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2018 Primaries Continue – Virginia and South Carolina

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Two more Appalachian states held their primaries on Tuesday. Voters in Virginia picked candidates to run for one of the state’s US Senate seats and all 11 Congressional Districts. South Carolinians picked candidates to run for their seven Congressional Districts, the governor and several other public offices.

VIRGINIA

Democratic Incumbent and Hillary Clinton’s presidential running mate Tim Kaine secured his spot on the ballot running uncontested. GOP voters picked Corey Stewart, a Prince William County supervisor.

Nick Freitas, a controversial candidate with documented past of connections to white nationalists, won the nomination with less than 2 percent advantage over a member of the Virginia House, 44.9 to 43.1 percent respectively. The third GOP candidate, E.W. Jackson, secured a low 12 percent.

The format of the midterm elections for several of the Congressional Districts was a little different in Virginia than in other states, with both parties holding conventions to select their candidates for the District 5, and the GOP holding conventions for Districts 6, 7 and 8. Results for these Districts are not yet available.

In Districts 1 and 9 GOP incumbents Rob Wittman and Morgan Griffith ran unopposed. The Republican Incumbent from District 2, Scott Taylor, secured a comfortable win over  Mary Jones, winning with 75.9 percent of the votes. The GOP did not file a candidate in District 3. Ryan McAdams took the nomination with over 72 percent of the ballots in District 4. District 10 Incumbent, Barbara Comstock, defeated Shak Hill, while Jeff Dove ran uncontested in District 11.

In Districts 3, 4, 8 and 11, Democratic Incumbents Robert C. Scott, A. Donald McEachin, Don Beyer and Gerald E. Connolly respectively, ran unopposed.

Districts 1, 2, 6, 7 and 10 all saw female candidates securing nominations. Vangie Williams, Elaine Luria, Jennifer Lewis, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton will seek to win the House seats on November 6 for the Democrats for their respective Districts.

District 9 went to Anthony Flaccavento who ran away with the nomination, securing over 78 percent of the votes.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Come November 6, South Carolinians will choose their next governor. Democrats picked James Smith as their candidate, while on the GOP side the Incumbent Henry McMaster failed to secure over 50 percent of the votes, forcing a runoff race with John Warren. Runoff races in South Carolina will take place on June 26.

In Districts 2, 3, 5 and 6 the GOP Incumbents ran unopposed. Joe Wilson, Jeff Duncan, Ralf Norman and Gerhard Gressman respectively secured their spots in the November general election. Incumbent in District 7, Tom Rice, secured a comfortable victory, with over 83 percent of the votes, over Larry Hammond.

District 1 was probably the biggest surprise of the entire GOP primary. Incumbent Mark Sanford lost to Katie Arrington by almost four percent of the votes.

Sanford, who openly spoke against President Trump seems to have paid the political price. Arrington was endorsed by the President in the hours before the closing of the polls.

District 4 will hold a GOP runoff race with Lee Bright as one of the candidates. As of press time the second candidate was not yet announced, as the votes are still being counted in a close race between the next two candidates.

On the Democratic side, the only Incumbent, James E. Clyburn in District 6, ran unopposed. District 1 picked Joe Cunningham, District 3 Mary Geren and District 5 Archie Parnell.

Districts 2, 4 and 7 will see runoff races. Annabelle Robertson will face Sean Carrigan, Doris Turner will run against Brandon Brown and Robert Williams against Mal Hyman, respectively.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in New York and Maryland on June 26.

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Mississippi and Alabama, two of the southernmost Appalachian states, held their primaries on Tuesday, June 5.

MISSISSIPPI

The state of Mississippi will elect one of its Senators in the general election on November 6 and the second one in a special election.

GOP voters picked the incumbent, Sen. Roger Wicker, over Richard Boyanton, a small business owner and anti-establishment candidate who openly rejected donations and assistance from the Republican party, to run in the regular race.

Mississippi  holds a nonpartisan special Senate election, also in November, in which voters will pick a replacement Senator for  the Republican Thad Cochran, who retired from the US Senate due to health issues.

The Democratic field in the Senate primaries for the state looked significantly broader, with six candidates running. David Baria, State House minority leader, will face Howard Sherman in the runoffs.

Three out of the four Congressional districts of Mississippi are currently in GOP hands. Out of the three incumbents, only two — Trent Kelly in District 1 and Steven Palazzo in District 4 — ran in the primaries, leaving District 3 entirely to the new candidates.

Incumbent Trent Kelly ran unopposed in District 1, while Steven Palazzo won his race in District 4 against his only opponent E. Brian Rose.

Democrat Bennie Thompson is the incumbent in the District 2 and ran unopposed in his party primary. The GOP didn’t file a candidate.

District 3 saw a competitive race on the GOP side, with six candidates. Michael Guest and Whit Hughes will go against each other in the runoffs. Democrats presented a two-candidate field, with State Representative Michael Evans, winning the nomination.

ALABAMA

Alabama picked candidates for all of it’s seven Congressional Districts, as well as for governor and several other public offices, including the state’s Supreme Court.

The GOP incumbent Governor, Kay Ivey, faced three other candidates (Michael McAllister, fifth name on the ballot, passed away in April) and took the nomination with 56 percent of the votes.

But the Democratic field was even more crowded. Out of six candidates, the voters picked Walter Maddox, Mayor of Tuscaloosa, to represent their party. He won with 53 percent of the votes over Sue Bell Cobb, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, among others.  

Of the seven Districts, the GOP has control over six of them. In Districts 1, 3 and 6 GOP incumbents, Bradley Byrne, Mike Rogers and Gary Palmer respectively, are unopposed.

In District 2, the incumbent Martha Roby will face off with Bobby Bright, former Democratic U.S. Representative, now a Republican.

District 4 and 5 each had two GOP candidates. Robert Aderholt, the incumbent, won District 4 with overwhelming 81.5 percent of the votes, while District 5 also went to the incumbent, Mo Brooks, who won over Clayton Hinchman by margin of over 22 percent of the votes.

The GOP didn’t have a candidate in the District 7, where the Democratic Incumbent, Terri Sewell, ran unopposed.

Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4 had two Democratic candidates each, while in District 5 Peter Joffrion ran uncontested after Butler Cain dropped out of the race in February. District 6 saw Danner Kline also run uncontested.

Robert Kennedy, Tabitha Isner, Mallory Hagan and Lee Auman won Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4, respectively in the Democratic primaries.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Virginia and South Carolina on June 12,

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KENTUCKY

Kentuckians were next in line to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s (May 22) primaries. All six Congressional districts were up for grabs and both parties had candidates running in all of them. GOP politicians currently fill five of the Congressional seats.

Rep. John Yarmuth is the only Democratic Incumbent who will be defending his seat on November 6. He was uncontested in yesterday’s primaries.

On the other side of the aisle, districts 1,2 and 4 also saw uncontested incumbents, with James Comer, Brett Guthrie and Thomas Massie respectively getting ready to defend their seats in November general elections.

In the third District, the GOP voters chose Vickie Yates Glisson to run against John Yarmuth. Glisson has experience in public service as secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. She was appointed to the post in 2015 by Governor Matt Bevin.

District 5 incumbent, the “Prince of Pork” Hal Rogers won against Gerardo Serrano by a landslide, getting 84 percent of the votes.

Rogers earned his nickname by bringing a lot of controversial investments to his District, like prisons, with another one on the horizon to be the most expensive prison built in the history of the United States. Yet, some of the counties he represents remain consistently among the poorest in the country. He’s been in office as the fifth District’s Representative since 1981.

In District 6, the GOP incumbent Andy Barr faced off with Chuck Eddy and won with almost 84 percent of the votes. He will face Amy McGrath, a marine fighter jet veteran, who defeated Lexington’s Mayor, Jim Gray, and State Senator Reggie Thomas.

Here are winners of the Democratic primaries:

District 1: Paul Walker

District 2: Hank Linderman

District 3: John Yarmuth

District 4: Seth Hall

District 5: Kenneth Stepp

District 6: Amy McGrath

GEORGIA

In Georgia, voters picked candidates for all 14 Congressional Districts, State Legislature, the Governor and several other public offices.

In Appalachian Congressional 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 14 districts all GOP candidates were incumbents, and won their respective races. In District 13 Incumbent David Scott run uncontested on the Democratic side.

In the third District, Drew Ferguson defeated Philip Singleton with an overwhelming 74.4 percent of the votes. District 10 went to Jody B. Hice who defeated two other opponents with almost 79 percent of the votes.

Karen Handel and Robert Woodall won GOP primaries in District 6 and 7, respectively. Handel run uncontested, while Woodall won easily, getting almost 72 percent of the votes.

Lucy McBath and Kevin Abel in District 6 and Carolyn Bordeaux and David Kim in District 7 qualified for the runoffs in the Democratic races.

Districts 9 and 11 saw republicans Doug Collins and Barry Loudermilk take the nominations after uncontested races.

Democrats will see Chuck Enderlin running as the third District candidate, Josh Mccall in the District 9, Tabitha Johnson-Green in District 10, Flynn Brody in District 11, David Scot and Steven Foster in District 14. Brody and Foster run uncontested.

In the Governor’s race primaries the Democrats elected Stacey Abrams to be the candidate in November, while on the GOP side Casey Cagle will face off with Brian Kemp in June 24 runoff. Abrams is the first African American major party nominee for Governor in the history of the United States.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Mississippi and Alabama on June 5 and Virginia and South Carolina on June 12,  

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Pennsylvania’s Tuesday primaries were another highly anticipated, bellwether political event this year, ahead of the November 6 midterm elections.

Primaries took place after highly controversial Supreme Court ruling in January of this year that ordered a redrawing of the state’s 18 congressional districts. The new districts, previously shaped by Republican gerrymandering efforts, were intended to result in more balanced race. (Here’s the New York Times detailed map of the new districts.)

Republicans’ hopes were somewhat restored on  Tuesday following a blow during the March special elections in Pennsylvania’s 17th District, where Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Rick Saccone. The majority of the GOP winners this week were endorsed, strong pro-Trump candidates.

Rick Saccone took a second shot at elections, taking on the State Senator Guy Reschenthaler in the redrawn 14th District. Saccone repeated his March failure and lost to favored Reschenthaler by over 10 percent of the votes.

In the Senate primaries, the Democrat Bob Casey Jr. ran unopposed, while on the Republican side, Lou Barletta won the race against Jim Christiana, securing a victory with 63 percent of the votes.  Barletta was endorsed early on by the President Trump, who, soon after the results were called, congratulated him on twitter.

Democratic Governor, Tim Wolf will face off with Scott Wagner after defeating two opponents, Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth by comfortable margins of around 7.5 and 25.5 percent respectively.

Results in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Congressional Districts:

DISTRICT DEMOCRATIC winner REPUBLICAN winner
7 Marty Nothstein (projected) Susan Wild
8 John Chrin Matt Cartwright (incumbent, uncontested)
9 Dan Meuser Denny Wolff
10 Scott Perry (incumbent, uncontested) George Scott (projected)
12 Tom Marino (incumbent) Marc Friedenberg (projected)
13 John Joyce Brent Ottaway (uncontested)
14 Guy Reschenthaler Bibiana Boerio
15 Glenn Thompson (incumbent, uncontested) Susan Boser
16 Mike Kelly (incumbent, uncontested) Ron DiNicola
17 Conor Lamb (incumbent, uncontested) Keith Rothfus (incumbent, uncontested)
18  Mike Doyle (incumbent)  —

 

Another fact that made the Pennsylvania’s primary stand out this year was a number of female candidates running–and winning–across all 18 districts.

In the 11 Appalachian districts three of the winners were female, while in all 18 districts, 8 women won their races. The current 115th Congress’ Pennsylvania caucus is all male.

WHO’S NEXT ?

Next in line are primaries in Georgia and Kentucky on May 22.

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First Wave of the Primaries – Roundup

 

This Tuesday (May 8, 2018) brought the first wave of primary elections before the House and Senate midterm elections on November 6.

Some of the highest profile races that grasped the attention of the national media took place in Appalachia: West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina.

WEST VIRGINIA

Among the most anticipated and scrutinized races was the GOP Senate primary in West Virginia, where two mainstream Republican politicians, Patrick Morrisey (West Virginia Attorney General) and Evan Jenkins (Congressman from West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District) faced off with an outsider, ex-coal baron and Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship, best known for serving a year in prison for his involvement in a tragic mining incident that left 29 miners killed.

Patrick Morrisey won the race, taking 35% of the votes. Jenkins came in second with 29% and Blankenship third with just under 20%.

In a rare instance of a top-to-bottom party unity, the entire GOP establishment came together to denounce Blankenship and urged West Virginia voters to reject the controversial candidate, whom President Trump portrayed as unable to defeat the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Joe Manchin III.

Manchin won his party’s primary with an overwhelming 70% percent of the votes, defeating challenger Paula Jean Swearengin.

The Democratic Primary race for the West Virginia’s U.S. House District 3 was another  highly anticipated race, where an unorthodox candidate, Richard Ojeda pulled off a landslide victory over his opponents, with over 50% of the votes. He will face Carol Miller, the winner of a much tighter GOP primary.

Richard Ojeda, a US Army veteran and a member of the West Virginia Senate, is an unconventional Democrat, whom many point out as the kind of candidate that the Democratic party might need to win back at least some of the West Virginia seats.

Most notably, Ojeda can boast the support of worker unions. Recently, he has shown support for West Virginia teachers striking across the state.

In West Virginia U.S. House Districts 1 and 2, the Democratic primaries were won by Kendra Fershee and Talley Sergent respectively. They will face GOP incumbents, David B. McKinley and Alex X. Mooney.

OHIO

In Ohio, a number of consequential primary races took place last night.

Richard Cordray celebrated a comfortable win over Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic Senate primary, earning over 60% of the votes to Kucinich’s 20%. Cordray, the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will face Republican Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Attorney General and a former U.S. Senator.

DeWine defeated Mary Taylor with an almost 20% lead.

GOP voters had a chance to vote for their candidate to the U.S. Senate and picked Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH 16). He will run against the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Sherrod Brown. It was Brown who unseated current GOP’s governor candidate Mike DeWine in 2007. Renacci was endorsed by President Trump and will be at the frontlines of a contest over what is perceived as part of a lost Democratic territory.

Ohioans voted for candidates in all 16 U.S. House Districts. Here are the detailed results compiled by the New York Times.

Ohio voters also voted in support of Issue 1, a bipartisan proposal to change the rules for redistricting in Ohio. The bipartisan proposal is an attempt to fix the process, which has a long and scandalous history in the state. It was approved with an overwhelming support of almost 75% of the votes.

NORTH CAROLINA

In North Carolina voters picked candidates for all 13 U.S. House Districts. Some races, like District 1, had uncontested candidates on both sides of the aisle. Others, like District 2 Democratic primary, where Linda Coleman took the victory over Ken Romley, or District 9 GOP race, where Mark Harris narrowly defeated the incumbent Robert Pittenger, turned out to be slightly more competitive.

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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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There’s a Tool that Claims to Predict Potential for Criminal Behavior. Should PA Judges Use It?

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Allegheny County Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. Photo: Connor Mulvaney/PublicSource

The Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing is considering a “risk assessment” tool, which, according to social justice activists, would reinforce existing bias in the criminal justice system. But the tool’s designers say it would give judges more data to base sentencing decisions on as opposed to primarily relying on uniform guidelines.

The commission is hearing public feedback about the risk assessment tool on Thursday, Dec. 13, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Allegheny County Courthouse (436 Grant St., Pittsburgh).

How would the “risk assessment” tool work? Say you’re facing a criminal charge. In addition to the usual information about your present and past — as in the crime for which you are on trial and your prior record, if any — the judge also has a report trying to predict your future. On a scale from 0 to 18 points, an algorithm has indicated how likely you are to reoffend, based on data about recidivism rates.

Read more about how the risk assessment tool is used to calculate sentences from PublicSource.

This story was originally published by PublicSource based in Pittsburgh.

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Diving Deep into Harm Reduction

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Medicine worker disposing medical waste into plastic containers with protective glove. Photo: Adobe stock.

Part 1: Why W.Va.’s Largest Needle Exchange Closed

In December  2015, with support from the city of Charleston, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department launched a harm-reduction program that included a needle exchange. The primary goal was to reduce the risk of diseases commonly spread by sharing needles.

Now, only thing that remains of the harm reduction program is a syringe kiosk where people can deposit used hypodermic needles.

At its peak  the program served more than 400 people a week,mostly from Kanawha County. But some came from surrounding counties as well,a factor that became a point of contention for many in the city.

“It became basically, a line of people just to line up to get needles between 10 and 4 on any given Wednesday,” said outgoing Charleston mayor, Danny Jones who been an outspoken critic of the program.

In the months before it closed, Jones publicly called the program a “needle mill” and “mini-mall for junkies.”

“On any given Wednesday, they might have given out 12,000 needles,” he said during a recent interview.

In reality, the average number of needles given out during the weekly Wednesday exchange was about 5,000 serving about 190 visitors, according to data obtained from the health department. That’s about 26 needles per person, per week. The highest number of  needles the program ever gave out in a single week was just over 11,000 to 417 people.

While 5,000 seem like a lot, the average heroin user injects several times a day. So 26 needles a week gets a person about three injections a day with a clean needle.

“A syringe exchange program should really be called a harm reduction program,” said Dr. Artis Hoven, an infectious disease specialist with the Kentucky Department of Health.

She said harm reduction is an all-encompassing idea to reduce the risk of many things associated with addiction such as “provide naloxone, provide referral to care for people with substance use disorder, they do HIV and Hepatitis C testing.”

And in Charleston, it seemed to work.

While the Charleston program was open, the city did not see an HIV outbreak, according to interviews conducted by Charleston-Gazette Mail. During that same time period, 15 counties in southern West Virginia did have a small HIV outbreak — none of the three counties where the outbreak started had a harm reduction program, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report.

Recorded incidents of Hepatitis C rates in West Virginia did increase — by a lot — during the course of the program, but so did efforts to test more people.

But in Charleston, reports of discarded needles in the community began to skyrocket and people were alarmed.

Firefighters reported having to crawl over them while putting out fires in abandoned structures; a local elementary school requested a biohazard container from the city so they could clean up an alley before school; and police officers reported finding huge numbers of syringes on people who were arrested.

Both the Fraternal Order of Police and the Charleston Professional Firefighters Association wrote letters to City Council expressing major safety concerns for first responders.

Concerns might have been exacerbated because the program grew really fast. In the two years the program was open, more than 651,000 needles were distributed. Only about 66 percent of those needles were returned.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of contracting HIV is nominal for for healthcare professionals stuck by needles on the job — around .3 percent — with some studies suggesting even less. Outside experts like Peter Davidson from the University of California San Diego say needle litter is an annoyance but not the major public health concern an HIV or Hepatitis C outbreak would be.

“No one in the world has ever obtained HIV from stepping on a needle in the street,” said Davidson. “Needles in the street are a piece of trash. It’s not something you want seeing laying in the gutter, but they’re not actually a very hazardous object.”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the risk is. If someone finds a dirty needle on a playground or in a shopping mall bathroom, public reaction is strong. And for non-users, any risk of contracting HIV or hepatitis from a dirty needle is too much.

But closing a harm reduction  program in the biggest city in the state could have huge public health implications for the region, according to former state Commissioner for Public Health Rahul Gupta. Gupta said it’s “not in the best interest of the community” when needle exchange programs like this one are shut down “reactively.”

“It plays into that stigma and is more harmful long-term than it is beneficial,” he said in an interview shortly before he left his job.

Gupta said it’s more harmful because not only are you removing your best tool for preventing needle-born illnesses, but, as we’ll hear later in this series, the closure may impact public perception and support for other harm reduction programs across the state that are trying to open or stay open.

Part 2: Public Safety and Public Health

Best practices for harm reduction programs call for flooding a community with clean hypodermic syringes. Research shows that in addition to reducing the prevalence of blood-borne pathogens in the community, well-run programs help remove potentially infectious syringes from the community. But some people say that wasn’t happening in Charleston.

Photo: Todd Huffman via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Reports of needles found in public places in Charleston began to escalate in early October 2017.

Mayor Danny Jones said the city tried numerous times to complain and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department didn’t do anything to address their concerns.

Then city health officer Michael Brumage took issue with that accusation,pointing to efforts, such as the founding of the statewide harm reduction coalition. He said one of the objectives of the coalition was to bring needles into other communities so there wouldn’t be such a burden on the city.

But in October 2017, the city public safety office established a code for needle pickup calls to help the city accurately collect data on locations, numbers and types of needles to be picked up.

About a week later, the city proposed running a pilot program with retractable needles. The idea was that if the needles could only be used once and then retract into a plastic chamber, it would reduce the risk of needlestick injuries to the community and first responders.

At the time, Brumage was all for the idea. He wrote an an email, which was part of documents released to West Virginia Public Broadcasting through a Freedom of Information Act request, to city attorney Paul Ellis.

“[T]he limitations … are acceptability and cost. Should we get support or donated supplies, I am all in for a pilot with evaluation. This could be a very interesting trial. We would like to bring in some researchers for this as well. Let’s do it! It’s worth a shot.”

Over the next few weeks, the Charleston Fire Department found a manufacturer willing to donate the needles in exchange for tracking how well they worked. After consulting with Brumage and his staff, the city requested 250,000 needles from the manufacturer for a six-month trial.

Everything seemed to be on track to start a pilot project using retractable needles in early spring 2018.

At least that’s what the city thought. Meanwhile, Brumage was in communication with a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The researcher reinforced something with him that  he said he already knew — that “retractables were unpopular among people who used IV drugs.”

In 2010, the national Harm Reduction Coalition issued a statement against auto disable syringes. They said the syringes do little to help control epidemics of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne viruses among people who inject drugs because many people inject drugs a half dozen times a day. Without needles you can use more than once, users revert back to sharing equipment.

“So, at that point I was kind of in a bind since I told the city we would implement the retractable syringe program. But now knew if I did, we’d actually be putting the public at risk,” said Brumage.

So given the current recommended practices, Brumage and the Johns Hopkins researcher decided to reduce the pilot instead to about 10 to 12 people. In meeting minutes from a call, also released in the FOIA,, Brumage’s staff appeared to confirm the new plan with the company that had agreed to donate the syringes.

Brumage said he thought the needle manufacturer then told the city about the change. But no one did. So city officials said they felt blindsided several weeks later when they learned the pilot program no longer included the entire patient population.

“They refused retractable needles,” Jones said in an interview.

It was more complicated than that, but it probably felt like a refusal to the city because of the  change in plan wasn’t communicated. And I mean, remember, law enforcement, emergency responders and some members of the community were now expressing a lot of concern about needle litter and felt like they had to do something.

“I want to protect the public. I want to protect the law abiding public,” said Jones.

In late March of this year, Charleston Police Chief Steve Cooper decided — as he was legally empowered to do — that the health department may only give out retractable needles.

Essentially, Brumage said, the police were “ directing the health department to adopt — what appeared to be from the medical literature to be dangerous and unethical practices.”

But other public health experts said making a harm reduction program fit the needs of the community takes a lot of compromise.

“Public health has never been and will never be about my way or your way. It will always be what’s the best way to input science and marry it with art and put it into practice,” said former public health commissioner Rahul Gupta.

From a public health perspective, harm reduction programs are still the best tool the city a city? has to prevent the spread of needle born illnesses. But politically — at least in the state’s largest city — it’s closed indefinitely.

Part 3: Community Acceptance, Perception and Stigma

A girl is telling her friend a secret. Photo: Adobe Stock.

Less than two years after it began, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department shut down it’s harm reduction program. Among other things, the program provided thousands of clean needles to drug users with the goal of reducing needle borne diseases, but faced significant pushback from some in the community.

As the state continues to grapple with the drug epidemic and its impact to public health, those running harm reduction programs in other West Virginia communities say the closure of the Charleston program, and the narrative that the needle exchange program was destroying the city, is having a negative impact on public perception of harm reduction efforts.

“Everyone understands that this drug epidemic is the biggest public health issue that we have dealt with,” said Terry Harlin, administrator of the Fayetteville harm reduction program. “I feel like what happened in Charleston hurt us a little bit.”

Harlin said when the Charleston program closed in [insert when here], members of the community began questioning the necessity of the Fayette County program.

“We definitely started hearing people locally, ‘well it didn’t work in Charleston so why would you continue doing that here?’” she said. “Even though there’s lots of evidence and research out there that show that harm reduction does help to prevent the spread of disease and does help to get people the help that they need.”

A Shifting Narrative

The trickle effect to other programs like Fayetteville’s likely happened in the last six months the Kanwaha-Charleston program was open, when the narrative around the program shifted. Outgoing Charleston Mayor Danny Jones was especially outspoken critic of the program.

“Needles were everywhere and our property crimes went through the roof,” he said.

No study has been done quantifying whether the harm reduction program caused an increase in needle litter, making it hard to confirm the veracity of the claim. But we do know, according to data from the health department, that during the two years the program was open, more than 650,000 needles were distributed and only about 66 percent of them were returned.

West Virginia University public health researcher Robin Pollini said that doesn’t mean the unreturned needles ended up on the street. In West Virginia it is legal to dispose of sharps in the trash if you package them and label them in a certain way, she said.

“And so the Charleston program, just like many programs across the state, gives out puncture proof containers and information on how to dispose of those safely,” said Pollini. “And so we don’t have any idea how many of those ended up properly disposed of in household trash and how many didn’t.”

Dr. Susan Gardner, assistant dean of the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy, said she has seen little evidence of widespread needle litter.  The school of pharmacy was one of the volunteer groups very involved in the Kanawha-Charleston Harm Reduction Program.

“There are times where I just took a walk on the East End looking — looking!,” she said. “[I say to myself] ‘ok, if it’s this bad surely I’ll see it.’ And the only time I’ve ever come across a needle in Charleston is doing a syringe cleanup.”

Us Versus Them

But without a study of Charleston’s needle litter, there’s also no way to prove that the 200,000 unreturned needles didn’t end up on the streets.

Members of the Charleston police department said they’ve observed much less needle litter since the program closed, but the department also has reams of photographs from first responders and community members of needles found in public spaces.

Comments on news articles and Facebook posts seem to paint a community drowning in needles.

On some level, needle litter itself, isn’t the issue.

“So part of the narrative that was built around the Kanawha program was this us and them of like ‘we’re the community and those people are drug users,’” said Pollini, from WVU. “Those people are part of our community they’re West Virginians right?”

In Wyoming County a Different Narrative

Wyoming County launched its needle exchange program in May. Executive Director Fred Cox said their program has been relatively well-received — he guesses because they had a small HIV outbreak prior to the program opening.

“A picture’s worth a thousand words I’d guess you’d say,” Cox said. “So, that picture was really clear to us here and I really do think that help changed some minds.”

He said if they hadn’t had the outbreak he doesn’t think they would have had to support to open the program as a prevention measure.

Some speculate that may be another reason Charleston’s program struggled in the end.

Outgoing Charleston mayor Jones said there were no reports of outbreaks of hepatitis C or the AIDS virus prior to the launch of the city’s harm reduction program.

“It’s not up to us to ruin a town over the fact that people have communicable diseases,” he said.

Rahul Gupta, formerly the head of the state’s public health department, said harm reduction is a multifaceted idea that encompasses not just needle exchange, but testing and family planning and treatment of diseases.

“And other issues that come across that are consequential in some ways like needle litter and other things there have to be plans in place to address those — what we can’t afford to do is ignore them,” he said.

There often are demands, Gupta said, to do things differently. But he believes there’s always a middle ground you can get to with negotiation. And you do that, he said, because “people’s lives are at stake.”

Part 4: Best Practices vs. Community Acceptance

Current best practices for harm reduction programs include a couple provisions: No retractable needles should be distributed, patients should get as many needles as possible regardless of how many they bring back, and barriers to accessing needles should be as low as possible. But sometimes those recommendations are at odds with community acceptance for the practices.

Photo: Ashton Marra, 100 Days in Appalachia

In late March, shortly after the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department closed its harm reduction program, Mayor Danny Jones wrote a letter to Rahul Gupta, then state commissioner for public health, asking that the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health audit the program.

“The review provided very specific recommendations that needed to be met in order to restart the program,” Gupta said.

These included improving data collection and analysis about exactly how many people were using the program and what services they were using; putting in place a plan to deal with needle litter; improving communication with community stakeholders and requiring that people pick up needles they need in person.

After the audit came out, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department requested a review of the audit from seven harm reduction experts around the country, including Dr. Peter Davidson from the University of California San Diego. All seven letters were critical of the audit.  

“I think the best way to describe it was that the people who wrote the audit had a very particular idea in mind about what a syringe distribution program should look like,” said Davidson.

In his letter Davidson wrote that “almost all of the recommendations in the audit represent severe, and in some cases unconscionable, barriers to effective, evidence-based, primary prevention of blood borne virus transmission.”

“You know one of the reasons syringe distribution programs exist in the way they exist at all is because is because the sort of traditional public health clinic model hasn’t served people who use drugs very well at all,” Davidson said. “And it hasn’t been very good at providing them with the basic tools they need in order to prevent the transmission of infectious disease and prevent overdose.”

Davidson said ideally, harm reduction programs have as low a barrier of entry as possible so the maximum amount of people will participate. And the recommendations made in the audit would raise the threshold of how easy it was to access resources, but he also says there’s room to adjust programs to fit the communities they serve.

“I wouldn’t expect a needle exchange in rural Appalachia to look the same as a needle exchange in San Francisco for example,” he said. “That would likely lead to a program that didn’t serve the population very well at all.”

And in Charleston, there were actually two harm reduction programs being held simultaneously: the one at the health department and a much smaller, clinic-based program operated by Health Right, the biggest free clinic in the state.

“Back in 2011 we noticed an increase in patients that were coming in with various stories, histories of being diabetic, they would pick up the needles for the program but not the insulin,” said executive director Angie Settle.

She said they began to suspect an increase in IV drug use among their patient population.

“So we kind of quietly started the program with the needle exchange it was mainly internal not something we broadcasted, but those patients that needed it knew of the service and as they came in we were screening every patient for IV drug use,” Settle said.

Because Health Right is a clinic working with a limited number of patients with whom they already have close relationships, they could run their program differently than the health department, which was trying to do a mass public health push, serving the whole city.

Health Right is also a one for one exchange — you bring a needle back, you get a fresh one — which for most harm reduction experts is not considered best practice. But since patients can come as many times a week as they want, Settle said it seemed to be the best choice for her program.

They also require every patient to meet with a counselor when they come in for needles. Basically, participation in Health Right’s program requires a lot more effort from patients, which means not everyone will use it, but Settle said that running a conservative program is preferable to not having a program available at all.  

“You know the reality here is you’ve got a drug-using population that, in fact, is going to keep using drugs whether or not you have a syringe exchange program or not,” said Dr. Artis Hoven, an infectious disease specialist with the Kentucky Department of Health.

But without a program, she said, the community is just opening itself up to the easier spread of communicable diseases.

“There is something called the art and science, if you will, of risk or harm reduction,” said Hoven. “And for many of us we are still learning what that art is and what that science is. We’re trying to make it better and to make it something that is effective.”

But if Charleston were to consider harm reduction again, a lot of community healing, conversations, and compromise would likely have to occur. And the biggest barrier may be one of the most intangible ones — addressing stigma.

Part 5: A Community Divided

When the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department closed its harm reduction programs, one of the biggest criticisms of the program was that it led to an increase in crime, vagrancy and homelessness. Those claims are not without merit.

Photo: Adobe stock

“I mean, that’s some of the stuff that people don’t really think about,” said Sgt. Matt Webb, who has been on the Charleston Police force for 20 years. During a ride-along, Webb was tracking a case of a man who was stealing vehicles and using them in other crimes. He pulled into an office parking lot where about eight cars were parked around a side-by-side ATV – effectively making it impossible to access the off-road utility vehicle.

“It’s the bigger picture of the drug issues. Guys out stealing somebody’s side-by-side … those people probably work hard every day to try to take care of their families and have things like that, and here he’s trying to support his drug habit and he goes and steals a side-by-side.”

During the 2018 mayoral election, crime and safety related to the drug epidemic became a political theme.

“One of the issues we have in our downtown area and is not just perception — it’s become reality unfortunately — is there is a belief that there is a public safety issue in downtown Charleston,” said mayoral candidate J.B. Akers during a fall debate between him and then-candidate Amy Goodwin televised by WCHS.

Akers was publicly critical of the syringe exchange component of the Charleston harm reduction program during his campaign. In the months leading up to the election, the program increasingly became a politically charged, divisive issue.

This fall, the City of Charleston completed a $100 million renovation on the Charleston Civic Center. The Civic Center overlooks the Elk River and abuts the Charleston mall. On other side? The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

“That health department shouldn’t be there,” said outgoing mayor Danny Jones.

The Charleston harm reduction program happened once a week. And as the program grew, that meant up to 400-some patients were coming through in a six-hour period for needle exchange as well as getting vaccinations, testing for diseases and accessing family planning services, among other services. This volume was a big deal for the downtown community.

“Having a program that was outside the city limits or at least within the city limits but in a less trafficked place by regular business people and people doing shopping in the city of Charleston would be an important thing to do as well,” said former city health officer Michael Brumage. Brumage said one of the lessons learned from the program was that they’d likely rethink the location.

Over the last couple of years, complaints of vagrancy and a rise in a criminal transient population have increased — a change Jones attributes to the harm reduction program and the geography of the state.

“It’s the confluence of the interstates,” he said.

Charleston is at the intersection of two major interstates — 64 running east to west and 77 running north to south, which Jones said made it easy for people outside of the city to come in and utilize resources meant for residents.

“I know it’s been a long time since I’ve started this profession, but when I first began this profession, I knew of two homeless people in town,” said Sgt. Webb. “And now, I mean, they’re all over the place.”

Sgt. Webb said that addiction and a bad economy go hand-in-hand.

“I’m pretty certain that the addiction aspect of what we’re dealing with has a lot to do with the economy,” he said. “You know, when you’re down on yourself you look for ways to make yourself feel better. I’m far from a doctor, but I’m sure a lot of people who are out here addicted to drugs had some kind of traumatic experience or they’re trying to fix something.”

A few months after the program closed, a Facebook group started, called “Charleston Has Had Enough!”, where members post photos of other people using drugs, stealing packages, panhandling, etc. Now, almost one of every 10 Charleston residents is a member.

None of the ten administrators or moderators returned requests for an interview, but in a Sept. 16 post, one of the founders wrote: “Word is going around that this group is all about shaming junkies. Anyone who believes that is an idiot. No. This is a group about shaming the so-called leadership that got us in the mess, namely the Kanawha County Health Dept. who convinced the city that free needles were a great idea.”

Danny Jones is a member.

“It was a really bad situation for our city. Needles were everywhere. Property crimes went through the roof. And now that it’s over, our property crimes have gone way down,” Jones said.

That’s a slightly misleading assertion. Larceny — meaning theft of personal property — has actually fallen considerably from 2014-2017, according to data obtained by West Virginia Public Broadcasting from the Charleston Police Department.

Burglary/breaking and entering spiked in 2016 (the first full year the program was in operation) but then fell to pre-program levels the second full year the program was in operation.

Breaking and entering into a car has risen continuously since 2014. And there was a massive spike in auto crimes in 2016 and no decline during the program’s second year of operation. But data like this does not prove why some crime went up after the harm reduction program opened and some went down. And speculations only seem to divide community.

In an off-the-record conversation, a member of the Charleston Fire Department said the closure of the Charleston program had set the city back 10 years in terms of acceptance of harm reduction. How to move forward is a subject incoming mayor Amy Goodwin addressed in the October debate televised by WCHS.

“Leaders lead,” she said. “Leaders don’t take the blame or cast the blame on someone else. They look at what they’ve done wrong and they say, ‘let’s improve it.’ They look at something that may be a problem in the city and they work with everyone; they bring everyone to the table. They don’t villainize; they don’t marginalize folks.”

At this point, bringing everyone to the table is going to take a lot of work, but it’s not impossible.

“I would be interested in being on some kind of board where they hold discussions about trying to find answers to these questions,” Sgt. Matt Webb said. He said it’s really challenging working with a population struggling with addiction.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “If we go to somebody’s house and they’re having a heart attack, we send them to a doctor and the doctor can hopefully fix their heart. They give them a heart cath, they give them open heart surgery, they’ll do bypass – whatever. When it comes to somebody who is addicted to opioids – a lot of times, I know it’s not true, but they give off the impression that they don’t want help but it’s because the addiction is so great they feel like they don’t want help.”

And if someone does want help, he said, it doesn’t get much easier.

“Are there beds available in rehab places? How are they going to pay for it? Those are sometimes hard answers to get.”

But whether a board is created to discuss these issues like Webb mentioned — or even if enough people are willing to sit down and really listen to one another to address the still present public health risk of needle borne diseases — remains to be seen.

This series was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Read them individually: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5

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