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From blue to red: How the decline of the coal union helped Republicans have a stronghold in West Virginia

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Want to know why West Virginia’s politics turned from blue to red?

If you listen to many who’ve watched the state’s evolution, seeds of the change from primarily electing Democrats to state and national offices to Republicans were sewn decades ago.

No one factor explains why Donald Trump won about 68 percent of West Virginia’s votes in the 2016 presidential election, but something sticks out for many long-time observers of Appalachian politics — the decline of unions and the social structures that built up around them in the coalfields.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, wasn’t a popular man — except maybe in West Virginia.

The state handed Carter six of the 49 electoral votes he won across the nation. At the time, the Mountain State was considered a Democratic stronghold. It’s a reputation that held for another 20 years, through the Clinton presidency.

But by the end of the 1970s, machines had been slowly replacing workers in mines for decades. That in turn, caused a decline in union membership. Always at odds — sometimes violently — with coal operators, unions were also feeling the pressure of companies intent on pushing them out.

“Mechanization always puts pressure on jobs, and by the ’70s and ’80s, more and more non-union mines were operating,” said Davitt McAteer, who headed the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration under President Bill Clinton.

A union’s benefits went beyond the better wages, healthcare and pensions they’d fought for in preceding decades. They were a part of what brought the community together, like churches and football teams, said Shannon Bell, author of “Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia” and a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky.

“Unions used to occupy a central space in the lives of not just miners, but their families,” she said. “When that was gone, there was a hole in the community’s identity. Coal companies grabbed that space.”

President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration in 1981. That defeat had ripple effects that weakened unions across the country. Mine companies such a Massey Energy took a stance that they would not deal with unions in any way, McAteer said.

When there are fewer miners on the books, dues increase and benefits decrease. As a result, there’s less of an incentive for miners to remain in the union. Pensions promised to miners were also drastically cut, he said.

“At the end of the day, the companies were saying, ‘The union bosses are costing you workers money. I could give you more without the union.’” McAteer said. “It was cheaper for them to do that. Unions were in a no-win situation.”

It wasn’t a situation unique to coal mines, but it had a profound effect on West Virginia’s communities beyond just the union miners. The mindset of families and their workers started to reflect these changes.

“The old maxim used to be that miners went home to Jesus and [union leader] John L. Lewis. Now you just see Jesus Christ,” McAteer said.

Into that void stepped the coal companies themselves.

‘Friends of coal’ and the ‘thoughtful coal miner’

When Bell arrived at the University of Kentucky in Lexington in 2010, she noticed students wearing a T-shirt that struck her as odd.

“It read ‘Coal, Cats and Calipari – A Winning Team’,” she said. “The coal industry had donated all this money for the basketball team.”

The T-shirts were part of a strategy to win the hearts and minds of coal country and Appalachia, to fill the gap in communities left empty by the decline of unions, Bell said.

The coal industry started the Friends of Coal campaign, which combated opposition to coal company policies in and outside of Appalachia, and sponsored events such as the Friends of Coal Bowl football games between West Virginia and Marshall universities.

“Students would talk about how they got a Friends of Coal sticker because their dad or granddad was a coal miner, and for the sacrifices they made — not because of the things the coal companies were trying to do,” Bell said.

But the campaign linked cultural touchstones such as sports teams and a pride in coal mining to the companies themselves. And it pushed a pro-mining agenda that warned that a loss of mining jobs was a loss for Appalachian culture.

Nick Mullins, author of a blog titled ‘The Thoughtful Coal Miner.’ (Photo: Kristina Mullins.)

Nick Mullins, a former coal miner who runs “The Thoughtful Coal Miner” blog remembers being a miner in Virginia during protests against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. His fellow miners would joke about shooting the protesters, whom they referred to as “squirrels” from the trees where they were perched.

Most of the young miners sided with the company because they believed, in part due to the coal industry’s deliberate effort, that outside forces were determined to shut down the companies that gave them jobs and leave them with nothing, Mullins said.

“The Friends of Coal, the notion of a War on Coal, the companies played on that — the idea that this is it, that there are no alternatives,” he said. “They developed a base of people that would fight against any change.”

And that resistance to change for fear of losing jobs meant leaving the Democratic Party for the Republican Party, which supported the coal companies.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, isn’t sure which came first, the move from a Democratic to Republican state or the decline of the unions, but he believes the two are linked.

Democrats moved away from the interest of miners and their families, pushing them toward the Republican party, he said.

“Look at their choice of candidates — Al Gore, Hillary Clinton — they’re anti-coal, anti-fossil fuel,” Raney argued. “Jimmy Carter came in around the oil crisis. He created the coal commission…The whole idea was that he insisted power plants turn to coal as a source of electricity.”

There has certainly been a push through Friends of Coal and in other ways to bond workers to the companies they work for, he said.

“It felt like we needed a true identity out there, that we are all in this thing together,” he said. “We were being assaulted on all fronts with anti-coal policies and statements. Whether someone was union or non-union, Friends of Coal never made a distinction about that.”

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, is the vice president of the United Mine Workers of America International District 31 in Marion County. He said the money poured into the Republican Party, their candidates and groups like Friends of Coal started by the industry have also led to more Republicans being elected up and down the ballot.

Delegate Mike Caputo is also the International District 31 Vice President for the UMWA. (Photo: Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography)

 

“There are always going to be issues that we agree on with the industry,” said Caputo, pointing to their shared belief that the industry needs fewer EPA regulations as an example. “But when they refer to themselves as Friends of Coal, I think that should be changed to Friends of Coal Operators. … But look, it’s a brilliant strategy, brilliant campaign. I encourage West Virginians to look at the issues they stand for, issues that affect workers on the job.”

The campaign had another effect, Mullins believes.

“It left a belief that there were no other options, that this was it,” he said. “There became a lack of hope for anything better and a sense of hope that mining would go back to the glory days.”

Party chairs chime in

Certainly unions don’t play the role in society that they played 70 years ago, and that’s a factor in the decline in influence and votes for Democrats, said Conrad Lucas, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party.  But the party also no longer supports the desires of West Virginia voters, such as a strong coal industry, he said.

“I don’t think they’re aligned with coal companies, I don’t think they’re aligned with jobs,” he said.

Lucas said the needs and wants of West Virginians are the needs and wants of the coal industry.

“Everyone is under attack and there’s a strong banding together of people affected by the coal industry,” Lucas said. “In some ways, it’s very much West Virginia against the world.”

Belinda Biafore, state chairwoman of the Democratic Party, agrees that the decline in unions has led to fewer Democrats being elected.

“The numbers are not there,” she said. “Some are fighting on the wrong side of the fence. I’ve never understood it.”

Coal companies, she argues, don’t stand with the workers as they say they do. Ongoing attempts to weaken safety regulations in particular are going to lead to more injuries and deaths. Protections for workers are something that Democrats stand for and coal miners should be behind, but many still vote with company owners and the Republican Party, she said.

But, she pointed out, the message that there has been a war on coal and that war aligns coal companies and their workers against Democrats has been relentlessly promoted for eight years.

Shortly after Obama was elected in 2009, a billboard went up at the split of interstates 77 and 79, just outside Charleston. It read “Obama’s No Job Zone” and stayed there for the entirety of Obama’s presidency.

“Maybe it’s a bit our fault,” she said. “Maybe we don’t have the right message or put the message out in the right way.”

Trump’s success in particular, Lucas pointed out, is not a new thing. A 2011 poll from Public Policy Polling found that Trump tied with Mike Huckabee with 24 percent as the top choice in the field of GOP candidates. It was the first time he’d led in a PPP poll.

“I think it comes from a general sense of strength,” Lucas said. “He was never shy about his support for the coal industry. … We’re tired of being placated to. That’s why Trump was so appealing.”

Gary Harki (@GaryAHarki) is an investigative journalist at The Virginian-Pilot. Most recently he’s written about criminal justice issues and mental health. He is also the paper’s database reporter, assisting with data projects across the newsroom. Originally from Marion County, West Virginia, Gary still makes it back to Mannington frequently to visit his parents, siblings and nephew.

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Fact-check: Is West Virginia’s Summersville Lake the Clearest in the East?

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Does West Virginia have the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River? Gov. Jim Justice said so in a tweet.

In the Aug. 17 tweet, Justice said, “According to SCUBA divers, Summersville Lake is clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River. This led to earning its name as ‘The Little Bahamas of the East.’ Check it out for yourself today!” (SCUBA is capitalized because it is an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.)

Credit: West Virginia Governor’s Office/Twitter

Summersville Lake is a man-made lake in the southern part of West Virginia. The Huntington District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the lake in the 1960s.

Justice’s tweet links to an article on wvtourism.com, published by the West Virginia Tourism Office, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

The article describes the lake as great for swimming, boating, and underwater exploration. The destination has dive sites where rock formations can be seen 100 feet underwater.

However, the WV Tourism article did not offer a specific source for the claim. We contacted the office, and they did not respond.

When we reached out to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Huntington District, Toby Wood, project manager for Summersville Lake, said that the label “The Little Bahamas of the East” originated with a SCUBA magazine.

“We consider that a claim-to-fame, and we repeat it often,” Wood said.

In Google searches, we found references to that nickname attributed to Skin Diver magazine but did not locate the original article.

More broadly, however, Wood has “no way of knowing if the lake is the ‘the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River,’ as the governor claimed.”

We reached out to Peter Oliver, editor-in-chief of the National Association of Underwater Instructors’ magazine, Sources, and he said that from his experience, Summersville Lake has the same color as most lakes and reservoirs.

“You’d be OK, I think, to call Summersville ‘one of the clearest,’ but it has that green tint common to almost all freshwater lakes and reservoirs. The water in the Florida spring systems is what we usually call ‘gin clear’ and since the water does not stand in the small lakes but flows out it stays clear,” Oliver said.

Meanwhile, Christine McCrehin of the American Water Resources Association told PolitiFact that “her organization does not track the information about the clarity of lakes.”

Our ruling

Justice tweeted, “According to SCUBA divers, Summersville Lake is the clearest freshwater lake east of the Mississippi River.”

This facts on this claim are more opaque than the governor lets on. There’s no question that Summersville Lake attracts divers who appreciate its clear waters, and there is evidence that it has long been called “the Little Bahamas of the East.”

Justice’s tweet went beyond that, saying specifically that the lake is the clearest in the eastern United States. An Army Corps of Engineers and several independent experts were unable to point to evidence for that first-place ranking.

The statement contains an element of truth, but it offers a specific No. 1 ranking without a comprehensive study to back it up. We rate it Mostly False.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Is This Experiment in Digital Democracy Too Crazy to Work?

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A startup called Voatz wants to build an unhackable way to vote over the internet. What could possibly go wrong?

Voting in the U.S. is an intentionally high-friction endeavor. Elections are held at in-person polling centers, open during hours when most people are working, on a day that hasn’t been made a national holiday. They’re governed by strict voter ID laws, designed to weed out imposters and in many cases succeeding mostly in disenfranchising people of color. And they’re often executed using decidedly low-tech methods—with paper ballots, susceptible to user error (never forget: hanging chads) and (accidental or deliberate) miscounts.Efficiency, some have argued, is not the point of the voting process. Security is. But this election season, West Virginia is trying out a new, blockchain-based voting system that officials hope can achieve both, simultaneously. And experts are calling it a “horrific idea.”In April, the state began asking some citizens serving in the overseas military to trade in mailed absentee ballots for digital ones, submitted through an app run by a Boston-based startup called Voatz. No one is forced to switch over to the new system, but two counties opted in for a May primary pilot, and overseas military from every county are eligible to use it for the November election. The votes will be converted into paper ballots and recorded with the other absentees. They’ll all be counted together in November.

The process itself isn’t all that complicated: Blockchain is, pared down to its simplest elements, an online database of transactions. In the context of an election, those transactions are votes; the blockchain server itself is more like a virtual ballot box and an election administrator all in one. Identities are confirmed by selfie and state-issued ID, and then double-anonymized, according to Voatz, “first by the smartphone, and second by the blockchain server network.”West Virginia is the first U.S. state to attempt a blockchain-run election of this scale. But Voatz has run more than 30 pilot elections (ranging from the 2018 MassDems Convention to student council elections) since its launch in 2015, recording more than 75,000 votes in the process. After West Virginia’s May primary pilot, “four audits of various components of the tool, including its cloud and blockchain infrastructure, revealed no problems,” CNN reported.Worldwide, trust in this new approach is growing. The Japanese city of Tsukuba became the first in the country to introduce their own version of blockchain-based voting this year, also for overseas military service members. Voters verify their identity in the system using Japan’s version of social security identifiers and weigh in not on elected officials, but on proposals for local social development programs. In Moscow, city residents can cast votes on some local municipal decisions (like street names) using a blockchain-based app called Active Citizen. Switzerland and Ukraine are trying versions this year, too.

Blockchain is being applied to voting now because it’s often considered inherently un-hackable, since its data is stored on multiple servers that all verify the authenticity of the blocks (in Voatz’ case, the votes) and copy them onto the chain of blocks that make up a blockchain. Those blocks (again, votes!) are supposed to be un-erasable—and unchangeable.

Voatz insists that their technology has been been vetted by third-party auditors, including a public HackerOne program; a pen-testing system; and the software company Security Innovation. Unlike Moscow’s Active Citizen app, which, as CityLab reported in April, has the Moscow government serving as an “authority node” and could thus be considered a tool more of propaganda than empowerment, Voatz’ system is truly decentralized: The West Virginia government doesn’t have the power to alter votes, only count them.

And unlike bitcoin’s permissionless blockchain model, which allows anyone to act as a verifier, an independent vetting process decides who can node-check for West Virginia. “Typically, these nodes would include all the stakeholders in an election such as the major political parties, NGOs, non-profits and independent auditors, etc,” reads Voatz’ FAQ. In other words, official people, not GRU hackers dialing in from their couches in Russia. (Voatz wouldn’t comment directly on this story, citing a busy pre-election season.)Still, many critics of the West Virginia blockchain-voting plan are extremely dubious of the whole idea. There’s the word blockchain, for one—a now-omnipresent but still largely mysterious technology often associated with doomed disruption projects. Also, there’s the name Voatz. It’s “the Theranos of voting!” software developer Buzz Andersen wrote on Twitter in the days after Voatz’ launch. Code for: a soon-to-be-humiliating, high-tech scam.It’s true that taking things online might seem like the least secure option for the future of voting. Election-system hackery has appeared in almost half of U.S. states, and Russian voter manipulators are mopping up indictments. (After security architect Kevin Beaumont posted a critical Twitter thread raising eyebrows at the fact that a former Voatz software developer once worked in Russia, the company released a statement saying that this staffer was just an intern who happened to be Russian.)

But others have voiced concerns about the technology itself. According to a new paper from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy, blockchain’s vaunted security measures could kick in too late: “If malware on a voter’s device alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter may never know of the alteration.”This was put a bit more simply by Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who told CNN: “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.”Such fears are not unique to a blockchain-based system, says Ari Juels, a professor of technology and computer science at Cornell Tech: Any internet-hosted voting platform would be similarly vulnerable. “It’s very challenging to secure users’ devices,” Juels said. “There’s a risk that even if the integrity of the voting infrastructure remains intact, users’ devices get hacked or compromised through things like spear phishing campaigns.”Voatz addresses this criticism on their website, saying they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure devices aren’t compromised in the first place. “Only certain classes of smartphones that are equipped with the latest security features are allowed to be used,” their FAQ reads.Offering more paths to voter enfranchisement for members of the military should, on its face, be a popular goal. “There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys that are out there, and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told CNN.

But fears around election security, both founded and less so, have become weapons in a larger political battle over voters’ rights and disenfranchisement. The Trump administration has consistently raised the issue of rampant voting fraud, without any evidence to support it. “[T]he lie is so mesmerizing, it takes off like a wildfire,” wrote Carol Anderson in a recent New York Times op-ed, “so that the irrational fear that someone might vote who shouldn’t means that hundreds of thousands who should can’t cast ballots.”

When it comes to devising a safe way to vote over the internet, the stakes are high: Even if only a small number of users in West Virginia’s blockchain pilot were hacked, it would potentially undermine trust in the integrity of the system of a whole. Indeed, the fear that our votes are vulnerable can work to undermine democracy almost as well as hacking itself. “The integrity of the election can be undermined,” said Juels, “because people can be attuned to anecdotes about the process being [compromised].”

This article was originally published by CityLab.

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Fact-check: Did Joe Manchin stick with Hillary Clinton after controversial coal comment?

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Appearing at a rally with President Donald Trump in Charleston, W.Va., Patrick Morrisey — the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin — riled up the crowd by invoking a particularly embarrassing remark by Hillary Clinton, the 2016 presidential nominee of Manchin’s party.

“Joe Manchin strongly supported and voted for Hillary Clinton after she said, ‘We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work,’” Morrisey told the crowd after Trump turned over the podium on Aug. 21, 2018.

Morrissey’s statement has a basis in truth, but it glosses over some context. (We’re not addressing the portion of Morrisey’s remark about how Manchin voted, since ballots are cast privately, making it impossible for us to verify independently.)

What Clinton said

On March 13, 2016, as she was running for president, Clinton appeared at a televised town hall in Columbus, Ohio.

At one point during the event, Clinton said, “I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity — using clean, renewable energy as the key — into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

She continued, “And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

While the latter portion of her comments communicated empathy for coal-mining families, her remark that “were going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” drew intense criticism, not only from Americans in coal country but also with her allies, who said Clinton’s phrasing seemed to trivialize the seriousness of coal workers’ economic dilemma.

Manchin’s support for Clinton

So how did this episode affect Manchin’s support for Clinton? Let’s review.

Manchin and Clinton had known each other for years, and he endorsed her on CBS’s Face the Nation on April 19, 2015. “I support Hillary Clinton. I know Hillary Clinton, and I find her to be warm and engaging, compassionate and tough. All of the above, ” Manchin said.

After the town hall remark, MetroNews reported that a senior advisor to Manchin was “troubled and concerned by the comments and reached out directly to the Secretary and her senior advisor for energy.”

In June 2018, Manchin told Politico that he repeatedly threatened to revoke his support for Clinton after her remark.

“First, Manchin told Bill Clinton that he would withdraw his support, as the former president pleaded with him not to,” Politico reported, “Then Hillary Clinton called him. ‘She said, ‘Please don’t. Let me come to West Virginia, I need to explain.’ I said, ‘That’s a bad idea, you shouldn’t come,’” Manchin recounted.

But the two sides reconciled, and on March 15 — two days after the town hall — Clinton formally reacted to the fallout from her remark, sending a letter to Manchin.

“Simply put, I was mistaken in my remarks,” she wrote. “I wanted to make the point that, as you know too well, while coal will be part of the energy mix for years to come, both in the U.S. and around the world, we have already seen a long-term decline in American coal jobs and a recent wave of bankruptcies as a result of a changing energy market — and we need to do more to support the workers and families facing these challenges.”

She also said in the letter that she supported the Miners Protection Act backed by Manchin, which would provide health benefits and pensions for former miners and family members.

“I pledge to you that I will focus my team and my Administration on bringing jobs to Appalachia, especially jobs producing the carbon capture technology we need for the future,” Clinton wrote.

About six weeks later, on May 2, Clinton came to West Virginia for a roundtable at the Williamson Health and Wellness Center. At that event, she talked with Manchin and a former coal miner, Bo Copley.

“I don’t know how to explain it, other than what I said was totally out of context from what I meant because I have been talking about helping coal country for a very long time and I did put out a plan last summer,” Clinton said. “It was a misstatement, because what I was saying is that the way things are going now we are going to continue to lose jobs. What I said was that is going to happen unless we take action to try to help and prevent it.”

At the roundtable, Manchin also expressed his discomfort with Clinton’s initial statement.

“I have two ways to go when that statement came out,” Manchin said. “I could have said, ‘I thought she was my friend, by golly I’m done, I’m gone.’ Now that’s not the way we were raised, I wasn’t raised that way. So, I said I’m going to call” her instead.

He added, “If I thought that was in her heart, if I thought she wanted to eliminate one job in West Virginia, I wouldn’t be sitting here, and she wouldn’t be sitting here if she felt that way.”.

Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry, but CNN reported on June 17, 2016, that Manchin remained one of the Democratic Senators who were “backing” Clinton for president.

And in the 2018 Politico interview, Manchin called his decision to stick by Clinton “a mistake. It was a mistake politically.” But the article added that to Manchin, “her $20 billion commitment to his state was too much to pass up. ‘Is this about me? Or trying to help a part of my state that’s never recovered and is having a tough time?’”

Our ruling

Morrisey said Manchin “strongly supported and voted for Hillary Clinton after she said, ‘We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of work.’”

It’s worth noting some of the context that Morrisey left out — that Clinton had also expressed empathy for coal miners’ economic challenges in her initial remark, that she later clarified what she had meant to say, and that Manchin had worked to convince Clinton of why her remarks had been unacceptable.

Still, none of that changes the gist of Morrisey’s assertion — that Clinton said the remark, and that Manchin remained in her camp through the election (while we know he endorsed her, we do not know for sure he voted for her, as ballots are secret). We rate the statement Mostly True.

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