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Frank talk of Obama and race in Virginia

CAMPAIGN '08

October 05, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

WHITEWOOD, VA. — The isolated towns of Virginia's Appalachian coal region are home to strong labor unions and Democratic political machines that date back generations. Yet voters here who eagerly pushed Democrats into the Senate and the governor's office are resisting Barack Obama.

Some Americans say Obama's race and uncommon background make them uncomfortable -- here those people include Democratic precinct chairmen and get-out-the-vote workers. Many Americans receive e-mails falsely calling Obama a Muslim -- here a local newspaper columnist has joked in print that Obama would have the White House painted black and would put Islamic symbols on the U.S. flag.

And so Obama's supporters, as they push to win this dead-even battleground state, are talking directly about race, betting that the best way to raise their neighbors' comfort level with the prospect of the first black president is to openly confront their feelings.

When Cecil E. Roberts, president of the coal miners union that shapes politics in much of this mountain region, talks to voters, he tells them that their choice is to have "a black friend in the White House or a white enemy." When Charlie Cox, an Obama supporter, hears friends fretting about Obama's race, he reminds them that they pull for the nearby University of Tennessee football team, "and they're black."

Union organizer Jerry Stallard asks fellow coal workers what's more important: improving their work conditions or holding onto their skepticism of Obama's race, culture or religion. "We're all black in the mines," he tells them.

The presidential campaign, in the almost all-white counties of southwestern Virginia, has produced an outcome that few people expected: a frank discussion of race. Voters sometimes sound as if they are reasoning with themselves and working through their own complex views as they talk through the choice they face this November.

"I've never been prejudiced in my life," said Sharon Fleming, 69, the wife of a retired coal miner, who spends hours at the union hall calling voters on behalf of Obama. "My niece married a black, and I don't have a problem with it. Now, I wouldn't want a mixed marriage for my daughter, but I'm voting for Obama."

Obama beat Hillary Rodham Clinton convincingly in the Virginia Democratic primary, but his supporters have known they face a challenge in this part of the state, just as Obama has faced challenges elsewhere among white voters from rural and working-class households.

He took 64% of the primary vote statewide but just 9% here in coal-rich Buchanan County, for instance, and 12% in neighboring Dickenson County. Though he is now the Democratic nominee, many voters are cool to him -- even some of the party's own leaders and precinct captains.

"I haven't found in my precinct one out of five that will vote for Obama," said Tommy Street, the party's vice chairman in Buchanan (pronounced buck-AN-in) County.

Street, 78, counts himself among the doubters, citing Obama's alliance with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). He has always voted Democratic, he said, but this year plans to leave the presidential ballot blank.

Some here blame Obama's troubles on his mixed-race background (his mother was a white Kansan, his father a black Kenyan). Others say his journey from Hawaii and Indonesia to Harvard and big-city Chicago politics makes him an oddity.

The challenge facing Obama was on display at a recent Democratic Party dinner at Twin Valley High School in Buchanan County, deep in the mountains, about a two-hour drive from Bristol, the nearest city.

Looking out at about 70 local Democrats as they ate turkey, ham and mashed potatoes from school cafeteria trays, Phil Puckett, a local state senator who backed Clinton in the primary, said he knew that nearly everyone present had voted for Clinton and that many were not necessarily excited about Obama. But he pleaded with them not to believe everything they were hearing about the Illinois senator, and to seize the chance to boot the GOP from the White House.

"Don't miss this opportunity because someone says to you, 'I'm not voting for him because he's Muslim,' " said Puckett. "If there's a word of truth in my body, this guy is a Christian who believes in Jesus Christ."

Ben and Beth Bailey sat in the back and clapped politely, but they remained unpersuaded. They said they were likely to break from their tradition of voting Democratic and might well not vote at all.

Obama "just doesn't seem like he's from America," said Beth Bailey, 25. Ben Bailey, 32, noted that Obama's middle name is Hussein, "and we know what that means."

Beth's father, Josh Viers, is the party's Whitewood precinct chairman, responsible for working the polls and urging Democrats to vote the party line. He came around to backing Obama only recently, and reluctantly.

"Am I racial? Am I prejudiced? No, I'm not," said Viers. Still, he is frustrated that his job is to persuade other Democrats to back a black man.

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