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The race to represent the sprawling 9th Congressional District pits a freshman incumbent who’s made a brief career of speaking out in opposition to federal regulations on coal against a challenger who favors a “bottom-up” economy built on consumption of locally produced goods.
First-time candidate Democrat Anthony Flaccavento of Abingdon is challenging Republican Morgan Griffith of Salem for the seat.
The winner will represent a rural district that includes the New River Valley, Southwest Virginia’s coal country, and parts of the Alleghany Highlands and Southside.
Griffith, a 17-year member of the General Assembly and former House majority leader, unseated 28-year incumbent Rick Boucher two years ago on the crest of a national Republican wave, largely by focusing on the issue of coal and the unpopularity of President Barack Obama.
Obama won a lower percentage of the vote in the 9th District than anywhere else in Virginia in 2008.
Griffith has built on that message this year, arguing that unnecessary and expensive federal regulations have not only targeted the coal industry that sustains much of Southwest Virginia’s economy, but have made it difficult to create jobs in other districts as well.
“I think we need the federal government to step out of the way when it’s killing jobs as much as it is, particularly in our region but across the country, with ruinous regulations,” Griffith said.
During a candidates’ forum in Roanoke last week, Griffith related a story about the Helms Candy Co., located just outside of Bristol.
The company had manufactured a popular cough-drop lollipop, he said, but was recently visited by federal regulators saying the product required a laboratory.
Griffith said Helms Candy would have had to hire twice as many people as it already employed just to staff the lab. To avoid that cost, the company instead dropped the product, costing three people their jobs.
A 'Bottom-Up' Economy
Flaccavento, a 27-year resident of the region who has worked in farming and with a series of community development groups, has different ideas about job creation in the 9th District. He said Griffith believes that cutting taxes for the rich and subsidizing big business will create jobs.
“The essence of his economic strategy is that, trickle-down — to give the rich breaks so they’ll invest, jobs will be created and we’ll all benefit,” Flaccavento said. “We’ve been trying that for 32 years and it hasn’t worked.”
Instead, he argues for a “bottom-up economy” that includes public investment in research and infrastructure items that small and medium-sized businesses can use.
“You invest in the right kind of infrastructure — broadband, value-adding facilities for local products — and invest in centers where you can sell stuff, like farmers markets or artisan markets,” Flaccavento said.
“It’s really a bottom-up strategy where every part of the district will have different strengths. The fed government’s role is to invest in that, in the form of community infrastructure, and finding the right regulations for small businesses, for small farms, for independent banks.”
By way of example, he points to Appalachian Harvest, a program that his nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Development started in 2000.
The program helped provide training for farmers to shift from raising tobacco to organic produce. It leveraged private investment and grants from the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, Appalachian Regional Commission and other organizations to create a packing facility in Duffield, and those farmers now market their wares to Food City and other grocery store chains.
Griffith said those programs can work in a limited fashion, but he doesn’t believe they can work for everyone.
“We want the small jobs, we want to see people succeed,” Griffith said. “But we also need to see people who have the money and will invest in facilities that can bring back some manufacturing jobs and employ hundreds of people. And if you look at his plan, it’s not part of it.”
Emphasis on Coal
Meanwhile, Flaccavento argues that Griffith’s emphasis on coal is limiting as well.
The industry faces challenges well beyond the range of government regulations, he said, including competition from natural gas and other regions when it comes to thermal coal, which is used to create electricity, and international market forces when it comes to metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel.
“We should be embracing, like never before, new thinking, new research and development, new technology that we can bring to the coalfields,” Flaccavento said.
“My opponent acknowledges this and says, ‘We want more jobs. But first we must stop the war on coal and reduce regulations and then we’ll have prosperity.’ No, we won’t. At best we’ll hold the line.”
Instead, he said the government and mining companies should team up to develop clean coal technology.
Touring the 9th
Both candidates put a lot of miles on their respective vehicles during the campaign traveling around the expansive district. The 9th’s rural nature meant that sometimes the effort was met with small returns.
Griffith traveled to Wythe County one Friday in August for the cattle show outside Rural Retreat, only to find the show featured only a few cows and had ended before he arrived.
He then went to tour the Bland County Courthouse with Commonwealth’s Attorney Erin DeHart — but many of the workers there had left for the afternoon. He then returned to the fairgrounds in Wythe County and campaigned for a little more than a half-hour before a summer storm sent people scattering.
Likewise, Flaccavento spent the Friday before NASCAR’s Bristol night race working the Virginia side of town. He talked to a series of business owners along State Street, but had a tougher time talking to people on the street: Most were out-of-state visitors and not registered voters in the 9th.