Essential reporting in volatile times.

Not a Subscriber yet? Click here to take advantage of All access digital limited time offer $13.95 per month EZ Pay.

Interested in Donating? Click #ISupportLocal for more information on supporting local journalism.


2019 could go down as the year of intolerance in West Virginia.

Most recently, that has manifested itself in a corrections academy class posing for a class photo in which most of the graduates gave the Nazi salute.

We can presume this was done in a horribly misguided attempt at humor, and not evidence of their endorsement of white supremacy. It might well have started as a remark to a particularly strict training instructor, prompting the “Hail, Byrd” caption for the class photo.

Clearly, however, this is something that had to fester over the course of the training academy, not something that spontaneously occurred in the moment of taking the class photo.

The question remains, why didn’t superiors put a stop to this behavior at the first instance? Why was it not made immediately clear that it was intolerable and unacceptable?

Perhaps it has something to do with the current toxic atmosphere in our culture and politics.

Just recently, we had a delegate attack Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, for his endorsement of legislation expanding the state Fairness Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

That bookends with Delegate Eric Porterfield’s use of an anti-gay slur during a committee discussion on a version of that bill during the 2019 regular session, and Porterfield, R-Mercer, subsequently called the LGBTQ community a terrorist organization and intimated that he would drown his children if he learned they were gay.

Remarkably, other than a closed-door talking-to from Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, that delegate was not disciplined.

Had a delegate done that under Speaker Chuck Chambers, that delegate not only would have found himself without committee assignments, but with a broom closet for an office, and a parking space just barely within city limits.

Back then, a toxic atmosphere in the Legislature would not have been tolerated.

Also during the session, House leadership inexplicably authorized a partisan GOP Day at the Legislature, the first as far as I can recall, at which a participant was inexplicably permitted to display anti-Muslim hate speech materials depicting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., as a terrorist.

Leadership and the state party issued boilerplate condemnations over the display, but no one was disciplined over it. While no one was punished for permitting hate speech in the people’s house, leadership did attempt to expel Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, from the Legislature for kicking open a chamber door in a fit of rage over the display, and he still faces misdemeanor battery charges, oddly filed six months after the fact.

The same toxic atmosphere has been cited by a number of legislators from both parties as a reason why they’ve decided not to seek reelection in 2020.

To function properly, the Legislature requires decorum, civility and compromise, all of which have been severely diminished in recent years.

Why? Certainly, society as a whole as become more coarse and divisive, and social media clearly is a contributing factor.

Not too long ago, if one wanted one’s diatribe to reach a large audience, the only practical option was writing a letter to the editor. Of course, that process provided time to cool off, and either revise the letter or throw it away. Further, the letter would then go through a gatekeeper editor who could either chose not to publish it, or contact the author about whether to tone things down.

Today, that diatribe written in the heat of anger goes out to friends or followers, and around the world instantaneously with a press of a button.

And, of course, blame has to be placed at the foot of the president, who relishes in the use of cruel, disparaging and hateful rhetoric, even to the point last week of taunting 16-year-old Greta Thunberg for being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, (a recognition he coveted), as well as denigrating decorated military veteran Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, for testifying against him in the impeachment hearings.

I’m not sure how we get back to an atmosphere of civility, inclusiveness and cooperation, but it surely needs to begin at the top.

•••

I’ve had requests to update contributions to state politicians from FirstEnergy PAC re: an Aug. 3 column regarding contributions made shortly before or after the Legislature passed, and Gov. Jim Justice signed, legislation giving the energy company a $12.5 million a year tax break on an antiquated coal-fired power plant it operates in Pleasants County. Here goes (contributions are from July 11 to Oct. 24, the most recent posted with the Federal Elections Commission):

Citizens for (Delegate) Gary Howell (R-Mineral), $1,500; Friends of (Sen.) Randy Smith (R-Tucker), $1,500; Plymale for Senate 2020 Committee (Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne), $1,000; Linville for West Virginia (Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell), $250; Higginbothman for West Virginia (Delegate Josh Higginbotham, R-Putnam, $250; Committee to Reelect (Sen.) Ryan Weld (R-Brooke), $1,000; Rucker for West Virginia (Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson), $1,000; Rupie for Senate (former delegate and unsuccessful Congressional candidate Rupie Phillips), $500; West Virginians for Armstead (Supreme Court Justice Tim Armstead), $1,000; Team Morrisey (Attorney General Patrick Morrisey), $2,000; (Delegate) Moore Capito (R-Kanawha) for West Virginia, $1,000; Williams for House (Delegate John Williams, D-Monongalia), $250; Committee to Elect (former Delegate) Guy Ward (R-Marion), $250; Committee to Re-elect Jim Justice, $2,800; Committee to Re-elect (Delegate) Steve Westfall (R-Jackson), $500; Joe Jefferies for the People (Delegate Joe Jefferies, R-Putnam), $250.

Given the glut of natural gas on the market, things can’t be looking rosy for the Pleasants Power Station, even with the $12.5 million a year bailout.

•••

“I have heard from a number of constituents that they will no longer use Amtrak if they cannot buy tickets from [station agent] Matt Crouch.” – Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., May 2018, regarding plans to destaff the Charleston Amtrak station.

Amtrak released state ridership figures for federal fiscal year 2018-19 last week, and in a year when the national rail passenger service set ridership records, and overall Cardinal ridership jumped 12.6 percent, as Manchin foresaw, the number of passengers at the Charleston station dropped from 11,251 to 8,280, a loss of 2,971 riders.

That broke a trend of steadily increasing ridership at CHW, which in 2018-19 surpassed Martinsburg as the busiest station in West Virginia, despite Martinsburg’s two-trains-a-day service and proximity to Washington, D.C.

The difference being that 2018-19 was the first full year that CHW did not have a station agent, after Crouch was let go in June 2018.

As feared, that meant would-be passengers who either have no credit cards or lack a secure internet connection, or both, encountered difficulties booking tickets in advance.

When Huntington’s station agent was eliminated in 2016, Crouch said he saw a notable increase in people from that area either boarding in Charleston or coming to Charleston to buy tickets in advance.

(The process further penalizes lower income travelers, since tickets purchased on-board from the conductor are at the highest fare. As an example, if you’re planning to travel from Charleston to Washington on January 8, you can book a coach ticket on-line for $48. Purchased on-board, that seat will cost you $116.)

Also lost was checked baggage service at the station. (Although there is a convoluted self-service baggage checking process that involves personally hauling one’s luggage to the baggage car.)

Assuming three-fourths of the lost ridership were individuals who otherwise would have purchased tickets at the station, and assuming an average fare of $100 (about what the lowest fare roundtrip to WAS would cost), that’s $222,800 of lost revenue.

Assuming one-forth of the lost ridership were persons who opted not to travel by train because they could not check baggage at the station, and assuming an average fare of $500 (presuming many of those passengers would have booked sleepers), that’s $371,500 of lost revenue.

I don’t know what an Amtrak station agent makes in salary and benefits, but I’m pretty certain it’s not $594,300 a year.

Even if just half the lost ridership was the result of de-staffing the station, that’s still, conservatively, close to $300,000 of lost revenue.

Either propeller-head Anderson and company were mistaken when they thought eliminating station agents would reduce costs, or their motivations are more nefarious, with an ultimate goal to eliminate long distance passenger rail service in the U.S.

•••

Finally, I’m advised Justice hosted a relatively small, low-key Christmas party at the governor’s mansion on Saturday. Far cry from the days of Gov. Manchin, when it required six nights over three weeks and a large party tent to accommodate all the guests.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220

or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.