WHEELING, W.Va.—When Bernadette Czerwonka sees President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney on television preaching the importance of West Virginia's coal, she rolls her eyes.
"Cheney's saying he's all for coal," said Czerwonka, whose husband, Frank, has been a coal miner in West Virginia for 34 years. "I'm sorry, we've never heard that before—since when is he for coal? It's only because he's in coal and steel country. He wouldn't know a coal miner if one came up and poked him in the eye."
Douglas Tulley, a miner who's spent 33 years in the booming coal fields of southern West Virginia's Boone County, thought the same thing when he saw Sen. John Kerry brandishing a union-made shotgun given to him by United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) officials in nearby Racine on Labor Day.
"Here's a picture of Kerry holding a shotgun up in the air, a Remington shotgun, and the man has sponsored so many bills against people owning shotguns," Tulley said. "He's wishy-washy. Whoever he's with, that's who he (pretends) to be with."
Although Kerry has never voted for any bill to restrict shotgun ownership, the National Rifle Association has attacked him for supporting the recently expired assault weapons ban and increased background checks on prospective buyers at gun shows.
Whether there are more voters like Czerwonka or like Tulley could determine who'll win West Virginia's five electoral votes. The state remains a tossup, and there are a lot of swing voters like Czerwonka and Tulley.
Both depend on the mining industry, which makes their state the nation's second-largest coal producer. Both are registered Democrats who voted for Bush in 2000, helping to nudge their state into the Republican column for only the third time in 40 years. And both have grown jaded by the attention the presidential campaigns have lavished on coal miners this year in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where coal carries political weight.
"They've been here so often I'm getting tired of it," said Czerwonka. "You turn on the TV and that's all that's on."
The Bush campaign has made six appearances in West Virginia since early August: four speeches by Bush and one each by Cheney and first lady Laura Bush. Kerry hit the state regularly early in his campaign in an effort to avoid Al Gore's mistake in 2000; Gore spent little time in West Virginia and became the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1984 to lose it.
Bush and Kerry both have won support from coal groups. The UMWA enthusiastically endorsed Kerry in April, while several mining-business associations endorsed Bush.
George Ellis, the president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, said his group endorsed Bush based on his generous environmental regulation of coal-fired power plants. Kerry's Senate voting record on environmental issues makes the industry nervous.
But neither unions nor trade groups can necessarily deliver coal-country votes. The coal vote was split more or less evenly in West Virginia in 2000, with 12 of the state's 24 coal-producing counties going to each candidate.
The Bush campaign has spotlighted Kerry's opposition to legislation drafted by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., in 1999 that attempted to overturn a federal court ruling on coal mining. Judge Charles H. Haden II's decision limited disposal in waterways of material left over from mountaintop mining, a move Byrd claimed would deal a death blow to coal mining in Appalachia.
The Bush campaign trumpets Kerry's vote against Byrd's legislation as proof of his hostility toward coal mining.
But Robert Rupp, a professor of political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said Byrd may have neutralized the issue with his frequent campaigning for Kerry.
"In West Virginia, Byrd carries a lot of weight," Rupp said. "He's an important symbol that Kerry is to be trusted on coal."
Bush also faces a rocky road in coal country, which has suffered through a severe economic slump during his presidency. Timothy McKenzie, a recently laid-off coal worker from Ceredo plans to vote for Kerry. He said the modest job gains in West Virginia in 2004, which the Bush campaign cites, did him little good.
"My (former) supervisors said that they'd give me references for other jobs, but there's none to be had here for more than $6 an hour," McKenzie said. "You can't feed a family and make car payments for $6 an hour. If Bush thinks he can do it, let him try."
Many Appalachian voters in 2000 saw Bush's and Cheney's oil-industry backgrounds as assets compared with Gore's environmentalism, but Kerry has tried to use those ties against them. In his Labor Day speech in Racine, Kerry accused them of "catering to the big oil companies and the Saudis" at the expense of domestic industries such as coal, a theme that's struck a chord with some voters.
Cheney's role as Halliburton's CEO in the late ྖs particularly troubles Frank Czerwonka, who said he's undecided about his vote.
"When was the last time you ever heard Cheney talk about coal ... or anything else that didn't involve Halliburton?" Czerwonka asked.
On the other hand, although Tulley, the Boone County miner, wants to see fortunes improve for coal miners, that's not what's driving his vote for Bush.
"For me it's the moral issues," Tulley said. "I'm a Christian, and with Kerry's morals on abortion, gay marriages, stem (cell) research—I'm definitely against that."
Those issues, Rupp suggests, could make the difference in coal country.
"The reason West Virginia is a toss-up state is because it's a poor state in economics and is conservative on social issues," Rupp said. "We have these two contending dynamics, and if in the last week of October we're talking about the economy, then Kerry wins the state. And if we're talking about social issues or terrorism, then Bush wins it."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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