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Hillbilly Horror: Reckoning With a Genre 15 Years After ‘Wrong Turn’

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“You’re not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling? And that accent you’ve tried so desperately to shed: pure West Virginia. What is your father, dear? Is he a coal miner?”

Agent Clarice Starling of the 1991 horror classic “The Silence of the Lambs” was one of the first characters in popular American film to feature a canonically West Virginia accent. Hannibal Lecter’s comment to Agent Starling a character raised in West Virginia until her father’s untimely death might strike a familiar nerve for Appalachians who similarly leave home and are forced to leave their accents behind.

American horror has historically been unkind to Appalachia. While “hillbilly” narratives bring in the big bucks, the blurring line between fantasy and reality has done no favors for popular perceptions of mountain folks.

Among classics like “The Silence of the Lambs,” newer cult horror releases set in Appalachia have entirely reshaped their respective subgenres of American Horror. The 2006 psychological horror film “Silent Hill” has grossed nearly $100 million worldwide and is widely acclaimed as one of the best video game-to-film adaptations of the new millenium. In the film, abandoned coal mines are left still-smoldering beneath the town of Silent Hill, and ash falls on the ghost town like flurries of snow. The scene harkens a reminder of the town’s fiery past. But the film’s setting was inspired by real-life Centralia, Pennsylvania, where an underground mine fire has been burning since 1962. It is a fantastical, other-worldly and Salem-esque history of witch hunts, not the real-life, equally-horrifying history of coal extraction, that haunts the fictional Silent Hill. But “Silent Hill” isn’t your typical hillbilly horror feature.

Fifteen years ago, on May 30, 2003, one of the genre’s worst offenders, “Wrong Turn,” was released in theaters, grossing more than $28.7 million. To outsiders, the film is an otherwise forgettable and generic slasher, featuring a cast of unfamiliar names, that joins a genre of early 2000’s cheap screams that are hard to beat: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Final Destination,” and “Cherry Falls.” For West Virginians, the film reinvigorated some of the most painful stereotypes the region has had to face.

The film’s portrayal of Appalachian people is greatly influenced by outsiders’ perspectives on the abject poverty imagined to live isolated in our mountains. It’s hardly an accident that the murderous cannibal clan was styled by the film’s costume directors in threadbare, dirty duds. Vignettes feature the cast lurking around in ramshackle dwellings, covered in filth and grime. The infrastructure dirt roads and deteriorating public amenities is underdeveloped and crumbling. The film’s title implies that one should only find themselves navigating West Virginia’s backroads by accident.

More than a century of cultural dialogue has led to America’s visualization of rural space in Appalachia as ground zero for American poverty. In “Wrong Turn,” the recesses of a wealthy nation’s imagination envisions unseen poverty as a nightmarescape in which a storied history of neglect makes cannibals of people who live in exiled cabin slums.

Horror, as a format and genre, has roughly 120 minutes to terrify viewers, affording limited time and space for dialogue. As a result, horror film scripts rely on some of the most reductive and othering tropes to develop plotlines and character.

Historians like Ronald D. Eller have elegantly explained the processes that have led to Appalachia’s “othering.” Eller writes, “We know Appalachia exists because we need it to exist in order to define what we are not,” referring to the greater American population’s concept of an Appalachian America. “It is the ‘other America’ because the very idea of Appalachia convinces us of the righteousness of our own lives. The notion of Appalachia as a separate place, a region set off from mainstream culture and history, has allowed us to distance ourselves from the uncomfortable dilemmas that the story of Appalachia raises about our own lives and about the larger society.” Representation of the region in features like “Wrong Turn” have done some of that heavy lifting.

“Wrong Turn” follows a cast of bewildered outsiders some visiting West Virginia to hike or rock climb and some passing through on business as they stumble through an impenetrable forest to escape a stalking family of cannibal, film-stock “hillbillies.” Most of the murderous mountain dwellers appear horribly disfigured and the film’s intro scene flashes pages of books detailing the physiological effects of inbreeding.

West Virginia natives aren’t unfamiliar with incest stereotypes about the Mountain State. Professor Gabriel Rosenberg, a sexuality studies scholar at Duke University, told me that ideas linking rural people and supposed incestual behaviors find their way into horror film scripts due to age-old narratives that living away or far from society leads to degeneration. “Wrong Turn,” however, writes these narratives into flesh: “Three Finger,” “Three Toes,” “One Eye,” and “Saw Tooth” are characters costumed in special effects makeup created to materialize nightmarish “mutant genes” that rely on the assumption that the “incestuous hillbilly” already exists in the audience’s imagination.

The film was produced in a particular type of genre cycle in which “teenage horror” reached unseen commercial success, producing cult classics like “Scream” andI Know What You Did Last Summer.” The influence of “Scream” inspired a new crop of lookalikes, motivating producers to write screenplays that join a never-ending roster of films that abide by the ‘90s teen thrasher model: young people find themselves in a terrifying predicament, stalked by a someone or something, and everyone dies, ad nauseam. In the case of making wrong turns, the something the urbane teens were stalked by was a twisted family tree of cannibal mountain people.

Teenagers were running from masked murderers, and slasher directors were chasing after chainsaws. Professor Rosenberg sees “Wrong Turn” as a part of a larger “farmhouse horror” film family that includes works like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Along with “Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “The Devil’s Rejects” and “House of 1000 Corpses” prove Rosenberg’s theory that almost every American horror film set in a rural place features a family as the film plot’s villain. “The family that preys together stays together,” he says, noting that the “monstrous rural family” characters always stalk the protagonist as a unit.

John Boorman’s 1972 “Deliverance” introduced the ultimate backwoods terror plot archetype. A cast of city dwellers enter Appalachia’s wilderness for recreation and leave only after being stalked by murderous mountain men. One of the most notable scenes from the film has had incredible staying power in pop culture, lending itself to the butt of nearly every joke at the expense of rural people, “Paddle faster, I hear banjos!” The “dueling banjos” scene although the instrumental composition itself won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance has shaped the way Americans have relegated banjo-driven bluegrass to “backwards” and “backwoods.”

Professor Travis Stimeling, an ethnomusicologist at West Virginia University who focuses on traditional Appalachian music, believes that “Deliverance” has contributed to that stigma. He feels as though pop culture features like “Deliverance” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” have ultimately led to to the cultural association of banjos and bluegrass with white rural people, in spite of the true historical origins of the instrument.

Stimeling told me that people in the region who play bluegrass and old-time music have started to realign their relationships with the phase “Paddle faster, I hear banjos!” He says, “It’s interesting to see to see that phrase taken up by people in the bluegrass and old-time communities. Seeing that phrase reclaimed, not only in my own mind but by others, is really powerful.” Stimeling continued “You’ll see that sticker on guitar cases, banjo cases, Subarus. … It’s seen there as a source of pride. If I were someone who liked to go rafting and I heard banjos, I would also paddle faster, but in a different direction. I would paddle toward the banjos, not away.”

It’s true that our remote hills and forests can be terrifying at night. Appalachians themselves have done a far better job of capturing what lurks in the shadows of West Virginia’s wooded hills than fictional representations of hillbilly horror. A cartography of our sprawling landscape is decorated with cryptid sightings old and new hello, mothmen and some folks hang onto those stories for generations.

The second volume of the legendary “Foxfire” series provides a tell-all on Appalachia’s arcane unknown. David Wilson writes for “Foxfire’s” chapter on boogers, witches and haints, “That the people of these mountains have a rich supply of ‘haint’ tales is not at all surprising. They had conquered the land but only in a small area around their doors. No matter how friendly the woods seemed in daylight, there were noises and mysterious lights there at night that were hard to ignore if you were out there all alone.”

I peered over glossy paperbacks featuring folktales of local hauntings in my elementary school’s library, which turned into my decade-long horror habit, but I never knew my favorite films could make monsters out of people like me.  

In reality, “Wrong Turn” isn’t even filmed in West Virginia, but the franchise has lead to a 15-year legacy of urban outsiders mocking Mountain Staters. American horror has  underestimated its own reach of influence: more than a century of horror film history has redefined our fears, teaching us to always check the shower, shudder at flocks of birds, and writhe at the sight of expansive fields of corn and unending bodies of water. “Wrong Turn” has made it impossible to travel wooded hills without a foot on the gas pedal.

Following the film’s release, a popular, multinational clothing company began selling shirts emblazoned with “It’s all relative in West Virginia” and “West Virginia: No Lifeguard at the Gene Pool,” and the stereotypes persisted in horror film production well into the early 2000s.

During the 2008 production process of “Shelter,” casting director Donna Belajac posted a casting call searching for actors with physical abnormalities to extra in a scene set in a “West Virginia holler.” The call beckoned responses from extras with the features “Extraordinarily tall or short. Unusual body shapes, even physical abnormalities as long as there is normal mobility. Unusual facial features, especially eyes.” In response to public disapproval, Belajac told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, “I hope it’s not an offensive thing. It’s not meant to be a generalization about everyone in West Virginia. That’s why we put that it’s in a ‘holler’ in the mountains.” Belajac was fired.

We welcome you to explore what’s out there, but “leave no trace.” Horror films like “Wrong Turn” prove that the influence of misguided visual representations of Appalachian people produced by journalists in the 1960s has extended much further than socio-political dialogue in a War on Poverty. That a “Stranger with a Camera” should betray our people and wilderness comes as no surprise. The painful legacy of these stereotypes about our region has shown us what 15 years of wrong turns can do. Appalachia is not Hollywood’s nightmarescape.

Holler-casting blackened bluegrass to you from the Ohio Valley, Liz Price studies Appalachian regional policy by day and spins mountain-metal by night.

Appalachia

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

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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.

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Appalachia

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

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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

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Appalachia

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

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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

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