Coal Tattoo

Missed opportunities for W.Va. Democrats


House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio (center), visits Wayne County on Wednesday, speaking about coal and stumping for state Sen. Evan Jenkins (right), who is running for Congress. They were joined by Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Photo by Lawrence Pierce.

Earlier this week, Slate became the latest national media effort to profile West Virginia politics. And author Betsy Woodruff does not disappoint me in my search for journalism that ignores facts, context and nuance. In a piece headlined Goodbye, West Virginia, she writes:

Part of the reason for the president’s popularity problem is—no debate here—coal. The Environmental Protection Agency’s tough new coal regulations have hit the state’s economy hard.

Unlike the New York Times piece we recently discussed, the Slate story makes no effort to describe what’s really going on in the coal industry, with heavy competition from natural gas and dwindling reserves of easy-to-mine coal playing much larger factors than any EPA rules in mining’s current and future decline. Also, this particular writer shows how little she knows about West Virginia politics, by quoting without question a former Democratic party official here who spent a fair amount of time lobbying hard for a most un-Democratic thing: Dismantling of our civil justice system.

But while there’s great irony in some of the quotes in this Slate piece, there’s also no small amount of truth in comments like:

Democrats have accepted being on the defensive. That’s the most frustrating thing.

Just look this week at a major missed opportunity for Democratic candidates like Rep. Nick Rahall and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.  Here was the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, visiting our state to campaign for Rahall’s GOP opponent, Evan Jenkins.

Wouldn’t this have been a perfect time to press Jenkins about how the Republican House, led by his new friend Speaker Boehner, used the budget to bottle up a new rule to end deadly black lung disease, or how years of Republican budget cuts left the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration unable to prevent a series of mine disasters, or how new mine safety reform legislation remains stalled?

Heck, wouldn’t this have been a good opportunity to create some space between Democrats and Republicans by talking about the importance of clean water in the wake of the Freedom Industries chemical spill or tough strip-mining enforcement in the face of more studies linking mountaintop removal to public health and environmental damage?

An otherwise fine commentary in the WVU student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum, put out the notion that Secretary of State Tennant has been “unable” to capitalize on the chemical spill to her advantage in her race against Rep. Capito.  The problem isn’t that she was “unable” to do so — it’s that she never really even tried. As for Rep. Rahall, despite his broad knowledge on strip-mining issues and his otherwise solid record on the environment in his many years in Washington, he is right there with the Republicans, trying to dismantle the Clean Water Act. And Democrat Nick Casey? Well, this stuff just isn’t his problem, is it?

West Virginia Congress

On coal mine safety and health, Democratic efforts to get some traction have been hampered by very poorly put together Rahall ads that skirted the truth of what Evan Jenkins had and hadn’t said — missing the chance to score points on the fact that Jenkins wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and hasn’t come up with a real alternative to the black-lung benefit provisions that would die with Obamacare. And not for nothing, but Democrats would have a stronger case on mine safety issues if their own party in West Virginia had passed a truly comprehensive bill and if they had done some serious questioning of MSHA’s performance prior to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Under the headline, The Democratic Panic, a New York Times editorial explained last week:

Many of these candidates are running in difficult political environments and are being careful about what they say or don’t say in hopes of preserving Democratic control of the Senate. They run the risk, though, of alienating important constituencies who prefer a party with a spine, especially black voters, who remain very supportive of Mr. Obama. By not standing firmly for their own policies, Democrats send a message to voters that the unending Republican criticism of the president is legitimate. There is much that is going right in this country, and there is still time for Democrats to say so.

There’s a lot of truth to that. And in the coal country of Southern West Virginia, Democrats are not making any progress with their strategy of going right along with the attacks on President Obama and the EPA.  They’re not doing anyone any favors by going right along with the West Virginia Coal Association’s insistence that another coal boom is just around the corner, if only they could get rid of Obama.

About the only Democrat who seems interested in publicly telling any truth at all about the future of coal in Southern West Virginia is Senate President Jeff Kessler, whose home county of  Marshall County is the state’s largest coal producer and doesn’t face the same realities that confront places like Logan, Boone and McDowell counties. And certainly, Sen. Kessler has his work cut out for him.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, with the election fast approaching, the West Virginia Democrats — try as they might to blame the “Washington Democrats” — have done much of the damage to themselves.