Flaccavento, Griffith vie for 9th District

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Democrat challenges Republican incumbent to represent district in U.S. House of Representatives.


Copyright 2018, The Roanoke Times; reprinted with permission

In the race to represent the sprawling 9th Congressional District, a farmer from Abingdon is taking his second shot at unseating four-term incumbent Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem).

In the most Republican-voting congressional district in Virginia, Democrat Anthony Flaccavento, 61, is mounting the first major campaign against Griffith since he was elected in 2010 to represent a rural district that includes the New River Valley, Southwest Virginia’s coal country, and parts of the Alleghany Highlands and Southside.

The district also includes the City of Galax and Carroll and Grayson counties.

Griffith, 60, rode a Republican wave to victory to unseat moderate Democrat Rick Boucher by focusing on coal, too much government regulation on businesses and the unpopularity of President Barack Obama. Prior to arriving in Congress, the Salem lawyer served for 17 years in the General Assembly and rose to House majority leader.

This year, Griffith has built on that message, arguing that he’s been successful in rolling back some regulations that have hampered the district’s economy and that under President Donald Trump, the economy is improving.

“If we can keep this going, the economy is already starting to pick up again,” Griffith said. “It takes time.”

Flaccavento ‘one of us’

Flaccavento, a 33-year resident of the region who has worked in farming and with a series of community development groups, says that Griffith’s “baby steps” are not enough.

“I think if we can start to elect the proper working folks starting in 2018, break down this urban-rural divide and find the progressive ideas that come from places like the 9th District as well as our friends in the cities, then maybe we can begin to build some bold legislation that will make a real difference in people’s lives and begin to do what I’ve been saying all along: to put the government back in the service of the people,” Flaccavento said.

Flaccavento launched his campaign in the “Fighting 9th” — which earned the nickname for its once hotly contested elections — more than a year ago to give him more time to spread his message compared to when he ran in 2012. He’s opposed to the natural gas pipelines, supports gun reform and wants reform that will increase legal immigration into the United States.

He supports a Medicare-for-all system that uses a sliding scale based on income for premium payments, which, he says, will ensure both affordability and coverage for everyone. People would be able to maintain private, employer-based insurance. Griffith says a government-run health insurance program is too costly. He supports repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, but says it’s important that any replacement ensures those with pre-existing conditions have access to affordable coverage.

It’s Flaccavento’s “rural progressive” populism message that he hopes will prevail among voters. He advocates for policies that prioritize the working class and rural America, such as protecting organized labor, making community college free, expanding broadband, and getting the big money out of politics that he says weakens the voices of everyday people. He says Trump’s tax cuts are skewed to favor the wealthy and corporations.

“Working people, whether it’s the schoolteacher, the coal miner or the farmer, they don’t feel like they’re getting a fair shake,” Flaccavento said. “I feel that the wealthy and powerful are running our Congress, and the government is not working on prosperity for ordinary people.”

Flaccavento promotes a “bottom-up” economic strategy of emphasizing the production and consumption of locally produced goods rather than banking on one or two big corporations to serve as the anchor of an entire community’s economic success.

Flaccavento is also hoping the unpopularity of Trump and criticism that Griffith hasn’t accomplished enough will bring out voters.

The centerpiece of his campaign has been hosting 100 town halls before Election Day. He hosted his 100th at Marion, where more than 200 people packed into the Lincoln Theatre. Radford resident Jarrod Hines stood up and said he’s been frustrated with politics, but after listening to Flaccavento’s platform, “For the first time in a long time I think I’ve found someone to vote for.”

“Griffith has had his opportunity to fix this,” Hines said after the event.

One of Flaccavento’s slogans has been “Send a farmer to Congress,” and it’s common for his supporters to feel like they can relate to him, saying he’s “like one of us.” They see him as facing a “career politician” who isn’t in touch with rural areas.

“We so much need someone who cares about us in Southwest Virginia,” Grace Livington said in Norton. “Has Griffith done anything? Look around. Trump said there would be change, and the only change he’s done is tear folks apart with hate.”

Flaccavento says that if he wants to win in the 9th District, he has to reach moderates and independents, because there aren’t enough Democrats to overpower the Republican vote. The 9th District has only grown more Republican over the years, and there’s still a lot of support for Trump. Trump won it by 68 percent, and over the past six years, the weakest Republican still came away with 59 percent of the vote.

‘Morgan worked tirelessly’

As Nov. 6 approaches, with Trump and other Republicans revisiting the Senate fight over the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and characterizing Democrats as a “mob,” the message has resonated with voters throughout the 9th District.

Jim Vernon of Big Stone Gap said he’s “tired of the games the Democrats are playing,” such as the Kavanaugh battle.

“The Democrats are making people really mad,” said Vernon, who approached Griffith in Wise to assure him of his vote.

As Griffith walked through a fall festival there, people approached him to thank him for all he’s done and “for taking care of coal.”

Griffith has branded himself as a friend of coal, who is working to roll back Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting the coal industry. He credits these efforts at bringing back some coal jobs.

Griffith says he isn’t sure what actually is causing global warming, but he says a certain amount of carbon emissions probably isn’t good for the atmosphere. He argues that some countries aren’t reducing, or are even expanding, their coal usage, so it’s smarter for the United States to look to technologies that reduce emissions.

“We’re being very myopic to think that by eliminating the coal industry in the United States that we’re going to eliminate the burning of coal in the world,” Griffith said. “It’s not going to happen, so let’s use our coal and find better ways to burn it.”

For the miners, he worked to boost federal funding for black lung treatment to $10 million, the first time in at least 20 years that Congress and the White House have agreed to provide the maximum funding authorized by federal law in 1977.

Flaccavento said that while he supports the continued mining of metallurgical coal, he says that won’t bring back the jobs the region needs.

“I’m pushing for long term, substantial investments in the coalfields to create the next economic opportunities that we need,” Flaccavento said.

All of the campaigning throughout the district of more than 9,100 square miles can wear on a car and a candidate.

Griffith left Wise one Saturday and started toward Carroll County, but his car broke down. Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott) loaned him a car so his campaigning wouldn’t stall as well.

Griffith supports immigration reform and the southern border wall and vows to defend the Second Amendment. He also has been working with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to call on regulators to halt the pipeline projects to reassess the potential harm to the environment and the local water supply for communities in the pipelines’ paths. He wants reform of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the lead agency overseeing the Mountain Valley Pipeline that will cut through the 9th District.

“When you get Tim Kaine and Morgan Griffith agreeing on something related to energy issues, you all have done something wrong,” Griffith said.

Kilgore and a contingent of Republican state lawmakers in the 9th District have endorsed Griffith, saying he’s been a valuable federal partner in working to address the opioid epidemic as well as find creative ways for economic development.

Kilgore praised Griffith’s bill signed into law this month that will streamline the permitting process for building hydroelectric pumped storage facilities like the one Dominion Energy hopes to build in the coalfields. The facility would bring new jobs and tax revenue for the region.

Sen. Ben Chafin (R-Russell County) expressed gratitude for Griffith securing $10 million to repurpose abandoned coal mine lands in far Southwest Virginia for economic development and recreational use.

“For many years those monies have been tied up and not accessible and Morgan worked tirelessly to free those monies,” Chafin said.

Del. Todd Pillion (R-Abingdon) said Griffith has been a “champion” in tackling the opioid epidemic, which has complemented his work at getting legislation passed at the state level to get a grip on the crisis.

For instance, within a package of bills signed into law this month was legislation from Griffith that provides additional federal resources and incentives for prescription monitoring programs to improve substance abuse data so health care providers have comprehensive information on patients’ medical history and prescription drug profile.

In 2012, Griffith beat Flaccavento with 61 percent of the vote.