BLUEFIELD, Va. -- Coal got big cheers in Monday night’s debate between Rep. Morgan Griffith (R) and Democratic challenger Anthony Flaccavento, the first campaign faceoff between the two men running for Virginia’s 9th congressional district.
In this town on the mountainous West Virginia border, coal as a debate topic stood for more than just energy policy. It represented the economic plight of the southwestern tip of Virginia, the struggles to combat opioid addiction, to obtain health care and create jobs and a future for a younger generation that’s moving away.
“I support coal!” Griffith thundered at one point, to raucous cheers from many of the 100 people attending the debate at Bluefield College.
“I am 100 percent pro-coal miner,” Flaccavento said, drawing a distinction to underline their differences.
Griffith, a lawyer and former state legislator seeking a fifth term in Congress, cast himself as a deep conservative who defends gun rights, opposes abortion and believes government should get out of people’s lives.
Flaccavento, a farmer and author, countered that he favors gun rights but also restrictions to prevent gun violence, and said government has an important role in helping people achieve individual success.
Against that backdrop, President Trump was a much more benign topic than in some Virginia debates this election season. Trump won the 9th District by some 19 points, his best showing in a state that overall went for Hillary Clinton.
“President Trump’s policies, aided by Congress, are moving the country in the right direction,” Griffith said. He said he supports Trump’s call for a wall to prevent undocumented immigrants from crossing the Mexican border - drawing vehement cheers of “build it!” from about half the audience. But Griffith added that a wall doesn’t have to be a physical structure - it can also mean drones, smart fences and other technology.
Flaccavento countered that he would not favor a wall, but said clarifying immigration policy and encouraging legal immigration would go a long way toward managing the border crisis that exists today. And he was careful in his approach to Trump, never harshly criticizing the president.
“I’m not running against Donald Trump, I’m running against Morgan Griffith,” he said. When the moderator asked Flaccavento if he would support impeaching Trump, should the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives, he said only that he believes special prosecutor Robert Mueller ‘s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election should run its course - drawing significant applause of his own.
Griffith called for the Mueller probe to wrap up soon. He tread gingerly on a different topic related to Trump - trade, and whether the administration’s tariffs were hurting farmers and manufacturers in the district. He said he needed to see the language on the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada to be able to judge it.
When Griffith said he wasn’t certain whether Trump was provoking a trade war with China but added that “the president is a master negotiator,” a sizeable portion of the unusually vocal audience let out loud laughter. Then the rest of the crowd tried to drown them out with applause.
Similarly, when Flaccavento suggested that he favored Medicare for all, a loud round of boos gave way to vehement applause from his supporters in the audience.
Despite the polarized audience, the candidates found agreement on several topics. Both said they opposed the two major natural gas pipelines being built through rugged parts of the state, especially the Mountain Valley Pipeline that’s coming through the district.
Both agreed on the need for government help to continue fighting opioid addiction that’s ravaging towns in that part of the state. And both supported the use of medical marijuana as an alternative for patients suffering from chronic pain.
But the sharpest divide - and strongest emotions from both the stage and the audience - came on the topic of coal.
Griffith seemed to grow angry as he described what he saw as a war on coal waged by the Obama administration. If Democrats succeed in winning control of the House, he said, “they will once again try to put a stranglehold on coal.”
Coal can compete, Griffith said, “if coal is given a fair chance.” Many in the audience cheered whenever Griffith mentioned coal, which has been central to the region’s identity for generations.
That left Flaccavento to try to turn the focus from the industry to the people who depend on it, arguing that while some types of coal used for making steel still has a market, the old appetite for burning coal for energy will never return.
“We need to build up the markets for metallurgical coal, and then we need to invest in other industries, businesses and jobs that will put coal miners back to work and will create an economy for their kids in the future,” Flaccavento said.
He drew loud applause but recent elections suggest that Flaccavento is facing a steep climb. He ran against Griffith in 2012 and lost by more than 20 points. Virginia’s Southwest has become increasingly red in recent years, though Flaccavento has kept pace with Griffith in fundraising. Flaccavento reported more than $500,000 in donations in the most recent quarter.
The candidates will face off in two more debates before the Nov. 6 election.