Frank talk of Obama and race in Virginia
As Obama supporters push to win the dead-even battleground state, they
are talking directly about race, betting that the best way to put
neighbors at ease is to open up.
By Peter Wallsten
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 5, 2008
WHITEWOOD, VA. — 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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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.