Heading into my 30th regular session of the Legislature, moments tend to blur together in the mind’s eye, but 2018 will stand out for two events, one extraordinary, one ignominious.
Two events this year dominated the headlines, and some would say, sucked the air out of the room for the Legislature to deal with much of anything else.
The extraordinary event was the statewide teachers’ walkout, which inspired a national movement and perhaps rekindled a labor movement nationally.
What was most remarkable was that this was a grassroots effort. It wasn’t, as critics unsuccessfully tried to portray it, as labor bosses directing their minions. It was teachers fed up with low pay and benefits and a general sense of being unappreciated banding together to let leaders in Charleston know they weren’t going to take it anymore.
Also remarkable was the spirit. Despite the seriousness of the issues at hand, the rallies at the Capitol were joyous affairs, with singing, chanting, dancing, and featuring colorful (and clever) signs. This was a celebration.
That was far different from 1990, when the mood of the teachers’ strike was ugly and contentious on all sides, as marked by the two rallies at the Capitol, one of which is remembered for teachers pounding on House chamber doors with such vigor that they knocked the heavy solid wood doors off their runners.
Wearing red, teachers in 2018 paid homage to the state’s proud labor heritage, and when the governor and legislative leadership tried to use the strategy of divide and conquer, trying to pit school boards against teachers, then parents against teachers, and then state employees against teachers, the teachers stood united.
Early on, when leadership contended that students would suffer, particularly those needy students who depend on school lunches, teachers and others did the noble thing, rising before dawn each day to pack lunches for their students before heading to Charleston, not only putting their students first, but assuming the moral high ground in the fight.
Most importantly, West Virginia teachers started a movement that spread, so far, to Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, showing that while organized labor may be a shadow of its former self, the ability of working people to fight for their rights may not be lost.
While the teachers’ walkout may have been the state’s finest moment of the year, impeachment proceedings against state Supreme Court justices was the nadir.At first, legislative leadership was slow to come to the realization that now-ex Justice Allen Loughry needed to be removed from the court for his criminal acts, and then the process morphed into an attempt to sweep all justices out of office (with the possible exception of Justice Beth Walker).As it dragged on through the summer and fall at considerable taxpayer expense, the proceedings came to seem less about administering justice and more about executing a power grab that would stack the high court with conservative, pro-business justices. (Not to say it didn’t lean that way already.)
Gov. Jim Justice seemed to remove any doubt of motives when he appointed Republican politicians Tim Armstead and Evan Jenkins to fill judicial vacancies, declaring, “We need true conservatives” on the court. Which basically defied the will of the electorate, since the two former justices being replaced, Robin Davis and Menis Ketchum, had run as Democrats, and had not campaigned on bringing true conservatism to the court.
And while a naked power grab is one thing, a badly executed power grab is another.
When a temporary Supreme Court of appointed circuit court judges put a halt to the proceedings in October with a writ of prohibition, they noted that while the Legislature has the power of impeachment, it cannot use that authority indiscriminately.
(This is not to defend the actions of the justices, and it is clear that an atmosphere of entitlement permeated the court, including the assumption that each new justice could spend freely to renovate court office space to suit his or her taste. Including one office so distinctive in design that it has become the equivalent of a Christmas fruitcake, getting passed off to the least senior justice.)
The writ of prohibition also noted that the House of Delegates had mucked things up procedurally, having never formally voted on the impeachment resolution that should have been sent to the Senate. (It’s the procedural equivalent of sending the Senate amendments to a bill but never actually voting to pass the bill.)
When the dust settled, all the Senate had to show for all the tribulations was one censure. (Of Justice Walker, who seemed to shake off the setback, going on to be elected to serve as chief justice.)
Ultimately, though, victory may belong to the Legislature, which forced Davis into early retirement, helping assure the court’s shift to Justice’s vision of true conservatism.
Going forward, the House will face quandaries for having set the bar for impeachment low. If a $500,000 office renovation is an impeachable offense, what is one to make of $3.2 million in legal settlements for violations of state and federal law? Seems worthy of at least a legislative hearing.
Meanwhile, postponement of Supreme Court’s fall term for the impeachment proceedings produced one of the least productive terms of the court in recent history, with a total of just 10 signed opinions issued by the court. (That’s down from 45 opinions handed down in the fall 2017 term.)
Finally, as I have done this time of year for the past 13 years, I renewed my West Virginia Power season ticket for 2019, after giving much consideration to downgrading to a 25-game package in light of the Power fumbling away its affiliation with the Pittsburgh Pirates.After I wrote about my concerns regarding what I sensed was a level of lethargy in the Power front office management, executive vice president Ken Fogel invited me to his office to talk about it.
He said the Pirates decision to move its low Class A team to Greensboro was unilateral, and Power management was given no opportunity to appeal. (That I don’t doubt, but I have on good authority the Pirates had become disgruntled with the lack of cooperation from the Power front office in recent years.)
As for issues regarding degradation of the fan experience, i.e., stands not cleaned well between games, absent ushers or ushers who let general admission ticket holders sit in reserved seats, concession windows that close mid-game, Fogel said that as attendance has dropped, the Power has had to reduce its payroll.
For concession stands, he said a window has to produce $50 an hour in sales to cover the workers’ pay, and they base decisions to close windows on that sales figure.
I related what railfans call the “never again” moments on Amtrak, when if first-time or infrequent riders encounter issues with delays, equipment failures, lack of cleanliness or surly personnel, their most common response is that they’ll never take the train again.
Likewise, I said, if first-time or infrequent visitors to the ballpark have an unpleasant experience, they’re likely to say never again to future visits, and those pennies of cost-savings may turn into pounds of permanently lost revenue.
Fogel said that, despite the personnel cutbacks, the front office is constantly looking at ways to improve the fan experience and increase attendance. He said it pains him on nice sunny summer evenings to see a smaller than expected crowds at the ballpark. (Of course, $10/$11 game-day ticket prices probably dampens walkup sales.)
After much contemplation, I decided to renew my season ticket to help support an important amenity for the city of Charleston and the region.
To do otherwise would be to contribute to the sense of malaise in the city, in a small way acknowledging that the city’s best days are behind it, and that elements that contribute to quality of life are either gone or fading.
In the case of the Power, the fault lies not just with management but with everyone who has failed to take advantage of the amenity of professional baseball in Charleston, and to the city for failing to promote it adequately.
I pointed out to Fogel that Power Park used to be featured on the cover of the city’s visitors guide, and was prominently promoted by the city as a family friendly attraction. In the most current guide, the ballpark rates no photographs and one sentence under listings of city attractions.
When people fail to take part in city activities and amenities, they contribute to the sense of malaise. So I’ll be out there again this season, although perhaps not for every game as in the past, and be forewarned, I will continue to root for future Pirates when Greensboro comes to town.
Happy holidays to everyone, and with that, I’ve got a train to catch.