Northern Virginia voters solidified their reputation Nov. 4 as a virtual factory for Democratic victories. Collectively, the Virginia suburbs of D.C. broke for Obama in numbers exceeding 60 percent. The margin is comparable to such liberal bastions as California and New York. Given the results, and given that 1 in 3 Virginia voters now lives in the fast-growing region, it’s no wonder state Democrats see a gold mine. Already Gov. Tim Kaine (D), elected 2005, and U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D), elected 2006, can credit their victory margins to “NoVa.” And Democratic Senator-elect Mark Warner considers the region his base.
But on the biggest issues of our time — clean energy and climate change — here’s the question: Will these “New South” Democrats repeat the same huge mistake Gov. Kaine has already made? Namely, will they take the votes from Northern Virginia without actually listening to the voters?
I’ll cut to the chase: Tim Kaine would almost certainly be Vice President-elect of the United States of America right now if not for one huge issue: coal. Kaine’s consistent support for more mining and more burning of coal in Virginia has wrecked his national political career. Kaine is one of five Southern governors — three of them are Republicans — who’s actually building a new coal-fired power plant in his state. None of the plants being built will capture and “sequester” a single pound of global warming pollution. Kaine’s 585 megawatt plant in Wise County, Virginia — belching 5 million tons annually of CO2 in an era of massive Arctic ice melt — was the major reason Obama did not pick him as VP. That’s my firm belief.
For starters, this coal plant — which will use coal from mountaintop removal mining — puts Kaine totally out of step with Northern Virginia voters. A Zogby poll, taken Nov. 4, showed that 78 percent of voters nationwide consider investments in clean energy as vital to the U.S. economy. One can only assume this percentage is still higher in the California-esque political region of NoVa.
Just look around. Citizens in Alexandria, Va., with the support of the mayor and city council, have been fighting furiously to shut down a filthy coal plant there for years. And last March, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (i.e. county council) passed a resolution openly critical of the massive Wise County coal plant that Dominion Power is now building with the Governor’s blessing. And all across Northern Virginia, residents are fighting a new power transmission line that Dominion wants to build to make it easier for coal-fired electricity to reach the region from the west.
But on the coal issue, Gov. Kaine doesn’t behave as if he understands who cast the votes that put him, ultimately, in office. He behaves more like the man who’s received a quarter million dollars in corporate contributions from Dominion Power since 2001. It’s a good thing the governorship is term-limited.
Other Virginia candidates subject to statewide re-election — i.e. Webb and Warner — should more carefully consider the demographics of NoVa before siding with coal. Not only is the region overwhelmingly Democratic, but it’s also by far the best-educated, highest-income, and “highest-tech” region of the state. Fairfax County has a higher percentage of non-government high-tech workers than Silicon Valley. Does anyone really think that more mountaintop removal and more coal combustion and more global warming are winning political issues in this region?
But enough with the state politics. Where Kaine really sold his soul to coal and torched his political career is on the national stage. Just moments before the Democratic national convention, Kaine was on the short-short-short list of VP candidates. It was coal, I’m convinced, that finally cost him the nod from Obama. Nothing else makes sense. Kaine was a loyal, early Obama supporter and a close personal friend. Why didn’t he get the job? Inexperience? Pu-leeze. Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were one-term governors before running for President. No, Kaine was a very attractive candidate: a great campaigner and the governor of a critically important swing state. The only real black spot was coal. How could a presidential candidate — Obama — who said global warming was a top priority and who was striving to be better than George Bush on energy, possibly choose a running mate who was at that very moment building a dinosaur coal plant? Obama had to be reading polling data that showed this would hurt nationally.
Sen. Joe Biden, meanwhile, was from a vote-irrelevant state. He had more governing experience, yes, but he also came coal-free. Indeed, Biden had actively championed an offshore wind farm in Delaware as an alternative to coal to meet his state’s growing energy needs. Was this the deciding factor for Biden? Probably not. But was coal the deciding factor against Kaine? I’m betting yes, yes, and again yes.
And what of Obama? He got over 360 electoral votes without the coal states of West Virginia and Kentucky. I think he can promote, without political fear, the proven alternatives to coal like efficiency, wind power, and solar. And I believe he will. Indeed, in the last few weeks of his Virginia campaign, in rallies across the state, Obama never even mentioned the word coal a single time while, conversely, talking tons about the need for “green jobs” in the wind and solar industry.
As for Sens. Webb and Warner, much is made of their sensitivity to the economy of the coal region of Southwest Virginia. Neither elected official, for example, has opposed the construction of the appalling Wise County plant. But surely these Senators noticed that Southwest Virginians gave a majority of their votes to McCain in numbers higher than even what George Bush drew in 2004. Meanwhile, Northern Virginia, with more than six times the total population of “coal country” Virginia, broke for Obama at California levels.
Frankly, it’s time the politicians of Virginia caught up with the politics of Virginia. There will be major legislation in Congress in 2009 aimed at finally solving the climate crisis by phasing out coal and systematically re-training America’s coal miners to enter the “green economy” of renewable energy. Senators Webb and Warner, assuming they want to get re-elected, should work closely with Obama to make this happen.
As for Kaine, his time has come and gone. His chance to work really closely with Obama went up in smoke, forever, with the coal of southwest Virginia. His sacrifice is a valuable lesson to us all.