West Virginia

In Morgantown, W.Va., Kerry Has Been Malled
A guide to the swing states.
June 17 2004 4:45 PM

West Virginia

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

"Coal Keeps the Lights On," says a billboard along the highway heading northwest from Summers County. "I'm a Friend of Coal," says another. To the south and west, mountains have been leveled by a new kind of strip mining: Their peaks have been blown up, and a 13-million-pound crane called a drag line has been brought in to scrape off the rest of the mountaintop and take out the coal. I read somewhere that a drag line's boom is more than 100 yards long. I'm dying to see one of these monsters, but all I see are a few bones that evidently belong to some related beast. On Interstate 79 north of Charleston, a flatbed truck with an oversized load has parked along the shoulder. Not until you get up close do you realize that the enormous black bands on its back, each as wide as a highway lane, are tires lying on their sides.

Putting for a coal in one
Putting for a coal in one
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

Coal isn't what it used to be. Fifty years, ago, the state had 126,000 coal miners. Now it's down to about 15,000. But many of those miners have been replaced by machines, which create their own economy. Three hours north, in Morgantown, I meet Monte Hilling, a mechanic whose motor-rewind shop is servicing mining equipment around the clock. Coal is coming back, thanks to demand, higher oil prices, and looser regulation of strip mining. Everyone knows who loosened the regulations: Bush. He beat Gore's brains out with this issue. Remember Earth in the Balance? In West Virginia, it was Election in the Balance. The men at the gas station in Hinton, the town I just left, call environmentalists "tree lovers." Even up near the Pennsylvania border, you can play "Coal Country Miniature Golf." No wonder Republicans call Kerry an enemy of coal. They love to quote what he said last fall: "Where we see a beautiful mountaintop, George Bush sees a strip mine."

Advertisement

The issue isn't that simple. It's a bit like the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: A small area is horribly affected, but the rest of the land may be unaffected. It's also a bit like tobacco farming: Everyone knows the commodity's health costs, but nobody has figured out how to replace it without destroying the region's economy. (Teresa Heinz Kerry did some fancy backpedaling on that question when she came here two weeks ago.) It's full of tradeoffs: The coal you can get by stripping a mountaintop burns more cleanly than coal further down. And the state is so jagged that people have to cut through mountains all the time. The hillside forests that float above the highways like billowing green clouds make you wonder what used to grow where your car is passing through.

Morgantown, the Monongalia County seat, lies near the Pennsylvania border in West Virginia's 1st congressional district. Like Summers County, Monongalia has gone with the statewide winner in every recent presidential election. Four years ago, its voters cast more than 27,000 ballots for president. Gore lost by fewer than 1,000. Things here look much better than in Hinton. New houses are going up. Chemical and manufacturing plants are thriving. Other parts of the state feign sophistication—every highway is a "high-tech corridor," and every county calls itself a "Certified Business Location"—but Morgantown has the real thing: West Virginia University and the brainpower it attracts. If you're a software developer, there are billboards looking for you.

Values at the Morgantown Mall
Values at the Morgantown Mall

Scratch the silicon surface, however, and you'll find the same culture. The women who gather at the mall's play area for children are even more conservative than the men at the gas station in Hinton. They admire Bush's "Christian values" and his "Biblical" opposition to homosexuality. Monte Hilling's wife, Carol, supports Bush because he "prays for God's guidance and wisdom." Religion is so pervasive among these women that I'm tempted to attribute it to the fact that they're married with kids. But that doesn't explain Kristy Young, an unmarried 24-year-old nursing student from an apolitical family who voted against Gore because he opposed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

This is the most surprising pattern in my conversations with blue-collar men in the 3rd District, white-collar women in the first, and self-styled libertarians in the second: They detest abortion, and they bring it up without being asked. Both of West Virginia's Democratic congressmen are pro-life. So are the Democratic nominee for governor and the new state Democratic chairman. * It's not a sanctity-of-life thing; it's a responsibility thing. Kristy, for example, supports stem-cell research but believes in pulling your own weight and bearing the consequences of your acts. Later, I hear the explicitly sexual version of this argument from a man in the 2nd District: "A man can't go no further than a woman let him."

Morality and responsibility also shape the way these women think about Iraq. They don't share the misgivings I heard in Hinton. To them, the invasion was morally right—we went there to help the Iraqis—and now we're all in it together. They worry that Kerry will pull out the troops, and the liberation will have been in vain. Jamie Friese, a 44-year-old homemaker, recalls that everyone prayed for her husband's cousin, Jessica Lynch, the soldier from West Virginia who was captured during the invasion. "The power of the praying helped bring her home," says Jamie. She describes how Jessica's neighbors built a bedroom and bathroom on the ground floor of her house so she could live there while she recovered from her wounds. I think about that later as I watch the Morgantown evening news. The top story is that local members of the National Guard have returned from Iraq to find their cars vandalized. Everyone is incensed.

You'd think that Kerry, who has touted his "band of brothers" in visits to West Virginia, would have won some sympathy from the women at the mall. But you'd be wrong. They call him wishy-washy, a coward, a liar. They say he wavers, flip-flops, and speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Their words echo the ads Bush has run here, but they all claim to have gotten this impression of Kerry from watching the news. Many cite things Kerry tried to have both ways: appropriating $87 billion for Iraq, alleging Vietnam atrocities, throwing away medals at an antiwar protest, and driving an SUV. The litany and the portrayal sound eerily like what these folks heard and thought about Gore four years ago. Kerry has four and a half months to turn it around.

Tomorrow: Heading east.

Correction, June 18, 2004: Originally, this article included the line, "At their convention last weekend, West Virginia Democrats stripped a sentence from their platform that used to say, 'We oppose government intervention in personal decisions that every woman has a right to make for herself.' " This line was based on a June 13 article in the Charleston Gazette. Gazette reporters say they quoted the 2000 West Virginia Democratic platform as it appeared on the party's Web site. A party official, however, says that the 2000 platform does not include the sentence quoted by the Gazette and that she is uncertain whether the platform the party had posted was from 2000 or 1996. The party is unable to locate its 1996 platform to determine whether this was the platform from which the Gazette obtained its quote. ( Return to the article.)