Robb and Coleman have each received about $250,000 from coal operators, with many companies giving to both candidates, according to financial disclosure statements.
In the coalfields' rags-or-riches world of Bell helicopters, Lear jets and luxury cars, government regulation and environmental controls are dirty words. The candidates for governor visited this sparsely populated corner of the state at the height of the campaign to pay homage to the coal barons who had even provided the $1,050-an-hour in-kind use of three helicopters for Robb's tour.
Among those on hand when Robb's helicopters landed here Thursday night on a driveway next to an antique Rolls-Royce and two Mercedes-Benzes, was James W. McGlothlin, whose coal companies so far this year have given $30,000 to Robb and $25,000 to Coleman. Four years ago, McGlothlin and his six partners in the United Coal Co., and its subsidiaries gave $140,000 to the campaigns of Republican winner John N. Dalton and Democratic loser Henry E. Howell.
"We want to get their attention," McGlothlin said. "This way they come down here to see our problems."
The coal operators' contributions to Robb and Coleman appear to have done that. Within 96 hours of the filing of the financial reports, both candidates unveiled position papers on energy in which they pledged support of the state's right-to-work law, which has permitted non-union mines to proliferate in an area of strong union tradition, and to examine whether the restrictive environmental controls on the industry are really necessary.
As on other issues, the differences were more stylistic than substantive: Robb's plan was longer (48 pages compared with 7) and more fact-filled, while Coleman's was more specific and more conservative. Both promised to build more coal-haul roads from the mountains to the marketplaces, deepen the harbor at Hampton Roads to facilitate the export of Virginia coal, encourage research on greater use of coal and support the right-to-work law.
Coleman further promised to maintain the currently unregulated strip-mining sites of less than two acres, while Robb said it is one of the areas that "needs to be examined. The state may want to make adequate safegards, which now are void at the state and federal levels. We don't want the federal government to come in on this."
Robb said he also would "look at the abandoned and orphaned mines," which are the target of complaints by environmental groups. While the state "cannot point with pride" to them, Robb said, "we must look to the future, not at the past."
At the opening of a Scott County GOP headquarters in Gate City last Friday, Coleman pointed with pride to his unsuccessful challenge before the Supreme Court of the 1977 law that imposed many strip-mining regulations and criticized Robb for supporting President Carter, who signed it.
Robb was in Gate City the day before Coleman, where he told a high school government class the 1977 law was "too severe and unrealistic," particularly where it requires mined land to be returned to its original contours. The scalped mountain tops can be used as building sites or grazing land for cattle, he said. "There has to be a balance" between environment and development, he said.
In Jonesville, a miner sipping beer at the Candlelight Lounge agreed that federal land-reclamation laws are too strict. But the miner said he has little hope that either Robb or Coleman will keep their promises: "They just come here to get the money. We'll never get the roads we need to get the coal out. The four-lane roads never get beyond Roanoke."
At a press conference in Bristol, Coleman denounced Robb as "fuzzy" on the right-to-work law, saying Robb refuses to pledge, as Coleman does, "to send state police into the coalfields to protect our miners' right to work during union strikes." The law, which prohibits mandatory union membership as a condition of employment, has long been opposed by the state's labor movement.
Robb answers that some of Dalton's actions in support of the right-to-work law were "inappropriate," but says he also "will enforce the law." Robb said he will not make an "anti-union appeal" to lure new industry to Virginia.
Robb's more moderate stance has won the endorsement of United Mine Workers of America President Sam Church, and of John Kennedy, president of UMW District 28, which has 8,500 active and 6,000 retired members in Southwest Virginia. At a $200-a-person Robb rally at Claypool Hill, Kennedy said that while Robb will enforce the right-to-work law, "We would be very disapppionted if he sent troopers in two weeks before the contract expired."
At the unionized McClure No. 1 mine, owned by the Clinchfield Coal Co., which contributed $25,000 to Robb, the Democratic nominee donned white coveralls, and looking like Mr. Good Wrench, greeted sooty-faced miners as they emerged from an elevator at the top of a 415-foot shaft.
Jimmy R. Mullins, who has been working in the mines for 10 years, told Robb that Dalton's sending state troopers to the coalfields was unwarranted. "They nonunion mines sell coal while we're trying to get a contract," he said. "If it wasn't for the union, those guys would be working for minimum wage."
At a $50-a-person fund-raiser for Robb at the home of entrepreneur Paul Elswick here, nonunion mine owner McGlothlin said that the threat of unionization or environmental regulations does not motivate the generosity of the coal operators.
Although McGlothlin acknowledged that he would fight any attempt to unionize his 3,300 employes, he said "Unions are not a great fear." Some nonunion mines already pay wages higher than called for in United Mine Workers contracts, he said. And "the regulatory process has been preempted from the states" by the federal government, McGlothlin said.
What the industry does want, McGlothlin said, is help in improving "the quality of life" in coal-rich Appalachia. "We need 1,000 electricians right now in Buchanan County," he said. But without adequate housing, schools, roads, water, sewers and recreational facilities, it's difficult even to keep natives here in the hollows, he said. "There are more than 1,000 electricians in Detroit who need jobs," McGlothlin said, "but we can't get 10 of them to move down here."