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Aiming for a new normal / October 17, 2012
Politics is rife with uphill battles and lost causes, but defeat can plant the seeds of future victories. Barry Goldwater was trounced in the 1964 presidential election, but his rise as the Republican Party standard bearer marked the onset of the GOP’s fateful turn to the hard right. Goldwater lost, but his brand of conservatism won out — and the GOP has been riding the same ideological hobbyhorse ever since.

In the Fifth District congressional race, the Democratic candidate, John Douglass, is waging a campaign that will appeal to die-hards of a different sort — one that will take equal faith to sustain. Douglass, a Fauquier County resident, is challenging Republican incumbent Robert Hurt of Chatham, a heavy favorite to hold onto the seat. Douglass’ problems begin with the fact most people are probably unaware that Fauquier County even lies in the Fifth.

This is no accident. When the Republican-controlled General Assembly redrew Virginia’s election districts last year, it handed Hurt a cushy set of boundaries to run in. The rural Fifth District already tipped Republican, but redistricting added new conservative-leaning areas from Virginia’s horse country, including Fauquier. The changes deepened the Fifth’s reddish hue and left Hurt with an easy task in future campaigns: just keep the Republican coalition intact, and no need to sweat the rest.

No one will ever associate Robert Hurt with sweaty effort; the scion of a prominent Chatham family, Hurt rode into Congress on the 2010 Republican wave and before then had faced little competition in his races for Virginia House of Delegates and State Senate. Hurt likes to say he’s a small businessman of sorts, having run his own law firm in Chatham, but being a lawyer in a small town where success is almost preordained by virtue of social and family status (barring a major screw-up) is not exactly anyone’s idea of triumphing over adversity.

So: Hurt runs, Hurt wins, tale over. Or is it? There’s a wild card in the deck that already has made the campaign more interesting than one might expect: uranium mining. Hurt’s father Henry is an investor in Virginia Uranium Inc., and Douglass isn’t letting a moment pass on the campaign trail without reminding voters of that fact. The Democratic candidate (who is also a retired Air Force Brigadier General) is trying to turn uranium into Robert Hurt’s Kryptonite.

Some will dismiss this strategy as a long shot, a mere tactic, a political dead end. I wouldn’t be too sure about that. The odds were always stacked against Douglass — he’s a newcomer, he hails from the far end of the district, Hurt has money and party ID working in his favor, etc. — but Hurt’s also the candidate with the most to fear from a familiar conservative bugaboo: uncertainty. Hurt and other Republicans use the word around to describe the force that’s supposedly holding the economy back (a theory that’s nuts, but also the subject of another column), yet uncertainty can be a powerful motivator in the political realm — especially when candidates can’t be too sure of the thrust of its bite.

The Hurt family’s involvement in the uranium business is well known; Henry Hurt is one of a small number of local investors in the Coles Hill mine site. (The size of his stake is not public information; indeed, ownership of the entire endeavor has become increasingly convoluted with Canadian mining interests buying into Virginia Uranium). How has Congressman Hurt responded to questions about the scope of his industry connections? “Insulting people’s intelligence” is the immediate answer that comes to mind. Hurt’s stock response has been twofold: first, uranium mining is a state, not a federal issue, therefore his standing as a member of Congress is irrelevant; and second, the General Assembly previously examined potential conflicts of interest while Hurt was still a member of the legislature and gave him a clean bill of health. The former argument is flatly untrue. The latter is downright silly.

Yoo hoo! — you must be a career politician if you honestly believe voters will be convinced by an ethics panel ruling — a vote taken by career politicians on behalf of other career politicians, let’s not forget — that Hurt has no conflicts on uranium. Strictly as a legal matter, Hurt may have steered well clear of trouble as a member of the General Assembly. From a common sense perspective, potential conflicts are rife. People fully grasp that Robert Hurt has a great deal to gain if Virginia lifts its ban on uranium mining and the Coles Hill project brings a rich return on investment for its shareholders. Aren’t Republicans, after all, strongly in favor of getting rid of taxes on the inherited wealth of millionaires?

As for the divide between state vs. federal authority, uranium mining is regulated by the federal government, plain and simple. Virginia can keep out the industry if it keeps its moratorium, but ditching the ban automatically invites in the federal government to oversee what happens next in Pittsylvania. Debates over appropriate levels of regulation can be tricky — we may argue forever, for instance, about the merits and demerits of the Dodd-Frank finance law — but it’s asking a lot of any regulatory regime to expect it to succeed, without fail, over a span of thousands of years. This, by the way, is exactly what will be needed to protect Southside should Virginia Uranium be permitted to dig up tons of radioactive ore and store the waste tailings upstream on the Roanoke River basin.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, meantime, that Congress is packed with people just like Robert Hurt who rail constantly about the “job killing” impact of environmental protections. Practically nothing Robert Hurt has to say about any subject should be taken seriously — how did the Fifth District end up with such an obvious lightweight for a congressman? — yet by his mere presence, as one of only 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, he makes an impact. Hurt’s primary purpose in Congress is enabling the leadership of truly horrible people such as Eric Cantor, who probably wouldn’t think twice about quarantining radioactive wastes in Southside if it meant the chance to haul in more campaign cash from resource extraction industries. If push ever came to shove, perhaps Robert Hurt would backtrack from his no-regulation philosophy and denounce efforts to loosen oversight of uranium mining. By then, it might be too late.

With the General Assembly expected to vote in early 2013 on lifting the uranium ban, a curious dynamic has taken hold: every locality immediately downstream from Chatham has come out in opposition to the project. Except for one: Pittsylvania County itself. This isn’t because public sentiment in Pittsylvania is so opaque that it would be impossible for the county’s Board of Supervisors to develop a coherent position. Anything but: a recent VCU poll of the region indicates residents of Pittsylvania and Danville are solidly against the Coles Hill mine, and at public forums, mining opponents typically outnumber supporters by lopsided margins. Despite all this, four of seven members on the Pittsylvania Board of Supervisors refuse to take a stance on mining, to the consternation of the overwhelming majority of their constituents. There’s an incestuous feel to the politics of uranium mining in Pittsylvania County. If you think this is an awful thing at the local level, imagine how it might play out at the federal.

John Douglass gives every indication of understanding the dirty politics of uranium mining; more worrisome for Hurt, the same appears to hold true for many of his constituents in the Fifth District. Opposition to mining is not the least bit partisan — large landowners, farmers, business leaders and others who otherwise might identify with the Republican Party have signed up in the effort to keep the ban. (By the same token, Republicans in Richmond are hardly alone as prime suspects in any looming effort to lift the moratorium. The best chance to stop Virginia Uranium probably lies with the State Senate, which is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, but there are Democrats who I would trust as far as I can throw on the uranium issue. Richard Saslaw, here’s looking at you.) For his part, Hurt may have enough of a cushion of support to sacrifice the votes of a few committed anti-uranium types, but there’s where the uncertainty kicks in: You never know when the few will develop into the many.

In other words, you can never be quite sure what might happen in the course of a campaign. Douglass has struck hard at Hurt’s soft spots (and there are plenty): his strict adherence to brain-dead ideological nostrums, his slavish devotion to party masters represented so noxiously by the likes of Eric Cantor and Grover Norquist, and Congress’s utter failure to get anything done, as evidenced by the inability to pass the Farm Bill. (Just so you’ll know, the Farm Bill is hung up in the Republican-controlled House after having already cleared the Senate, which is run by Democrats.) But the uranium issue has genuine pop. Hurt may be a terrible congressman, but being presentable enough and Republican enough, in normal times he’d be a sure-fire bet for re-election.

This time? Given the risks that uranium mining poses to Southside Virginia, this would be a fine time to establish a “new normal” and vote for John Douglass for Congress. Better to throw a scare at Robert Hurt than have the same happen to residents who live downstream from his father’s uranium mine.

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