Up Against a Rockefeller "I know it's a little odd." That's how Betty Burks, a political neophyte from rural West Virginia, explains her bid for the U.S. Senate. "But we don't want to be forgotten down here."

Campaign 1996

November 03, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

KEYSTONE, W.VA — KEYSTONE, W.Va. -- The nerve of this woman -- this Betty Burks person! This political neophyte thinks she stands a chance Tuesday against U.S. Sen. John Rockefeller! Her with her $200 campaign war chest vs. Rockefeller with his $200 million in net worth!

What's wrong with these folks in southern West Virginia? Is it something in the water? Reality check: Jay Rockefeller will not be filling out a change-of-address form. So, what's all this buzz about Betty Burks, this Republican in this ol' Kennedy coal country?

Agreed, it was nervy of the 53-year-old Burks to come down from Burke Mountain and oppose the incumbent. Shocking, it was. Even her husband, Cecil Burks, wasn't sure what to make of his wife's campaign. Something she felt like doing, Cecil reckons. "I'll vote for her, I guess."

Agreed, poor, proud McDowell County does need a sewer system instead of forever using Elkhorn Creek. People fish in there, for God's sake. They need infrastructure of any kind. A four-lane road, please? Maybe Burks has a point about the boys in Charleston and Washington forgetting about her county.

No doubt, she believes every word of her campaign slogan: "We love where we live -- Let's Make it Better." And with virtually no campaigning, she did get 90,000 Republicans to vote for her in the primary. But Betty, Betty, Betty. Why didn't you drop out in the spring when you still had the chance to get your $1,300 filing fee back?

Were you not thinking clearly?

"I know it's a little odd. I know I really don't have anyone pushing for me," the Republican challenger says.

"But we don't want to be forgotten down here."

A long way

Where exactly is "here"? Rand McNally leads the way to Betty A. Burks, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. It proves to be a luscious, long haul to southern West Virginia: Hills like white, no, auburn elephants; valleys so low you can't pick up any radio station; caution arrows suggesting instant death if drivers don't stop admiring the view.

The long and winding roads are jammed with signs: Re-Elect Osborne, Elect John Rapp, Pritt for Governor! But no sign of Betty Burks' campaign, and no sign of Betty. We're not even close.

At Blacksburg, the map says take Route 460 to Princeton, which leads to State Road 52, which promises to deliver Keystone. Rand McNally does not say it's another three hours driving country miles. At least a radio station breaks through. "Whose bed have your boots been under? ..." sings some country sanger. Next, County Commission candidate John Rapp sings his campaign "rapp" song. Still not a peep from Betty.

Finally, a sign says we've arrived: WELCOME TO THE BLUEFIELDS.

"Sue, do you know where they took Cecil Burks? ... Yeah, he

broke his leg in two places," says Billie Cherry, the mayor of Keystone in the Bluefields of West Virginia -- more than 400 country miles from Baltimore.

With only two weeks before the election, the news is indeed bad. Betty Burks' husband has broken his leg moving heavy church benches. His leg just snapped and now has a rod running through it. Cecil, a cable splicer, will be out of commission three months. Political analysts say the man is pretty miserable, but it's too early to say what this all means for the Burks campaign.

Betty is at the hospital now, by her husband's side. This would not be a good time to talk. So Cherry hangs up the phone.

She and Betty go way back, and the mayor has offered the rookie pol a few tips. But when a husband is out of work for three months, his wife doesn't need advice. She needs to find more work as a private duty nurse -- campaign or no campaign.

The mayor does have a few words on behalf of her fellow McDowell Countian:

Betty Burks is sincere. She is practical. And the woman has guts to run against the two-term incumbent, U.S. Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV -- who easily defeated a janitor in the Democratic primary.

"I contributed $250 to Betty's campaign," the mayor says. "I figured if she had enough nerve to do it, I needed to help her."

Goes without saying Cherry will walk to the fire station (fresh red paint job) on Main Street and vote for Burks Tuesday. The ballot should have the name right; one of those Washington election reports spelled her name "Burkes" -- same report that listed Rockefeller as the fourth wealthiest lawmaker.

J. Knox McConnell walks into this office to see Cherry. She runs the business, which exists solely to file the loans of the Keystone Mortgage Corp., which McDonnell runs. Rockefeller, he says, has been very good to him. He's not voting for Betty, but thinks highly of her. "If nothing else, this puts us on the map," McConnell says.

Joining the closing-time crowd is 55-year-old Mac Olive, a coal- mine inspector and Burks' campaign manager. He would have run for the Senate himself but he's already on the local Board of Education. Olive is also a founding member of the Concerned Citizens of Keystone for Better Government.

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