MagazineOctober 2008Interview: Appalachian Political Strategist David “Mudcat” Saunders

Interview: Appalachian Political Strategist David “Mudcat” Saunders

He’s been called the progressive path to Bubba. David “Mudcat” Saunders is an outspoken, foul-mouthed, unapologetic redneck from Roanoke, Va., who has managed to become rural Appalachia’s key liaison to Democratic candidates. Providing a reminder that Democrats like God and guns too, his work has contributed to changing the South’s political landscape from predominantly red to a new shade of purple. He helped put high-profile candidates Mark Warner and Jim Webb in office in his home state. Right now he is spreading the message that Barack Obama offers the best path to economic equality in the South. Saunders chatted with BRO before a bow-shooting session at his home in the Roanoke Valley.

BRO: You originally supported John Edwards. Why?

DS: Edwards’ message was ‘Let’s screw those who screwed us.’ We need to enforce anti-trust laws and level the playing field on trade treaties. Let’s bring American jobs home.

BRO: Can Obama swing key states like Virginia and North Carolina?

DS: Absolutely. Obama can get through to rural culture, but he has to prove to these people that he’s going to work for their best interests. In Virginia, [former governor] Mark Warner opened a lot of doors. He’s the only Democratic candidate in the last 25 years to get a majority of rural votes on a state-wide ballot. He got through to the culture, and made it okay for people to say they’re Democrats again.

BRO: How much is race an issue in the South?

DS: I don’t think Obama’s race is a big deal. Anybody who would vote against him because of the color of his skin is either 1) not registered to vote, or 2) someone the Republicans already have. Doug Wilder, the United States’ first African-American governor, got 48 percent of the most rural districts in Virginia 20 years ago. If Obama gets just 40 percent of it, he’ll win Virginia.

BRO: What is the most important issue on the minds of rural Appalachian folk?

DS: You can come down here and talk about change, but we’re predominantly a Scotch-Irish culture, and we’ve been hearing about change since the 1700s when the British kicked us out. Every time we talk about helping working people, the Republicans talk about the redistribution of wealth like we’re communists. If I were Obama, I would welcome the argument of wealth distribution. Economic disparity is the worst it’s been since Teddy Roosevelt took office.

BRO: Are people in Appalachia starting to care about being marginalized by mountaintop removal mining?

DS: Mountaintop removal is an uphill battle. People are more worried about jobs. They told us with NAFTA that the technological revolution was going to create new jobs. Well it did, but they outsourced them all to India. Nobody hates mountaintop removal more than I do, but people are more worried about short-term concerns like how they’re going to eat.

BRO: Are green collar and alternative energy jobs appealing to Appalachians?

DS: Anything that will feed us down in the sticks is appealing. That’s what it’s all about. When I was a kid, there were red spruce all over these mountains. You can’t find one now. Our brook trout streams are all but gone. I’m an outdoorsman, and I hate coal-fired generators. But long-term health is a tough argument, because right now people are more concerned about putting food on the table.

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