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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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Coal Comeback? Coal At New Low After Two Years Under Trump

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It’s been two years since President Donald Trump took office and began rolling back environmental regulations on the coal industry.

At a November rally in Huntington, West Virginia, the president took credit for a coal comeback in front of a cheering crowd.

“We’ve ended the war on beautiful, clean coal and we’re putting our coal miners back to work,” he said. “That you know better than anybody.”

But federal data about the industry tell a different story.

Mine operators and independent contractors are required to report regular employment information to the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. Preliminary figures for 2018 show 80,778 people were employed by mine operators and contractors. That’s a record low, and about a thousand fewer than were employed by coal in the last year of the Obama administration.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley Resource

Nationwide, coal plant retirements neared a record high, and overall coal production dropped to the lowest level in nearly 40 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a non-partisan government agency that tracks energy trends.

In the Ohio Valley, things looked much the same. In 2018 two prominent Ohio Valley utilities announced a spate of coal power plant closures, federal data show the region lost 150 industry jobs, and Westmoreland Coal, which has a substantial presence in Ohio, declared bankruptcy.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley Resource

However strong exports of one type of coal continued to support jobs for those who provide metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. That boosted employment in West Virginia, where the president’s supporters say he is keeping his promise to revive the industry. Elsewhere, others aren’t convinced and are looking for ways to fill the void left by coal’s decline.

Environmental Rollbacks

The Trump administration has leaned heavily on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to boost the region’s coal industry. In March, 2017, Trump signed an executive order that kicked off an in-depth review of a series of environmental regulations. Since then, the administration has proposed a series of regulatory rollbacks aimed at helping struggling coal plants and operators.

In August, the EPA proposed a replacement for the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era regulation that aimed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by one-third over the coming decades in an effort to stem the effects of climate change.

The Trump EPA has also moved to roll back existing regulations that govern the storage of toxic coal ash. In December, the agency proposed a rule revision that would allow coal plants to emit more carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity generated by scrapping a requirement that plant operators install expensive technology that reduces emissions. The agency in December also proposed weakening a regulation that limits mercury and other toxic emissions from coal power plants.

The Trump administration last year was also embroiled in an ongoing attempt to bail out struggling coal-fired power plants, which has since stalled.

But many industry analysts believe Trump’s looser environmental rules have not helped the industry.

“So we had some pretty significant regulatory rollbacks in 2018,” said Trevor Houser, a coal analyst at the independent research company Rhodium Group. “And yet, 2018 was a record year in terms of coal plant retirements.” [Story continues below map]

Houser said there is also little indication any utility in the country is planning on building a new coal-fired power plant, even under the current, more relaxed regulatory environment.

Last month, S&P Global Market Intelligence reported Longview Power LLC, which operates one of the newest and most efficient coal-fired power plants in the U.S. just outside of Morgantown, West Virginia, is seeking investment to shift some generation from coal to natural gas and solar. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the power plant in the summer of 2017 to tout the benefits of coal in a competitive energy market. 

Across the Ohio Valley, utilities announced more coal power plant closures in 2018. After Ohio-based FirstEnergy Solutions declared bankruptcy, it announced it would close two coal-fired power plants, one in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio. Another of its plants in West Virginia will close by 2022. Another major utility, American Electric Power, announced it was moving up the closure date for some units in its Conesville plant in Ohio to 2019.

A report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, an energy think tank, found cost is the biggest force in coal’s decline. Renewables and gas-fired generation continue to provide a cheaper and more flexible alternative.

The Met Demand

With more power plant closing there are fewer places to sell thermal coal, which is burned to make electricity, and that has a major impacts coal producers in the region.

“If you look at the share of where the coal was headed, the domestic utility market for West Virginia coal continues to decline,” said Jason Bostic with the West Virginia Coal Association. “And that’s extremely concerning.”

Nationwide and as well as in the Ohio Valley the amount of coal mined dropped to the lowest level in nearly 40 years. Coal exports, however, were up, driven largely by international demand for metallurgical, or met coal, by Asian countries.

Kudzu grows near a coal preparation plant in eastern Kentucky. Photo: Jeff Young, Ohio Valley Resource.

“There’s the kind of continual disconnect between the poor fate of the thermal coal market and a little bit more resilient met coal market,” Houser said.

To meet higher met coal demand, some mines in West Virginia and Virginia have reopened. Federal data from MSHA show West Virginia mines added a little over 500 jobs in 2018.

Tom McLoughlin trains coal miners in southwestern Virginia, where some met coal mines have ramped up production. He said he’s been busy since Trump took office.

“As soon as Trump got elected It was like somebody taking the finger out of the dam,” he said. “There was all kinds of activity including especially the training, and it’s held up fairly well since.”

But even in West Virginia, where things have looked slightly better for the industry, there were also some high-profile mine closures. A mine in Wyoming County shut its doors in October, putting about 400 miners out of work.

There are a lot of indications that the international demand for met coal, especially by China, is cooling off.

“In 2019 we have some pretty troubling signs about the outlook for the Chinese economy this coming year and that could take the wind out of the sails of the metallurgical coal market pretty quickly,” said Houser with the Rhodium Group.

Temporary Bump?

It’s possible that West Virginia’s bounce in production could be a brief one. Elsewhere around the Ohio Valley coal employment has been stagnant, at best. Ohio mines added just 16 jobs last year, and Kentucky lost almost 400 jobs, according to MSHA data.

Retired Kentucky miner Larry Miller said it’s not surprising the data show the industry has not bounced back. He added that he didn’t have a lot of faith in Trump’s ability to revive the industry in the first place.

“I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he said. “The EPA relaxing of the rules might help some, but I don’t think it’s the main driver for the job loss.”

Miller worked for more than two decades underground and said he made a good living. In his own backyard he said he’s seeing first-hand that coal is often no longer an economic source for electricity. For example, near his slice of western Kentucky a group of utilities is installing an 800-acre solar farm, further evidence, he said, of coal’s declining importance.

“It’s not going to be gone but it’s not going to be the economic engine that it once was,” Miller said. “And I made a good living in coal for a long time and I liked it, so I don’t take pleasure in saying that.”

TVA’s new gas fired facility, with the older coal units in background. Photo: Becca Schimmel, Ohio Valley Resource.

Recently, the EIA adjusted downward its coal forecast. It says coal production is expected to hit a record low in 2019. Appalachia will see its overall coal production drop from 201.5 million tons in 2018 to 170.1 million tons in 2020, according to the EIA forecast.

Limited Retraining

That doesn’t bode well for miners. Houser, with the Rhodium Group, said while the Trump administration doubled down to boost coal, it has not offered any additional aid for job retraining.

“The past few budget proposals from the Trump administration have actually reduced the amount of support for retraining and economic diversification and coal retraining in coal country,” he said.

Clemmy Allen has been retraining coal miners for more than 30 years for the United Mine Workers of America.

Since 2012, the UMWA’s Career Training Centers in Appalachia has relied on a Department of Labor grant, which provides $5000 in tuition assistance and a $20 daily stipend to West Virginia miners who have been laid off or lost their jobs. He said thousands of miners have taken advantage of the program, but acknowledged it’s also limited.

“It’s very, very difficult for for a person just to … just shut down and go into training and not have money to, you know, meet their monthly obligations,” he said.

Allen said in previous years the center had more federal grants to retrain miners in other states, and he says there are thousands of miners who have lost their jobs over the years who have since found work, but would like to be retrained to do something else.

“We never have enough resources, never,” he added.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Rural’s Connection to Environment Means Bigger Climate-Change Impact

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Mainstays of rural American culture and economy – such as timber, agriculture, tourism, ranching, hunting, fishing, winter sports – could see major disruptions from climate change. The impact will be big enough to disrupt the national economy, a federal report says.

Rural communities face clear economic and environmental risks from a changing climate, according to the 2018 National Climate Assessment.  

The report documents changes in the timing of seasons, temperature fluctuations, increased incidence of extreme weather and change in rainfall – all patterns with the potential disrupt rural economic activities.  

Climate change in rural communities poses an outsized risk to the national economy, the report says. 

Although the majority of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, most of the country is still classified as rural. In this map, counties are classified as rural if they do not include any cities with populations of 50,000 or more. (Figure source: USDA Economic Research Service).

“Rural America’s importance to the country’s economic and social well-being is disproportionate to its population, as rural areas provide natural resources that much of the rest of the United States depends on for food, energy, water, forests, recreation, national character, and quality of life,” the report stated.  

While not all regions face the same impacts due to increased greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the assessment explains how increased volumes of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere will lead to changing climatic patterns. The report’s authors predict that changes will likely increase volatility in agricultural commodity markets, shift plant and animal ranges, increase the number and intensity of droughts and floods, and increase the number and size of wildfires throughout the rural landscape.  

Tourism is often climate-dependent as well as seasonally dependent. Increasing heat and humidity – projected for summers in the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Southwest by mid-century (compared to the period 1961-1990) – is likely to create unfavorable conditions for summertime outdoor recreation and tourism activity. The figures illustrate projected changes in climatic attractiveness (based on maximum daily temperature and minimum daily relative humidity, average daily temperature and relative humidity, precipitation, sunshine, and wind speed) in July for much of North America. In the coming century, the distribution of these conditions is projected to shift from acceptable to unfavorable across most of the southern Midwest and a portion of the Southeast, and from very good or good to acceptable conditions in northern portions of the Midwest, under a high emissions scenario. (Source: National Climate Assessment).

For portions of rural America with an economy based on agriculture, climate scientists are most worried about shifting geographic suitability of particular crops and abnormal timing for planting and harvest. These changes may result in additional use of herbicides and pesticides, which could create additional health risks from chemical applications. Crop and pasture yields and profitability could also be affected by changes in rainfall, temperature and extreme weather events. Increased flooding could increase soil erosion and water pollution from agricultural runoff, according to the report.  

Rural communities with an economy based on recreation and tourism also face significant challenges due to climate change, according to the report. Rising seas could damage rural Florida’s multi-billion dollar recreational fishing sector and cause further ecological damage to the Everglades region.  

Coastal erosion and rising oceans throughout the nation could affect wildlife habitat, disrupting hunting, fishing, bird watching, and other wildlife-related activities. 

Rural places with significant winter recreation activities could face risks as snow-pack is expected to decrease.  

Forest-dependent rural communities are likely to face significant change as well. Forest geographies and species composition are likely to shift as the climate changes. The number of pests and disease will increase. These factors could decrease timber and pulp harvests in some places. Forest fires are also expected to continue to increase in number, intensity and cost.  

The report identifies certain demographic trends in rural communities that make climate change adaptation more difficult.  

“Modern rural populations are generally older, less affluent, and less educated than their urban counterparts. Rural areas are characterized by higher unemployment, more dependence on government transfer payments, less diversified economies, and fewer social and economic resources needed for resilience in the face of major changes,” the report states. That combination of an aging population with higher poverty rates increases vulnerability of rural people and places to changes in climate.  

“Emergency management, energy use and distribution systems, transportation and infrastructure planning, and public health will all be affected,” the study states. State, regional, local and tribal governments in rural communities tend to be under-funded and rely heavily on volunteers.  

“Even in communities where there is increasing awareness of climate change and interest in comprehensive adaptation planning, lack of funding, human resources, access to information, training, and expertise provide significant barriers for many rural communities,” the report concludes. 

This report is the fourth National Climate Assessment, and summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States. The report process was established by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 and mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the president no less than every four years.  

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee developed the report. Scientists and researchers from federal, state and local governments, tribes and Indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities, and the private sector volunteered their time to produce the assessment. Information was gathered through a series of regional engagement workshops that reached more than 1,000 individuals in over 40 cities. Listening sessions, webinars and public comment periods also provided valuable input.  

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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When Losing 14 to 1 is a Win — Sort Of

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Matthew Ferrence is a writer and college professor who ran a 14-day write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state legislator. He got clobbered but finds something positive in the results. Photo: submitted by the author
A last-minute write-in campaign against an unopposed Pennsylvania state representative yielded 900 official votes. It wasn’t nearly enough to win, but it was enough to show that there’s more to Appalachia than the average TV pundit claims.
Well, I didn’t win. Let’s get that out of the way.But on the night of November 6th, 2018, after launching a last-minute zero-budget Green Party write-in campaign against an unopposed Republican incumbent, in a Pennsylvania district that perpetually votes at about a 70 percent clip for even Republicans who get absolutely blasted in statewide races (see: gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, soundly defeated by Tom Wolfe), I wound up making a nearly 5 percent dent.

The how isn’t quite as important as they why, I think, but in brief: exactly two weeks before the election, I announced on Facebook my intention to mount a write-in campaign for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, disgusted that for the fourth time in seven elections, the local incumbent — Brad Roae — faced literally no competition. Nobody squared off against him in the Republican primary and nobody ran on the Democratic ticket. In fact, only twice in his tenure has he faced opposition from Democrats, each of them throttled to the tune of 60-40 or thereabouts in the general election.

As an even sorrier indication of the state of political engagement in the rural part of Northwestern Pennsylvania where I live, only once has a Republican ever challenged him in a primary. It’s smooth sailing every two years, which leads to a tepid, basic and uninspiring legislative track record. Taxes are bad, he says. And, oh, let’s have some laws to weaken environmental protections for gas well drilling. He has made public media posts that appear to equate school boards to Hitler, and he has argued that state funding shouldn’t support students who major in “poetry or some other pre-Walmart major.”

Yeah, that’s who I lost to, my 900 votes or so to his 13,000. And that’s the guy who has gone to Harrisburg for more than a decade representing my home. Among the many things that gall me about his incumbency is the way that, outside of Appalachia, a lot of people would probably nod their heads and say, yup. Brad Roae is the kind of representative people think Appalachia embraces, is the kind of person so many non-Appalachians see as purely representative of who we are and what we stand for.

But here’s the thing. I’m finding hope in my two weeks as a candidate, and in the sudden flurry of interest and support. I ran because there had to be some opposition for democracy to have any chance at all, and when I did so I hoped I’d get 1 or 2 percent, not embarrass myself, shoot for the bar of 300 votes. That would be the same number of votes I would have needed as signatures to get on the ballot had I, say, planned ahead.

Then a funny thing happened. I started making videos introducing myself and my ideas, and put together a platform paper, and people started sharing these materials on Facebook, and I had to work through the anti-Russian Bot regulations the social media site now has so I could finally “boost” two of those posts on the morning of the election, and even before all that the organic sharing of an electorate dying for something, anything, that pushed against Appalachian political stereotypes meant 9,000 people had seen my stuff. Then, even though people had to first know I was running and then actually bother typing my name in, I fared okay. I earned about 65 votes for each day of my campaign. And I spent $50 on stickers, $20 on my Facebook ads.

Brad Roae poses in the Pennsylvania House chamber with Pennsylvania dairy princess LeeAnn Kapanick. Roae has represented the 6th House district since 2007. The district covers parts of Crawford and Erie counties in the state’s northwest corner. Photo: Pennsylvania State Legislature webpage

Official county returns compiled right before Thanksgiving gave me 851 votes. The Monday following, I reviewed the official computations and found another 60+, if I include misspellings like Matt Terrance and, Michael Ferrence, and Matthew Fetterman (for a voter who maybe confused me with our Democratic Lt. Governor candidate John Fetterman), and That Guy Whose Name Starts With F, as well as The Guy on Facebook Ask (name redacted), as well as a litany of close-but-no-cigar last names coupled with Matt or Matthew: Ferrer, Ferraro, Fetter, Farreah, Ferrenc, Ferrous, Ferris, Ferentz, Ferrick, and DeFerence. I got 14 votes in neighboring state districts, and four votes for the U.S. House Race. Among other write-ins, I beat a slew of names that received a single vote or a handful, tough competitors like Brad Roae (who a few people wrote in, even though he was on the ballot), Stephen Colbert, Anyone But Him, Anyone Else, Jesus, God, and Red Breasted Nuthatch.

Look, my day job is writing and teaching. I’m a professor at a small liberal arts college, chair of the Department of English, writer and teacher of creative nonfiction. I was born in southwestern Pennsylvania, among the played out coal fields and strip mines an hour east of Pittsburgh. I earned a Ph.D. at West Virginia University, where I specialized in Appalachian literature. I wrote a memoir about my brain tumor, and the geology of the Allegheny Plateau, and the curious exile of inhabiting the weird position of Northern Appalachian, which means you’re not quite normal American and not quite Appalachian. None of that adds up to politician, but all of it adds up to frustration. I’ve spent most of my life, other than brief adult stints in Arizona and France, living in a region that skews way right, even as that right continues to exploit and degrade the people and place. All Appalachia ever has been allowed to be is exploited. That’s it. And that’s all the rhetoric of the GOP offers, when you boil it down. Let’s Make America Great Again, like when black lung wrecked lives on the regular and, newsflash, is now roaring back to life since the unions have been busted, and the economy of the region stayed busted, so the people crawled down into mines without the protections hard fought with blood and love by the striking workers of Blair Mountain, and the striking workers of Pittsburgh steel, and the striking auto workers of the Rust Belt.

Ferrence knocked on some doors and created a Facebook page to promote his campaign. He did several short videos to explain why he ran and discuss issues. Photo: Matthew Ferrence for PA House, District 6 Facebook page

Public historian Elizabeth Catte gets it right (she’s the author of “What You’re Getting Wrong about Appalachia”) when she argues that Appalachians have been socialists all along. They just don’t know it. They gathered together. They fought the power of industrial dominion. They powered America with their coal, yes, but they also fueled the national movement for respect and dignity for labor. Then the GOP figured out how to weaponize hatred and fear, and there you go. You get Joe Manchin, alleged Democrat. And you get a region that votes more than 2/3 for Trump and Trump-esque troglodytes like Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner, who claims that global warming is probably just accumulated body heat from a larger human population or happens because the earth is getting closer to the sun, and campaigns by saying he’ll dance on the governor’s face while wearing golf spikes.

It boils down to this: I am so tired of waking up on November Wednesdays in Appalachia, seeing election results and, worse, national punditry that says this is all we are and all we’ll ever be. The election map of my state is bright red, other than around a few urban centers, just like most of Appalachia. That seems to translate to the same conclusion we get over and over and over again: dumb hillbillies voting for the worst. That conclusion seems to be supported by the simple math of our state politics, where more than half of state legislators run unopposed in their general elections, and our incumbency rate is about 90 percent. Few candidates ever put up a fight to change that.

So what’s an Appalachian creative writing professor to do? You run a last-ditch campaign. You tilt against the windmills in a manner that is both impotent (because you get crushed at the polls) and, at least for me, hopeful. Because having a choice, any choice, other than the incumbent mattered to the 2,000 people who either voted for me or tossed in a symbolic protest write-in. Because people stopped me when I walked by, and messaged me on Facebook, and were angry when they learned about the campaign only after they voted because, damn it, they couldn’t vote for the incumbent, and leaving it blank is just what the GOP has wanted for so long. The story of Appalachian politics has been about that blankness, a cultivation of the sense — and you can read this in almost every national outlet at some point in the last two years, usually with a quote from that faux-Appalachian pseudo-pundit J.D. Vance — that there’s nothing but right-wing fools in these hills and hollers. Appalachia is given up for dead again, this time just as a tarnished example of the hatred and backwardness of politics in this strange, strange land.

That’s just not how it is. That’s not the Appalachia I know nor the one I saw in my brief campaign. Heck, I ran this mini-campaign focused specifically on lefty sustainability, as in ecology and tree-hugging, as well as economies that stop repeating the boom-bust cycles of our past, and I drew a mighty good swipe of votes all at once, in the end. There are a lot of people in my county who believe in the value of the environment, and the necessity of fine educations, and the rightness of universal healthcare, and the imperative of social justice, and the glory of love in all its forms. There are progressives in these hills, you know. And a lot of them, but also a lot who hear those same old stories and worry about what the neighbors will think, so they don’t vote, or accept the inevitability of political monoculture. Thus the slam happens again. And again. And again. Unopposed Republican. Platforms of no taxes. Tacit acceptance of the Confederate Battle Flags that flutter on too many once-Union farmhouses.

Yeah, I got creamed. But I think we also won something that night. And we’ll keep coming back for more, riding a blue wave tinged with green, fighting for a change in the rural center of America that so many figure is lost forever. You know the joke, about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and a lot of Alabama in between. Well, Alabama has a Democratic Senator, and so does Pennsylvania. We can do more, do better, push against the dogged stupidity of a right-wing cultural war that makes us all weaker and worse off. We can step into these races, and we can square off and say, hit me, and we can get hit, and eventually we can win. I know I’ll give it another shot – with my name printed on the ballot next time. I’ll need at least a couple of months next time, to get enough votes to be competitive, if history holds. But I’ll vow, and I hope others will too, that no one gets to run unopposed anymore. No one gets to spit out tired political bullshit and not get called out. This is our Appalachia too.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder

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