Corey Stewart may or may not be doing a good job of running against Tim Kaine, but he’s doing a great job of running against the city of Danville.
The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate opened the first of three debates against the Democratic incumbent back in July with a blistering attack on . . . Danville, which he repeatedly called “boarded up.”
Stewart’s point was that a lot of American manufacturing has moved overseas, for which he blamed Kaine, former president Barack Obama and “unfair” trade deals. We pointed out then why Stewart was wrong on all three counts. He’s right about some manufacturing moving overseas, but wrong as to the reasons why. Danville leaders mounted a spirited defense of their city, which is actually on the economic rebound, and for a time Stewart didn’t bring the matter up again.
But there he was again at the Virginia Municipal League conference Monday in Hampton, saying much the same thing. This time the seven members of Danville City Council who were present got up and walked out in protest (along with the city manager and deputy city manager). One of them — councilman James Buckner — called Stewart “a jackass.”
In follow-up interviews with both The Roanoke Time and the Danville Register & Bee, Stewart stood his ground, calling the walkout “a political stunt.”
To call this remarkable is too mild a phrase. When has a candidate for statewide office in Virginia ever spent so much time trashing the reputation of a community he hopes to represent? Stewart has a legitimate issue to talk about — the state of American manufacturing — but continues to get his get his facts wrong or re-arranges the ones he does have in the wrong order to reach a misleading conclusion. He’s hardly the first candidate to play fast and loose with facts. Still, what does it say about Stewart when he persists in using the megaphone he has as a candidate to describe a small city in such unflattering and incorrect terms?
Let’s once again walk through the facts.
• Stewart is 20 years out of date. Technically, what Stewart said Monday wasn’t wrong. He talked about travelling across Virginia “and you see so many towns that are hurting, hurting, boarded-up shops, closed down factories, you see where young people have left and we can’t ignore this anymore.” On that score he’s right, and really not saying anything different than what former Gov. Gerald Baliles — a Democrat — said in a recent speech where he called for a “Marshall Plan” for rural Virginia. The economic transitions of the past few decades have not been kind to rural areas and small-towns anywhere. Stewart is even on safe ground when he says “what happened to the city of Danville is unacceptable” because he’s framing that in the past tense.
The problem is that Stewart — in his remarks in July and again Monday — makes clear he’s not talking just in the past tense about Danville, but the present tense. That’s the problem. The down-on-its-luck Danville that Stewart describes is 20 years out of date. In late 1990s and early 2000s Danville was, indeed, in a sorry shape. But Danville today is very much making an economic comeback — one that’s actually a model for other communities.
Don’t just take our word for it, or the word of Danville leaders. Here are some more neutral observers: Site Selection magazine has named Danville one of the nation’s Top 50 micro cities for economic activity. A European economic development group, Foreign Direct Intelligence, last year named Danville one of the top 10 “micro cities” in the world.
Here’s even a partisan source: Earlier this year the governor of Arkansas — the Republican governor of Arkansas — brought his whole economic development team to Danville to see first-hand how the city has turned itself around by focusing on developing a better-trained workforce. Gov. Asa Hutchinson sees something that Stewart either can’t or won’t.
• Stewart blames the wrong thing for Danville’s economic collapse 20 years ago. “NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] killed manufacturing in Danville,” he says. This is wrong in every way, shape and form. Danville’s old economy had been based on textiles and tobacco. NAFTA had absolutely nothing to do with the decline of either of those. The reasons for tobacco’s decline have nothing to do with trade and everything to do with lung cancer. Textiles peaked in the 1950s and were in a slow decline until the 1990s, when they abruptly collapsed. That wasn’t NAFTA’s fault, because those jobs didn’t go to Mexico and they certainly didn’t go to Canada. They went primarily to Asia — long before Kaine or Obama were ever in office.
From time to time Stewart, widens the blame to “unfair trade deals” with China or others. Here’s the thing, though: Those trade deals, fair or otherwise, surely accelerated the decline of American textiles, but they didn’t cause it. Those industries were dying anyway. To think that Dan River Mills would still be in business if those trade deals had never happened is to believe a fantasy. Textiles moved to Asia because labor is a lot cheaper there and Americans don’t want to pay what it would cost if American labor made your shirts. News flash to Stewart: Sometimes the economy changes. Deal with it. Danville is.
This is Stewart’s fundamental economic error: He seems obsessed with trying to recreate the past. Danville, though, is rightly focused on trying to create the future. America’s advantage in a global marketplace is that our workers are — or can be — better-educated and better-trained. Both Danville and Pittsylvania County have invested heavily in workforce training, both in career and technical education in high schools, and in adult programs. Students can start learning about robotics and computerized machining tools as early as sixth grade. The cybersecurity program at Danville Community College is one of just five in Virginia (and the only one outside the urban crescent) to win special recognition by the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
Stewart could have talked about all that. He could have held up Danville as a model for other communities to emulate and said what he’d do as U.S. senator to help them replicate Danville’s renaissance. Instead, he once again tars Danville as “boarded-up” simply because it serves his personal political ends. How much damage is he doing to Danville’s reputation? It’s hard to say, but we know this: Not as much as he’s doing to his own.