MARTINSBURG, W.Va. – Glen Price is part Washington, D.C. suburbanite, part West Virginia moonshine aficionado.
On work days, the 41-year-old spends more than four hours hopping trains to and from Washington, where he designs websites for the federal government. The commute isn’t all a grind. He met his wife, Tara, on one return trip.
Back home in Martinsburg, the bushy-bearded West Virginia University alum beams about his moonshine side business. “It ain’t your college bathtub juice,” his distillery’s website says, assuring it’s the legal stuff.
Price is politically independent, but veers conservative. He soured with the political system and picked President Barack Obama in 2008, but hasn’t been a fan of the president or Democrats in general since.
Voters like Price are indicative of the Eastern Panhandle’s growing political muscle, even though they are hundreds of miles away from West Virginia’s traditional power bases. While the rest of the state collectively shrinks in population, the D.C. bedroom community region is younger, better educated and growing.
In a historically Democratic state tilting further right, the Panhandle’s growth could help determine the tipping point. Many of those new residents have rebuked the traditional parties. Voters who aren’t Republicans or Democrats almost doubled in Berkeley and Jefferson counties in the last decade, and now make up about one-third of the electorate.
In 2012, the region produced the state’s first Republican attorney general in eight decades, Jefferson County resident Patrick Morrisey. He is also the Panhandle’s first statewide officeholder.
“They want people who are willing to take on the establishment,” Morrisey said. “They have that independence, and they want to see that fresh blood that’s not been part of the state power structure for decades.”
The commuter-rich region lifted another Jefferson County Republican, Alex Mooney, to a May primary win against six competitors, including three from the Charleston capital area. He now faces Nick Casey, a former state party chairman from Charleston and the type of moderate Democrat that has long dominated West Virginia politics.
Both Morrisey and Mooney have taken heat for not being West Virginia lifers, an argument that plagued even longtime Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller as far back as his statehouse bid in 1966. Formerly a D.C. lawyer and lobbyist, Morrisey moved to Harpers Ferry in 2006, commuting to his job in Washington until his run for attorney general. Since Mooney spent his career in Maryland politics and moved to Jefferson County last year, he faces even louder cries of political opportunism.
For Panhandle residents, however, it’s not as much of an issue. They get new neighbors all the time.
In the last two decades, population grew by 58 percent in West Virginia’s three major Eastern Panhandle counties – Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan. Berkeley’s boom was nearly 85 percent from 1990 to 2011. Kanawha, including Charleston, lost 3.5 percent of its residents from 2000 to 2010.
The Panhandle doesn’t easily connect to the rest of West Virginia. Price lives closer to downtown Manhattan than Charleston. Driving to the rest of West Virginia means leaving and then re-entering the state. Price’s news comes from Maryland, Virginia or the nation’s capital.
About 28 percent of Berkeley works out of state in the Beltway or elsewhere. The number rises to almost 48 percent in Jefferson, which is even closer to Washington, according to 2010 U.S. Census numbers.
Peppered with chain restaurants, big-box stores and housing developments that sprawl to Interstate 81, Martinsburg is the biggest city in the state’s second biggest county, Berkeley.
It’s a stark contrast to the industrial, energy-resource dependent image often assumed of West Virginia.
“You get a slice of Americana, but you get the lifestyle and the income of the city,” Price said of Martinsburg.
Coal mining doesn’t put the Panhandle to work. The Marcellus Shale natural gas boom doesn’t stretch there, either. State, federal and local government jobs, a casino and racetrack, a Macy’s Distribution Center, historic national parks and other varied employers balance out the local economy.
Its unemployment should stay below state and national averages for the foreseeable future, according to a West Virginia University economic outlook.
The Eastern Panhandle is blocked off from most of West Virginia by the Allegheny Mountains.
The region served a strategic purpose for Abraham Lincoln. When West Virginia was carved out of Virginia in 1863, the Panhandle helped maintain a continuous railroad line for the Union, said Robert Rupp, a professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Acres of rolling farmland still sprawl across the once-rural landscape, but demand for more Beltway suburban living has given the region a face-lift.
“It has changed immeasurably since I began representing it,” said U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a seven-term Charleston Republican whose district stretches to the Panhandle. “It grew from sort of a more rural, quieter community to a more bustling community, to more economic development, diverse populations.”
Republican state Sen. Craig Blair and Democratic Sen. John Unger, both raised in Berkeley, said safety after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks became a selling point. The Panhandle was deemed just out of the “blast zone” should terrorists strike the D.C. metro area.