Which Way, West Virginia?

Which Way, West Virginia?

[This piece was first published in the Charleston Gazette in February, 2016]

The world and our country are changing. Some of those changes may be welcome, and some of them not so much, but many of them are beyond our power, here in West Virginia, to control. The choices we face are not about whether change is coming, but whether we will capitalize on new circumstances, or simply sit still.

Last year, the President of Appalachian Power, Charles Patton, told us that coal consumption will not increase, regardless of whether or not new federal regulations go into effect. Patton made it clear that the controlling factors were economic, not political, stating: “[i]f we believe we can just change administrations and this issue is going to go away, we’re making a terrible mistake.”

Charles Patton is not some wild-eyed hippie, living for a world powered by moonlight and karma. He has spent decades in the electric power business – until recently, mainly a coal business. He’s received appointments to boards from the likes of George W. Bush and Rick Perry. As an AEP executive, he works to protect shareholders, and his company, from losing money in energy markets, not on scoring short-term political points.

He’s telling us the truth on this. Change is coming to West Virginia. We can’t hold it off, but we can decide how we’re going to handle it. But to do it we’ll need to separate the politics of coal from the economics of coal, so we can get realistic.

The first step, as always, will be admitting we’ve got a problem. Too many of our leaders are like Fitzgerald’s “boats beating against the current,” promising to carry us back to the past. These leaders respond to a changing world by getting angry about it, blaming it on someone else, and spinning us fables about the “good old days.”

That way lies stagnation, defeat, and ultimately, ruin. We can’t afford it. We need a new generation of leadership with its eyes on the future. West Virginia needs its younger eyes to see that the good old days weren’t always good. Leaders who fix their gaze on the past will end up leaving us there.

Next we have to make sure our leaders are choosing public service, not self-service. Public servants demand policies that support better wages for workers, not windfall profits for campaign contributors. Self-servants use the law for private gain, hurting the average person who lacks influence. Public servants represent the many people who are trying, but struggling. Self-servants represent the few who are already doing well. We must identify and promote the public servants, and rid ourselves of self-servants.

Step three will be to reject and reverse the colonization of West Virginia. West Virginia’s economic history has always been that of a colony – meaning it has been owned more by out-of-state interests than by its own people. The result has been wealth flowing out of state to benefit those owners, while West Virginians struggle to maintain a basic quality of life. This occurred first in timber, then in coal, and then in natural gas. But the most frightening phase is the recent colonization of West Virginia’s government.

Political colonization of our state by self-servants represents an existential threat to West Virginia’s working families. No matter how hard economic interests have squeezed ordinary folks, with direct control of the law, the elite can, and will, squeeze harder. Nonetheless, politicians who got no traction elsewhere have come to see West Virginia as fertile ground to launch themselves into power and do just that. But they have no interest in solving West Virginia’s problems, because her suffering is how they came to power in the first place.

2016 will be a time for choosing in West Virginia. We know we’ll see one campaign you can sum up this way: “Obama, Obama, Obama, and coal, coal, coal.” It’s a campaign trying to drive West Virginia while looking out the back window of the car. It’s old, and it’s tired, and it hasn’t got much to show for itself. That campaign has been a jobs program for politicians, lobbyists, and PR firms – but not for West Virginians. Even now, it’s beating against the current, trying to take us into the past.

There’s another way. There’s a way that looks to the future, and the rising generation of West Virginians who are ready to embrace the future. There’s a path made of public service – for keeping our promises to our elderly and retirees, as well as our schoolteachers and children. There are leaders who aren’t in it for a quick buck, or a self-serving law. We can put fresh eyes on our problems, put the state back into the hands of its own people, and start keeping what West Virginia earns for a change.

Which way, West Virginia?