An abridged version of this interview was published in the print edition of our June/July 2013 issue. Here’s the full transcript.
For more than 20 years, Anthony Flaccavento has worked to build bridges between small-scale organic growers like himself and farmers markets, grocery stores and public schools. He founded Appalachian Sustainable Development in 1995, a nonprofit that became a regional leader in economic development.
Last year, Flaccavento won the Democratic primary in southwestern Virginia’s 9th congressional district, campaigning on his experience in community development. He lost the general election to Republican incumbent Morgan Griffith, and now runs Abingdon Organics, a farm, and SCALE, Inc., a consulting group that supports local economies. This interview is excerpted from a conversation at the Appalachian Voices office in Boone, N.C.
I felt that I was grounded in a way that your typical liberal Democrat is not. I’ve been a working person for a long time and my experience working with other farmers and small businesses is a base has taught us a lot. There is tremendous potential to build what I took to calling the bottom-up economy during the campaign.
When I entered, I really had two rules, neither of which was winning. One was to improve the substance of the debate, or basically we would start talking about meaningful things, including the bottom-up economy. I thought I could change the debate a little bit, I thought I could introduce some more thoughtfulness and more honesty to it.
My second goal was to galvanize progressive-thinking people, mostly the Democratic persuasion but of all stripes: independents and even some moderate Republicans. So I thought there was a way for me to do that, not in the way that was some typical Democratic way in Appalachia or the southeast, which is just a little less right-winged than the Republicans, but by being honest about the issues and putting forward this vision that made sense to people.
About halfway through the campaign, after winning the Democratic nomination, I started thinking, “Maybe I should try to win.”
I think it did [help]. It was part of saying what I believed and backing it up with a sensible argument. I won the [United Mine Workers of America] over with great enthusiasm after a lot of initial skepticism. I was one of the main organizers connected to the union of the huge Pittston Strike in southwest Virginia in 1989. It was very similar issues to what’s going on now with Patriot coal.
I had not forgotten them, but they were very worried about my environmental positions. So, there was a little hump to get over with the UMWA. On the environmental side, I would say, “I’m a farmer, I don’t like government regulation any more than you, but the fact is that you and I are obligated to be responsible to our neighbors downwind and downstream. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to support everything the EPA does but it’s only right that we protect people. I’ve got to do it as a farmer and you’ve got to do it as a miner.”
The second thing is that I’d say was that they’re lying to you when they tell you it’s an all or nothing choice, because it can be done better. When mountaintop removal came up and I’d say, “I really don’t see a place for that.”
The big lie is that it’s been regulations in this administration that have killed coal. You couldn’t have a more anti-EPA president than George W. Bush, and yet we still lost jobs. So something’s wrong with this picture. If you want to blame it all on the EPA, go ahead, but that’s not the problem. I stuck with saying, “I’ll fight for you every step of the way but we’ve gotta create other jobs,” which was my big message to the mining community.
A Bristol-Herald Courier reporter that I’ve known for years did a story on a rally we did at the Abingdon Farmer’s Market, where Barbara Kingsolver and I were the two main speakers. It was connected to 350.org and during that rally, I said, I think the direct quote was something about, “We have to accept the fact that the coal industry is part of the problem.” Can you make a more modest assessment of the situation than that?
The main emphasis of that rally and the scope of my comments was that we’re all culpable in this, and we can’t just blame the coal industry or the oil industry while driving big cars and heating expensive homes that are energy inefficient. It’s our responsibility to reduce our impact. I said in those remarks that I think the coal industry is part of the problem because I think they are. It probably shored up the opinions of some people but I doubt it had a real far-reaching impact.
I talked a lot about getting money out of politics, including overturning Citizens United, the Fair Elections Now Act and creating completely different mechanisms to fund campaigns.
In my own campaign there was the influence of money in the sense of the expectation that you raise a ton of it, and you do it in this particular way that’s absolutely horrible and offensive. But I wouldn’t attribute my loss to the fact that he had more money than me and the backing of Alpha Natural Resources and the others. I think I lost because I started too late and I was obscure at the beginning.
I do think that money is the dominant force in politics, not only in getting people elected but influencing legislation once they are in. It’s bad in the election process, it’s far worse in the policy-making world, where money really rolls.
Anti-regulation sentiment goes beyond the coal industry. It’s very strong among farmers who sometimes have specific and legitimate gripes. As an organic produce guy, some of what has happened with food safety regulations is just ridiculous, although more of it is driven more by the industry than by the government. But nevertheless, I relate to that.
The power and influence that a small group of Appalachian legislators have who are in states that control a tiny part of our energy portfolio is similar to farm state senators especially who are on the agriculture committees and how that’s a large part of our food system in the conventional sense, but it’s a tiny portion of the population and they wield tremendous power.
Although up until recently farm bill legislation has been improving, it’s improved over their dead bodies in a way, with great reluctance and great fighting and it’s gone much slower than it should. So there is something closely analogous about the two. In both cases, it’s a group of elected officials who’ve somehow concluded — and a big part of it is money, but it’s not exclusively money — that the only thing you can do is fight for what you’ve got, because there’s no alternative.
What I’ve been saying for my whole career in Appalachia and certainly during my campaign is there are alternatives. There are alternatives in energy policy and there are alternatives in agricultural policy. We’re in the middle of it right here in our region.
So I think it’s one thing to face the music and say we hardly have any coal left, we’ve got 20 to 30 years at most. If that’s all you say, you don’t give them much hope. So what are they going to do? Well, they’re going to conclude that I’m going to fight for what I’ve got for as long as it will last. On the other hand, if you can present some emerging alternatives, as we did with tobacco farmers 20 years ago and that’s harder to do in the coal industry, then as an elected representative, you’re not just telling people to face reality, you’re also saying it doesn’t have to be such a terrible thing.
What’s been lacking among the leaders in our region, in the House and the Senate as well as at the state level, is a willingness to speak honestly about the coal industry and along with that either a lack of any sense of alternatives or some calculation that they wouldn’t talk about the alternatives. And again, I tried to fundamentally turn both of those things on their heads.
I felt that those two absolutely had to go together. I would never just talk about the decline of the coal industry without bringing up alternatives. So in energy policy I would talk about the tremendous job creation that comes alternative energy and energy efficiency. There was a little business in Radford, Va., building SIPs (structurally insulated panels) that reduce your heating and cooling costs by 50 percent and they’re creating jobs right in the 9th district of Virginia by manufacturing them here.
A bit. Certainly the elected officials that are guided by the kinds of staff people that I was exposed to and many much more expensive consultants who tell them that the key is risk avoidance. Let’s be honest, we’ve moved to a place where to talk about energy efficiency is kind of a little bit dangerous.
There are many different spokes that come into the “you’re against the traditional industry” argument. In agriculture we saw that with tobacco all those years ago. If you talked about health, then you were against tobacco. If you talked about organic farming, you were against tobacco. Even if you talked about local foods, you were against tobacco. We’ve gotten over that partly because tobacco declined, but partly because a lot of us worked on alternatives that have been fairly successful. There’s the combination again of reality combined with an emerging alternative. We’re just at a different place in that evolution regarding coal. …
There are so many different points and I think that all comes back to this phenomenally well-orchestrated long-term campaign to say “The way we used to do things worked, why did we have to change? Why did those people make us change?” And that’s energy policy obviously, but it’s also food policy and so many other things. And they’ve woven that story so well, that now talking about alternatives is dangerous. But if you can talk about them with perspective as a farmer, as a small business person with dirt under your fingernails, then you’ve got more of a shot at it.
I think it is. But I’ve concluded that anything we do that makes sense and might make for a better world is going to have fierce opposition. There is a mobilized force that just wants things the way they used to be, whatever that means. But, although they’re vociferous and well-organized and they scare the pants off people, I think they are just a small group. And you can get beyond them with certain issues, local food and farming being one of them. I think energy efficiency is probably another, but it’s not nearly as developed as the local food and farming. Look at what MACED is doing in eastern Kentucky with on-bill financing, there are very few people who won’t agree that it makes a lot of sense. So I think there are certain things that are either creating jobs or sensibly reducing your bills that are hard to argue with. There are definitely places to build some bridges.
The core idea is that of creating a bottom-up economy. We know trickle-down economics has not worked. We know that it has concentrated wealth at unparalleled levels. We know that it has denuded communities by taking capital out so that independent businesses are disfavored compared to franchises, Wal-Marts and mega-chains. The essence of the bottom-up economy is reversing that trend. We know enough now that we didn’t know 12 to 14 years ago about what does work. This idea of an asset-based economy does work. What we don’t know is, if we have the right public policy, could it be transformative in places like Appalachia. I think it could.
A lot of people associated with sustainable economic development in the region think it could. We don’t honestly know the answer to that. What we know is that it has worked in small pockets. It’s been transformative in certain spots within the region and nothing else has been. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested industrial recruitment, incentives given to call centers and Bass Pro Shops, we know that that has not had any lasting impact, or not much. We need to shift the investment priorities and we need to get regulation right.
Regulation should focus on the highest risk to the most people. That’s where you start. If community banks pose very little risk because they have a history of relatively responsible lending that builds wealth, then look at that when you’re building a regulatory framework. If independent organic farmers have never made anybody really sick, think about that and build it into your regulatory response when you look at food safety legislation. So accelerating the bottom-up economy is partly a matter of investing in the right people. Then you start looking at what’s coming down the pike.
We know coal is in decline just like we knew tobacco was in decline. The response of cooperative extensions and universities at that time was “nothing can replace tobacco.” It was incredible that the intellectual and the technical entities that were supposed to be helping farmers just couldn’t see past it in the same way that people are stuck on coal.
Maybe SIPs panels could employ 2,000 people in the region, I don’t know, but let’s look at it. Lord knows that 25 years from now, highly efficient buildings, school and homes are going to need to be the norm, whereas now they’re the exception. We need to identify the emerging markets that will help build better communities and then take the workforce we have and see how to get it there.
We need to link the retraining and reskilling to specific emerging industries — some of them big, a lot of them mid-sized and small. If we do that, it will be a 10 or 20 year transition, but we would be preparing now for things that have a very solid chance of being viable in 2020 and 2030. That’s the way we need to be approaching it. People are going to fight it like hell, but if we do it, I think we’ll start to see in the economy as a whole some of what we’ve seen in the food and agriculture part of the economy, which is that the wacky stuff, the small organic farmer, small grass-fed beef or free-range poultry farmer selling to a little group of local people is not yet, but is clearly becoming the norm to the benefit of the farmers, the consumers and some enterprises in between.
It’s just been dramatic. We still have a ton of distance to go but when I think about where we were when I started on food and farming in the early 90s to now, the difference is phenomenal in opportunities for farmers to make a decent income, in the embracing of the communities, from individual consumers, to grocery stores, restaurants, colleges and public schools. It’s a world of difference and that didn’t just happen. It happened because people here started working on creating that alternative. One of the key movers and shakers on food systems in eastern Kentucky is a guy laid off from the coal industry.
What has happened in food and farming over the last decade and a half in a shift from a declining tobacco industry and other things that had already basically dried up like dairy, from a lot of despair and doubt about there being any alternatives to replace those things, we’ve shown that integrated diverse approaches can work. I think we take that same approach to the economy as a whole.