Things are kicking off in Virginia’s Ninth Congressional District as the midterm election season is in full force. Incumbent Republican Morgan Griffith is being challenged by Democratic candidate Anthony Flaccavento for the seat in the sprawling rural district that is home to Virginia’s coalfields. As the Democratic hopeful hit the campaign trail Saturday, he teamed up with former 28-year congressional representative Rick Boucher, who was met with campaign relics from the past emboldened with white letters on a black background that led him to be unseated years ago.
As word spread throughout southwest Virginia that Flaccavento invited Boucher to join him on the campaign trail for two weekends, Griffith supporters dug through their basements, garages, and storage centers to unearth their black signs with “BOUCHER BETRAYED COAL” in bold white letters, carrying them around the coalfields where the Democratic candidate and Boucher were appearing. Joining them were pro-Griffith signs and others proclaiming “Trump Digs Coal!” as reported by The Roanoke Times.
Eight years ago, the Koch brothers-backed conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, flooded the coalfields with the signs to voice their opposition to America’s winding down of coal production. One year prior, then-Congressman Boucher took a risky bet when he voted for a 2009 cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse gases, which cost him in the end. During that election season, Griffith hammered the incumbent on that decision, saying it would kill the coal industry and the region’s economy.
Griffith, a 17-year member of the General Assembly and former House of Delegates majority leader, rode to victory on the Tea Party wave after campaigning on the issue of coal and then-President Barack Obama’s reticence towards it.
Much of that sentiment resurfaced this past weekend as people were reminded of the days went the region’s coal-based economy took a swift downturn.
“Rick Boucher has not been back in this area in eight years since the voters kicked him out, and now that Obama is out, he thinks everybody has forgotten about him supporting cap-and-trade and not supporting coal, so I’m here to remind them,” said Buchanan resident Bobby May, who spent the day along a roadway with signs in Dickenson County.
When Obama was in office, regulations stemming from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strangled the local economy that is rooted in coal mining. May told reporters that his son lost his job in the coal mining industry during that time. Though, he is now back at work in coal, citing President Donald Trump for reviving the industry.
University of Virginia Center for Politics has classified the southwestern congressional seat “safe Republican,” but the race is likely to be dominated not by national political issues, but coal and the jobs it brings to the area.
While campaigning, Griffith cited his track record of his time in Congress of being “a friend of coal and miners,” and standing up to the EPA’s stringent regulations. For example, Griffith was integral in securing $10 million in federal funding for treatment of miners with black lung. According to the report, it was the first time in two decades both Congress and the White House agreed to provide the maximum funding authorized by the Black Lung Benefits Reform Act of 1977.
Griffith does acknowledge, however, that the coal industry in Virginia must diversify if people are to thrive in his area. He said, “Will coal ever get to where it was? No.”
The congressman explained how he had gotten the Commonwealth included with other coal-producing states to receive funding to reclaim abandoned mine land for alternative uses. On project that is currently being undertaken is renovating the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine to be modeled as a tourist attraction, with other similar projects beginning soon.
Not to take all the credit, Griffith said President Trump deserves praise for helping the industry at-large.
“We were able to roll back a number of negative regulations because we had a president who would sign them,” Griffith said. “And he deserves credit because the economy is getting better.”
Railcar business is also coming back to the region following a renewed national interest in coal. FreightCar America announced in May that the Roanoke plant is beginning to build again after the company said last year that it would immediately stop all its operations and productions, resulting in 364 employees losing their jobs. Officials claim they have a favorable outlook for the long-term, which is spurred on by Virginia now leading the nation as the number one exporter of coal.