Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

January 12, 2014

Changing political landscape spurs uncomfortable climate for Dems

— — Imagine a glorious breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee without the salt, butter, sugar and cream. It’s not a bad breakfast, but it’s certainly a bland one. And that was the case with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s State of the State address last week.

He did not throw out any bombshells, stir debate or inspire ideological thinking with out-of-the box ideas and plans. Instead, he played it safe while tiptoeing through the minefield of a partisan shift now tidal waving through the Mountain State.

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When it comes to politics, in decades past West Virginia used to be easy — easy as in the high school bad girl staggering through the prom in a too-tight dress and bad blue eye shadow. Throw out a few bottles of booze on election day and count the voters in local cemeteries and the winner was guaranteed to be a good ol’ boy who was well-connected at the courthouse.

Such was the case especially in southern West Virginia.

The winner on Election Day was not always the candidate with the best leadership qualities, but he (and occasionally she) was guaranteed to be homegrown political royalty groomed in the you-scratch-my-back way of thinking.

And what did this mentality of writing the best-known name on the ballot get us? Decades of corruption, cliquish government and a citizenship denied the best representation due them.

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The landscape is changing. In a state that used to be notably union versus business, it now appears to be coal versus the Obama administration and his all-too-overreaching Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s not to say unions are dying in the Mountain State. Many are alive, well and wielding power. And Gov. Tomblin’s advocacy of a 2 percent raise for teachers during his State of the State address was a not-so-subtle bow to the federation of great and powerful educators.

Want to win friends and increase salaries? Then provide votes at the polls on Election Day. Teachers vote, and politicians are well aware of that reality.

This is not to say that teachers are not deserving of a pay increase. They are. But so are many other hard-working West Virginians who toil in labor in and out of state government. Of course, if they are not well organized into a powerful voting segment, will they see the number on the check increase on payday?

It’s sad to see politicians pandering to one particular voting bloc when an entire state of people could use their assistance.

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But back to coal. If there is one thing President Obama has done for the benefit of West Virginia and other coal states, it was to unify those in the industry — workers, bosses, owners, and all their families — against the current Democratic administration.

The war on coal, whether perceived or real, affects all those in the coalfield counties. Our economy is linked to the industry, and when one miner loses his job the aftereffects trickle down to other businesses  — restaurants, retailers, hair salons and the mom and pops trying to etch out a living selling soda and beef jerky at their roadside convenience stores.

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In late December, the New York Times published a story focusing on the changing political landscape in the Mountain State. The story noted how President Obama lost all of the state’s 55 counties in the 2012 election, and how some candidates are attempting to distance themselves from the administration.

The Times also detailed how Michelle Obama urged attendees at a fund-raising event in New York to donate to the senate campaign of Democrat Natalie Tennant. However, back in West Virginia Tennant’s campaign told local media “what the first lady said is not an endorsement.”

According to the Times story: “In an interview, Ms. Tennant even seemed to downgrade the president’s title. ‘I don’t answer to Senator Obama,’ she said. ‘I answer to the people of West Virginia.’ (A spokeswoman later said that was an unintentional slip of the tongue.)”

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West Virginia is no longer a blue state. Instead, it shines in the powerful color of purple.

A state that is historically Democratic, whose people care deeply about culture and heritage. But also a state where residents with an independent spirit will buck tradition if it saves the job of their next-door, coal-mining neighbor.

What will happen in the next election? It will be interesting to see. The last vestige of union voters may save the day for Democrats. Or a new voting bloc, powered by people looking at the big picture of the state’s economy, may turn the tide.

Either way, it is an uncomfortable day to be a Democrat in West Virginia.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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