Having lived in West Virginia for better than four decades by choice, the troubling reality is that life in the Mountain State is not unlike a pond: On the surface, everything looks calm and inviting, but underneath there is muck and mire, and poisonous creatures.
On the surface, West Virginians, for the most part, are a friendly lot, willing to give you the proverbial shirt off their back. I’ve often said, if your car is going to break down anywhere in America, hope it happens in rural West Virginia, where whoever comes to your aid will probably not only offer to help you fix the car, but invite you into their house for lunch.
In parts of the state, however, that invitation might be contingent on the color of your skin.
Underneath the surface appearances, we all understand there is an undercurrent of racism, homophobia and xenophobia in segments of West Virginia.
Gov. Jim Justice in his ongoing display of his unwavering fealty to Donald Trump recently interrupted a coronavirus briefing to take a call from the president. Justice extended an invitation to move the Republican National Convention to West Virginia.
The governor went on to say that any president would be welcomed in West Virginia, except “maybe not Barack Obama” as he let out a chuckle.
Justice tried to walk the statement back, denying that at a time of unprecedented racial strife nationally he was intentionally disinviting the only black president. He explained his contempt for Obama stemmed only from the president’s purported War on Coal.
As a coal baron, Justice knows full well that “Obama’s War on Coal” was, like birtherism, a fabrication intended to tarnish the legitimacy of his presidency.
Coal’s demise has been inevitable since long before Obama became president, driven by market forces, not administration policy.
Coal’s death spiral has been accelerating under Trump, as thousands of Murray Energy miners who have received layoff notices can attest, despite Trump’s campaign promise that he was going to put miners back to work. (Evidently, Trump believed that putting on a hardhat and pantomiming shoveling coal would be all that it would take to revive the dying coal industry.)
For obvious reasons, we never hear Justice or coal industry mouthpieces decry Trump’s War on Coal.
Unfortunately, West Virginia’s ugly undercurrent comes to the surface regularly.
Legislative attempts to include the LGBTQ community among the protected classes in the state Fairness Act routinely fail year after year. Not surprising, when you consider that the state Republican Party platform actually includes anti-LGBTQ planks.
This is the same party that in 2019 allowed a xenophobic hate speech display outside House chambers on GOP Day at the Legislature.
During the primary election, Justice challenger Woody Thrasher sent out xenophobic, islamaphobic campaign fliers — one of which, in order to remove any possible confusion, also depicted Justice as standing with Obama.
Of course, such ugliness is not the exclusive domain of Republicans. In the 2012 state Democratic primary, more than 40% of voters determined that Keith Judd, a white man incarcerated in a Texas prison, would make a better president than President Obama.
Surely, every incumbent president draws protest votes, but how much of Judd’s support — technically enough for him to have had delegates at the Democratic National Convention — was driven by race?
A quick stroll around the Capitol reveals that this ugly undercurrent has a long history.
Stonewall Jackson, a slave owner who waged war against the United States in order to preserve the institution of slavery, not only has a prominent statue in a key location on the Capitol grounds, but also has a bust in the Capitol rotunda.
The only person of color memorialized on the Capitol grounds, Booker T. Washington, has a bust in an obscure location in what effectively is the Capitol’s backyard — a bust that was moved from its original location in Malden, where it was regularly shot at and vandalized.
Perhaps most disheartening, what was to have been the largest Black Lives Matter rally in the state last Sunday had to be postponed because of what organizers described as severe safety concerns at the Capitol.
Safety concerns? Did giant sinkholes open up on the Capitol grounds that needed to be roped off before the rally could safely proceed?
Of course not. As Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin confirmed, city law enforcement officials had serious concerns about threats received regarding retaliation against the rally.
Let that sink in. A peaceful protest to call for an end to systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S. had to be postponed or canceled over the likelihood of violent opposition against the protestors.
And we wonder why our brightest and best young people are leaving the state in droves.
Personally, I think a lot of the state’s racist undercurrent stems from the fact we are a largely homogenous, largely isolated population.
It’s no accident that West Virginia was the last state in the nation to have a reported case of coronavirus. Compared to other eastern states, we tend to keep to ourselves in our own homes and hollows and we don’t travel much, while comparatively few outsiders come here to work or visit.
If you have little to no interaction with people of color, members of the LGBTQ community or foreigners, your perception of those individuals is likely to be distorted.
What you don’t know, you come to fear. What you fear, you come to hate.
I recall back during one of the sessions when unlicensed conceal carry legislation was up in the Legislature, I asked a member of the Citizens Defense League why he felt the necessity to have a firearm on his person at all times.
He proceeded to describe downtown Charleston as if it were a Grand Theft Auto video game come to life, with violent criminals lurking around every street corner.
I told him that I’ve been wandering around downtown Charleston and living in the East End on the edge of downtown for 30-some years, and the reality is nowhere close to what he envisioned and feared.
Perhaps the Black Lives Matter movement nationally will provide an opportunity for all West Virginians to learn and grow.
Well, I’ve been at this gig long enough to see two Senate presidents lose reelection bids, Keith Burdette, D-Wood, in 1994, and Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, on Tuesday.
Carmichael’s campaign had the misfortune of being pulled apart in two directions.
Teachers and their supporters, who had vowed to “Ditch Mitch” following the 2018 and 2019 walkouts, threw their support behind schoolteacher and ultimate winner Amy Grady in the 4th Senatorial District primary. (Notable that AFT-West Virginia endorsed Grady in that race, but the more pragmatic WVEA did not.)
Meanwhile, Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, siphoned away votes on the right by portraying Carmichael as too liberal for the district, citing his support (wavering at times) for extending state Fairness Act protections to the LGBTQ community and for killing a bill that would have allowed people to use their religious beliefs as legal justification for discrimination.
Carmichael was one of 10 incumbent Republican legislators defeated Tuesday, and it is notable that in all 10 districts, Democratic challengers were either running unopposed or were missing from the ballot entirely.
I see considerable anecdotal evidence that center and left-of-center independents took a page from the Rush Limbaugh playbook and voted opposition party ballots Tuesday in hopes of wreaking as much havoc as possible.
I suspect the mindset went like this: On the Democratic side, the presidential nomination is decided; either Ben Salango or Stephen Smith would be preferable to Jim Justice; and the down ballot races are uncontested. Might as well vote a Republican ballot and try to knock out as many incumbents as possible.
Carmichael’s defeat comes after a disastrous regular session in which he and Senate leadership saw three key bills crash and burn: To create an intermediate appeals court, repeal the state personal property tax on manufacturing equipment and inventory and eliminate greyhound racing purse fund subsidies.
For Senate presidents to suffer a trifecta of key legislative setbacks is as rare as Senate presidents losing reelection bids.
Ultimately, Carmichael’s undoing might be because he simply was too nice to be an effective Senate president and rank-and-file Senate Republicans did not fear repercussions if they broke with party leadership.