Appalachian activist targets rural voters (Toronto Star)

By Olivia Ward
Link to the original article:

David “Mudcat” Saunders, a rural strategist for Barack Obama’s Democrats, is aiming to “clip off enough votes to win the state” from the Republicans.

ROANOKE, VA.–Mudcat is in a down mood. He’s just in from a hunting trip and the deer got away. Having winged it with an arrow shot from his trusty bow, he has decided he must go back to make sure it isn’t still thrashing in the bush.

It’s rare that David “Mudcat” Saunders misses his target, he allows with unabashed candour. And that holds true for the kill-or-be-killed world of politics.

While Mudcat the Hunter is the central casting image he revels in – crouched in a tree eyeballing his prey in the hills of rural Appalachia – Saunders, the Democratic rural strategist, is gunning for bigger targets than Bambi. He aims to pick off the likes of Republican John McCain and fellow hunter Sarah Palin in a state that traditionally sends Republicans to the White House, but is now swinging toward Barack Obama’s Democrats, mainly due to the new demographics of suburban northern Virginia.

Obama’s campaigners worry Appalachia may be the Berlin Wall of Democratic votes. But down here in the rural elbow of the state, where God and guns go together like grits and bacon, Saunders vows success is still possible. The fact Virginia only once went Democratic in a national election since 1948 daunts him not at all. Nor do the figures in a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month, placing McCain over Obama by a margin of 54-39 per cent in the Roanoke/southwest region.

“If he gets 45 per cent (of the) vote in the (southwestern) ninth district, he’ll win Virginia easy as dynamiting fish,” Saunders enthuses. “The Democrats don’t seem to understand they don’t have to win it outright. Just need to clip off enough votes to win the state. With his heavy metropolitan performance, I think Obama is in good shape.”

A trim, silver-haired 60, Saunders – nicknamed for his childhood baseball idol, black Minnesota Twins star pitcher Mudcat Grant – is famous as the gun-toting, cussing “bubba” factor in the Democrats’ Virginia campaign. But he has a gut-level grasp of the complexities as well as the oversimplifications of the rural southwest.

“I’m liberal on some issues, and really conservative on others,” he says. “I believe in God and support the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), but that doesn’t make me a Republican.

“For me and a lot of other folks here, individual liberty is the most important thing. But that means rights for you as well as me – no matter who you’re in bed with.”

Not surprisingly, Democrats turn to Saunders for direction in this perplexing place, as early explorers looked to savvy tribesmen.

But the publicity, and the carloads of media invading his made-over migrant workers’ cottage outside Roanoke, are beginning to unsettle Saunders: “I got too much credit,” he mutters, John Wayne-style, fielding a call from yet another overheated television crew.

Critic Thomas Schaller agrees. A University of Maryland political scientist and author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, he contends that Obama needs Mudcat’s advice about as much as a bear needs roller skates. “It isn’t rural strategy that would get him elected, it’s the growth of the non-rural populations,” he concludes.

But Mudcat, who’s volunteering his time for the Obama campaign, insists rural voters can be bagged, if they’re stalked properly. “Politics is team work,” he says. “You have to have a good team and a candidate who is 100 per cent committed.”

Saunders speaks from experience. A one-time sports writer, he began messing with politics back in 1983, when he woke up from a “typical Scots drinking binge” and found himself “financially, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt.”

Dick Cranwell, a Virginia Democrat who became the state House majority leader, had bailed him out of jail after many a wild night. And to repay Cranwell, a dried-out, born-again Saunders “helped him put up campaign signs.”

Using his local know-how to boost Cranwell’s winning poll numbers, he signed on to gubernatorial hopeful Mark Warner’s campaign as a “rural strategist” after Cranwell stepped down in 2000.

“You’ve got to get through the culture here, that’s my message to the Democrats,” he says.

“We’re the forgotten Americans,” he laments. “These folks have a long history of being screwed. Politicians always tell them things are going to change. But change is mostly for the worse.”

Obama’s advisers have taken Mudcat’s message about reaching rural voters seriously. They’ve learned the occasional flash appearance will fail. And that the Scots-Irish inhabitants who are in the majority in these parts are not the Neanderthals they’re painted. Behind the “gol-durns” and hayseed beards are the shrewd minds of war and famine survivors still searching for a comfort zone.

Roanoke’s revived old-town centre – where Saunders owns a block of real estate with a friend and business partner – testifies to that adaptability: its elegant, light-filled new Taubman Museum of Art is designed by famed Los Angeles architect Randall Stout.

Local politicians and community leaders are also looking forward, struggling to bring new-generation jobs to the area.

What burns his butt the most, Saunders says – and those of other Appalachian folk in the poorest part of the state – is the crumbling of the local economy, outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries and downgrading of chronic rural problems like poverty so intense a local child can go to school with a broken arm bound up in a ripped sheet.

“The economic differences within the state are huge,” says Dee Davis, who heads the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategy. “By any measurable indicator the people in rural areas are poorer, sicker and less franchised. Rates of clinical depression are higher, and there are higher deaths per capita.”

The cultural differences are also substantial. In a place where men, women and children talk casually of their latest fish and game kills, and the local gun shop doubles as a social centre, touting gun control is political suicide. Obama, who arrived in Roanoke yesterday for the latest of several southwestern appearances, has been at pains to explain he’s no “gun-grabber” and he understands the rural scenario is different from urban ganglands.

“Here you grow up with guns and you know how to use ’em,” says Saunders. But he steams over the National Rifle Association’s embrace of John McCain, who opposed selling weapons at the gun shows many hunters hold dear.

The gun lobby may not be the biggest barrier to Obama’s support in Appalachia, some fear. In this traditionally white territory, putting a black man, as well as a Democrat into the White House might be a leap too far.

It’s a contention many local people deny, including Saunders, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans who cherishes the idea of building a southwestern coalition of black and poor white voters.

“Historically, we share each other’s culture, and music and food,” he says. “We have to build on all the things we have in common.”

Converting the white, traditionally Republican population of Virginia’s southwest may take more time than this election has left. But though southwest Virginia may not be prejudice-free, it is far from a cadre of cross-burners. Roanoke is close to 30 per cent black, and elected a black mayor, Noel Taylor. Virginia was also the first state to elect a black governor, Douglas Wilder.

Onzlee Ware, an African-American member of Virginia’s legislature since 2004, says he’s optimistic Obama will do better than expected in southwest Virginia.

“I went to see Obama in Bristol, which is as deep in the southwest as you can get without falling off the map,” he chuckles. “Almost everybody who turned out was white, and it was the average working person in coveralls. Right there in that high school gym, I thought for the first time America had changed enough so this guy is going to be president of the United States.”

If so, no one will be less surprised than Mudcat. A co-author of Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’em Out, he has never lost faith that the day will come.

In the meantime, there are other targets in his sights. In the offing, a deer-hunting trip with retired pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, an old friend and the first Canadian member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This time, hopefully, the quarry won’t get away.


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