This week, under a magnificent, hurricane-scrubbed sky, the clover meadow at Riner’s Sinkland Farm was filling with Ram 1500 hemis and Priuses with bumper stickers that said, “Eat Local,” “If you can read this, thank a teacher” and “Old Railfans never die, they just lose track”.
Those messages set a tone of diversity and inclusion that wove through the Anthony Flaccavento town hall meeting as nearly 200 people, Auburn High School students, moms and dads with new babies, old people and young filled the wedding barn of Riner’s emblematic agro tourism spot greeting each other under the bunting-draped rafters and a glass bottle chandelier.
The campaign’s Riner town hall was the 82nd of a targeted 100 that are being held in public spaces meaningful to small southwest Virginia towns where agriculture, forestry and mining are central to the economies and cultures like Lebanon’s Farmers’ Market, the Chilhowie’s Town Hall, Norton’s Black Lung Rally, the community center in Meadows of Dan.
These town halls are providing a forum for the 61-year-old organic farmer and economic development expert from Abingdon to listen to the interests, concerns and hopes of southwest Virginian voters as the Nov. 6 election nears.
Flaccavento’s running, for the second time, against Congressman Morgan Griffith who came in eight years ago backed by the then newly powerful Tea Party, defeating the 28-year Democratic incumbent Rick Boucher. According to non-partisan Cook Political Report, the 9th district leans Republican by 19 points.
Other polls find Flaccavento trailing instead by single digits, describing Griffith’s below 50 percent vote total as “a precarious position for an incumbent,” especially in a district that Donald Trump won by more than 40 points.
Flaccavento is running on a progressive populism platform that encourages active citizenship and community deliberation, like town halls that advocate redirecting the power of state and federal bureaucracies rather than gutting them, securing social and political betterment and building a big tent.
“We’ve tried to include and invite everybody,” campaign Field Director Meredith Dean, who lives in Riner, said. “We were looking for a place that represents the town, a neutral place like the school and we’re thrilled to be here at Sinkland, a small-business success story.”
People stood and asked questions about the opioid problem, college tuition and debt, small business and agriculture, environmental regulations and funding infrastructure reconstruction and rural broadband.
“There’s plenty of creative, innovative solid work going on to solve the drug problem, to build more diverse economies, to solve the “jobs vs. environment” dilemma that so many communities find themselves in so that you don’t have to choose between jobs and preservation of our land,” Flaccavento said. “There’s Innovation in public education. There are community-based health efforts. Happening right here and all over. We don’t lack solutions.”
Despite drawing crowds at these town halls – 150 people packed the Meadows of Dan community center – the district is conservative.
Asked by a young man how he thought he could reach across party lines to the centrists, he cited town halls and meeting small-business people.
“I think that’s happening” Flaccavento said. “Part of it’s the town halls. Partly because they’re not satisfied with what they’ve got and partly because they think that I’m a farmer and a working guy, and that there’s a better chance I will represent their interests.”
In addition to town halls, Flaccavento is meeting with small business groups where they work—in machine shops, manufacturing plants. Coming to Riner from Radford’s ACME Panel, a company that uses solar and renewable energy to build energy efficient buildings.
“Talking to the Lebanon Rotary, the Kiwanis clubs and the Farm Bureau, the message is how do we build a strong economy from the bottom up how to we solve our problems,” Flaccavento said. “Those are very bipartisan groups. You go to the Rotary and Kiwanis, strong contingent of Republicans, Independents and Democrats. Those folks hear my message. My third group is farmers, who are a pretty conservative bunch. Farming dairy prices, environmental regulations and usually end up talking about health care. In all those different ways, I open the door for people who wouldn’t consider voting for a Democrat.”
But he’s been unabashedly critical of the Democratic party.
“I’m not just running as a Democrat. I’m running as a working person to represent working people. That’s the bottom line,” he said.
“It’s not easier this time, but I do have more confidence this time around. And the town halls which we did not do in 2012, are a lot of fun and give me a great deal of energy,” Flaccavento said later in an email.
The incumbent rather than the person running for office usually holds town halls, but Griffith has not held or attended town halls in Montgomery County, holding telephone town halls instead.
Reached for comment, the congressman’s office pointed out his active schedule in the district.
“When Congressman Griffith is not in DC serving as the 9th District’s voice in Congress, you will generally find him on the road in the district, traveling from Jonesville to Martinsville, Covington to Bristol, including numerous meetings in Montgomery County, to meet with constituents and listen to their concerns,” Campaign Manager Michael Cogar wrote in an email.
Both sides have agreed to at least three debates around the district, Oct. 15 at Bluefield College, in Bristol Oct. 18, and the Salem Civic Center Oct. 22.