By Vicki Smith
For months, Democrat Sue Thorn has knocked on doors and walked parade routes across the 1st Congressional District, often handing out snack bags as she asks people to choose her over Republican Rep. David McKinley.
“I’m tired of the rich getting richer,” she tells them, “and the rest of us get peanuts.”
It’s designed to draw a chuckle, but Thorn says it’s also opened the door to countless conversations. Though she’s raised only a fraction of her opponent’s financial support and lacks his name recognition, Thorn is confident she’s what voters want.
“This is a classic fight of whether or not organized people can beat money,” said the 58-year-old former community organizer. “People really want to take Congress back,” she says, “and put it back in the hands of people who really understand what’s going on in their lives.”
McKinley, a 65-year-old engineer and former state GOP chairman, says that’s him.
As one of 48 small business owners in Congress, he said he’s not there to build a second career. He’s there to fix things by applying “a business perspective.”
“I’m trying to get something changed that reduces our unemployment and enhances our manufacturing bases,” he said, “and gets people back to work.”
Both candidates are from Wheeling, but that’s virtually the only thing they have in common.
Thorn, daughter of a union electrician, lives in a cabin built by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program born of the Great Depression. Her family survived that era because government created jobs.
“And they weren’t handouts. They built bridges and road and dams,” she said. “And I think that’s exactly what the government should be doing now.”
McKinley, who swept into office on tea party support two years ago, said that’s exactly the wrong approach.
“Government cannot create jobs,” he said. Its job, he says, is to help businesses thrive by cutting taxes, removing burdensome regulations and shrinking its own role.
Thorn wants to raise taxes on the top 1 percent or 2 percent of wealthiest Americans. McKinley doesn’t want to raise taxes for anyone. He also wants to slash corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 25 percent so American companies can compete better.
“Technically, we’ve been out of the recession for 24-30 months. But tell that to the individual on Maple Street in Follansbee. ... People are still hurting,” McKinley said. “Raising taxes on the wealthy — on anyone right now — is not timed very well.”
McKinley also wants to make Medicare a block-grant program and give control to the states.
Though he doesn’t support privatizing Social Security, he has other ideas for it, from raising the eligibility age to creating a firewall that prevents the money from being used for anything other than benefits. He also wants to create an opt-out, allowing people to walk away from what they’ve paid into the system in exchange for tax-free access to their retirement investments.
But Thorn says people are “scared to death” about dramatic changes to what she calls “basic contracts between the government and Americans.”
“The idea of getting rid of those programs, privatizing them or making them vouchers,” she said, “it’s just unbelievable to most people.”
To some extent, the race is a referendum on the 1st District itself.
For 28 years, the seat belonged to Democrat Alan Mollohan. But in 2010, he lost a primary challenge to longtime state Sen. Mike Oliverio. He then lost to McKinley, who became the first Republican to represent the district since 1969.
Voter registration still favors Democrats, who account for 50 percent to the GOP’s 35 percent. But 15 percent are independents.
McKinley believes voters will put aside party affiliation and vote their pocketbook. If they do, he says, he’ll win.
“We’ve started to turn things around. We’ve clearly stopped some of the hemorrhaging,” he said. Now, Congress must rein in what he considers “an overly aggressive overreach” by regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency.
Thorn said McKinley is among the politicians who wrongly blame the challenges facing West Virginia’s coal industry on the EPA.
Coal has numerous challenges, she said, including competition from cheap natural gas, declining domestic demand and a sluggish global economy. Rhetoric about an EPA “war on coal” is designed to scare people, Thorn says, “and that’s not how you come to good decisions.”
“We have to look at the future and acknowledge that coal is a finite object, and it’s going to be more and more expensive to dig,” she said. Rather than fight EPA at every turn, she said the congressional delegation must begin planning for a future where coal’s role is smaller.
“To sit and wait until the last ton of coal is mined is doing our constituents a disservice,” she said.
But McKinley said EPA must be reined in because its actions in West Virginia have larger implications.
When the EPA sets new rules for certain states or retroactively revokes federal permits, he said, it has a chilling effect on all industries by creating regulatory uncertainty a recovering economy can’t afford. He wants an agency that is cooperative, not adversarial.
“I don’t want to do away with the EPA any more than I want to do away with some bank regulations,” he said. “They just have to be more reasonable, more sensitive to what’s going on in the economy.”