OAKWOOD, Va. – Save for the fact that they both live in a state bombarded by campaign ads, Joe Street and Mary Haberl don’t have much in common.
Street lives and works here in Buchanan County, Virginia’s poorest, where he sells heavy equipment used to sustain the coal mines that for decades have sustained the folks living in modest homes and trailers in these Appalachian hollows.
Some 367 miles to the northeast in Loudoun County, the nation’s richest, Haberl enjoys the life she’s made since leaving Amherst five years ago to be closer to her daughters. Now living in a townhouse in historic Leesburg, she’s launched a new career in a newish industry, selling solar panels.
Not surprisingly, Street and Haberl don’t see eye to eye on the presidential election, though they have one thing in common here, too.
Neither is influenced by the nonstop ads in this swing state portraying President Obama as a tax-and-spend Democrat on steroids, or by those showing Republican Mitt Romney as a reverse Robin Hood ready to hike taxes on the middle class.
Instead, for both Street and Haberl and many other voters interviewed in Virginia’s poorest and richest counties, this election isn’t about taxes, even if the campaign is. It’s about a way of life.
That fact is pushing the shrinking poor parts of Virginia and voters like Street toward the Republican who’s accused of favoring the rich, and it’s pushing the growing wealthy areas and voters like Haberl toward the Democrat accused of fostering a “culture of dependency.”
And yet throughout Virginia, there are also signs of disillusionment with what some see as a campaign that’s not addressing the way-of-life concerns in any community, rich or poor.
Hostility to president
On a tour of West River Conveyors and Machinery Co., miles from much of anything on a curvy country road, Joe Street seemed plenty proud of the equipment his company makes.
But he seemed just as proud of the pictures lining the walls in the office, which show the 40 or so employees of the company he helped build enjoying picnics and holidays together.
All of this is what Street sees at risk on Election Day.
“If we know our jobs are on the line because of what the president is trying to do to the coal industry, yes, we are going to be active,” said Street, 65, who’s helping to organize a pro-coal rally later this month that aims to draw 12,000 people in a county of 23,581.
Fighting global warming, Obama plans to implement limits on mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants in 2015. Similar limits on carbon emissions will follow.
The effects of all of that are already being felt in Buchanan County and the rest of southwestern Virginia’s coal country.
“We got laid off three months ago because of a lack of orders,” said Jerry Lester, who runs a contracting company that serves the coal industry. “All over the coal fields, people are losing orders.”
They’re losing patience, too.
“Everyone you talk to has such a dislike of Barack Obama and his lieutenants,” Street said.
Sensing an opening here, Romney traveled to nearby Abingdon, Va., on Friday. “I want to make sure your jobs stay here, grow here and provide a bright future for you and for your family,” he told the crowd.
Obama lost Buchanan County to the GOP candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, by 5 points in 2008, and by all accounts, he’ll lose the county – and all of rural Virginia – by a wider margin this time.
“It’s all about jobs and jobs and jobs,” said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University.
And no wonder. Buchanan County suffered an unemployment rate of 7.7 percent in August, 1.8 points higher than the state average, and that only hints at the region’s long-term economic problems. The county’s population has shrunk by 12.6 percent since 2000, and its median household income of $29,183 ranks it as one of the 100 poorest counties in the nation.
People here say they’re used to economic struggles but that they’re happy with their lives nonetheless. It’s an American values, family values kind of place, filled with small but neatly kept homes and churches everywhere. And that bodes well for Romney as well.
“We don’t believe in killing babies,” said Linda Maynard, 62, of Pilgrim’s Knob, whose husband, Andy, became a Baptist minister after an injury in the coal fields. “We don’t believe in homosexuality.”
Many voters here stressed that their antipathy toward Obama is not motivated by race – though this is where the man who’s now the county GOP chairman, Bobby May, wrote a satirical piece in 2008 accusing Obama of wanting to paint the White House black. May did not return calls seeking comment.
And it’s not the tax issue, either, that’s motivating voters here to oppose the president.
“You don’t worry about taxes if you’re not working,” said Don Marshall, 56, of Maxie, who’s worked for Street’s company for 30 years.
Mary Haberl isn’t so focused on taxes, either, but for different reasons.
“I have children and grandchildren,” said Haberl, 70, a longtime teacher in the Buffalo area. “I want them to grow up in a world where there are alternatives.”
To Haberl, that means an America that’s dynamic and growing, an America that embraces change – including alternative energy.
After moving to Leesburg, Haberl became a partner in Solar4Leesburg. Now she’s proud to show off the solar panels that line the roof at the North Gate Winery in Purcellville, in rolling countryside dotted by old homesteads and glimmering McMansions.
The Obama administration has been especially kind to the solar panel industry, sometimes to the president’s detriment. Government loans to Solyndra, a California maker of solar panels, produced a $535 million bust.
But to Haberl and her company, Obama is doing the right thing, for Solar4Leesburg and the nation, by promoting solar.
“Clean energy is a constant source that is environmentally positive,” Haberl said. “It ensures the landscape and the health of workers in the industry and citizens in general.”
Haberl said she and her partners are “progressive thinkers,” and the same can be said of many of the tech types and doctors and other professionals who have filled what once was farmland in County in recent years.
With a tech corridor growing near Dulles International Airport, Loudoun’s population has nearly doubled, to 325,405, since 2000, and the median household income has reached the lofty level of $119,540.
Neighboring Fairfax County is wealthy and growing, too, making it the kind of place where Obama can safely say, as he did Friday: “Today, I believe that as a nation we are moving forward again.”
Obama won Loudoun County by 8 points in 2008, and he’s expected to win the county this time, too, for an unexpected reason.
“The vast majority of people in Loudoun are highly educated,” said Larry J. Sabato, who runs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “And if there’s one determinant of party affiliation these days, it’s the level of education” – and educated voters are trending Democratic.
Loudoun is just one of several fast-growing, government-friendly counties in Northern Virginia, and Sabato said that growth has helped push Obama to a narrow lead in what not long ago was a ruby red state.
Northern Virginia’s diversity helps Obama, too.
“I think about 80 percent of my students speak a different language at home than they do in school,” said Corey Griswold, 30, a Depew native who moved to Leesburg two months ago for a teaching job. “They’ll go home and speak Spanish or Urdu” or some other foreign language.
Not surprisingly, the issues motivating Loudoun County voters are hugely different than those driving decisions down in coal country.
Cynthia Lehigh, 59, volunteered for the Obama campaign in part because of GOP attacks on contraception and other issues important to women.
“I think that when it comes to respect for women, concern for people, concern for the middle class, it’s just a clear choice,” said Lehigh, who lives in Sterling, Va., and works in the nonprofit sector. “We can’t go back.”
Meanwhile, John Bloom, a Warsaw native who, at 64, is the retired general manager of the National Press Club and a successful stock market investor, said he doesn’t trust Romney for innumerable reasons.
“He’s a hard-core businessman without a whole lot of compassion,” said Bloom, of South Riding.
Bloom also said Obama has come much closer than Romney has to admitting that taxes must go up to deal with the federal deficit.
Looking around Loudoun County, Griswold doesn’t have a problem with that.
“We’re short on cash, which means the people with money can pay up,” he said. “I’ve seen the houses people live in here and the kinds of cars they drive. People have the money here to pay more in taxes.”
The tax debate
That’s exactly what Obama wants them to do.
He’s proposing a tax hike on families that earn more than $250,000 and on individuals that make more than $200,000. Romney, meanwhile, proposes a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut, to be offset by unspecified reductions in the deductions taxpayers can claim.
To the extent that they cared to comment about taxes, voters in both Buchanan County and Loudoun County said they longed for more details on the candidates’ tax plans – and no wonder.
The nation will run up a $1.09 trillion deficit this year, and it now has a total national debt of $16.2 trillion. But Obama’s plan for taxing the rich doesn’t come close to remedying the nation’s fiscal troubles, said Josh Gordon, political director for the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog.
“It’s clearly not a plan to reform the tax code forever,” Gordon said.
As for Romney, he’s waiting to offer details of his tax plan.
Last week he floated the notion of capping deductions at $17,000, a move that would mean a higher tax burden for many wealthier taxpayers. But that still doesn’t deal fully with the fact that his 20 percent tax cut would, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, either create a bigger hole in the federal budget or a bigger hole in the wallets of middle-class taxpayers.
“Any revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Gov. Romney has proposed would provide large tax cuts to high-income households and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers,” the Tax Policy Center said in a recent report.
With key details of their budget plans left pending, the candidates have focused their Virginia campaign on attacks on their rivals, on taxes and on other issues.
Those ads produce some degree of agreement among some voters in coal country and the wealthy Washington suburbs alike.
“So far, I haven’t found anybody worth voting for,” said Charlotte Mullins, 63, of Oakwood, who said most of her children have left Buchanan County because of its lack of jobs. “Whatever happened to good old-time, honest campaigning?”
Milena Wojno, a Kenmore native now living in Fairfax County, agreed, saying: “I think there’s a lot of heavy rhetoric that we’ve not heard before. It isn’t giving us a lot of insight.”