A blue state’s road to red
A frustrated and angry West Virginia has been cutting ties with its reliably Democratic roots
Written by Karen Tumulty
Published on October 26, 2013
PINEVILLE, W.Va. — Those old enough to remember still tell visitors how this mountain town helped make history on April 26, 1960. That was the day 600 people showed up in front of the Wyoming County courthouse to hear a patrician senator with a Boston accent make his case to be their next president.
The electricity that afternoon in Pineville foreshadowed bigger things to come for the struggling candidate. Two weeks later, John F. Kennedy won more than 60 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary, a victory that helped move the country past the presumption that a Catholic could never be elected to the White House.
In late June of this year, another expression of Pineville’s values appeared on the terraced lawn of the old courthouse. There was no fanfare around the installation of the new stone monument, but like that Kennedy rally more than half a century ago, it was a way of saying how the town felt about where the nation is headed.
The stone is engraved with the Ten Commandments, and it instructs: “They are to be used as a historical reference and model to enrich the knowledge of our citizens to an early origin of law from past generations so that they will serve as a historical guide for future generations to come.”
With the decline of coal mining in West Virginia, a state that was once a stronghold in the Democratic party, many residents are changing their political views.
The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that this is an encroachment of church on state, and an affront to religious minorities. A headline on the front page of the Charleston Gazette on July 4 asked: “Constitutional showdown in the making?”
But most here seem to agree with Melissa Mitchell, a stay-at-home mom who was getting things organized for a midsummer church picnic at a park near the courthouse.
“We love it, and we will fight for it,” she said of the stone marker.
Why? “Honestly, because everybody in this county hates Barack Obama. That is the biggest reason,” Mitchell said.
Animosity toward President Obama runs high here. He lost Wyoming County by nearly 56 percentage points last year, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1.
But as Mitchell and her friends talked more about it, their conversation turned to fears and anxieties that had little to do with party or politics. They discussed the well-paying jobs that had vanished with the coal industry; the crime and drugs that followed; the changing culture that mocks what they hold sacred.
“This county has seen the need for God. We can’t control what’s going on out there in the world, but on this small little corner of our small little town, we can,” said one woman, who gave her name only as Megan.
Ordinary West Virginians used to look to Washington with something close to reverence. It was a partner in good times, a lifeline in bad ones, a powerful ally against the big corporations that came for its coal and timber. By some measures, West Virginia relies more on federal money than any other state.
But increasingly, it also has become an extreme example of the hostility that shows up in every national poll when people are asked how they feel about the federal government. Many here now speak of Washington as an enemy that threatens their economy and their way of life, that traps them into dependency.
“Washington’s 100 percent against us,” said M.E. Walker, a retired road builder who lives in Pence Springs in Summers County. “They don’t like our jobs. They don’t like our attitudes.”
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