The isolated towns of Virginia’s Appalachian coal region are home to strong labor unions and Democratic political machines that date back generations. Yet voters here who eagerly pushed Democrats into the Senate and the governor’s office are resisting Barack Obama.
Some Americans say Obama’s race and uncommon background make them uncomfortable -- here those people include Democratic precinct chairmen and get-out-the-vote workers. Many Americans receive e-mails falsely calling Obama a Muslim -- here a local newspaper columnist has joked in print that Obama would have the White House painted black and would put Islamic symbols on the U.S. flag.
And so Obama’s supporters, as they push to win this dead-even battleground state, are talking directly about race, betting that the best way to raise their neighbors’ comfort level with the prospect of the first black president is to openly confront their feelings.
When Cecil E. Roberts, president of the coal miners union that shapes politics in much of this mountain region, talks to voters, he tells them that their choice is to have “a black friend in the White House or a white enemy.” When Charlie Cox, an Obama supporter, hears friends fretting about Obama’s race, he reminds them that they pull for the nearby University of Tennessee football team, “and they’re black.”
Union organizer Jerry Stallard asks fellow coal workers what’s more important: improving their work conditions or holding onto their skepticism of Obama’s race, culture or religion. “We’re all black in the mines,” he tells them.
The presidential campaign, in the almost all-white counties of southwestern Virginia, has produced an outcome that few people expected: a frank discussion of race. Voters sometimes sound as if they are reasoning with themselves and working through their own complex views as they talk through the choice they face this November.
“I’ve never been prejudiced in my life,” said Sharon Fleming, 69, the wife of a retired coal miner, who spends hours at the union hall calling voters on behalf of Obama. “My niece married a black, and I don’t have a problem with it. Now, I wouldn’t want a mixed marriage for my daughter, but I’m voting for Obama.”
Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton convincingly in the Virginia Democratic primary, but his supporters have known they face a challenge in this part of the state, just as Obama has faced challenges elsewhere among white voters from rural and working-class households.
He took 64% of the primary vote statewide but just 9% here in coal-rich Buchanan County, for instance, and 12% in neighboring Dickenson County. Though he is now the Democratic nominee, many voters are cool to him -- even some of the party’s own leaders and precinct captains.
“I haven’t found in my precinct one out of five that will vote for Obama,” said Tommy Street, the party’s vice chairman in Buchanan (pronounced buck-AN-in) County.
Street, 78, counts himself among the doubters, citing Obama’s alliance with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). He has always voted Democratic, he said, but this year plans to leave the presidential ballot blank.
Some here blame Obama’s troubles on his mixed-race background (his mother was a white Kansan, his father a black Kenyan). Others say his journey from Hawaii and Indonesia to Harvard and big-city Chicago politics makes him an oddity.
The challenge facing Obama was on display at a recent Democratic Party dinner at Twin Valley High School in Buchanan County, deep in the mountains, about a two-hour drive from Bristol, the nearest city.
Looking out at about 70 local Democrats as they ate turkey, ham and mashed potatoes from school cafeteria trays, Phil Puckett, a local state senator who backed Clinton in the primary, said he knew that nearly everyone present had voted for Clinton and that many were not necessarily excited about Obama. But he pleaded with them not to believe everything they were hearing about the Illinois senator, and to seize the chance to boot the GOP from the White House.
“Don’t miss this opportunity because someone says to you, ‘I’m not voting for him because he’s Muslim,’ ” said Puckett. “If there’s a word of truth in my body, this guy is a Christian who believes in Jesus Christ.”
Ben and Beth Bailey sat in the back and clapped politely, but they remained unpersuaded. They said they were likely to break from their tradition of voting Democratic and might well not vote at all.
Obama “just doesn’t seem like he’s from America,” said Beth Bailey, 25. Ben Bailey, 32, noted that Obama’s middle name is Hussein, “and we know what that means.”
Beth’s father, Josh Viers, is the party’s Whitewood precinct chairman, responsible for working the polls and urging Democrats to vote the party line. He came around to backing Obama only recently, and reluctantly.
“Am I racial? Am I prejudiced? No, I’m not,” said Viers. Still, he is frustrated that his job is to persuade other Democrats to back a black man.
“Somebody in Buchanan County or in the United States can look at him and say, ‘He’s not my color,’ ” said Viers. “Why put yourself in that position? We had a shot four years ago, and the people listened to lies, rumors, negative ads and got us beat. Bush got him a second term, and look what it got us.”
Viers said he will do his best to help Obama on election day. But local Democratic leaders said they could not rely on all of their precinct chairs to follow suit.
That is why party officials are relieved that they can rely on another local organization: the United Mine Workers of America.
The union, which initially backed John Edwards in the Democratic primary, has a strong presence here and in other coal-producing areas. It has field workers going door to door and making phone calls across Appalachia, with special emphasis on Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- all of them election battlegrounds.
Virginia, which has not chosen a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Ohio are so close in polls this year that no one can say whether Obama or Republican John McCain is ahead. Both states are central to each campaign’s national strategy.
Often, union officials show up at coal mine bathhouses during shift changes, when dozens of workers are getting dressed, to make the case for Obama.
The union portrays him as a friend of the coal industry, and argues that Obama is culturally in step with local workers. Union literature tells them that the Democratic nominee supports gun rights, and the literature attacks McCain for opposing legislation that would make union organizing easier.
“Barack Obama Won’t Take Away Your Gun,” says one flier. “But John McCain Will Take Away Your Union.”
A new 18-minute video that the union is distributing in coal states features Roberts, the union president, talking directly about race as he addresses white workers, many them clad in jeans or denim overalls.
“I could just ignore the fact that Barack Obama is African American,” says Roberts, “but I’m not.”
Roberts challenges the notion that a believing Christian could base a voting decision on a candidate’s ethnicity.
“We go to church, sing our songs, pray, come out and talk about, ‘I can’t be for an African American, because of the color of his skin,’ ” Roberts says in the video. His voice rising, he then scolds the crowd: “Can’t do that if you believe in the Bible.”
Republicans say that they also are aggressively courting coal miners and other union voters in southwest Virginia, but that race is not part of their conversation.
Instead, said McCain spokeswoman Gail Gitcho, voters in the region are being told that Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, are not true friends of the coal industry. That has been the theme of campaign ads that have seized on a recent Biden gaffe in Ohio, when he appeared to oppose the construction of any new coal-fired power plants.
“We certainly don’t believe that race has any part in the political discourse,” Gitcho said.
But here in Buchanan County, it is unavoidable.
A local newspaper columnist, in a spoof of Obama’s platform, wrote in one recent piece that the Democrat would hire the rapper Ludacris to paint the White House black (a reference to a pro-Obama song by Ludacris), and divert more foreign aid to Africa so “the Obama family there can skim enough to allow them to free their goats and live the American Dream.” He joked that Obama would replace the 50 stars on the U.S. flag “with a star and crescent logo,” an Islamic symbol, and that his policy on drugs would be to “raise taxes to pay for Obama’s inner-city political base.”
The columnist, Bobby May, is also treasurer of the Buchanan County Republican Party and was listed in a July news release as the county’s representative on McCain’s Virginia leadership team, though he said his column reflected his views alone, and he denied it was racist.
History suggests that a black candidate could win support here. In 1989, L. Douglas Wilder carried Buchanan and other nearby counties as he became the country’s first black elected governor since Reconstruction. Many here recall that Wilder kicked off his campaign in the region and aggressively courted whites.
Obama is expected to do well in Virginia’s urban areas and the suburbs of Washington, D.C. But to win the state, strategists say, he needs to improve his performance in the southwest counties. For that to happen, volunteers such as Ruby Hale have to strike the right tone with their neighbors.
On some nights, Hale, a retired jewelry store owner, shows up at her Pentecostal church in tiny Rowe with her Toyota truck stacked full of Obama signs and bumper stickers.
“I’ll tell them, ‘You can’t judge a man this way,’ that he couldn’t help who his father was, and he didn’t name himself -- that I am convinced he is a Christian.”
Then she tells the potential voter to think it over for a few days. And the conversation often begins again.
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A tough sell
Though Barack Obama faces an uphill battle in the Appalachian coal region, Buchanan County has voted Democratic in every presidential election for almost 30 years:
Population (2008 est.): 24,368
2000-2008 pop. change: -10%
White population: 95%
No high school diploma: 47%
Household income less than $25,000: 46%
Households below poverty level: 20%
Sources: ESRI; TeleAtlas; Virginia State Board of Elections; Claritas.
Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken and Scott Wilson