NORTON — Walking out to a crowd of people cheering for him on Saturday brought back fond memories for Rick Boucher.
The longtime former representative won 14 elections, starting in 1982, to serve for 28 years representing a sprawling rural district that includes the New River Valley, Southwest Virginia’s coalfields, and parts of Southside and the Alleghany Highlands.
Then in 2010, Morgan Griffith, a 17-year member of the General Assembly and former Virginia House of Delegates majority leader, unseated Boucher in a midterm election on a Republican and tea party wave. Griffith focused his campaign on the issue of coal and the unpopularity of then-President Barack Obama.
On Saturday, Boucher got on the trail again for a swing through the coalfields with Democratic candidate Anthony Flaccavento, who is hoping to defeat Griffith in the 9th Congressional District.
“It’s great reconnecting with people who I depended on when I was campaigning, and it’s been a delight to come out again because it’s for a really good cause, to get Anthony elected, who I think will be a great congressman,” said Boucher, now a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.
Still recovering from the night Griffith beat Boucher, June Jones said Griffith, who lives in Salem, caught Boucher supporters off guard because they assumed a longtime incumbent would get easily re-elected.
“How we have missed Rick Boucher,” Jones said at a rally in Norton, where 150 people showed up.
“We really need someone back in Washington who cares about us in Southwest Virginia,” said Flaccavento supporter Grace Livingston.
People at events throughout the day said that listening to Flaccavento reminded them of Boucher. The Abingdon farmer has focused his message on jobs and the economy and the corruption of big money in government rather than hot-button issues like guns and abortion.
“Can we please stop selling short the working people of Southwest Virginia?” Flaccavento said. “Don’t ever forget, the economy is not for Wall Street, it’s for us. Politics is not for the donors and the lobbyists, it’s for us. And if we can send a working person to Congress, we can actually get some work done for working people.”
Yet as word spread that Flaccavento invited Boucher to join him on the campaign trail for two weekends, black signs with “BOUCHER BETRAYED COAL” in bold white letters began showing up around the coalfields. Griffith campaign signs and others saying “Trump Digs Coal!” joined them.
People had pulled them out of storage from eight years ago. During that election season, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers’ conservative group, plastered the coalfields with the signs. Boucher took a risky bet when he voted in 2009 for a cap-and-trade bill to reduce greenhouse gases, and Griffith hammered him on that decision , saying it would kill the coal industry.
“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 Bobby May, of Buchanan, who stood along a roadway with signs in Dickenson County.
May said his son lost his coal mining job while Obama was in office, but now his son has a job in a mine again, and he thanks President Donald Trump for that.
At Lebanon High School, retired coal miner and Boucher supporter Lee Potter asked the former congressman to address the signs.
“Them signs really bother me,” Potter said. “Boucher was good to us coal miners.”
Boucher stood by his vote, saying it would have helped create a free-market system that would have reduced emissions.
Griffith said Monday he believes that coal will be a big issue once again this election because a significant portion of the economy in Western Virginia depends on it in some way.
He cited a track record of being a friend of coal and miners and a staunch foe of Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting the coal industry. For instance, 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.
However, Griffith said he’s not naive when it comes to the coal industry.
“Will coal ever get to where it was? No,” he said.
He said diversifying the economy is important. He pointed to how he got Virginia included with other states to receive funding to reclaim abandoned mine land for alternative uses. One project is already underway, renovations at the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine to attract more tourists and increase revenues. Griffith said additional projects will be happening soon.
Griffith said Trump also deserves some credit for trying to help the coal industry.
“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.”
Flaccavento said he’s a supporter of coal miners and has said there needs to be more of an effort to provide alternative job opportunities to coal miners and invest in new types of industries.
“We have to recognize the coal jobs will not come back in abundance, and the people in the coalfields are not getting what they deserve,” Flaccavento said.
University of Virginia Center for Politics classified the seat “safe Republican.” Boucher said not to discount the fact that the seat has a long history of being in the hands of Democrats.
“This is a winnable race,” Boucher told a crowd in Dickenson County. “There are some people who doubt, but I want to put those doubts to rest. It is a district that has been represented by a Republican for eight years. But for most of the last 70 years, this district was represented by a Democrat.”