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In the Heart of Trump Country

After ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Response, Author Elizabeth Catte Says There’s Hope in Appalachian Politics

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Writer/historian Elizabeth Catte has her own interpretation of what’s going on in Appalachia today and it’s far different from the total gloom perspective laid out by J.D. Vance in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” iHeartRadio’s Scott Widemeyer interviewed Catte on her 2018 book “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” a region that is bigger than Alaska, running from New York State to Mississippi, and is inhabited by 25 million residents.

In the interview, Catte explained why she was driven to write the book, which was a pushback to Vance’s novel. Catte said instead of writing it as a memoir of his family, Vance wrote it as a memoir of the region, which Catte believes perpetuates the preconceived stereotypes the rest of the country has about Appalachia.

Author Elizabeth Catte

Catte also said that when it comes to talking about politics in Appalachia, no one should assume the region will continue along the same path it has been on in recent years and that people should remain optimistic. She reminded Widmeyer that coal country was one of the last Democratic strongholds in Appalachia up until a few years ago, with some parts of the region even voting for Obama in the 2008 election. The 2018 West Virginia’s teachers’ strike, she said, is a reason to remain hopeful.

Not only does she believe the teachers’ strike will have an impact on elections in the region, but she also sees opposition to pipeline construction and other environmental issues playing an important role. Catte said she feels these movements are especially notable because the people at the forefront are women.

“Working class women are stepping forward to lead the movement that are helping to create the space between the political establishment and people on the ground that don’t think they are being represented,” Catte said.

Widemeyer and Catte also discussed the highly contested Congressional race in southern West Virginia between Democratic state Senator Richard Ojeda and Republican House of Delegates memberCarol Miller. Catte said she is anxious to see if his alliance to the teachers during the strike will work out in his favor. She also mentioned races in Virginia where candidates are anti-pipeline and are forcing Democratic primaries in districts that have never had one. She believes this is increasing civic engagement and sparking a desire to vote.

As Widemeyer said at the end of the interview,  Catte’s book “is not your grandmother’s or your grandfather’s Appalachia, and it’s not J.D. Vance’s Appalachia. Listen to the interview below.

This interview was originally published by iHeartRadio

"Our Revolution"

Not Just Red vs Blue: What the Teacher Strike May Reveal About West Virginia’s Political Landscape

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Teachers hold a rally outside the Senate Chambers in the West Virginia Capitol Monday, March. 5, 2018 in Charleston, W.V. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties are on strike for pay raises and better health benefits. Photo by Tyler Evert, the Associated Press.

 

The nine-day teachers’ strike in West Virginia made headlines across the country, and some are wondering what the events mean for state’s political landscape. How did a widespread labor strike, a practice normally associated with Democrats, happen in a state that voted so heavily for Donald Trump?

We wanted to take a step back to explore how politics have been changing here over the past generation. West Virginia has been dubbed the heart of Trump Country, but politics here are anything but straightforward.

The strike wasn’t organized solely by Democrats or Republicans, or even union bosses. But some, like Angela Nottingham, a seventh-grade social studies teacher from Cabell County, said the action changed how they plan to vote this year. Nottingham said she switched from Independent to Democrat after watching some Senate Republicans fight against the pay increase teachers were demanding.

“I know there are a lot of people out there that are Republican and kind of vote with their party. I think a lot of people are gonna look back at who supported them. And I really do think they, and the people around them, and the people they influence, will vote for the people who helped us out,” Nottingham said.

In 2016, President Trump received nearly 70 percent of votes cast in West Virginia.

Woman attending protests at state capitol on March 6 to rally for teacher raises in W.Va.
CREDIT KARA LOFTON/ WVPB

West Virginia has a Republican governor, and Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature.

And yet, more voters in the state are registered as Democrats than Republicans. In Wyoming County, for example, President Trump won 83 percent of votes, even though more than twice as many voters in this county are registered as Democrats, compared with Republicans.

Could Democrats gain back some ground in the Mountain State?

With the midterm election around the corner, we wanted to get a sense of where we’re headed, so West Virginia Public Broadcasting polled more than 900 teachers and school personnel in an anonymous, online survey. This was not a scientific poll designed by statisticians, but it did give us some interesting insights.

About half of the teachers we surveyed said they identify as Democrats, while nearly 30 percent said they are Republicans. A majority said they voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as their first choice for president in 2016.

A majority (36 percent) said they plan to re-elect U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. An overwhelming majority (97 percent) of those who live in the state’s Third Congressional District in southern West Virginia — the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Republican — said they plan to vote for Richard Ojeda.

Both Ojeda, who’s currently serving in the state Senate, and Manchin are Democrats. That is, West Virginia’s version of a Democrat.

A Different Kind of Democrat  

Democrats in West Virginia held the majority in the state Legislature for more than 80 years. More than half of our governors have been Democrats. But, as political science professor Rob Rupp explained, the Democrats in the Mountain State have traditionally been a populist party, pro-labor and socially conservative.

Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, posited that three are three political parties in America: Republican, Democrat and West Virginia Democrat.

“And by that I mean you have kind of a hybrid party, a big tent where conservatives, moderates and liberals all joined,” unique to West Virginia.

Rupp has spent most of his career studying what he called “West Virginia’s slow-motion realignment towards the red” in this state, and he said that shift has been happening for a long time. But, he argued, it rose to the surface about 15 years ago. President Bill Clinton was fairly popular here, but Democrats on the national stage since have failed to resonate with voters in this pro-coal state.

“And now [Democrats] are realizing that to many West Virginia voters, the national Democratic Party is out of touch with the state voters,” Rupp said.

This shift didn’t happen overnight. Rupp and other political scientists said one reason for the change is the declining power of unions. Labor has had a strong influence on politics here since the 1930s, and labor unions have typically sided with Democrats.

But in West Virginia, Democrats are far more conservative than the national party: They’re pro-coal, and they usually side with conservatives on social issues, like gay rights, abortion and immigration.

Rupp said now we’re seeing the breakup of that hybrid, West Virginia-style Democrat, a change that could have national implications. West Virginia may be a bellwether for rural America, and for the national Democratic party.

“And now with the loss of power was seeing a struggle between, should the Democratic Party turn left or should it turn right, now that it suddenly finds himself in minority.”

But with the recent teachers’ strike, some people are wondering if the Democrats, could stand a chance of regaining power in West Virginia. And what kind of Democrats could get elected? Ones that lean progressive? Or will they need to look more like the West Virginia Democrats of the past?

One example of the traditional-style West Virginia Democrat is state Senator Richard Ojeda. He’s running for Congress in southern West Virginia and he says he voted for Trump, but he’s been disappointed by the President’s performance. He strongly supports labor unions, and was one of the teachers’ loudest supporters during the recent strike.

But if Democrats like Ojeda want to take back power in West Virginia and across Appalachia, they’ll have to figure out one big question: how to bring back jobs to coal country.

Former coal miner Nick Mullins, who blogs at The Thoughtful Coal Miner, said liberals haven’t done enough during the past decade to appeal to working class voters in Appalachia.

“To be frank and honest [Democrats] need to come off of their moral high horses and come back down to the level of the working class,” said Mullins, a registered Independent from southwest Virginia, who said he didn’t vote in the November 2016 election.

“The working class needs help. We’re facing longer hours or stagnant wages. People aren’t enjoying life right now because they’re having to work so hard and long to just have a little bit of happiness in their lives.”

This story was originally published on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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In the Heart of Trump Country

McDowell as a microcosm: Bernie Sanders goes ‘All In’ with Chris Hayes on rural issues

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Despite hailing from Vermont, former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders attempted to shine a light on poverty in middle America this weekend with a stop in West Virginia. Sanders held a town hall in McDowell County for an MSNBC taping of “All In with Chris Hayes.”

For about two hours, Sanders, Hayes, panelists and a crowd of about 350 discussed issues affecting the area, which Sanders says is a microcosm of rural America.

The event was originally scheduled for February at the National Guard Armory in McDowell County but was abruptly canceled.  Representatives of the state said the U.S. Department of Defense prohibits the use of military buildings for political or campaign purposes.

When host Chris Hayes opened the show, he asked the crowd if McDowell County was “Trump Country.” The crowd reacted with a disapproving and collective “no.” Others in the crowd murmured words like “unfortunately.”

(Photo: Courtesy of MSNBC)

In reality, Trump took 74 percent of the vote in McDowell County in the November election and handedly won West Virginia as a whole. But Sanders’ sustained popularity in the area is a result of his 2016 campaign stop at a local food bank and his consistent efforts on the trail to bring light to the issues facing many in the community: poverty, few jobs and a lack of access to education.

Sanders took more than 55 percent of McDowell County’s vote in West Virginia’s May 2016 primary — beating out the inevitable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in all of the state’s 55 counties.

Hayes, Sanders and a group of more than a dozen panelists discussed a wide range of issues Sunday, touching on everything from a sluggish coal economy to health care, education and infrastructure. These issues, they say, aren’t exclusive to McDowell County, but are relevant in rural communities across the country.

While MSNBC did not allow other media to record audio or video, Sanders told reporters after the event the most powerful moment for him was when Hayes asked the crowd if anyone had been personally affected by the opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, McDowell County has the highest rate of drug-induced deaths in the country at 141 per 100,000.

“When I saw so many hands went up for people who had lost loved ones as a result of the opiate crisis, that is just chilling. That is just incredible,” said Sanders.

“This is an epidemic and —  by the way, again — not just in West Virginia. It exists in Vermont. And we have got to get a handle on it in a number of ways. We need more treatment. But, also, we need to give the young people opportunities so that drugs are not what they are seeking out,” he added.

Delegate Ed Evans of McDowell County was a member of the panel. Despite being a Democrat, Evans says he voted for Trump because of his promise to revive the coal industry. During the taping, Evans said he doesn’t believe Trump will focus on the opioid crisis and help bring an addiction treatment center to the area that’s been so stricken by the problem. Evans said that, because of coal’s rich past, government should be looking to help his county – one he said that’s given America so much in the past.

“McDowell County doesn’t need to be left behind — we need to be included. We need we need drug rehab. We need it so badly. We need jobs. We need infrastructure. We need drinking water that’s clean. We need housing. There are so many things,” said Evans.

“West Virginia was built on the backs of McDowell County coal miners. Now, whether people believe that or not — it’s true. This was the billion dollar coal fields. The coal that came out of here that made the steel across America, the tanks for the war.”

Following the taping, Hayes also spoke to reporters, saying that his hope for the town hall was to shine a light on issues affecting McDowell County, but also to show that the same problems exist elsewhere.

“In the city of New York, in the borough of Staten Island, you’ll see the opioid crisis is intense and severe and acute and it’s got people spinning their heads around in the same way it does here, right? So, things that are happening here whether it’s people’s economic struggles or whether it’s people’s health care struggles. Those are applicable,” said Hayes.

“And I think, part of the idea is — in America right now — in the political conversation we have with each other a lot, we tend to reduce places to a stereotype and some part of what we’re trying to do is get past that.”

Sunday’s event was taped for an hour-long special episode of MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes.” The program airs Monday, March 13 at 8 p.m.

Header photo: F. Brian Ferguson / The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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