WASHINGTON – U.S. Mint officials may not have realized what they were up against when they announced that they were planning to remove Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home off the back of the nickel to make way for a Lewis and Clark commemorative coin.
A host of Virginia lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle drew up like a firewall around the five-center, promising to rain down on anyone who removed the hallowed image of Monticello, Jefferson's hilltop estate.
No lawmaker was so feisty as Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, whose Richmond district is home to Virginia's state Capitol, an architectural monument designed by the nation's third president.
The congressional freshman said he could not abide by the proposal to replace permanently Jefferson's stately home with an image of a Native American facing westward.
"To me it was objectionable," Cantor told Fox News. "When I saw the depiction of the Indian pointing westward and was told that was supposed to represent the Lewis and Clark expedition, I thought to myself that it had nothing to do with it. In fact, the expedition started at Monticello."
Cantor introduced a bill that would allow the Mint to change for three years the reverse of the nickel to celebrate the 200-year commemoration of the expedition by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark that began in 1803.
The legislation also demands that the public give its input on the nickel's design as a means to avoid the same political correctness that has managed to turn Jefferson’s public image from that of father of the Declaration of Independence to one of slave owner, Cantor said.
Cantor said he has no problem depicting the Native American role in the Lewis and Clark expedition but that it must be put into perspective. After all, it was Jefferson’s savvy Louisiana Purchase of most of the central and Midwest portions of the now-United States that allowed the expedition to occur.
"Perhaps (the Mint) felt they had to move away from the principles of Thomas Jefferson, but in Virginia, and in the rest of the nation, these principles of individual liberty, the doctrine of equality, they are so important right now," he said.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the U.S. Mint, said the bureau is willing to work on a new design with full input from the public, and would be as "sensitive to those concerns as possible."
Cantor’s bill is now awaiting action in the House Financial Services Committee. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate.
And while he may win this battle, Cantor will have to run on more than his pride in America to win his upcoming election.
Facing former North Carolina congressman and Dukes of Hazzard star Ben Jones, Cantor is relying on his work on the House International Relations Committee and staunch support of lower taxes and conservative ideals to keep his appeal in his majority Republican district.
"We’re waging a very aggressive campaign. Anytime you run against a former member of Congress, you have to take it very seriously," said Cantor, who is favored four to one by the Campaigns & Elections "Oddsmaker."
Jones, who recently engaged the support of Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., in a D.C. fundraiser, said he knows what he is up against. Cantor has already raised nearly $1 million to Jones’ $53,000. But Jones is confident that his own brand of Democratic conservatism will appeal to the 7th District’s independent-minded voters.
"(Cantor) is an ideologue, he votes exactly the same way (House Majority Whip) Tom DeLay tells him to," said Jones, who played "Cooter" in the popular 1980s series about two southern boys who skirt the law in their souped-up Dodge Charger affectionately named the "General Lee."
He said he decided to run when it became clear Cantor would not have a challenger.
"He is doing a lousy job of constituent services. He just hasn’t given an ear to the district," Jones charged.
Allen, a former governor of Virginia, has worked with Cantor over the years and campaigned with him across the district in 2000. He said he likes Jones, but has no doubts that Cantor will be the easy choice for voters there in November.
"We have very similar philosophies, and he has represented them in his first term, consistent with the interests of the people in that district," said Allen.
Cantor, too, said his constituents not only have an ear, but a compatriot by him.
"I think there is definitely a difference between my opponent and me. I think I am more in line with the constituents of the 7th District."