Connect with us

Appalachia

How a Goldwater-era Teen Camp is Training the Next Generation of Conservative Leaders

Published

on

A group of lawmakers had made quick work of a stack of bills and appeared to have completed the day’s business when, with just a spare few minutes remaining in session, a delegate rose with an unexpected motion.

“Mr Speaker, I move we suspend the rules to introduce a new bill and move it to third reading.”

The motion carried, and the delegate read the bill.

“This bill is called Parent’s Right to Know bill,” she said. “Whereas it is not legally necessary for mothers to know that their daughters are having an abortion; whereas an abortion’s effects can be not only physically damaging but also emotionally; whereas minors should receive at least some sort of counsel before making such a huge decision; therefore, let it be resolved that legal guardians of a daughter seeking to have an abortion be informed of her decision but not able to make a decision for her otherwise.”

With so little time left, the speaker allowed only one speaker from each side.

Before the vote was called, a voice rose from the back of the room: “Is this new legislation? Why are we introducing new legislation? Why are we suspending the rules and allowing new legislation when you have three minutes left?”

The sergeant at arms answered, “The body wants to do it, so…..”

The delegates approved a motion to close debate, and seconds later, the bill passed on a voice vote.

This was not the bill approved by the West Virginia legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice earlier this year — but it was modeled after it. Instead of elected lawmakers, these were roughly 35 West Virginia teenagers, ranging between 14 and 18, with most on the younger end of that range, practicing the art of politics.

Conservative leadership camp

Between 35 and 60 campers annually descend on Camp Lincoln, located just outside the town of Cowen in Webster County, West Virginia, for a week-long immersion in the inner-workings of politics and government. In between traditional camp staples such as sing-alongs, talent shows and a dance, attendees run campaigns, stage court hearings, debate policy and meet with high-ranking state Republicans.

They attend classes on politics and conservative philosophy and spend hours practicing the arts of persuasion, debate, campaigning and legislative maneuvering in mock sessions that provide them with hands-on training for the real thing.

U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who famously shouted “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during a 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress, is an alumni. So is Saira Blair, who attended the camp in 2013 and went on the following year to knock off a two-term incumbent in a Republican primary en route to winning election to the West Virginia House of Delegates as the youngest person ever elected to state or federal office. Her victory came in 2014: a landslide election where Republicans won a majority in both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in over eight decades.

Camp Lincoln gave Blair the chance to practice legislating with other teenage conservatives a couple of years before she reached the Capitol in Charleston, and that experience has paid off. Blair is assistant majority whip — a job that involves enforcing political discipline on close votes — and serves as vice chair of three committees. The camp gave her the chance to network with counselors who worked in political offices and speakers who held key elected positions in West Virginia politics.

Camp director Todd Gunter, known as the Grand Wazoo, works the rest of the year for U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who visits the camp about every other year. This year’s speakers included U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner and West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry.


“Young people voted for Barack Obama in historic numbers,” Gunter said. “There’s a reason for that. The liberal left, they — I don’t want to use the word ‘indoctrinate’ — they invest in young people more than the conservative movement does. The left has the public education system. The left has the higher education system. The left has the media. There are all these things that are influencing these young people. The conservative movement for so long has not followed the left’s lead, and we continually lose young people. To me, it’s about investing in these young people.”

This year wasn’t Jenkins’ first visit to the camp, which he praised as an opportunity for young people to develop leadership and policy skills. A few of the campers had already signed up to volunteer for his U.S. Senate campaign even before he spoke to the group.

“These are youth that have conservative feelings and a keen sense of the issues,” Jenkins said by phone after he had made an appearance at the camp. “This is an opportunity to not only grow in their areas of interest, but also test the waters and to learn about public service in the form of holding elective office. These are eager youth that want to make a difference. They’re not sitting on the couch at home but instead are getting out there and getting busy.”

The Cow Palace

Camp Lincoln was founded in 1960 as part of the growing grassroots conservative movement that crystallized four years later with the Republican Party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater for President. Lincoln was one of four national young leadership camps, but the only one to survive more than five years. It sputtered during the ’80s and ’90s, but otherwise has operated on an annual basis, first by the Republican National Committee, then the West Virginia Republican Party and now as a 501(c)(3) organization.

Non-profit status means the organization is no longer officially run as a Republican training ground, but party figures remain supportive. Gunter’s boss Capito contributes to it, as well as state lawmakers and business owners, he said. Many contributions go to $250 scholarships to support campers; Blair was the recipient of such a scholarship in 2013.

Although it is non-partisan and encourages campers of all political stripes, Camp Lincoln remains a conservative bastion. Part of Gunter’s mission is to encourage exploration of those beliefs.

“The camp is known as a conservative leadership camp,” boomed retired Col. Monty Warner as he addressed the campers in the Cow Palace  — the same building where campers debated legislation, named in honor of the San Francisco venue which hosted the 1964 Republican National Convention that nominated Goldwater for president.

Warner attended Camp Lincoln as a teenager, several years after experiencing a political awakening while working for the Goldwater campaign at age 8. Forty years later, in 2004 he ran for West Virginia governor but was defeated by Joe Manchin. Today, Warner serves as CEO for the YMCA of Kanawha Valley as well as Camp Lincoln’s “dean.”

Clad in khaki shorts, an Army sweatshirt and U.S. flag neckerchief, Warner paced back and forth along the wall at the Cow Palace, laying out the philosophical underpinnings of his conservatism in a lecture titled “Yin and Yang of Politics 2.” For the next hour, he walked through a series of themes, describing the dueling sides in questions of whether humans are inherently good or evil, American versus world leadership and economic theories.

The campers listened quietly, occasionally responding when prompted. When Warner said he personally believed humans are good and not evil — a belief he described as more liberal than conservative — one girl raised her hand to challenge him based on biblical teachings about original sin.

Warner came to a poster depicting a yin yang symbol drawn on a sheet labeled “individual’s role.” On one side, “citizen.” The other side had a question mark.

“What’s the opposite of citizen?” Warner asked the class.

Long pause. Warner pressed. Isolated voices began to respond.

“Subject.”

“Alien.”

“Terrorist.”

A counselor at the back of the room added, “Leeches.”

Warner suggested “resident.”

“A resident occupies somewhere,” he lectured. “A citizen serves the body politic with the three T’s: time, talent and treasure.”

After the economics discussion, Warner had built his argument to the point where he distinguished the modern-day Democratic and Republican parties.

“Whether you choose to be a Democrat or Republican I don’t care, but you need to be one or the other,” Warner said. “It’s the yin and yang of American politics. You’re either this or you’re this. That’s it. Those are your choices. Now if you want to vote yourself off the island and not be part of anything, that’s fine. You now have just made yourself a resident. I want you to be citizens. You have to pick. And when you do, you become involved. And then you become 10, you become 100, you become 1,000, and when you do: you change the world.”

Warner continued on, discussing the American military’s role as the protector of Western Civilization, a global force built on four pillars: Jewish monotheism, Greek philosophy, Roman law and Christian love. Beneath that structure, Warner said, was yet another foundation: military superiority. Warner added a pinch of Adam Smith’s capitalist theories and concluded with his vision of an American-led world.

“Everybody’s boat will rise in a rising ocean of the economy,” Warner said. “All we need to do is deter war in the process, and let free trade take care of the rest. As long as we maintain military superiority to beat the crap out of anyone who stands up against this idea, the four pillars will exist and Western Civilization will advance. Too cool or what?”

Does a fight over marijuana explain modern conservatism?

Attendees at Camp Lincoln form into two parties, the Federalists and Nationalists. Counselors make up a third party, the Whigs. None of the party labels mean anything so far as ideology; they’re generic.

“Some of them come here conservative, some come here liberal, and some come without any political ideology,” Gunter said. “They leave here having had provocative discussions about politics. If they take something away that’s conservative, that’s success.”

“Conservative” be applied to positions in a variety different policy spheres, some of which conflict with each other. This spectrum of conservative ideology was on display during another camper debate over a bill proposing the legalization of recreational marijuana.

One delegate argued against it: “Marijuana is a known gateway drug. We already have a hard opioid crisis in West Virginia.”

Another responded, “The science on whether marijuana is a gateway drug or not can go either way. But West Virginia’s economy is suffering. This should really help with tax revenue. People are going to jail which taxpayers pay for, because of marijuana. Smoking marijuana I think shouldn’t go to jail or anything like that.”

The debate continued.

“I like the idea, but I feel it’s very flawed. It’s not clear how you can use or what restrictions are placed on it.”

“There’s more to recreational marijuana use than just smoking weed. There’s a whole industry. People could use marijuana to make soaps and lotions and things of that nature. We’d be creating jobs for people who decide to go into the hemp industry. There’s more than just smoking.”

“I think marijuana stinks. I don’t want to be walking down the street and walk into a cloud of marijuana smoke.”

“I am not interested in the smells. I’m interested in the jobs.”

After a hard-fought 12-minute debate, the congress voted — first on a motion to end debate, and then to kill the bill, 17-6.

Not all bills were that serious. The camp delegates argued over a series of more frivolous legislation such as whether to serve ice cream at next year’s camp luau. Another bill would allow female counselors to skip calisthenics and sleep in. That particular legislation turned surprisingly controversial when it was revealed that one of the counselors had paid a camper to introduce the bill. An argument over ethics ensued, but the bill was passed nonetheless.

A cheat sheet for Robert’s Rules of Order — outlining parliamentary procedure — hangs on the wall of a room at Camp Lincoln. (Photo: Mason Adams)

Gunter explained that these sort of situations occasionally arise. The bill presented an ethical conundrum, but one that’s often a standard part of doing business in Charleston or Washington, D.C. The concept of a third-party “paying” for the introduction of a bill through a campaign contribution or gift is one with which future leaders must grapple. So why not engage the campers with the question now?

Many of the campers come repeatedly as teenagers, giving them plenty of exposure to these questions. A cluster of 17- and 18-year-olds moved on from the camp to college last summer, and this year’s batch consisted mostly of younger campers aged 14 and 15. The group is a mix of boys and girls, with girls holding some of the prominent leadership positions, including the 2017 president. The campers also displayed a variety of personalities and debate styles while in mock session, indicative of the broader mix you’ll find in any group of teens.

Changing the world

After lunch the campers had lunch with Monty Warner’s brother, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner. The secretary was introduced by his son, who — prompted with a few planted questions from campers — told stories about his experiences sweeping for mines and improvised explosive devices during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Mac Warner picked up the theme, spending most of his time talking about his own years as a state department contractor in Afghanistan — helping to develop its legal institutions before briefly addressing his effort to purge about 120,000 people, or about 10 percent, from West Virginia’s voter rolls. Warner also introduced Juma Nazari, an Afghan lawyer and interpreter who worked with Warner and who is now seeking citizenship for his family in America. Afterward, a few campers lingered to speak with Warner and trade contact information.

These visits give the campers the chance to build a burgeoning network that can open doors within the world of politics. With the exception of Gunter, all of the volunteer counselors previously attended the camp, and some found their way into political jobs in part through connections made at Camp Lincoln. Others, including Blair and Wilson, parlayed the experience into real-world success winning elections and enacting policy.

Gunter said the camp aims to arm its participants with leadership skills that will help them no matter where they end up in life or which political party they join. Clearly, though, camp leaders hope that campers will go on to more deeply imbue Goldwater conservatism into the world.

During his lecture outlining the yin yang of American politics, Monty Warner repeated more than half a dozen times a quote attributed to cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the mock congress, after the last-minute bill notifying parents of a planned abortion was introduced and passed, the campers staged a bill-signing ceremony. The president only vetoed a single bill — a bit of legislation that would purchase handheld vacuums for each camp room. She signed the rest, including the parental notification bill, as campers applauded.

If you squinted, it looked like the future.

Continue Reading

Appalachia

‘If We Can’t Mine Coal, What Are We Going To Do?’

Published

on

In this excerpt from the book After Coal, documentary filmmaker Tom Hansell describes how his media work in the coalfields of Central Appalachia led to a different understanding about what might come next for coal communities.

“EPA = Expanding Poverty in America.”  

See also: BEYOND COAL: Appalachia and Wales. Jim Branscome reviews Tom Hansell’s book “After Coal”

This statement is written in three-foot-high letters on a banner stretched over a bandstand in a public park in Pikeville, Kentucky. It is June 2012 and I am just starting production of the After Coal documentary. The crowd around me is dressed in the reflective stripes of mining uniforms or in T-shirts reading Friends of Coal and Walker Heavy Machinery. I am documenting a coal industry-sponsored pep rally before a public hearing on new water-quality regulations proposed for mountaintop-removal coal mines.  

The speaker onstage is speaking proudly of his family’s heritage in the coal industry. He concludes his passionate statement with a question: “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do in eastern Kentucky?” 

Good question. As a filmmaker who has spent my career living and working in the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and documenting coal-mining issues, this is an important and difficult question to answer. My earlier documentaries Coal Bucket Outlaw (2002) and The Electricity Fairy (2010) were intended to start a civil conversation between workers in the coal industry and other community members about a shared vision for good jobs, clean air, clean water, and a safe working environment. However, the conversations almost always broke down as soon as someone pointed out the obvious: the coal industry had long been the only model of economic development in the central Appalachian region. More examples of what life after coal might look like were desperately needed to move the conversation forward.  

As I struggled with the haunting question “If we can’t mine coal, what are we going to do?” the image of Welsh mining villages rising from the ashes left by the coal industry captured my imagination. I thought that if I could just learn a few details about how Welsh communities made the transition, then I could identify specific solutions to help coal communities in Appalachia. However, I quickly learned that the secret to life after coal was not that simple. …  

The author (holding the boom mic). (Photo provided.)

On my own quest for solutions, in 1990, I began my career at Appalshop, a rural, multidisciplinary arts center located in Whitesburg, Kentucky—the heart of the central Appalachian coalfields. From my young and naively privileged perspective, moving to eastern Kentucky was an act of opposition to the materialistic consumer-driven world. I had a goal of living self-sufficiently, fulfilling my needs with what I could make or grow, and buying as little as possible. And, as an aspiring environmental activist, the clear moral lines around the issues in the Kentucky coalfields, especially strip mining, were appealing. The battle call of union songs such as “Which Side Are You On” charged up my little post-punk heart.  

However, my experience at Appalshop quickly taught me that the struggles of coal communities were not as simple or straightforward as I had imagined. Working as part of this artistic collective, I produced radio and video documentaries and taught community media workshops. As a young artist and activist, I quickly absorbed Appalshop’s mantra of providing a platform for mountain people to speak in their own words about issues that affect their lives. I attended hundreds of community meetings: school board, the fiscal court, mine permit hearings, and union meetings. I also documented dozens of direct actions where citizens blocked roads to stop mining, took over government offices to protest the lack of enforcement, and set up picket lines to enforce union contracts.  

Retired Welsh miner and labor leader Terry Thomas (left) meets retired Kentucky miner Carl Shoupe (right). (Screenshot from the documentary, After Coal)

My experiences working on the front lines of the environmental justice movement in Appalachia gradually developed my understanding of the complexities of how culture, place, and politics had shaped the situations I was documenting. I witnessed firsthand the incredible power of community to support people as they faced threats against their homes and families. As a result, I expanded my ideas about self-sufficiency from an individualistic vision of each person taking care of their own needs to a larger vision of individuals living in symbiosis with their neighbors and the natural environment—community self-sufficiency. 

Participating in cultural exchanges at Appalshop also provided me with valuable lessons. Meeting artists from the mountains of western China and rural Indonesia opened my eyes to some of the universal challenges faced by regional cultures in an increasingly globalized economy. I hoped that an international exchange with another coal-mining region such as south Wales could identify resources and strategies that would help Appalachian coalfield communities create a future beyond coal.  

The process of creating the After Coal documentary took more than five years. During that time, I learned to stop looking for concrete solutions and start supporting an ongoing conversation about how to create healthy communities in former coal-mining regions. International efforts to address climate change make this challenge especially intense for coal-producing regions. As our economy shifts from fossil fuels, how can we ensure that places where fossil fuels were extracted do not continue to bear an unfair share of the costs of extraction?  

I believe there are as many solutions for life after coal as there are residents of mining communities. I hope these stories from south Wales and central Appalachia will inspire people to discover solutions that work in their home communities. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

Continue Reading

Appalachia

International Firm Hired to Help Off-Ballot GOP Senators with Messaging on WV Teacher Strike

Published

on

West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael and other Senate GOP leaders hold a press conference on March 6, 2018, on the signing of a bill calling for pay raises for all state employees, including teachers. Photo: Will Price, WV Legislative Photography

As the 2018 midterm election approaches, some West Virginia Senate Republican leaders are making use of a large and influential worldwide public relations firm to aid in messaging about this year’s teacher strike and the economy. The politicians making use of the public relations services, which an independent expenditure political action committee is paying for, are not on this year’s ballot.

Campaign finance experts say promoting off-ballot politicians is very unusual for independent expenditure political action committees, or PACs, such as the one paying for these services. The public relations firm that’s been hired has made national headlines for its possible connection to the FBI special counsel’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Emails from employees of public relations firm Mercury, LLC, sent to West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporters — and others in news media who cover state government — have recently solicited interviews with Senate President Mitch Carmichael.

Those emails — which were sent by Mercury employees Katya Myagkova and Brent Petrone throughout the month of August — sought to have reporters speak with Carmichael regarding the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and federal legislation attempting to curb the country’s opioid crisis. The emails included a banner image with “West Virginia’s Future PAC” and signatures identifying Petrone and Myagkova as Mercury employees.

Emails between Carmichael, Sen. Craig Blair and Mercury employees — obtained by West Virginia Public Broadcasting through a public records request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act — also indicate the firm was helping GOP Senate leadership tailor messaging around a number of issues and craft a “proper narrative” regarding this year’s teacher strike and West Virginia’s economy leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, despite neither Carmichael nor Blair being up for re-election this year.

Emails Show Mercury Helped Carmichael, Blair Craft Messaging on Teachers, Economy

While records show that West Virginia’s Future PAC spent a total of $21,731 in August on digital advertising services from Pittsburgh-based company Fifth Influence in support of Republican Senate incumbents Ryan Ferns, Ed Gaunch and Tom Takubo in the general election cycle, $37,500 the committee spent this reporting period was paid to Fulcrum Campaign Strategies, for consulting and PR services mostly used by Carmichael.

In a July 19 email sent at 8:24 a.m. with the subject “Thank you,” Carmichael contacted Mercury employees Nicole Flotteron, Chapin Fay and Dan Bank — all of whom hold the title of senior vice president.

“Thank you for conducting the on-site meeting/training yesterday. Our team was very impressed with all aspects of Mercury. The outside entities that we invited and that gained further exposure to your team were equally impressed,” Carmichael wrote in the first of two emails sent to Mercury employees July 19. “We look forward to working with you to craft the proper narrative as to the West Virginia comeback story and Republican commitment to education.”

Parry Casto, from Huntington W.Va., leads a rally outside the Senate Chambers in the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., Monday, March 5, 2018. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties are on strike for pay raises and better health benefits. Photo: AP

Another email sent July 19, this one with the subject line “Response to local AFT leaders agreeing with our statement” and sent at 8:37 a.m., Carmichael seeks advice from Flotteron, Fay and Bank in messaging related to teacher unions.

“What do you think of crafting a message in which we commend Christine Campbell, WV-AFT, and Dale Lee, WVEA, for agreeing with us and rejecting the socialist agenda of the national AFT?” Carmichael wrote. “The message could give credit to the WV Teachers for recognizing that the socialist policies of the left wing union bosses is not good for our state and would damage the economic recovery that is occurring under Republican leadership. Your thoughts……”

Days earlier, on July 17, Carmichael drew attention for a thread of eight tweets in which he criticized the American Federation of Teachers’ adoption of a platform at the union’s national conference in Pittsburgh.

Teachers in West Virginia — backed by the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia — went on strike for nine days during the 2018 legislative session demanding better wages and a permanent fix to the health care program for state employees, the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

With the Republican Senate majority once rejecting a 5 percent pay increase for teachers, the strike ended with the passage of a bill doing just that — but adding raises for all state employees — and the creation of a task force on the health care issue. The bill was passed only after being sent to a conference committee between the House and Senate, where members finally agreed to the 5 percent raises.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which does business as West Virginia Public Broadcasting, is an independent state agency. As such, its employees also received the pay hike.

During and since the strike, leaders of teacher unions and their members have taken aim at GOP Senate leaders — particularly Carmichael — promising an education-focused takeover of the Legislature in the 2018 midterms. Through their political action committees, the unions have supported candidates they see as promoting a pro-public education agenda. The unions have largely supported Democratic candidates.

Carmichael and other top Republicans in the Senate have taken credit in recent months for the pay raise for teachers and all other public employees, despite the caucus’ holdouts that drew out the strike. Some of the messaging around teacher issues has taken place under the consultation of Mercury.

“I’m not up for re-election,” Carmichael said when asked about his use of Mercury for help with messaging on the aftermath of the teacher strike and its potential impact on the upcoming election. “I just want to make sure that the proper narrative is spoken as it relates to the teacher issue, because I think I’ve not — in my years of public service — seen anything have so much misinformation about a particular issue.”

Despite not being on the ballot for the 2018 midterms, Carmichael has been a target — with his name and face being placed on billboards and other campaign materials reading “Ditch Mitch!” and “Ditch the Mitches And Their Candidates,” referring to Carmichael and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The latter of those two advertisements also states that Carmichael was “attacking teachers and public schools.”

Carmichael argues that those efforts, funded by the West Virginia Democratic Party, have mischaracterized him in terms of what unfolded during the teacher strike.

“The press, in large measure, does a good job, but some of those opposing — the people that want to just create havoc — are distorting that message and, so, I think it’s important for the people to know the truth and to hear it as it really occurred,” Carmichael said about the narrative surrounding the strike.

CREDIT WEST VIRGINIA DEMOCRATIC PARTY

“The West Virginia’s Future PAC – which is an entity outside the legislative purview — contracted with Mercury to develop that messaging and make sure the story is told in a way that, you know, is sort of what we believe is the truth about the story and cut through all the different aspects of distortions and so forth. So, they’re working with West Virginia’s Future PAC to develop that message and make sure it gets out,” he added.

Other emails show Carmichael forwarded a June 8 email newsletter from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce to Flotteron. A June 14 email from Carmichael to Flotteron detailed state employment numbers from May sent to members of the West Virginia Legislature from West Virginia Chamber president Steve Roberts. “I’m compiling more data and will forward in a string of emails,” Carmichael wrote to Flotteron.

An Aug. 8 email from Carmichael with the subject line “Fwd: Strikes Again?” included a newsletter forwarded to Mercury employees from The Center for Education Reform sent to Carmichael the day before. The newsletter detailed the possibility of teacher strikes by union members in Puerto Rico and Los Angeles.

More recently, Carmichael sought advice in responding to an email newsletter from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. That Sept. 17 email newsletter from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy included the headline “New Census Data Shows Lack of Progress in West Virginia.”

“Help me craft response…..” Carmichael wrote in regard to the newsletter from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

As for Blair, who serves as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, emails from Aug. 7 between he and Mercury staff show he asked for help when he forwarded a solicitation from D.C.-based website The Washington D.C. 100 — asking him to author a piece of writing on West Virginia’s economy for the website. According to the email forwarded by Blair to Mercury employee Nicole Flotteron, The Washington D.C. 100 is “a bi-weekly publication consisting of 100-word long stories covering key policy issues and current events.”

“Is this useful?” Blair wrote to Flotteron.

“We will write it for you. Standby,” Flotteron replied.

On Aug. 16, The Washington D.C. 100 published a short piece with Blair’s bylinetitled “Economic Growth in West VA.”

About West Virginia’s Future PAC & Mercury, LLC

A campaign finance report filed recently with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office shows the independent expenditure political action committee West Virginia’s Future raised $320,250 from May 21, 2018 through Sept. 23, 2018. Contributors to that committee during that time period include a $15,000 donation from DuPont spin-off company Chemours as well as a list of more than 200 names of people who donated funds following a Wheeling dinner event on June 28, where the group raised $284,655.

The first general report from West Virginia’s Future PAC was due Friday, Sept. 29, but wasn’t received by the Secretary of State’s office until Oct. 1. According to the state’s campaign finance reporting system, the organization has been late in filing two of its three other reports that have been due. There is no penalty for a filing campaign finance reports after a deadline.

This image was at the top of news releases and interview solicitations Mercury employees sent to West Virginia reporters.

Among the $149,685.19 in expenses the committee paid during the first general election period from May 21 to Sept. 23, two payments totaling $37,500 were paid to Fulcrum Campaign Strategies for “strategic / communications consulting.” According to the District of Columbia’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Fulcrum Campaign Strategies has been used as a trade name for Mercury, LLC. Company officials also confirmed Mercury does business under that name.

According to Mercury’s website, the company is a “global public strategy firm” that handles public relations, public opinion research, crisis management and mergers and acquisitions. The company’s clients include AT&T, Airbnb, eBay, The Ford Foundation, Hyundai, Pfizer, Tesla and Uber. Mercury also lobbies on behalf of foreign governments.

Mercury has come under scrutiny during the past year for possible connections to President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort. In September, Manafort agreed to plead guilty to charges in the indictment and cooperate with FBI special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In Manafort’s indictment, two companies identified as “Company A and Company B,” were named as having done work under the direction of Russian-friendly former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort spent nearly a decade as a consultant to Yanukovych and his country’s Party of Regions. A report from NBC News identified “Company A” as Mercury and “Company B” as the Podesta Group.

According to reports from various news outlets citing court filings from Mueller, Mercury could face legal trouble for their connections to Yanukovych.

“We worked for an [non-government organization] based in Brussels that supported Ukraine’s entry into the European Union, which would have driven Ukraine closer to the west and further from Russia’s influence. The project started more than six years ago and ended more than four years ago,” Mercury partner Michael McKeon wrote in an email when asked about the company’s connections to Yanukovych and the the FBI special counsel’s probe of Russian interference.

“We hired lawyers to advise us on proper disclosure, reported our work to Congress in 9 different public lobbying reports and later voluntarily filed a FARA. Any questions you may have about the work is all in the public filings,” McKeon added.

FARA is the acronym for Foreign Agents Registration Act, federal legislation requiring “persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

McKeon also said none of the Mercury employees on the project in West Virginia worked for the non-government organization and most current employees were not with Mercury at that time of the company’s work linked to Yanukovych.

Carmichael said he was unaware of Mercury’s connections to Manafort’s indictment in the Russian probe when he began working with the firm. He said he later became aware of those ties, but has no concerns about the company.

“I’ve just heard, anecdotally, somebody say, ‘You know, hey, this or that’ about Mercury. I don’t have anything other than just a cursory [understanding of those allegations],” Carmichael said.

Asked about Mercury’s work with Carmichael or anyone else in the West Virginia Senate, McKeon deferred to West Virginia’s Future PAC.

Chris Asbuy, an attorney for West Virginia’s Future PAC, provided a statement to West Virginia Public Broadcasting noting pay raises for state employees, reported economic growth, implemented regulatory reforms and other efforts by the Republican majority in recent years. He attributed those accomplishments to the GOP takeover of the Legislature in 2014.

“West Virginia’s Future PAC hired Mercury to cut through the election year political chatter and help tell this remarkable comeback story directly to West Virginians,” Asbuy wrote.

Independent Expenditure PACs

Independent expenditure political action committees, like West Virginia’s Future, are created to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a particular candidate — but not in cooperation with or at the request of that candidate. Typically, independent expenditure political action committees would not raise money for services such as polling or public relations services, according to campaign finance experts.

Dan Weiner of New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice said promoting non-candidates and paying for services like public relations is atypical of independent expenditure political action committees.

“I would say that is quite unusual,” Weiner said. “Bottom line, it is deeply troubling that a PAC would be funneling unlimited money for sitting office-holders, regardless of whether or not they are on the ballot. That raises quite obvious concerns.”

Weiner said political action committees funding politicians not on the ballot -—or services for them — should raise questions about the possibility of political favors being returned in exchange for that help.

Why Mercury, When the Senate Has Its Own Communications Director?

While Mercury’s services have provided public relations support for Carmichael and Blair, the Senate employs its own communications director who works with news media. Jacque Bland currently holds the title of communications director of the Senate, under the supervision of Carmichael in his role as Senate president.

In the position of communications director, Bland works as a liaison between all members of the Senate — regardless of party — and the news media. According to the state auditor’s office, Bland was paid $73,640.01 for her work in 2017.

Asked whether Mercury’s work has affected her job as communications director of the Senate, Bland declined to comment for this story.

Carmichael said the work performed by Mercury — particularly that which is focused on issues related to the teacher strike — is politically motivated and is inherently different than the work Bland does. He said the political messaging should be outsourced to an entity outside the Legislature.

“West Virginia legislative announcements and so forth get published on the Legislature’s website. These recently, on both sides of the aisle, have become very political — they have become too political,” he said.

Carmichael said he has had conversations with Democratic minority leaders Sen. Roman Prezioso and Del. Tim Miley about trying to limit the scope and use of the Legislature’s public information office and get politics out of the equation. Prezioso and Miley confirmed those conversations.

“If it becomes political, you need to use an outside entity to craft that. That message needs to get [put together] outside of here. Jacque does a phenomenal job of getting this messaging — the informational pieces — out to the public. But in terms of it, if it’s going to turn political at all, it needs to be done by a separate political arm outside of this Legislature. And, so, that’s what Mercury’s purpose is,” Carmichael said.

Teacher Strike Still in Focus Ahead of Election with Plans for Additional Raises Announced by Gov. Justice

As the November midterms get closer — and with teachers issues remaining on the minds of voters — Gov. Jim Justice announced this week plans for another 5 percent pay raise for teachers and all other public employees and a promised dedication of $100 million to funding PEIA.

During a news conference Tuesday announcing those plans, Justice touted Republican accomplishments in terms of this past year’s teacher raises and economic growth in general, citing a nearly $120 million budget surplus three months into fiscal year 2019. He also downplayed the role of the unions and the strike.

“Over and over and over, you can say what you want. But, at the end of the day, the teachers’ pay raise last year — the teachers’ pay raise — that all happened not because of people that were ‘rah-rah-ing’ and everything upstairs,” Justice said. “It happened because the good work of the Republicans, the Republicans are the ones that passed it. Your Republican governor is the one came up with the idea of the five percent. Nobody but your Republican governor. The Republican House followed suit.”

Gov. Jim Justice is joined by Republican legislators to announce plans for additional pay raises for public employees in the 2019 legislative session.
Photo: credit office of Gov. Jim Justice.

Justice acknowledged holdouts by Senate Republicans, but also gave credit to the majority caucus in the upper chamber.

“It took a little while to get the Senate on board. But when they came on board, what did they do? They came on board for not only the teachers — they came on board for everybody. Everybody got the five percent,” he said.

In a news release dated Oct. 2 — the same day as Justice’s announcement of plans for another round of raises for state employees — Carmichael released a statement through the Legislature’s public information office. Bland is listed as the contact on the release.

“Thanks to pro-growth policies that have been implemented by the Legislature in recent years, our economy continues to expand, while tax revenue continues to increase, leading to historic budget surpluses,” Carmichael said in the release. “In turn, we are able to use that growth to deliver our teachers the pay increases they need and deserve.”

How much the teacher strike and issues related to public education will impact the 2018 general election remains to be seen.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Continue Reading

Appalachia

West Virginia And Kentucky College Students Still Struggle to Pay Back Loans

Published

on

Photo: U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Trevor Rhynes Student loan default rates are falling nationally but remain high in KY and WV.

New research this month shows that West Virginia and Kentucky have some of the nation’s worst rates of student loan defaults.

West Virginia had the highest and Kentucky the fourth-highest rate of student loan defaults, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education.

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik

In West Virginia, 17.7 percent of students who entered loan repayment in 2015 had defaulted three years later. New Mexico and Nevada were second and third, and Kentucky came in fourth, with 14.3 percent of students unable to pay back their loans. At 12.2 percent, Ohio ranked near the middle, tying Michigan for 14th place.

The rates refer to the total number of people who took out loans and the percentage of that number who missed nine consecutive student loan payments.

Economists in West Virginia and Kentucky say the high default rates reflect the rising costs for college, stagnant wages for many entering the workforce, and budget cuts that target higher education.

Costs Up, Wages Flat

Ashley Spalding, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said the cost of college is rising but wages are not keeping pace.

Student loan default rates are falling nationally but remain high in KY and WV. Photo: U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Airman 1st Class Trevor Rhynes

“When you really look at what’s happening with Kentucky, we have a lot of people living in poverty, having trouble making ends meet,” Spalding said. “We’ve seen tuition just skyrocket in recent years, but wages aren’t really going up for most people.”

Sean O’Leary, a senior policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said a decade of tax and budget cuts had resulted in less funding for higher education.

“We’ve seen that the biggest part of our discretionary budget is higher education,” O’Leary said. “So when we have budget shortfalls and we need to cut the budget, higher education is the first part of the budget that goes under the budget knife.”

Rural Challenge

Schools with the highest default rates tended to be for-profit schools and community colleges; at Kentucky’s worst-performing school, Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, nearly a third of borrowers couldn’t pay back their loans.

Spalding said it wasn’t surprising that the state’s worst-performing school was in rural eastern Kentucky. “Where people live in Kentucky affects their access to jobs,” she said. “Our rural areas are more economically challenged right now.”

Graphic: Alexandra Kanik

Separate research from the Federal Reserve Board has shown that student loan debt makes it less likely for borrowers to become homeowners, an important way that Americans build wealth.

According to the Department of Education, the national average for student loan default stood at 10.8 percent, down from 11.5 percent last year. The national default rate has been trending down since 2010, when it peaked at 14.7 percent.

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley Resource

Continue Reading

Trending