Sunday, September 26, 2004
Boucher uses his incumbency well
Rick Boucher's visibility and history of constituent service have kept him in office for 22 years.
And the only way you'd know it was by watching the door. In typical Boucher style, the 11-term Democrat from Virginia's 9th District slipped into the conference room at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center unannounced. Supporters greeted the reserved, almost timid-looking congressman with friendly smiles and casual handshakes, not immediate applause or camera flashes.
The contents of his speech were typical Boucher, although his tone was perhaps more relaxed because of the hometown crowd: economic development, education, the importance of technology and taking care of veterans and senior citizens.
"You can expect from me a positive campaign," Boucher told the roughly 80 people attending his re-election fund-raiser. "I will be focusing, as I have before, on the issues important to the people."
Despite working more than 20 years on Capitol Hill, where style often trumps substance, Boucher is a low-key lawmaker who largely stays out of the national spotlight. He will often choose to spend 12 or 13 hours in the car for a day or two at his Abingdon home or elsewhere in the 9th District rather than spend a weekend in Washington.
While Boucher is clearly not your typical Washingtonian, neither is he your average Southwest Virginian. First and foremost, he is a Democrat in a district that votes largely Republican during presidential elections and contests for U.S. Senate.
He prefers news to NASCAR and political programs to country music on the satellite radio system in his car. He's a technophile whose expertise on the Internet and technology are well-known in Washington but rarely mentioned in his district. He is occasionally dubbed jokingly by both fans and critics as "Robot Rick," a reference to his voice and his seemingly scripted public speeches.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a watcher of Virginia and national congressional campaigns, said people pointed to his subdued style when Boucher won a seat in the state Senate more than 25 years ago and then when he challenged a well-known Republican for the 9th District seat.
"People were saying that this guy is bookish and an intellectual, and that this guy just doesn't fit the district," Sabato said. "Well, he didn't fit, but he won it easily."
While his early re-election bids were tight ones, Boucher has easily fended off his Republican opponents - when he had an opponent, that is - for more than a decade. In 2002, Republican Jay Katzen moved to the 9th District hoping to capitalize on his successes during the 2001 race for lieutenant governor, when he won the district but lost the state to Democrat Tim Kaine.
But Katzen captured just 34 percent of the votes against Boucher. This election's GOP contender, Kevin Triplett, has raised more money than Katzen and probably has better name recognition because of his career working behind the scenes with NASCAR. But the odds are still stacked against him, Sabato said.
Boucher "is well-known and has been known the entire time for very good constituent service and for 'Fighting for the 9th,'" Sabato said, using one of Boucher's campaign slogans. "Incumbency is enormously powerful when it's used well, and Boucher has used it well for 22 years."
But what is it about Boucher that makes him so powerful in this increasingly Republican district? Visibility, for one.
While some politicians seem to be everywhere during campaign season and nowhere but Washington the rest of the time, Boucher's schedule on weekends and when Congress is out of session is often packed with ribbon-cutting ceremonies, banquets and economic development announcements.
This weekend, Boucher is scheduled to hit a breakfast, picnic and dinner in Wise, Lee and Scott counties, respectively, all in one day.
Boucher's public relations office sometimes churns out three or four news releases a day about this or that small town in Southwest Virginia receiving federal money for new firefighting equipment, an industrial park or an addition to the public library. Such projects are often big news in the district's rural communities, and whenever possible Boucher makes an appearance to share in the celebration.
"What Rick does is he spends his time [in the district] and he loves it," said Creed Jones, mayor of Damascus. "There's no way he [Triplett] is going to get people to vote against him [Boucher], because they know what he's done."
Jones credited Boucher with helping ensure that his community had clean drinking water and helping the town repair a trestle on the Virginia Creeper Trail.
Like Sabato, others say it is Boucher's constituent service that makes him so popular come Election Day.
Boucher's opponent acknowledged Boucher's record of constituent service, but with one caveat.
"I'll give him credit, but you know what? That's what a congressman is supposed to do," Triplett said. "I more reflect the [political] beliefs of the majority of this district."
Boucher and his supporters rattle off the following accomplishments:
Creation of several thousand new jobs through his "Showcasing Southwest Virginia" program, in which he brings company executives to the area in hopes of persuading them to open centers in the district. Past successes include EchoStar in Montgomery County, AT&T Wireless in Russell County and a Verizon customer service center in Wise.
Garnering millions of dollars in federal money for tourism-related projects, including $750,000 for the Virginia Creeper Trail and $625,000 for the Ralph Stanley Museum and Visitor Center in Clintwood.
Working with the federal government, private companies and local communities to hard-wire communities throughout Southwest Virginia for high-speed Internet, which Boucher says is key to attracting industry.
Won federal grants for industrial parks and small-business incubators throughout the district, including nearly $100,000 for the Radford University Business Technology Park and more than $450,000 for the Jacksonville Center in Floyd County.
Helping establish more than 40 video link sites giving doctors in rural Southwest Virginia hospitals access to specialists at the University of Virginia Medical Center as well as garnering federal money to help retrain workers who lost their jobs as companies moved their factories overseas.
While Triplett has outraised his predecessors, he had one-quarter of the $1.2 million that Boucher still had on hand in his re-election fund during the most recent campaign finance reporting period.
"Kevin Triplett, what has he done?" Jones said. "He's got money, but you can't beat Rick Boucher with money."
Boucher is also fairly conservative on social issues, although not nearly as conservative as the majority of the district, according to Triplett and other Republicans.
Boucher has repeatedly received endorsements from the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington. He voted to limit court jurisdiction over the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby blocking federal courts from forcing states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
While many members of Congress and die-hard Democrats were busy politicking in Boston during the party's national convention in July, Boucher was driving around the district with representatives from companies he hopes to woo to Southwest Virginia.
Boucher, who has attended only one Democratic National Convention during his 20-plus years in Congress, said such downtime is better spent showcasing the district.
But Tom Morris, a political science professor and president of Emory & Henry College, interpreted Boucher's decision as an attempt to distance himself from the national Democratic Party.
"This is a district that tends to vote Republican in national and state races," Morris said. He described Boucher as politically astute, "smart, conscientious and obviously dedicated to his job."
"It's a conservative district, and he is just conservative on the right issues," said Josh Cumbow, chairman of the Washington County Democratic Committee.