When Virginia state Del. James W. Robinson strode into The Shaft lounge on a weekend trip home from the legislature in Richmond, a table of acquaintances hailed him with shouts of "Hey, congressman, you're back!"
For Robinson, a Democrat whose district is tucked away in the remote Southwestern toe of Virginia, the mistaken identity has become almost commonplace: "Fifty percent of the people here think we work in Washington."
If Robinson's constituents find it confusing to make the proper political associations with Richmond, his colleagues at the state capitol frequently find it even more difficult to understand the politics of a region so isolated they call it "The Other World."
To outsiders it is a land apart, this region of strip coal mines and hard-times farms that stretches farther west than Detroit. It is a region cut off from the rest of the state by distance, with a terrain that even the biggest bulldozers have difficulty taming and the wretched economy of a coal boom gone bust.
Many in its legislative delegation live closer to seven other state capitals than to Richmond, which lies a seven- to eight-hour car drive to the east. The region is so isolated that the state government lends lawmakers a plane for the two-hour flight home each weekend the General Assembly is in session. For some members of the delegation, the closest airport is across the border in Tennessee, a two-hour automobile drive from their homes in Pound or Grundy or Wise.
"It's caused us to feel kin to Northern Virginia," said Sen. James P. Jones, a Washington County Democrat. "We both feel out of touch, out of step with the rest of Virginia."
But the kinship ends there.
"Our needs are so different," said Del. Joan Munford (D-Montgomery), during last weekend's flight back to her rural district. "It's hard to realize the need for Northern Virginia's six-lane roads when we don't have any roads."
"It's just as hard sometimes for us to get used to their problems as for them to judge ours," said Fairfax Democratic Sen. Richard L. Saslaw. "We have more people employed within one mile of Tysons Corner than they have in the entire 9th Congressional District. We just can't pretend they don't have problems down there, but they have a way of life that is totally different from ours."
It is a way of life that includes the medical clinic in the tiny valley town of Dungannon, which has been without a doctor for three years, largely because of its remote location.
It includes mountainous, rocky Lee County, which has a four-lane highway only three miles long. Most of the spaghettilike roads that hug the steep mountainsides are so narrow that school buses can't pass a car unless the car pulls off the roadway. The buses and the massive 20-ton coal trucks use CB radio communication to help prevent accidents around the hairpin mountain curves.
At a time when large portions of Virginia are become increasingly urbanized, Southwest Virginia is losing its already sparse population.
And while most of the state -- especially Northern Virginia -- is experiencing ravenous economic growth, the counties and towns of Southwest have some of the highest unemployment rates and lowest per capita income levels in Virginia. Coal field layoffs have become so massive that legislators three weeks ago persuaded Gov. Gerald L. Baliles to open a temporary state employment office in the courthouse in Grundy to save residents the 60-mile trip to the next nearest office.
In January the unemployment rate in the heart of the coal fields in Dickenson County was 23.1 percent -- seven times higher than the 3.3 percent unemployment in Fairfax County and three times the state average. Legislators say that the actual unemployment figure is closer to 30 percent if the count takes in miners who have been out of work so long that their unemployment benefits have run out.
The impact is evident everywhere. On the battered main street of Norton, blank storefronts stare out from the buildings that used to house a pet shop and an electrical company. Automobile sales are down, bank foreclosures on homes are up. School officials, who depend on coal severance taxes -- paid for taking the region's coal -- to finance new buildings and programs, are growing increasingly worried that those funds are drying up.
"In the mid '70s, everything was booming," said Rhonda Miller, an administrative assistant for Paramont Coal Co., which in November shut down one of its mines and laid off 125 workers. "Everybody thought it could last forever."
Declining oil prices and the importing of cheaper foreign coal have lowered demand for Virginia coal, prompting local officials to begin looking for a new economic base for the first time in this region's history.
The combination of a slowed economy and dwindling federal funds has made the annual legislative scramble for state money even more crucial.
Each January, members of the Southwest delegation attempt to take the portraits of their region back to Richmond where, Robinson said, they frequently find themselves debunking the image the rest of the state has formed about their communities: "We're not as hillbilly and ignorant as city folks believe."
Last year Del. Ford C. Quillen (D-Scott) asked for a special law to allow the Ramada Inn in Duffield to serve mixed drinks to compete with the new Holiday Inn in Norton, which offers liquor by the drink. This year, he has asked the legislature to give state utilities a tax break for using Virginia coal, a bill some lawmakers have dubbed the "coal relief act."
Most of the delegation's budget requests center on programs for the local colleges -- a $325,000 request to start a telecommunications program at Clinch Valley College and a request for a new health administration building at Mountain Empire Community College to train nurses badly needed in the area.
"Education is the key," said Jones. "Everything else is peripheral."
Those are the issues that the folks like Freddie Osbourne ask Quillen about when he stops by Nina's Grill in Dungannon for a Coke on a Sunday afternoon. On most other matters, Southwest Virginia legislators say they hear little from the voters back home, which gives them greater freedom on many issues than many other legislators in Richmond have.
"We get very little coverage of the legislature," said Jones, adding that most of the residents of his district watch Tennessee television stations and read Tennessee newspapers. "Our local people are cheated to some extent . . . . No constituent of mine knows how I voted on any issue unless I tell them."
When newspapers back in Robinson's Wise County publish legislative stories, Robinson said, "You get to control what they say" because their reporters never are in Richmond. "It makes it a lot easier unless you make a big faux pas in a speech. They're not right there to hear everything you say."
That's not unexpected for a region that feels a much more intense loyalty toward the athletic teams at the universities of Tennessee and Kentucky than with the teams at the University of Virginia.
During another economic crisis years ago, so many Lee County residents fled to job sites in Noblesville, Ind., that a Noblesville color guard returns every year to lead the Lee County homecoming and tobacco parade.
"I don't see where we help ourselves by forgetting we're part of Virginia," said Quillen. "But sometimes the people here do get that feeling."