'War on Coal' still resonates in Greene County elections

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Even on the last day of the election, the signs really were everywhere in Greene County: in front yards, near coal mine entrances and -- at least in the case of the Classy Cuts salon near Waynesburg -- next to advertisements for perms and spray tans.

The "Stop the War on Coal -- Fire Obama" sign that has overtaken Greene County yards and storefronts has proven to be a boon for the salon business.

Owner Kathy Hoskins knows of at least one customer who saw the sign and went elsewhere for a trim -- but that's nothing compared to the steady stream of new customers who come in to see if they like her hair stylings as much as they do her political ones.

With fewer than 40,000 residents, Greene County never has been seen as the surest path to winning Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes. One of the county's core constituencies -- coal miners and their neighbors -- became this election's soccer mom: a coveted demographic seen as up for grabs and integral to a swing-state victory here and in Ohio.

Democrats once had this group sewn up: The United Mine Workers endorsed President Barack Obama in 2008. But hard times in the industry -- and a months-long campaign to pin those pains on the president -- led the powerful union to sit this race out.

Republican nominee Mitt Romney and his supporters saw an opening, establishing the former Massachusetts governor as a pro-coal candidate. Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith entered the debate as well, saying his experience as a mine owner made him more qualified than Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey at understanding miner concerns.

On Tuesday, Mr. Romney won the county with 58 percent of the vote, besting President Obama by more than 2,000 votes.

Even with the polls closed, the debate over coal's future isn't due to die down in Pennsylvania counties such as Greene, where Republican John McCain took 49 percent of the vote in 2008 -- edging Mr. Obama by 60 votes.

Alpha Natural Resources and Consol Energy maintain significant coal operations here, and coal executives across the country have become increasingly partisan as economic times tighten for the industry.

Both companies recently posted third-quarter losses, although the major culprits behind coal's recent trouble remain decreased international demand and fierce competition from cheaper shale gas.

Consol Energy idled one mine because it didn't want to sell coal at a time of decreased demand in markets like Brazil and Europe. Alpha's chairman and chief executive officer cited "market headwinds" in the release announcing his company's $46 million loss in the third quarter earlier this month.

The signs of a surging gas industry are here, too: in the entrance to the Chevron Appalachia gas operation that sits down the hill from the Cumberland Mine, on the billboard advertisement calling for landowners interested in selling their mineral rights, on the PA Energy Service yard sign hawking job openings for CDL truck drivers.

The Obama campaign wasn't letting Greene County go. Several get-out-the-vote operations made last-minute calls on Tuesday.

But even some registered Democrats reached by the campaign on Election Day said they were reversing their past support for the president because of coal concerns, echoing the signs that have come to blend into the scenery here, said campaign volunteer Darlene Garrett, who made calls Tuesday from a conference room at the Waynesburg Comfort Inn.

The area's rural landscape and lack of media outlets helped the lawn signs proliferate, said Lawrence M. Stratton, assistant professor of ethics and constitutional law at Waynesburg University.

Greene County doesn't have any major newspapers or television stations that could host major political advertising, so lawn signs become the medium of choice, he said.

This year, the ubiquitous "War on Coal" signs took up residence in lawns where "there used to be UMW signs," he said.

It's the second political sign Ms. Hoskins has put up in her 17 years of owning Classy Cuts. The first was for former Democratic House leader Bill DeWeese, a longtime Greene County lawmaker who was jailed earlier this year on corruption charges.

Nothing that happens at the polls could persuade her to take down the anti-Obama sign. She and her employees worry about economic policies under another Obama administration that could trickle down to fewer customers at the salon.

"They're not paying for haircuts when they're laid off," said stylist Shannon Renner.

Even though she's a registered Democrat, Ms. Hoskins said she hasn't voted for one since Bill Clinton in 1992, and hasn't felt this strongly for a Republican candidates in ages.

"I wish I could vote 25 times," she said before turning to her next customer -- a woman who drives around Pennsylvania and West Virginia courthouses looking at documents for Marcellus Shale companies.

businessnews - neigh_washington

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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