Leaders in both parties say that what has happened to politics in West Virginia begins with what has happened to coal — an industry that employs about 32,000 in the state, fewer than half the number of jobs it provided in 1976.
Although there always have been booms and busts, people “are convinced that President Obama wants to destroy the coal industry, and that’s what’s driving our politics,” said Raamie Barker, a top adviser to Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
In purely economic terms, coal and the industries it feeds no longer dominate. Nor do the labor unions that gave the Democrats so much of their political muscle. In 1997, Weirton Steel was West Virginia’s largest private employer; every year since then, Wal-Mart has held that spot — as it does nationally.
But coal has a grip on the state’s psyche and identity that cannot be quantified by economic statistics. Mining brought generations of strivers to the mountains, where they took on dirty, deadly work. By the 1970s, those were high-paying jobs; even today, with overtime, a miner can make six figures.
“You can’t hardly talk to anybody who doesn’t say, ‘My great-grandfather was a coal miner,’ ” said West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette. “It’s not uncommon for anybody, anywhere to look back at a time when things were different and long for those days.”
Kevin Richardson’s father has been a coal miner for 42 years — one tough and determined enough to have gone back into the ground after a double knee replacement. The younger Richardson, who lives in Glen Daniel, is a Wal-Mart manager.
“Driving from my house, it used to be you would pass four coal mines. Now you pass one,” he said of his daily commute to the store. Richardson also has noticed that customers lately buy only essentials: “We feel the crunch of it. It’s cutting into everybody’s pay.”
Yes, the King Coal giants broke the unions and Wal-marted the state's economy to death. But this is also a state that's 94% white. Nobody in West Virginia ever accused Bush of trying to destroy West Virginia, even when his economic plan doubled the state's unemployment and under Obama, West Virginia is now doing better than the national average and has seen unemployment drop to around 6%.
But Obama is the bad guy in this picture. Gosh, what's different about him compared to the other 43 Presidents? Poppy Bush sure tanked the state's economy with unemployment reaching nearly 12% due to the recession he caused, Bush Junior tanked the state's economy again with the near depression he caused at the end of his term, but everyone is convinced Obama is trying to destroy the state, and by God they're going to vote for the people who exploited the hell out of them, destroyed their unions, and left them one of the poorest states in the nation.
Watch what happens when Hillary Clinton shows up here on her road to 2016. Suddenly Democrats will be awesome again.