Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va.

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., fields questions from constituents during his stop at the Back of the Dragon Welcome Center in Tazewell, Va., Wednesday.

TAZEWELL, Va. — Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., made a dramatic entrance into the Back of the Dragon headquarters in Tazewell Wednesday afternoon.

Jamie Cartwright, who works at the headquarters, drove him in riding shotgun in her “slingshot.”

“This is pretty darn cool,” Warner said as he exited the three-wheel convertible. “Compared to my day job, if we could have kept on riding it would be much more fun.”

Warner made a stop in Tazewell on his seven-day trip across the commonwealth.

Standing in front of the Back of the Dragon’s own 15-ft. dragon installed recently beside the headquarters, he spoke to a crowd gathered for the visit.

Warner praised the two men, Larry Davidson and Danny Addison, whose vision and work created the Back of the Dragon concept and fought for a state designation of the 32-mile trip to Marion across three mountains on winding Rt. 16, which is now bringing tens of thousands of motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts to the area.

They should be commended for helping bring people to the area and the tourism dollars that follow, he said. “As Larry was saying, it’s not about him, it’s about bringing the whole community together.”

The tourism industry is here to stay, he said, and “we’re not going to see some company come in and buy Back of the Dragon and ship it to China.”

Warner said he always enjoys seeing how Tazewell is growing.

“There have been challenges but I think you guys have turned the corner,” he said, adding that during his visits to the area when he was Governor he usually bought a check but it doesn’t work that way with the federal government where it’s much more difficult to get anything done.

“I would love to come here and give you a report on all the great positive things that are happening in Washington,” he said. “Let me give you that report.”

Then he stood silently. “All right, end of that report.”

“It is sometimes kind of frustrating,” Warner said, as elected officials in Washington spend too much trying to “run each other down” rather than working together to accomplish what is needed.

Warner touched on several topics and answered questions.

He said he is continuing to work on making sure Black Lung benefits won’t disappear and one reason is it’s still a problem for working miners and “we’ve seen an uptick” in cases.

The recent sudden layoffs when Blackjewel Mines went bankrupt, which impacted many miners in Southwest Virginia and left them without benefits or even a paycheck, demonstrated a situation that should not happen, he said.

“Workers should not be at the back of the line when a company goes under,” he said. “Bankruptcy laws need to change so employees come first, not at the back of the line (for money the company may owe debtors).”

Warner also said the federal government has made strides in fighting the opioid crisis, but “issues of addiction are not going away soon … We need to treat addiction as a health care issue.”

He said being a former addict should not impact a person’s ability to find a job.

“We need to make sure federal and state funding continues to be available (to fight drug addiction),” he said.

Other initiatives Warner said he is continuing to address include working with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) on making sure miners receive the benefits they deserve.

Manchin has led the way with this, he said, and all they want now is for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow a vote on the issue.

He also wants to fight outside election interference in American elections with stricter social media identifications and paper ballots as backups if there is a problem at polling stations.

Warner said he is not ready to support any of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020.

“I’m going to wait for awhile and see how it shakes out,” he said. “I get worried with Mr. Trump how he disrespects the rule of law and what he is doing to our reputation around the country so I look forward to supporting the Democrat. But I get worried when either political party goes to the extreme.”

On his own possible aspirations for the job, he said this year was not a time for him to throw his hat into the ring.

“I think we need folks in the Senate to work with both parties and I didn’t feel like it was my time,” he said.

“We are very glad to have the Senator here today,” Davidson said. “We feel that’s a very positive factor that we can be recognized for all the hard work that we are doing and our goal is to make this the hub of the motorcycle and sports car communities not only in Southwest Virginia but in the Eastern United States.”

Mike Hymes, Tazewell County Southern District supervisor, said Warner is a long-time friend and he looks out for working people.

“Sen. Warner has always been a friend to Tazewell County and Southwest Virginia,” he said. “He understands working people and he understands the problems that coal miners have. He has always been able to reach across the aisles and get things done.”

Hymes said Warner demonstrated his frustration in Washington when everyone has to be on one team or another.

“He’s on our team,” he said. “We need to keep him on it.”

Eastern District Supervisor Charlie Stacy was on hand and said the visit is good for the area.

“We are tickled to have the Senator come down and see our Back of the Dragon display,” he said, referring to the giant dragon that has proven to be popular. “It’s been a wonderful tourist attraction. Every time I have been here you have people stopping and lining up for photos with the dragon. That’s exactly what we want. We want people coming to Tazewell County.”

Stacy said the Back of the Dragon trail continues to be a big draw to ride on “and we hope to bring more people here to ride on it.”

“It was great having Sen. Warner here with us to see all of the great economic development going on,” said A.J. Robinson, interim tourism director for Tazewell County. “Obviously, the Back of the Dragon brings a tremendous amount of motorcycles to our region and we are happy to have him here to show him what we are doing.”

Tazewell Town Manager Todd Day said it was a “wonderful event” and Warner has always been a friend to the region.

“He’s bringing some inspiration to the community,” he said.

“Anytime we get exposure for the Back of the Dragon or any our attractions in Southwest Virginia it’s a good thing for us, it’s a good thing for the community,” said David Woodard, executive director of the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority and chair of the Tazewell County School Board. “It’s also good for economic development.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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