NPR logo In Virginia's 5th, Economic Woes Drive Key House Race

Election 2010

In Virginia's 5th, Economic Woes Drive Key House Race

One of the hottest stories of the year in politics is the battle for control of Congress. Democrats, as you're aware, now have majorities in the House (where there are 255 Democrats, 177 Republicans and three vacancies) and Senate (57-41 and 2 independents who caucus with the Dems).

Republicans would love to retake control of both chambers. At the very least, the GOP is aiming to cut into the Democrats' advantages. If Republicans are going to make gains, they'll have to win back many of the traditionally GOP-held seats that the party lost in 2008. That includes Virginia's 5th Congressional District, now represented by freshman Democrat Tom Perriello.

All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block spent some time in Perriello's district last week, for a report airing on ATC today. She'll be revisiting the 5th as the campaign goes on. As she says, "two years ago, Tom Perriello squeaked by the popular long-time Republican incumbent by just 727 votes — in a district that went for John McCain." In Tuesday's GOP primary, seven Republicans are vying for the right to take him on in November.

Melissa also filed this post for Political Junkie, on the district's economic woes and the effect they have on the campaign:

Twenty-two percent unemployment. That's the harsh reality facing Martinsville, Virginia, on the southern edge of the state, close by the North Carolina border. It's also the reality facing those trying to win votes in Virginia's 5th Congressional District.

If you drive around Martinsville, you see plenty of evidence of a local economy that's hemorrhaged jobs: huge, empty plants, with signs out front offering tens of thousands of square feet to buy or lease.

For generations, the southern part of Virginia was buoyed by vibrant textile and furniture industries.  Martinsville was home to the world's largest nylon plant, opened by DuPont in 1941. Ginny Wray, the longtime editor of the Martinsville Bulletin, says the factory produced the country's first pantyhose; DuPont sent a pair to Eleanor Roosevelt as a gift. At its peak, DuPont employed about 4,500 people in Martinsville. The plant closed in 1998.

Around the same time, the Tultex plant closed down due to bankruptcy, and people still talk about that profound shock to the economy. "That's when the lights went out," Wray said. Tultex made sweatshirts, earning Martinsville its label as "The Sweatshirt Capital of the World."  The company employed about 1,000 workers in Martinsville.  Wray recalled the end this way: "They basically called in their ... employees one day and said turn the lights out on your way out. That's the end of it. And it was that dramatic and that sudden. It was horrible."

With those massive job losses have come social costs. Wray told me about a program to send backpacks full of food home with schoolchildren on the weekend, "which is sort of jolting to me. The idea that we live in an area where kids are hungry over the weekend. There was talk that they were sticking extra rolls in their pockets on Friday afternoon in the lunchroom.  That's a real visible graphic way to look at it. The impact of hunger and need."

Wray describes the Martinsville she moved to 36 years ago as bustling, with a thriving downtown. Now, many storefronts along Main Street are empty; the local Walmart has siphoned business away from town. People in Martinsville point with hope to the New College Institute, which provides bachelor's degree completion programs, and the local Red Birch biodiesel plant as signs that the economy could start turning around.

But there's nothing on the scale of the factories that used to put thousands to work in Martinsville, sewing and hammering and building.

Last year, by the way, The Hardest Year project produced this video report about Martinsville: