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Can Democrats dig out of a Trump-sized hole in Appalachia?

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Donald Trump’s electoral domination in Appalachia—defeating Hillary Clinton 63 percent to 33 percent and winning more than 90 percent of its counties—marked an exclamation point on two decades of regional drift from Democrats to Republicans.

The power shift includes not just presidential votes and congressional delegations, but state legislatures and even local control in many places.

The Democratic Party, which dominated Appalachia from Reconstruction through the 1990s, faces broad challenges, including the loss of membership, attrition of its organizational structures and a question of whether the national party is simply incompatible with a significant number of rural voters who will vote against a candidate based on issues like guns and coal.

Anti-Trump fervor, however, already has injected new energy into Democratic committees in rural communities across the mountains. The response isn’t unusual: Whichever political party holds the presidency tends to see a gradual erosion of its grip on lower-level offices across the country. Virginia, which holds statewide elections in years following the presidential campaign, voted from 1977 through 2009 for governors from party opposite that of the president, breaking the streak only in 2013, when it elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe the year after Barack Obama’s re-election.

Besides statewide elections, Virginians will also vote this year for all 100 seats in the state House of Delegates. Additionally, many localities in Appalachia hold elections in 2017. Trump’s election has proven to ignite a passionate response from both parties.

“It’s amazing how there’s a bright line. If you are a Democrat who lives in a Democratic area, Trump is the best thing that ever happened to you,” said Virginia Del. Greg Habeeb, a Republican from Salem. “If you’re a Republican and live in a Republican area, Trump is the best thing that ever happened to you, politically.”

Democrats have reported growing numbers at committee meetings since November, and now they are seeing fresh candidates, many of whom were motivated in some way by the presidential campaign.

Near the West Virginia border in Glen Lyn, Virginia, a nearly-century old coal-fired plant owned by Appalachian Power sits dormant after it was closed in 2015 due to clean-air regulations. (Photo: Mason Adams)

 

“November 8 just changed the world for us,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, as well as a native of Highland County, which borders West Virginia. “Folks want to do something.”

But there are limits. Swecker said Virginia Democrats are targeting 17 state house districts where Hillary Clinton won. West of Richmond, those districts are few and far between. In the 6th and 9th congressional districts, which encompass most of Appalachian Virginia, Trump won with 59 percent and 68 percent, respectively — his biggest margins in the state.  

Only two Democrats hold state house seats west of Richmond. Of the Republican-held house districts in Appalachian Virginia, all voted for Trump except one: the 12th district, located in the New River Valley. Del. Joseph Yost, a district native who since high school has claimed the nickname “Scholar from the Hollar,” won the seat in 2011 after the retirement of a Democratic incumbent, and he’s successfully defeated challengers in three straight elections.

“My district is unique in that it’s pretty much a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats,” Yost said. “You’ve got very rural, more conservative areas in outlying parts of Giles and Pulaski, parts of Montgomery, and a more liberal base around Blacksburg and Radford.”

In 2017, Yost’s challenger is a well-known former news anchor whose fiancé was killed live on air in 2015. Democrats see Chris Hurst, who left Roanoke CBS affiliate WDBJ earlier this year to enter politics, as a rising star and chance to win back a seat the party held just seven years ago.

Hurst said his campaign grew out of his journalism covering issues affecting people. “I wanted to get my hands on real solutions and working to implement them,” he said. “I wanted something higher than myself.”

Hurst’s decision to run was cemented last fall by two events that occurred within the space of 15 days. In late October, a former employee walked into the FreightCar America in Roanoke and opened fire, killing one person, wounding three others and then killing himself. Two weeks later, Trump won the presidency.

“The Trump election of 2016 galvanized me politically, not just in terms of my views but in the urgency of needing strong candidates to be able to discuss these issues,” Hurst said.  

The Virginia State Capital Building during the holidays. (Photo: Getty iStock / lovingav)

A new populism

The election also has inspired other Democrats to jump into politics. In Morgantown, West Virginia, where all seven city council seats are up for election in late April, at least two first-time candidates were inspired to run — at least in part — by the presidential election.  

Mark Brazaitis, an author who has taught English at West Virginia University for 17 years, has long participated in politics on various levels, starting with watching his father cover national politics in Washington, D.C., for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He entered the city council race out of local concerns, but also because of his teenage daughters’ response to Trump’s election.

“The morning after the election, my older daughter came to me, tears in her eyes, and said to me, ‘I’m scared,’” Brazaitis said. “We have so much at stake and we have the wrong person in office who’s going to help with the future. What propelled me to run for office in Morgantown was an impulse to act locally, but also a disenchantment with the election results.”

West Virginia University professor Mark Brazaitis entered the city council race out of local concerns, but also because of his teenage daughters’ response to Trump’s election (Photo: Rebecca Brazaitis)

Across town, Barry Lee Wendell, a retired schoolteacher and cantorial soloist, also entered the city council race after having been disappointed by November’s election. Wendell moved to Morgantown in 2012 after his partner was hired as rabbi for the Tree of Life Congregation. Wendell unsuccessfully ran last year for the West Virginia House of Delegates. He said he’d decided not to run again, but changed his mind after he heard the council incumbent in his ward was stepping down.

“My issues are more bigger issues than what the city is about,” Wendell said. “The city seems wonky to me. It’s about getting the streets paved, and traffic and crime, whereas I’m more worried about national-level things like health care and the environment.”

Wendell’s conundrum demonstrates why local elections have remained relatively free of the polarized divide that characterizes national politics.

In Lewisburg, West Virginia, which is also holding elections this year, the two dominant parties on the council aren’t Democrats and Republicans, but the majority Citizens Party and opposition Community Party.

That’s not to say that national politics don’t influence what happens locally. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, up for re-election this year in one of Appalachia’s rare Democratic strongholds, has been strongly criticized for his 2015 pledge to take in hundreds of Syrian refugees.

The reactionary nature of down-ticket politics often works in favor of the party that doesn’t hold the White House. Republican officials, for example, talk about how many new members the party picked up in 1993 and 1997, the years following national wins by Bill Clinton. Conversely, Democrats picked up seats during the George W. Bush presidency.

The 2008 election of Barack Obama, however, set off an even more dramatic chain reaction than usual.

Once upon a time in Appalachia

Del. Greg Habeeb rattled off a long list of Democrats who held elected office in western Virginia just a decade ago. The list was even longer back in the ’90s.

“When I was growing up, I remember hearing people say these voters have to choose between their gun or their union,” Habeeb said. “You had 2nd-amendment, Republican-type folks on one side and blue-collar union folks on the other side. These were more complicated voters than they may be in other parts of the world.”

The ’90s saw brighter partisan lines develop, along with greater predictability in voting patterns. That polarization came late to western Virginia, but it arrived in force with Obama.

“Obama gets elected and the Democratic party in the 9th district [which extends from Roanoke to Virginia’s southwest corner] died almost overnight,” Habeeb said. “The only things Democrats are left with are seats anchored by an urban or university hub.”

Del. Greg Habeeb of Virginia said he remembers voters choosing between guns and unions. “You had 2nd-amendment,” he said. “Republican-type folks on one side and blue-collar union folks on the other side.” (Photo provided by: Jeremy Ruch, office of Del. Greg Habeeb)

Habeeb faces two Democratic challengers in a district that leans heavily Republican. Habeeb’s predecessor, Morgan Griffith, held the seat for 17 years before defeating Democrat Rick Boucher for a congressional seat in 2010. The “Fighting 9th,” which had carried Boucher to easy re-elections for 28 years, dropped him after a campaign centered largely on coal and his vote for a cap-and-trade bill. (The same year, Democrat Joe Manchin won a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia in part with a television ad showing him literally shooting the bill with a gun. All signs indicate that Manchin will be targeted when he’s up for re-election next year—certainly by Republicans and possibly by a Democratic primary challenger.)

Habeeb hasn’t been challenged since the special election to replace Griffith in 2011. Democrat Steven McBride said that fact played heavily in his decision to run this year. “With the energy being built up in grassroots across the country, all the movements working for positive change, I knew I wasn’t alone,” McBride said. “I faced a simple choice: I could sit back, complain, do some computer chair politicking about what I didn’t like, or lace up my boots and get to work.”

Bryan Keele, the other Democrat running against Habeeb, called the Trump presidency “an influencing factor” but like McBride said he was motivated by what he sees as a need for politics to embrace new voices. “I believe that people that historically have not been involved in politics need to be involved,” Keele said.

Although there’s lots of opposition energy in the Democratic Party, even in Appalachia, renegade political consultant Dave “Mudcat” Saunders advised that rural candidates shouldn’t mistake the anti-Trump energy in their party base for a winning strategy.

“An anti-Trump message will not work in rural America,” said Saunders, who built a reputation helping Democrats attract rural voters using the “Bubba Strategy.”

“It just won’t work, because we’re in a new age of economic populism. Trump’s talking about bringing our jobs back, so our kids can have an opportunity here. Rural America has been kicked around and they’re sick of it. We’ve been screwed every way but loose.”

The bigger problem for Appalachian Democrats will be overcoming perceptions that the national wing of the party is incompatible with rural mountain values. Quotes by Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016 became bright lines that crystalized the perception that national Democrats were incompatible … with rural Appalachian values.

  • Obama in 2008, talking about small-town Pennsylvania: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
  • Clinton in 2016, in the context of a longer answer about renewable energy and economic transition: “Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?”

The return of the ‘West Virginia Democrat’?

That’s why, although he’s got name recognition, financial support from his party and a favorable district in terms of demographics, former TV anchor Hurst is running uphill in his campaign against Yost. To start, Hurst isn’t from western Virginia—he grew up outside Philadelphia—and moved from Roanoke into the 12th District expressly to challenge Yost.

Additionally, the nature of Hurst’s personal story links him to the issue of guns, and although he’s adamant that the 2nd Amendment is not his issue, he’ll begin the race working against that perception. The 12th District hasn’t mined coal at significant levels since the early 1900s, but the 12th District is home to a 98-year-old Appalachian Power plant that closed in 2015 as a result of the Obama administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule.

Even if he does strike the right balance when asked about guns and coal, Republicans will likely attempt to point past Hurst and tie him to national Democrats. That disconnect between national Democrats and rural voters represents a fundamental challenge to Appalachian Democrats that’s not going away — with state Republican chairs trying to make an association between Democrats on the national level and those in more local settings.

“Virtually every issue on which anyone has a strong opinion in the state of West Virginia is bad for the Democrats because there is virtually nothing whatsoever in their party platform which resonates positively with people in West Virginia,” said West Virginia Republican Chairman Conrad Lucas. “For a long time, Democrats in West Virginia were able to say there’s a difference between national Democrats and state Democrats. There’s no longer a distinction.”

Many West Virginia Democrats disagree with Lucas’ assessment that local politicians have aligned themselves too closely with the national party. West Virginia’s top two elected Democrats, after all, are cap-and-trade-bill-shooting U.S. Sen. Manchin and newly elected Gov. Jim Justice — the state’s only billionaire, who only switched from Republican to Democrat in February 2015.

“One can’t look at the West Virginia Democratic Party and say that our brand of Democrat is the same as the Dems in New York, LA, or DC,” said Karan Ireland, a Democrat serving on Charleston City Council. “Utter the phrase ‘West Virginia Democrat’ anywhere else in the country and people might not understand, but say those words in West Virginia and we know exactly what kind of Democrat you mean.”

“To say that this party aligns itself with the national party is just wrong. However, when it comes to the issues that face working people, West Virginia Democrats remember their working-class roots.”

The mounting challenge for Democrats in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia will be to convince voters that’s the case.

After more than eight decades of Democratic control, Republicans took control of the West Virginia Legislature in 2014 and retained it again last year. Democrats retained control of the governor’s mansion — at least in part — because it’s hard to pin “war on coal” talking points on a coal baron like Justice.

Nevertheless, West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore admits, “We have not done a good enough job with voters to make them believe the Democratic Party still believes about working class families.”

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice delivers his State of the State address on February, 8 2017. (Photo: Perry Bennett / West Virginia Legislative Photography)

Biafore and the new batch of Democratic candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring believe the party can win back its historic, blue-collar base by talking about across-the-board issues like economic fairness, health insurance, education and workforce training.

Republicans remain skeptical. Habeeb points to the general lack of Democratic challengers in Appalachian Virginia. Other than his and Yost’s races, and a couple farther north in the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville areas, mountain Republicans remain unopposed.

“I don’t want to overstate and say there’s a party alignment that can never go back, but Democrats have a long way to go, both messaging- and infrastructure-wise, before they can go back to being competitive in western Virginia,” Habeeb said.

That’s true of the rest of Appalachia, too.

A native of the Alleghany Highlands, Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms) has worked as a journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains since 2001. He lives with his family plus dogs, cats, chickens and dairy goats in Floyd County, Virginia. 

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ARC Summit: Appalachian Economies Need Workforces Prepared for the Future

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Mississippi is the manufacturing anchor of Appalachia. At least, that’s how Tim Thomas sees it.

Thomas is the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, the government agency that oversees economic development for the region. This year, the commission held its annual summit in Tupelo, Mississippi, known for being the birthplace of Elvis Presley and at one time, one of the poorest cities in the poorest state in the nation. But Thomas said Mississippi is changing.

“Mississippi made some great strides…relative to manufacturing, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries,” Thomas said, “so workforce supply for them is key.”

Tupelo, Mississippi. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

It’s part of the reason the ARC chose to hold its summit in one of the southernmost states in the region this year– the changing face of its manufacturing industry and the state’s focus on developing and training a workforce to support it.

Mississippi has emphasized vocational training, as well as the creation of high-tech hubs and collaborative worker training programs with companies like Toyota, but depending on the part of Appalachia you’re in, workforce development and workforce training might mean different things.

Central Appalachia, for example, has been left with a significant number of workers trained for an industry that has faded away rapidly over the past decade.

According to a 2017 study by Downstream Strategies, presented during the “Planning for Mine Land Reclamation” panel at the summit, 1.6 percent of West Virginia’s total workforce was lost due to the decline of mining jobs between the fourth quarters of 2011 and 2014. Kentucky lost 0.6 percent of its workforce during that same period.

So, instead of training workers to keep up with the technological advances of the industry they’re already in, coalfield states have to work to retrain workers to enter a new field.

That has been one of Thomas’ priorities since being sworn in as federal co-chair in April– reviving coal economies by helping them move beyond mining operations and addressing such issues as distribution and supply chains there.

According to Thomas, the downturn of the coal industry and its impact is far broader than often recognized. He sees its impact in transportation, both on land and on the water, and in the manufacturing of heavy equipment.

“We are seeing some efforts for retraining from mining,” Thomas said, adding some of those efforts have been promising. Among them, coding and other high-tech skills being taught to the former coal miners of the region.

“That is going to be the key to further diversify the coal regions themselves, to get some other entities in place to provide employment, in addition to [those] directly tied to the mining industry,” he added.

Thomas laid out two additional priorities for Appalachian governors at last weeks summit. The governors of all 13 states serve as co-chairs of the ARC alongside him.

Those priorities also have links to workforce development– strengthening and supporting the tradition of Appalachian entrepreneurship and combating the opioid epidemic.

Substance abuse in the region has contributed to the greater suppression of local economies by decimating the workforces in communities and creating the danger of significant public health threats, like outbreaks of HIV or Hepatitis C due to the sharing of needles for intravenous drug use.

But the problem goes beyond just health impacts. In many cases individuals who struggled with substance abuse disorders can still find themselves unable to return to the job market because of a criminal record.

Thomas declared readiness to devote co-chair funds to address these problems. He said Appalachia will need to embrace some non-traditional candidates, including those recovering from substance abuse disorders and nonviolent drug offenders.

“We cannot have a population who wants a career and a job overwhelmed by opioid abuse. We cannot,” echoed Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Thomas also signaled the ARC’s intention to start reviewing its Power Initiative program, which was created three years ago. The federal grant program targets funding for economic diversification to communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry to invest in workforce development, create new jobs and attract new sources of investment. It is one of the ARC’s most sought after grant programs.

Thomas said the agency needs to reassess the program to assure they are not over-investing in some communities and underinvesting in others.

“Innovation” Remains the Key Word for the Region

So, what industries could be the key to a prosperous future in Appalachia? Again, it depends on what part of the region you consider, but a number of them were shared at the ARC Summit.

Nathan Hall with West Virginia’s Sprouting Farms suggested that the most promising course for the reclaimed land of Central Appalachia’s abandoned mine sites is reforestation, sustainable agriculture and agroforestry.

Conference attendees were required to fill out these forms to select panels and breakout sessions to attend. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

According to Hall, the cultivation of tree fruits (paw paws, apples), berries (blackberries, raspberries), nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts) and herbs on these sites in the region could potentially challenge such major producing states as California.

Gov. Bryant sees the future of Mississippi among the stars, leading in aerospace technologies and being at the forefront of modern manufacturing, robotics, automation and advances in healthcare services.

Entrepreneurs like Marsha G. Folsom believe new industrial crops could also change the face of the region. Folsom is the co-founder of Resource Fiber, an Alabama company that is working to expand the bamboo manufacturing industry in the state.

Folsom has plans to plant up to 200,000 acres of industrial bamboo by 2020 and believes it could be planted as far north as West Virginia. According to Folsom, bamboo has both economic and environmental benefits. It is proven to absorb more carbon dioxide, while producing up to 35 percent more oxygen than other plants, she said, and is a low maintenance and renewable resource that, according to the company, produces 20 times more fiber than regular lumber.

Ohio University is producing paint pigment out of acid mine drainage, while cleaning the contaminated water.

While many of the conference presenters were realistic about the challenges that face Appalachia and the amount of time it will likely take to overcome them, the overarching message was that economic development in the region must be tied to industries and technologies of the future and not those of the past and Appalachia states must prioritize training a workforce for those industries.

That is certainly Mississippi’s goal, according to Gov. Bryant.

“Man will go to Mars and come home safely one day,” he said of his state’s future, “but will have to pass through Mississippi first.”

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West Virginia’s ‘Bad News Bears’: Chico’s Bail Bonds More a Social Club Than Softball Team

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It’s an early August evening on Libertore Field at White Park in Morgantown. The orange prison jumpsuit jerseys of Chico’s Bail Bonds are impossible to miss — and so is our play. But, that’s not necessarily a compliment.

On this evening, the team loses in typical Chico fashion.

The team name, of course, comes from the 1976 film The Bad News Bears, in which a down-and-out and cheap beer-swigging Walter Matthau coaches a group of rag-tag Little Leaguers and tries to whip them into shape.

Morgantown’s Chico’s aren’t too far off from their fictitious counterparts.

On this night, there are flashes of defensive greatness in the outfield from Chico veteran Sean Kelley and rookie Dave Lawson. A few Chico batters turn infield errors into a few runs, thanks to some heads-up baserunning.

We hold our own against an outmatched and much younger rival, Gene’s Beer Garden, only to crumble when we needed to come through.

But all isn’t lost, as it never is with Chico’s. The night is still young. Win or lose, the team had yet to get to the best part of the Chico’s game-night experience.

Chico’s part-time catcher Eric Ramón strides effortlessly towards first base. The opposing team was likely napping on the field. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Becoming a Chico

I found myself a part of this group of gentleman misfits somewhat by chance, but looking back on it all, it makes perfect sense.

It was a Wednesday night in late winter or early spring of 2017, and I had popped into 123 Pleasant Street after a long day at work. I sat down, looking for some sort of reprieve from the heaviness that can be my job. I stopped in to catch up with my friend, Tyler Grady.

“You said, ‘Hey dude, is there a softball team around here or anything?’ And I don’t remember if I even said anything other than, ‘Come with me — follow me right now,’” recalled Grady, a Morgantown musician, car salesman, entrepreneur and a bartender at 123 Pleasant Street.

Chico’s part-time first baseman and the author of this article swings mightily at a pitch on June 16, 2017. His arms do not normally appear this muscular — although, they do in this photo because of pure grit, determination and zen-like focus. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We walked around the bar and I took you downstairs to the lower bar that was not open at the time. I stood up on the liquor shelf, I climbed up and I got down our trophy that was given to us — the Olivia Newton-John trophy, our 0-and-23 trophy. And I was like, ‘The greatest softball team of all time is here,’ ” Grady, who plays right field, remembers.

The Olivia Newton-John trophy is a reference to Tommy John surgery — a procedure baseball pitchers undergo after tearing a tendon in the elbow of their throwing arm. Any baseball fan surely would get the joke.

I immediately understood the sense of humor that informed Chico’s. I could also tell I didn’t necessarily have to be good — this was about goofing off and having fun.

But Chico’s is an institution — with a history far longer than my two-season career platooning at first base.

Among the many stories of Chico’s lore include a player being picked up from jail to make a game, a player buying an orange Miata and getting a vanity license plate with ‘CHICO84’ and strange nicknames like ‘Meatball.’

A Staple of Morgantown Softball

With just one season under their belt as the Nyabinghi Dance Hall, the team took on the Chico-moniker 20 years ago — in 1998 — the same year the bar took on the name of its address, 123 Pleasant Street.

Morgantown native Louis “LJ” Giuliani took over ownership of the bar and sponsorship of Chico’s. He says Chico’s immediately embodied the open-minded identity of 123.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, straight or gay, or whatever. It’s all kinds that take the field when Chico’s takes the field,” Giuliani said, noting that 123 held the same values from the beginning.

Chico’s utility player Jon Vehse, who works in construction and other odd jobs, remembers the early days of 123 Pleasant Street the same way.

“This bar — especially when it started — it was the bar for everybody that didn’t have a bar. Everybody got along. You know, it was the place for everybody that didn’t have a place. In a lot of ways, Chico’s is kind of like that,” Vehse said.

Chico’s rookie right fielder Dave Lawson rounds first base during a June 6, 2018 game against Davis Cabinetry. The game proved to be the only outright win for Chico’s during their 2018 campaign. His dreadlock-friendly hats and visors are known on the team as a “helmet.” Photo: West Virginia Public Broadcasting

After 20 years, many Chico’s have come and gone from the team and from Morgantown. But even those who have moved on still stay connected to the team and look back on the early days with fondness.

“It was probably, really, to do something healthier besides sitting in the dark bar. I think to go out and do something that was more participatory and less spectator-driven — because, we all sat around and watch baseball together at that time. So, it was nice for us to go out and do something [and] get out in the sun and see the day together,” said Greg Leatherman, a journalist now living in Florida who was around when the team began.

Morgantown’s Music Scene and 123 Pleasant Street

Giuliani, now retired from the softball field, says Chico’s was always rooted in Morgantown’s music and art scene.

“A lot of the players that they grabbed on to just happened to be musicians. Brian Porterfield, Tom Batchelor, you’ve got Jeff Goodwin who is a musician. He’s playing on the team now,” said Giuliani, recalling some of the players who have exercised their musical talents from the stage at 123 and other local venues.

Softball wasn’t their first talent — nor their second, third or fourth, Giuliani said with a laugh.

Top photos: Tom Batchelor is well known around the region for his work with rock and reggae groups like Rasta Rafiki and The Tom Batchelor Band, as well as his time as a Chico. Bottom: Jeffrey Goodwin has been a part of punk and metal bands such as Law Biting Citizens and Ghost Road. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It was a way to bring like-minded folks [together] that liked talking about music or art or how many shots of Jameson they had. It was based more on like-mindedness,” he explained.

Following each Chico’s game, as it has been since the beginning, the Bonders gather at 123 for cheap beers like Black Label and Pabst Blue Ribbon — and, as Giuliani mentioned, celebratory shots of Jameson.

For Vehse and other Chico’s, the post-game celebration is the perfect cap — with seemingly disparate people milling about, discussing music, sports, politics and sharing stories of life’s misadventures.

“More often than not, it is the highlight of the evening. But there’s there’s just a certain camaraderie. I think there’s a genuine affection between people,” he said.

Among Chico’s, Vehse is known for his love of curating the music from the jukebox in the lower bar.

“From Beethoven to Bob Wills, from the Rolling Stones to Prince Far I. There’s everything on that jukebox. It is an eclectic evening. It is awesome,” Vehse said of the musical selections.

Chico’s shortstop Jim Antonini (center) and loyal fans hoist a shot of Jameson at 123 Pleasant Street during a post-season party to celebrate a successful 3-25 season. With an expanded roster in 2018, it’s possible the Bonders broke a single-season record for most fluid ounces of alcohol consumed. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Creating the Chico Mythology: Game Summaries Recap the Misery

But, even after a few drinks at 123, a Chico’s game night isn’t over until it’s been recapped and shared on the team’s Facebook group.

Part comedy, part mythology, the game write-ups exaggeratedly highlight the ups-and-downs over an always hard-fought seven innings. If Chico’s doesn’t get clobbered into a 10 or 15-run mercy rule before getting through all 7 innings, that is.

“There’s three of us that have kind of done this and that’s myself, David Forman and Jim Antonini,” Greg Leatherman said. “And, basically, it is sort of like the literary connection to Chico’s softball team — is that we’ve always captured the games win, lose or draw and written up how the game went — in both a serious, professional, sort of sportscaster way but also with a lot of humor.”

Shortstop, team manager, Morgantown native and occupational health science researcher Jim Antonini has taken over the write-ups in recent years.

“It’s the same story and it’s gotten harder to write them — because, we continue to lose. There’s only so many ways you could describe a loss and drinking beer after a softball game,” Antonini explained.

If you were at any given game, you would know what is and isn’t absolutely true. If you weren’t, well, that’s left to your own imagination to decide.

A commemorative Jeff Ryan bobble head sits on the liquor shelf at 123 Pleasant Street. Catcher Eric Ramon gifted Ryan with his bobble-head likeness on Jeff Ryan Bobble Head Night at BOPARC on August 9, 2018. Photo: Jesse Wright/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Here’s one of Antonini’s write-ups from a game back in 2011:

The clock struck midnight. Down 19-18 in the last inning with two outs and two Bonders on, hot-hitting Ethan Wells hit deep, majestic drive to center field, bringing the roaring Chico followers to their feet. To the Bonders’ dismay, the Colasonte’s left center fielder dashed out of the darkness and fog of the thick, hazy summer night and made a diving, stabbing, tumbling, catch — ripping the hearts out of the Chico followers and team members.

In disbelief, first baseman Leatherman retreated to his car and wept — not about the loss, but about the pride he felt for his fellow Bondsman.

On this night, Chico’s were everything they had not been this forgettable season: Daring, hustling, bold, youthful. Not wanting to go home, six or seven Chico’s milled aimlessly around the closing 123 bar at 3 a.m.

An exhausted and worn down Vehse stood over the darkened jukebox — with the power long shut off after last call — still trying to make selections…just wanting to hear Peggy Lee sing “Is That All There Is” one more time.

Another Losing Record, But No Giving Up

Chico’s finished their 2018 campaign with a record of 3 wins and 25 losses. Two of those wins came as a result of a no-show forfeit from the opposing team, while the third came on a gloriously executed 7 innings against Davis Cabinetry.

Such a pathetic record should make anyone reconsider their motivations to keep playing softball. But, if you can’t tell, Chico’s isn’t about winning. Antonini says no matter what happens over the course of a season, it’s hard to imagine hanging it up.

Chico’s Bail Bonds poses for a team photo on June 16, 2018, following a win against Davis Cabinetry. The game served as the team’s only outright win of the 2018 season. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I think every year there’s a point in the year — probably after you’ve played 18, 20 games and it’s like ‘Why are we doing this?’ We come out and sometimes we really get humiliated,” Antonini said. “But, then, the game ends and then you get together and everybody has a few beers and then it’s it doesn’t seem that bad. It’s a pretty good way to spend a night.”

Giuliani, despite having not played in recent years, feels the same.

“Chico’s is kind of a state of mind in the sense that we’re not here to judge, we’re here to support and we’re here to spend time with each other. And that’s the bottom line. We’re a softball team that’s more of a social club than an actual softball team,” Giuliani said.

So, if you ever find yourself around 123 Pleasant Street surrounded by orange softball shirts, you’ll know you’re hanging out with the Chico’s. Buy a few of them a drink and strike up a conversation. After all, we assuredly just got beat.

This story is featured on an upcoming episode of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s podcast ​Inside Appalachia focused on the impact of baseball throughout the region. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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Appalachia

Grandma Underground: The 80,000 Kids in Kin Care

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In the wake of the opioid crisis, kinship and foster care systems in Kentucky have been stretched to the limit, with the number of children in the homes of relatives or close family friends rising by over 50 percent. It is not clear how elderly kin will afford to care for these children.

Over the past two years, Norma Hatfield has collected stories: One grandmother, living on a $700 per month disability check, who woke up to the state delivering six kids to her doorstep in the middle of the night. Another single grandmother who found out the night of her grandson’s birth that she would be parenting the infant, born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. She had to quit her job. She closed off every room in her house but one, because she could not afford to heat them.

Hatfield is a kinship caregiver. She has permanent custody of her granddaughter and another unrelated child. She took them in after the adults in the mother’s house were arrested for drug use. Looking for assistance, Hatfield went to support groups for kinship caregivers. There, she met a grandmother who was selling her own clothes on Facebook to try to raise money to buy school clothes for her 8-year-old granddaughter, whom she was caring for. 

“She had to quit her job to care for all five children; she went from a two-income home with two people to a one-income home with seven people,” Hatfield said in an interview with Rewire.News. “That’s when I started paying attention to what was going on around me.”

To support other kin caregivers like herself, Hatfield has become an organizer and advocate, lobbying the legislature and the governor in her home state, Kentucky, over the past two years. A reporter dubbed her statewide organizing the “Grandma Underground.” The name stuck.

In the wake of the opioid crisis, kinship and foster care systems in Kentucky have been stressed to their limits. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of Kentucky children in kinship care, children who live with and are cared for by relatives or close family friends instead of their parents, rose by over 50 percent.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data center, 8 percent of children in Kentucky, more than 80,000 kids, are in some form of kinship care—the highest percentage in the United States; neighboring Appalachian states West Virginia and Ohio each have 5% of children in kin care. At least 12,000 Kentucky children are in kin care because the state removed them from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or parental incarceration. Despite the increasing prevalence of this kind of care, Kentucky lacks the resources to meet the needs of kin caregivers.

Families Foot the Bill

Placing children with relatives instead of foster parents who are strangers to them is often the least traumatic option for children who end up in custody of the state; it gives children a semblance of familiarity. In an interview with Rewire.News, Wendy Welch, who conducted dozens of interviews with former foster kids, foster parents, and social workers across Central Appalachia for her book Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Adoption and Foster Care in Appalachia, explained kinship care’s role in lessening the trauma for children whose parents get arrested: “Harm reduction would be calling grandma as soon as the [police] raid is over and saying, ‘We have your grandchildren in the backseat of a police car. We would very much like to bring them to your house instead of the foster care system.’”

While better for children’s well-being, immediately placing them in relatives’ homes, rather than processing them through the foster system first, is one of the ways the state denies funds to caregivers.

This past July, a comprehensive foster and adoption reform law went into effect in Kentucky. Thanks partly to advocacy efforts by Hatfield and others, the legislature added $4.9 million to the budget over two years to a fund called kinship care, designed to support relatives caring for children who have been removed from their homes.

There are two separate programs for caregivers who take in children related to them: kinship guardianship assistance and relative foster care payments. Kentucky has neglected both during the last four years of the state’s meteoric rise in child placements with relatives. Now, there is money in the new kinship care fund—but state officials announced yesterday that only kin fostering children on a temporary basis will receive it.

Kinship guardianship assistance was formerly a $300 per child per month payment to low-income caregivers who had gained permanent custody—adoption or assumption of legal guardianship—of related children. But in April 2013, the state ended enrollment in that program and removed recipients whose eligibility temporarily lapsed, due to such issues as late filing of renewals. 

After that, “it was next to impossible for the elderly to care for kids on their fixed incomes,” wrote Anna Houston, director of the Family Resource Center for the Danville, Kentucky, Independent School District, in an email to Rewire.News.

Houston has run a support group for relative caregivers since 2010. Newer members in Houston’s support group who have sought financial help from the kinship guardianship assistance program since passage of the legislative reforms have been either rejected or deferred. Currently, only around 5,000 families receive these kinship guardianship payments, down from more than 11,000 in 2013, according Shannon Moody, policy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, in an interview with Rewire.News.

Hatfield recalled a woman who was the guardian of two grandchildren; when social workers called about a third, the child had to be sent to foster care because the grandmother could not afford to care for all three children herself. “If she had received that additional per diem of kinship [guardianship assistance] … all those children would be in her home.”

Relative foster caregivers are in a different position. When children are taken in by the state, social workers try to find relatives to care for them instead of sending them to nonrelative foster care. Until an October 2017 federal court decision, Kentucky did not provide these relatives with the support payments nonrelative foster caregivers receive.

In 2014, Richard Dawahare, an attorney in Kentucky, sued the state of Kentucky for refusing to grant foster care maintenance payments, around $750 per month per child, to relatives who take in children on a non-permanent basis. In October 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with Dawahare’s argument. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the state, some caregivers began getting payments, but many still aren’t, Dawahare says. Dawahare filed another lawsuit three months ago to challenge this practice.

The state is now obligated under court order to reimburse relative foster caregivers. Kentucky’s Department of Community Based Services had already warned that the bulk of the $4.9 million put into kinship care could go to the court-ordered payments for these short-term, relative foster parents. Funds will not be available for guardianship assistance anytime soon for the low-income, elderly relatives who have already established permanent custody of children.

Hatfield, organizer of the Grandma Underground, is frustrated by this decision by the state, which speaks to the dearth of resources to deal with the influx of children who need care—and caregivers who need help. “This lawsuit was already in the works for a few years. The Cabinet should have been prepared for this … Even the money that they allocated to kinship care wasn’t a lot.”

Relatives who take in children do become eligible for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), but that only amounts to $186 per month, said Moody, policy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. They also become eligible for child care assistance for 12 months, and a one-time $350 per child placement support benefit—but many kin caregivers do not receive it because they are not made aware of it in time.

“Aside from that,” Moody said, “there’s not a whole lot else out there for relative caregivers right now.”

Confronting stereotypes

Many foster parents and kin caregivers in Appalachia feel uncomfortable talking about needing more resources. They feel keenly the stigma of caring for the children of relatives or friends involved with drugs, and the stereotype that caregivers abuse the system for personal financial gain.

Welch, the author of Fall or Fly, pointed out the implicit judgment many people make about low-income foster and kin caregivers: “Grandmothers who give their children back [to the state] because they can’t afford to keep but one of them are the subjects of [people’s] judgment, not the system that says you can only have this much money,” she said. “The public doesn’t go after the system; they go after the grandma.”

“People who have to have the money to foster or provide kin care aren’t necessarily in it for the money,” Welch said. “What the public doesn’t know are the thousands of points of light that some of these people are.” Kin caregivers and foster parents clothe, feed, house, educate, and provide emotional support to children who have been through extreme trauma.

W (who asked that a full name not be used for privacy reasons), a single foster parent in eastern Kentucky who works full time, wrote in a statement to Rewire.News that their stipend has been critical to covering their child’s essential needs like diapers and child care. “There’s a disconnect in our society when we talk about taking care of young ones and how we talk about assistance. I myself am happy to pay taxes if it means they’re going to help keep a young child safe in a loving home,” W wrote.

Hatfield said, “It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Why would you pay a relative to take care of their own kin?’ [But] that money is for the child. This is about neglected and abused kids.”

She noted that when she started collecting stories from kin caregivers, many relatives “were afraid to say much publicly,” to avoid association with drugs or with being in dire need. In the past two years, as the opioid crisis has increased the need for kin care even more, caregivers have started opening up. At Kentucky’s legislative session, Hatfield hand delivered a petition of over 6,000 stories and names of kinship caregivers to every state senator. “We united here in Kentucky for the children,” she wrote.

This story was originally published by Rewire.News.

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