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Robert Rupp: Tallying hope and promises in WV primaries

The three remaining presidential contenders of 2016 — Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — were not in Charleston, West Virginia, on primary election night, but their headquarters were open so, before the polls closed, I visited each site.

The Sanders office was down Washington Street, in an area with four vacant storefronts, but several restaurants.

Along with the four Bernie poster in the windows was sign that read “Mountaineers For Bernie” — a statement that proved correct, since the Vermont senator would sweep the Democratic contest.

The Trump and Clinton headquarters were both located downtown on Virginia Street, separated by only two blocks. You could easily pass by both and not see them. The only evidence of Clinton headquarters was a small sandwich sign with a Hillary poster on each side. The Trump office two blocks away had two posters in the window.

My visits to the Trump and Sanders offices were cut short when workers told me that they could not have contact with the press, and apparently not with professors, as well.

The Sanders workers explained such prohibition was in their contract, and the Trump volunteers gave me the email address of the press office in New York.

I later found out that Trump supporters had taken a party room at the Embassy Suites, with plans to join later the celebration at Bill Cole’s campaign headquarters, down the street.

The Sanders’ Facebook page had announced a victory party at the bar across the street, but it was moved to the nearby Tricky Fish restaurant when the Red Carpet Lounge prohibited reporters from the Huffington Post to film interviews with Sanders supporters gathered at the bar.

Apparently, that night, there was no party for the Clinton supporters, but my reception at their office that afternoon was informative.

My visit to the Clinton headquarters proved more productive, for I met Talley Sergent, who worked in the 2008 and the 2016 Clinton campaigns in the Mountain State. A Huntington native, she began her career working for U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller and later worked for the DNC and the U.S. State Department.

She was there eight years ago, when I visited the Clinton campaign headquarters, then on Lee Street.

There is nothing as depressing as a campaign headquarters the day after a losing campaign. The empty pizza boxes and soda bottles left on the floor during the excitement of election day now remain on the floor, along with the deflated hopes of the workers — who were exploited, but inspired by the chance to work for someone who might make a difference for their nation.

But the irony of my visit in 2008 was that the Clinton campaign had just registered one of its biggest primary victories. The New York senator may have beaten Obama by 33 percentage points, but it was a bittersweet success. For the campaign workers were aware that she was probably too far behind in delegates to catch Obama.

Now, eight years later, the scene has reversed itself. In 2008, the New York senator won the primary but would lose the presidential nomination fight. Now, in 2016, the secretary was poised to lose the primary, but is expected to win the nomination.

Then, her supporters would argue that her victory showed the weakness of Obama with white working-class males. Now, it was Sanders’ supporters who pitched that line to the press.

I was interested in Sergent’s emotions that morning after the 2008 primary. Did she think then, in 2008, that things might turn out the way they did now — that Clinton would be given another chance at the nomination?

The question went unanswered, for the state director of the Clinton campaign was focused on 2016, not 2008. While she would like Hillary Clinton to win the popular vote, her focus was on getting delegates. And, in fact, after winning the popular vote in the Mountain State, Sanders only picked up a few more delegates than his rival.

Sergent kept emphasizing her belief that Hillary and Bill Clinton will work for West Virginia. She was with Hillary in Mingo County and believes in her commitment to changing the situation in the state.

Most Appalachians have a well-deserved skepticism about outsiders promising us help. So we will wait to see the mines reopen or if the billions in aid will come to West Virginia.

When I first started working on my manuscript of John Kennedy’s primary win in 1960, I interviewed two persons from a Southern county who’d worked in the senator’s campaign. When I asked them what direct economic help the new president provided in 1961, there was a pause. One mentioned a possible factory that got started, but neither could remember any particulars.

I already knew the list of Kennedy’s help to other regions of the Mountain State. It was a long list from a grateful president to a state whose electorate helped undermine his greatest liability — his Catholic religion. The list included a courthouse in Logan, a judgeship in McDowell and funds released for Interstate 79.

But their focus was not on the programs of the president, but on the person.

And it was true, for the best thing John Kennedy brought to West Virginia, and the nation, was not the projects, but the hope.

I hope Clinton or Trump will do half of what they say they will do for the Mountain State — but we have had too much experience with candidates who make pie-crust promises — easily made, easily broken.

I’d settle for the candidate who brings hope.

Robert Rupp is a political history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College and a Gazette contributing columnist.

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