Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 7, 2010

Health care, climate change and more on mind of Gov. McDonnell

As evidenced by the big debate last night in Bluefield, the region’s election season is well underway. In addition to writing about last night’s debate between U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Republican challenger, Elliott “Spike” Maynard, I also had the opportunity a week ago to attend Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s visit to Tazewell County.

It’s rare for a Virginia governor to make his way to the deep Southwest Virginia counties. When he was governor of Virginia, I only recall one instance when Democrat Mark Warner visited our region. It was an economic development announcement in Wythe County. Warner is, of course, now a U.S. Senator.

Democrat Tim Kaine did make stops in the area slightly more often. I remember a somewhat unique stop by Kaine to our region — also in Wythe County, if memory serves me correctly — where he was joined by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin in a symbolic lighting of the Appalachian Power 765kV project. Before the wind turbine controversy on East River Mountain, the big community battle centered around the large-scale 765kV lines. Interestingly enough, the power line also crossed East River Mountain.

While the fight against the 765kV lines dragged on for some time —  I think folks were fighting about it before I even started working at the Daily Telegraph — everyone ultimately came together, and the project was approved. We had a chance at the time to photograph both Manchin and Kaine together, and to talk to them about regional cooperation between southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia.

Both governors were Democrats, and we were told personal friends, so it was only natural that such a discussion would be started between the two. It made for a good story, a good headline, and a good photograph. But more importantly, their symbolic pledge to work together did help tear down long-standing barriers between the state-line neighbors.

Last week, we were not really sure why McDonnell was coming to town. His advance press itinerary simply said the governor would be meeting with hospital staff and employees at Clinch Valley Medical Center, and also touring the facility. McDonnell kept his word, not only touring the medical center, and the new advance wound care center that was recently opened at CVMC, but also meeting with employees. In fact, he spoke to a classroom full of employees and media representatives. It was good to see local lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum in attendance, including Democrat Sen. Phillip Puckett and Republican Delegate Will Morefield.

McDonnell was very relaxed, and personable in addressing the crowd. He talked about his ongoing efforts to restructure government, and his search for good ideas from citizens across the Commonwealth, and he opened the floor for ideas from those assembled in the hospital classroom.

The reporting crew in attendance had a couple of questions for the governor, including the hot-topic issues of immigration, the proposed privatization of liquor stores and climate change. McDonnell also spent a lot of time discussing Virginia’s challenge to the federal health care law. Virginia is one of several states that is challenging the federal health care reform legislation passed by Congress earlier this year, and McDonnell wasn’t shy to explain why.

The Republican governor told the crowd gathered at the hospital that the issue goes beyond health care, and to the very heart and soul of the U.S. Constitution.

McDonnell said the Virginia Healthcare Freedom Act adopted earlier this year with bipartisan support by the General Assembly declares that no resident of the Commonwealth can be required or forced to purchase health care insurance. The state legislation argues the federal health care reform bill creates an unprecedented federal mandate on Virginia residents that violates the U.S. Constitution.

Virginia’s challenge to the federal health care reform bill is certainly interesting, and I’m surprised we aren’t hearing a lot of debate about it — whether pro or con. I’ve been covering the health care debate since late last year when President Barack Obama made his visit to a Bristol, Va., Kroger in an attempt to sell the health care plan to folks in Southwest Virginia.

In recent weeks, I have spent a lot of time in hospitals, and doctor offices, with a close family member who is fighting a difficult illness. So I understand the importance of health care. However, I also understand the frustration surrounding the fact that no one still seems to know what is really included in the federal health care bill passed by Congress. The problem is a lot of the benchmarks won’t kick in until 2014. So it’s really a waiting game. But still, given recent experiences with my family, I couldn’t imagine anyone fighting a difficult illness without health care insurance. So it is certainly an emotional debate that I have mixed feelings about.

We also had a chance to talk to the governor briefly about the immigration and ABC privatization issues, and, of course, about climate change. He was quick to defend Southwest Virginia’s coal and natural gas industry, and spoke in opposition to federal cap-and-trade measures that he likened to a national energy tax.

In the end, it’s always good to see the governor in town. It doesn’t happen very often in Virginia, particularly in the deep Southwest Virginia counties.

Although a big election is looming, it was also good to see that McDonnell didn’t appear to be actively stumping for any particular political candidate. He appeared to be just genuinely interested in meeting with the hospital staff, area residents and the media.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s city editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.

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