Zack Harold

writer/editor

A Job You Wear

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

On June 15, 2015, elected officials, members of the public, and journalists crammed into the dark wood-paneled council chambers at Charleston City Hall to watch Kanawha Circuit Judge Todd Kaufman administer the oath of office to Mayor Danny Jones. He had been reelected just a few weeks earlier, carrying 62 percent of the vote over Democrat candidate Paul Monroe and independent challenger William Carpenter.

Although the swearing-in ceremony carried much less pomp and circumstance than a presidential or gubernatorial inauguration, it was a historic occasion for Charleston. Once Jones said “so help me God,” he officially began his fourth term as mayor, the longest tenure in city history. It was a milestone for Jones, too. With 13 years under his belt—and three more to go—he has spent more time as mayor of Charleston than at any other job in his life.  

Since he returned to his hometown after a two-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included some time driving a truck in Vietnam, and a yearlong stay at Marshall University, where he studied political science, Danny Jones has worked as a bartender, bouncer, cook, waiter, gravedigger, bottled water salesman, restaurant owner, public relations man, county sheriff, state delegate, and radio talk show host, among other gigs. By his count, Jones has held 35 jobs in his 65 years.

Political opponents criticized him for this when he first ran for mayor in 2003. They said Jones, the Republican nominee, wouldn’t have the attention span necessary to run a city government. After he won that race with more than 57 percent of the vote, his Democratic opponent Chris Smith came to congratulate him and offer a word of advice. He told Jones, “I want you to stick with this.”

Little did Smith—or anyone else—realize how well the mayor’s office would fit Jones. “Some people are suited for a job, and some people aren’t. This is a job that he is more than suited for,” says Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis. “It’s one he can get out and move around, or sit behind a desk and face a challenge. He loves challenges.”

There have been lots of challenges since Jones took over. His administration has faced budget problems, legal battles, and deadly tragedies. Jones was mayor during one of the worst environmental disasters of the century—when Freedom Industries dumped thousands of gallons of industrial cleaner into the Elk River, contaminating Charleston’s water supply and leaving its residents without potable tap water for days. While some government officials shrank from the ensuing media attention, Jones rose to the occasion, giving voice to the frustrations of his residents and demanding action against the perpetrators.

There have been personal struggles, too, which were often lived out in the local media. During his time in office Jones has been married, had two young sons, got divorced, battled prostate cancer, and dealt with the multiple drug-related arrests of his eldest son Zac, who was 13 when his father took office. While he might not have handled all these challenges perfectly, he has earned a reputation for addressing any situation with unwavering candor. “The one thing I like about Mayor Jones is, I know where I stand. He is honest and direct with his thoughts,” Davis says. “It’s politically incorrect, but it works.”

This is Jones’ modus operandi. “What else is there but the truth? The truth is to be used. The reason we don’t get to the bottom of issues is because people won’t tell the truth,” he says. It’s difficult to believe such a figure exists in our cynical age: a politician who speaks the truth for truth’s sake. You might even be inclined to believe he’s lying, but Jones is not blowing smoke. He’s not that kind of politician. He’s a mayor.

Occupying the space

Most mornings you can find Jones at the only Starbucks in city limits, located in the center court of the Charleston Town Center mall. He reads the newspaper over a small breakfast: a cup of coffee, a PowerBar, and maybe a pastry from the counter. Jones says he comes here to look at women. True to his politically incorrect nature, the mayor is a notorious flirt. But that’s just a bit of his barroom days showing through. Sit and talk with him, and you begin to see what is really on his mind.

Sitting on a stiff couch at a shopping mall coffee shop, Jones is surrounded by his city. He often stops mid-sentence to shout a greeting to a federal judge, lawyer, police officer, journalist, or taxi driver. Sometimes he greets people he doesn’t know. The strangers inevitably return the greeting. Jones calls this “occupying the space,” a concept he picked up from a political science professor at West Virginia State University, where he took a few classes while serving as Kanawha County Sheriff. “You’re mayor every moment you’re awake,” he says. “It’s not a job you work. It’s a job you wear.”

Danny Jones is a performer. During his time as county sheriff, he acted in local productions of Li’l Abner, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Music Man, and Annie Get Your Gun, which also featured a young Jennifer Garner. He considers playing the titular character in Abner the highlight of his life—besides, of course, his children. What was the attraction? “The power. You’re onstage. There’s 750 people in the audience and you can raise your eyebrows and they start laughing.”

But having your name perpetually on a marquee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jones’ insistence on wearing his job and occupying his space often causes his critics to attack the man as much as his decisions. Not long after taking office, Jones pushed for a $1-per-week user fee on anyone who worked within city limits. The fee generated $2.5 million in its first year, money the city used to pave roads, hire maintenance workers, and put more than 20 new officers on its police force. Yet many people—particularly those who worked in Charleston but lived elsewhere—balked at the fee. Some still have not forgiven Jones for dipping into their paychecks. Back then, commenters on local news websites gave him the disparaging nickname “Dollar Danny.” The name stuck and still gets regular use in some circles today.

But perhaps nothing has drawn more anger than Jones’ efforts to stop a 2014 state law that repealed all municipal weapons bans on city-owned properties. The mayor lobbied hard against the legislation, publicly calling on lawmakers to kill the bill. His efforts drew vicious criticism from gun rights supporters, and he eventually gave up the fight. “I don’t really fault them at all. I was basically a strawman. It was a tactic,” he says. “But nobody was there to help me. I was fighting that battle alone. I didn’t want to spend my last few years fighting something I cannot win.”

Either of these episodes, spun in the right way by opponents, could have ended his political career. Fighting to raise taxes and ban guns certainly would not work well for most candidates running on a Republican ticket. And yet he remains unrepentant about the battles he has picked even when, as with the gun ban controversy, he lost. He says being mayor brings you “nose to nose” with issues that affect your community—leaving little time for blind partisanship. Nanya Friend, former editor and publisher of the conservative Charleston Daily Mail newspaper who has followed Jones throughout his political career, knows what he means. “When you’re running a city it’s hard to be a pure ideologue, because of the issues that come up,” she says. “When you’re dealing with gun crime on the West Side, or need to make sure kids are safe in community centers, you get a different point of view.”

Amazingly, Jones’ habit of following his gut instead of the party line does not seem to have hurt him politically. If anything, it might have helped. Councilwoman Davis says this is because city politics are decidedly nonpartisan. “If you asked me to tell you who is a Democrat or Republican, I’d have to stop and think. When you come to the city level, you’re working for your neighborhoods. You’re working to make your city stronger. You don’t have time to think about who is what,” she says. “You don’t stay in office unless people feel you have the passion and they’re seeing change.”

Davis, for the record, is a Democrat. She was elected in 1999 and served for four years with Mayor Jay Goldman before Jones took office. “When I first went into City Hall, there was an area where there were hundreds of plans. Each administration makes its own plans of what it would like to see in Charleston,” she says. The plans in that room had never come to fruition. There’s only so much a mayor can accomplish in one term—and Charleston voters only allowed one of the five mayors before Jones to serve a second term. “Inevitably, what you have is a lot of plans gathering dust,” Davis says.

There aren’t many plans gathering dust now. Jones says he originally planned to end his mayoral career in 2011. But as he approached the end of his second term, he started to rethink his decision. “I thought eight (years) would be enough. But … there’s so many things that couldn’t have been done.”

Making a mark

Driving into Charleston at night, heading east on Interstate 64, the first thing that will catch your eye is the gilded dome of the West Virginia State Capitol. If it’s a summer night, another very impressive structure will come into view just seconds later. Appalachian Power Park is home of the Charleston Power, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. Their games are a favorite social occasion for Charlestonians of all stripes, even those who don’t really like baseball.

But Appalachian Power Park almost didn’t happen. Early on, the project was incredibly unpopular. According to a Charleston Gazette article at the time, a poll found 75 percent of voters opposed the new park. Democrat mayoral candidate Chris Smith promised in his 2003 campaign to divert the $12 million state lawmakers set aside for the project to other needs like sewer system upgrades or a new library. Jones also expressed doubts about the project, but promised to see it completed. Over the following two years his administration oversaw the demolition of an old factory and grocery store on the site, and dealt with lawsuits that temporarily tied up the state funding. In the end, a modern, $23 million complex rose on the city’s East End and Power Park opened just in time for the 2005 baseball season. “It’s one of those amenities that make Charleston a better place to live,” Jones says. “It makes everything look better.” Now businesses and apartments are moving into a side of town that once contained little more than abandoned warehouses.

As you leave the ballpark, make your way toward the Kanawha River and turn right on Kanawha Boulevard. After a few blocks, you’ll spot another spectacular bit of architecture: Haddad Riverfront Park. What began as a simple concrete amphitheater along the Kanawha River is now covered with a sweeping white canopy, a little reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Down front, the stage has its own arching canopy, designed to look like the paddlewheel of the sternwheeler boats that once frequented the adjacent waterway.

This park is also a monument to Jones’ tenacity. In 2008 he secured $2.4 million in federal earmarks from then-Senator Robert C. Byrd to build the roof at Haddad, which paved the way for additional donations from local philanthropists. The park, where spectators once blistered in the sun, is now the centerpiece of almost every summertime celebration in Charleston’s downtown.

By the beginning of 2018, Jones hopes to have completed another ambitious improvement project for the city. Workers have begun construction on a nearly $100 million revamp of the city’s Civic Center, largely funded by a half-cent sales tax passed by City Council in October 2013. It’s a project he has wanted to tackle since he first took office. “When I was in a show (in the Little Theater) in 1986, I was performing and the lights went out. It was a worn facility and needed work,” he says. “We don’t know how many events we lost, but we lost some.”

Now the aging, utilitarian Civic Center will be updated with a towering glass façade and an overhanging roof, a stylishly updated interior, and an outdoor plaza along the Elk River. Jones believes the project will attract bigger conventions and other events to the city, which will boost the local economy as a whole. “I’ve been in some world-class venues and I think this is definitely going to be one,” he says.

There have been other big changes since Jones took office. Businesses are growing on the city’s East End and West Side. Capitol Street in the heart of downtown was once a derelict row of boarded-up storefronts with a bad reputation; now it’s the city’s main cultural thoroughfare. But the accomplishment Jones is most proud of—the thing he hopes will define his legacy as mayor—is something you can’t see. It’s something visitors, as well as most residents, will never consider. “Barney Frank once told me you never get credit for what you prevent,” he says.

In 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts named Charleston as one of worst cities in America for unfunded pension liabilities. At the time, the city had  saved only a quarter of the $270 million it owed in firefighter and police pensions. Jones knew that kind of debt could bankrupt a city—pension debts are what drove Detroit, Michigan into economic disaster—so he began looking for ways to pay down the debt. The city instituted hiring freezes on its fire and police departments, then made deep cuts to the city budget in 2010, removing across-the-board raises for city employees for the first time since Jones took office. In 2015, the city instituted a half-percent sales tax, expected to generate $13 million a year by 2029. Although the city still has hundreds of millions in pension debts on the books, Charleston is now on track to have its accounts settled within 25 years.

Jones did not tackle any of these challenges alone, and he admits that. He’s proud to have built a team of smart people who know how to get things done. But he can be credited for creating an environment where good things can thrive. “Like him or not, you have to respect that he wants to push Charleston and make it move forward,” Davis says. Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, says this will be the legacy of Jones’ administration. “He’s somebody that’s up for new ideas. His vision will have a residual effect. These aren’t changes that will go away.” Friend, of the Daily Mail, agrees. “I’m not sure I’d want to be his successor.”

Vacating the space

Danny Jones’ great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay Dickinson, was the sixth mayor of Charleston. His administration has only one notable accomplishment: Dickinson was the city’s shortest-serving mayor, lasting only a month in office before he unexpectedly died.

Dickinson’s great-great-grandson is now the city’s longest-serving mayor. But he has no intention of dying in office. When Jones announced he would seek a fourth term as mayor, he made it clear it would also be his final term. Will he change his mind? “That ain’t gonna happen. We need to have younger people in these positions,” he says.

He believes leaving office in 2019 is best for the city. But you also get the feeling the job is wearing thin for Jones. He finds being mayor an inherently lonely job. “It is, by nature, selfish. You have to base everything around yourself because that’s whose name is on the line.”

In the meantime, Jones is content. In January, he made his return to local airwaves as the host of “580 Live with Danny Jones,” an hour-long news talk show on AM station WCHS. On a snowy morning in February, he arrives at the station a few minutes before the start of the show. He exits his black Toyota and heads into the building without feeding the parking meter. The blue and yellow “Danny Jones, Charleston Mayor” sticker on his rear bumper ensures he won’t be ticketed.

Inside, Jones makes small talk with the receptionist and says hello to news director Jeff Jenkins before stepping into the subterranean broadcast studio. He carries no notes or other preparatory material other than the newspaper he had at Starbucks earlier in the morning. “When I go on the air, I never know what I’m going to talk about,” he says.

He has no difficulty filling the silence. In the radio studio, Jones is animated behind the microphone. He shakes his head, swivels in his chair, and talks with his hands. He muses about the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the U.S. Senate’s promise to block any appointee from the Obama administration. He talks about the sentencing of executives from Freedom Industries. Owner Dennis Farrell and CEO Gary Southern each received 30 days in jail, while other officials got probation. “They should’ve gotten a lot more time,” Jones tells radio listeners. “The damage those people did to this community is incalculable when you think about it. Three hundred thousand people were affected by what they did … and it lasted for days and days and days.”

He also talks about the political battles being fought at the State Capitol a few miles away. Jones, who served two years in the House of Delegates before leaving to run a barbecue restaurant full-time, says the state is in the worst financial shape he’s seen. He criticizes lawmakers—of both parties—for not doing more to fix it. “This is conviction-driven government. They have no new taxes. That is what they believe,” he says. “Where’s the money going to come from?”

Jones holds up Charleston as a model of effective government, touting his town as “a sea of certainty.” “A place where we give great service. A place that has good finances, unlike the rest of the state. I’m so glad we planned for 13 years. We put things in order. We did things the way they needed to be done,” he says. But he doesn’t spend too much time congratulating himself—he wants to hear from listeners.

Throughout the hour Jones asks again and again for calls. Two people phone in wanting to talk about medical marijuana. Jones isn’t against the idea, but is skeptical state lawmakers would legalize pot. Someone else calls in to ask why the city hasn’t sued over the Freedom Industries spill. “Can I answer that? We have,” he says.

He continues pushing listeners to call in. He wants something to sink his teeth into. Danny Jones wants a challenge. “We’ll take your calls and talk about any issue you want to talk about,” he hums into the microphone as the show draws to a close. “We have about four minutes left if you’d like to call the show. We’d like to hear from you if you’d like to ask me anything. You know, I am the mayor.”

Speed Limits

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Patrecia Gray’s home is tucked away up a narrow hollow in Mason County. She bought the property in the 1970s with her husband, partly because it reminded her of the Laura Ingalls Wilder book On the Banks of Plum Creek. “We were just going to rough it, and we found out how rough it is.” The property is connected to the outside world by a gravel road. It’s a source of constant consternation for Gray. The gravel often washes out when it rains. State workers come and repair it, but the fix is always the same: more gravel dumped in the road to be washed away when the next downpour arrives.

From a purely economic point of view, the state’s strategy is simple. There are only a few homes in Gray’s hollow and gravel is pretty cheap, so it doesn’t make much sense to spend lots of money paving the road. But economics do little to ease Gray’s mind. After all, she’s the one who gets stuck when the road washes out.

Gray’s other connection to the outside world, her Internet connection, is similarly fraught. Although she only lives about a dozen miles from Point Pleasant, she’s too far into the country to join the cable company’s network. She used a dial-up connection for a long time, longer than most other Internet users, but ultimately found it to be too slow and unreliable.

For a while Gray hoped Frontier Communications would bring its highspeed DSL broadband through her phone lines, but the company eventually decided against it. You can probably guess why. It’s the same reason the state won’t pave her road—too few beneficiaries for too large an investment. “They just say we’re on the end of the line here,” Gray says.

She now uses Frontier’s satellite Internet service. While much faster and more reliable than dial-up, it still has some drawbacks. Gray gets a limited amount of bandwidth each month and if she exceeds that amount, as she often does, the speed of her connection drops way down.

Gray is no super-user. She relies on the Internet for the same things as most of the rest of us—email, web browsing, keeping track of family members on Facebook, and watching videos on YouTube. Her husband is a teacher and mostly uses the connection for work, making lesson plans and remotely accessing his school’s network to update students’ grades. But many times, the connection is just too slow and he gets frustrated. “There’s been times he just shuts it down,” Gray says. Frustrating as it might be, the couple has come to terms with their slow connection. “It’s like a bad tooth,” she says. “If you can’t get it pulled, you just learn to live with it.”

Lots of West Virginians find themselves in similar situations. While about 90 percent of state residents have access to hardwired Internet connections in their homes, the Federal Communications Commission says the majority of those connections are much too slow. Since 2010 the FCC defined “broadband” as Internet connections with download speeds of four megabits per second and upload speeds of one megabit. That’s comparable to using a smartphone connected to a 4G wireless network—just fine for most Internet activities like web browsing, checking email, and basic video streaming. But as technology has advanced and more Internet-enabled devices have entered the home, the FCC announced in January its four-megabit standard was “dated and inadequate.” Now the agency requires speeds six times faster than the old benchmark—25 megabits per second—before a connection can be considered “broadband.”

According to that new definition, West Virginia ranks 47th in the nation for overall broadband access. More than half of the state’s residents do not have access to broadband Internet. Only Arkansas, Vermont, and Montana rank worse. West Virginia’s urbanites fare better than rural residents. Only a third of city dwellers do not have broadband access, according to the new FCC definition. It’s a much different story for the state’s rural communities, however—three-quarters of those residents do not have adequate Internet speeds. These statistics are far worse than the norm. Nationwide, eight percent of urban residents and a little more than half of rural Americans lack access to broadband that meets federal requirements.

Many state leaders worry West Virginia’s lack of access will hold back our economic growth. “You can’t transition if you don’t have this tool.” says U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, who has declared broadband expansion as one of her top priorities in Congress. “Everyone wants sewer, water, and transportation, but if you don’t have the ability to transmit designs if you’re an engineer, or transmit photographs if you’re a photographer, you’re really hemmed in.”

It’s an important, complex issue that lots of people are hoping to solve. But in the last year, two potential paths forward have appeared. One aims to increase the number of Internet service providers (ISPs) in the state, hoping increased competition will drive providers to expand their networks. The other approach, favored by the state’s largest Internet provider, aims to stretch service to the outer edges of the existing network.

Each approach has its fans and its detractors.

Slow Traffic Ahead

Before we begin talking about those possible solutions, however, it’s important to understand how the Internet works. Think of it like a giant highway system made of wires. All your news stories, Facebook posts, and Netflix movies are carried down this highway in packets, like millions of tiny trucks. These packets ride on “core networks” that run between large cities, like major interstates. Each of these cities have off-ramps known as “carrier hotels,” where your local ISP taps into the core network.

Your packets leave the interstate, take one of these offramps, and turn onto your ISP’s “middle mile” network. This would be the equivalent of state roads in our analogy. This collection of wires carries the data to intersections connected to smaller roads. These “last mile” connections make up the final leg of the journey, like a county route, delivering data to your home or business.

West Virginia’s broadband speeds are slow because some of our “local roads” have very low speed limits. The core networks and middle mile networks are pretty fast—they’re strung together with fiber optic cable, which transmits data using waves of light. Data can travel on these wires as fast as an ISP’s servers will allow, since nothing travels faster than the speed of light.

Things begin to fall apart as we get closer home, however. In West Virginia, the last mile connections are almost always made of copper. These are the telephone lines or coax cables that deliver the Internet to your house. Copper wires transmit data through electrical currents that, unlike light, get weaker over long distances. That means ISPs have to use repeater stations, which recharge the data so it can continue on its way. The farther customers live from an ISP’s repeater station, the slower their connections go. Many customers, like Patrecia Gray, live so far away the connection will not work at all.

To see significant increases in Internet speeds, West Virginia would have to beef up its Internet infrastructure. That could mean more copper wire and repeater stations. Or, if we are truly forward thinking, fiber connections extended to homes. A few things hold this progress back, however. West Virginia’s geography is so challenging and our tiny population is so spread out, it would take a lot of time and money to expand and upgrade the network. And if there’s one thing our state lacks at the moment, it’s money.

One young state lawmaker believes he has figured out a solution to this dilemma.

The Middle Mile

About halfway through the 2015 legislative session, state Senator Chris Walters introduced a bill to construct a new 2,500-mile fiber network with tendrils stretching to every corner of the state, at an estimated cost of up to $72 million. Internet service providers would lease access to this middle mile network, with the proceeds used to cover construction costs and upkeep of the line.

Walters says a state-owned middle mile would increase Internet speeds while also keeping costs down for subscribers. Right now large ISPs are the only ones with middle mile lines. Since they own these networks, they can charge smaller ISPs whatever they like for access. This reduces competition, Walters says, which reduces companies’ incentives to cut subscriber costs or increase speeds.

He believes a state-owned middle mile would level the playing field and increase competition, which would result in fast, cheap Internet. Walters hopes this would encourage more businesses to open in West Virginia. In fact, an economic impact study produced by West Virginia State University estimates the fiber line would create 4,000 permanent jobs and add more than $900 million to the state’s gross domestic product in just the first year after its completion.

Walters’ bill did not gain much traction in the Legislature this year, however. It passed the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee—which Walters runs—only to die in the Senate Finance Committee amid a logjam of other legislation. But its author is not deterred. He believes the legislation stands a much better chance of passing in 2016 and plans to introduce the bill as soon as the Legislature reconvenes in January.

He has spent the last year lobbying fellow lawmakers—Senate President Bill Cole even referenced expanding broadband when he launched his gubernatorial campaign in June—and building a “ground game” with like-minded organizations. “We have a groundswell,” Walters says. “This is our generation’s interstate system. It’s just as important. If you don’t have an interstate of fiber to get there, building the off-ramps is impossible.”

Walters’ “middle mile” bill will be one of Generation West Virginia’s top legislative priorities in 2016, says Executive Director Natalie Roper. “This isn’t about Netflix. It’s so much more than that,” Roper says. “It’s really about business and economic revitalization. We can’t think of anything more fundamental to attract the next generation.” Without modern, high-speed Internet connections, she says, the state’s economy cannot move forward. “Broadband is everything. It’s critical infrastructure just like highways and water and sewage.”

Both Walters and Roper admit Internet service providers have trouble justifying investments to connect the state’s most rural citizens. It’s an expensive undertaking, with not much initial return on investment. “This is why we need a state investment,” Roper says. “If it doesn’t make sense for private companies to create this infrastructure, we need the state to come in and provide that valuable investment.”

The Last Mile

Not everyone likes Walters’ plan, however. “Spending time and public money on things that are already there doesn’t make much sense,” says Andy Malinoski, spokesman for Frontier Communications, the largest ISP in the state. While Walters’s bill would spend the state’s money to build a new middle mile network, Malinoski says the work has already been done. Frontier, along with other large ISPs, already have high-speed fiber lines running all throughout the state. “That would be like creating another four lane up to Morgantown,” he says.

Malinoski says West Virginia’s Internet connections are plenty fast, even though the FCC’s new broadband definition conveys a much bleaker—and, in Frontier’s mind, skewed—picture of Internet access in the state. While many residents do not have 25 megabit access, Malinoski says most households don’t need or even want the service. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai agrees. In a dissenting statement released alongside the agency’s new broadband definitions earlier this year, Pai says most consumers are perfectly happy with slower speeds. “Seventy-one percent of consumers who can purchase fixed 25 (megabit) service—over 70 million households—chose not to,” he says.

Malinoski questions the purported economic benefits of Walters’ project. He says access to super-fast Internet service is not enough, in itself, to spur business growth. “There are other factors as to why people relocate to West Virginia,” he says.

Frontier does acknowledge that many areas of the state still have difficulty connecting to the Internet, let alone accessing broadbandtier speeds. But Malinoski says a new middle mile network will not help West Virginia improve its access rankings. Smaller ISPs might use the network to expand to some residential customers, he says, but will not spend money to connect the farthest hills and hollows— leaving Frontier to pick up the slack. “The rest of rural West Virginia, we’re still going to be out there trying to connect them.”

Taxpayers would be better served, Frontier says, if the state focused its investments on the wires that connect the middle mile to customers’ homes. Over the last five years Frontier has invested $460 million of its own money—plus about $60 million in federal grants—to upgrade its network. That includes extending access to nearly 190,000 state households that previously did not have connections. Last month, the company introduced 24 gigabit service to Hinton. “The mission of Frontier is to connect rural America. Where we’re taking our investment is that last mile,” Malinoski says.

The company’s distaste for Walters’ plan is understandable, since the state-run middle mile is designed to create more competition for Frontier and other large ISPs. As it stands now, these companies own the middle mile and have complete control over who uses it. This has recently caused some controversy in our state, however.

Last year, the Bridgeport-based ISP Citynet wanted to extend broadband service to Snowshoe Mountain and asked to lease Frontier’s fiber middle mile to get there. Frontier agreed, but wanted $2 million a year for access to the line. Malinoski says his company thought that was a fair price—after all, Frontier paid for the line and is responsible for the network’s upkeep. But Citynet balked. Rather than pay Frontier’s annual fee, the company opted to build its own line to Snowshoe using rights of way along the tracks at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park—for $820,000.

Also last year, Citynet asked to lease Frontier’s unused “dark fiber” lines. These lines—connecting Clarksburg with Elkins, Philippi, and Buckhannon—were already in the ground but are not currently in use. Frontier denied the request, and Citynet filed a complaint with the state Public Service Commission. In July, a judge recommended the PSC require Frontier to give Citynet access to the unused lines, based on a decade-old agreement Citynet had with Frontier’s predecessor Verizon. Frontier has since filed an appeal over the judge’s recommendation, arguing it should not be forced to help its competitors, and that Citynet has no right to the fiber.

As this issue goes to press, the PSC has not made a final decision on the matter. But for Citynet CEO Jim Martin, the issue is simple. “They control the middle mile, the highways in and out of these markets. They make the price so high, it’s a barrier for anybody to get into those markets,” he says. “And guess what? There’s no other option.”

Others argue Frontier is well within its rights to limit access to its privately owned middle mile. Elaine Harris, lobbyist for the Communication Workers of America, served on the now-defunct West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council, which gave grants to ISPs to expand Internet access in the state. She says companies like Frontier have made significant investments in the state’s broadband infrastructure and should be allowed to use the fruits of those investments as they see fit.

Harris, whose union represents many Frontier workers, also worries a state-owned, state-run middle mile like Senator Walters proposes might discourage future investments. She thinks it would give small ISPs an unfair advantage. “There has got to be some skin in the game. There has to be,” she says.

Miles to Go

No matter which solution the state adopts to solve its broadband connectivity issues—whether it’s a new middle mile, as Walters wants, or increased investment in the last mile, as Frontier wants—residents’ access to high-speed broadband Internet will ultimately depend on the same forces that keep Patrecia Gray’s gravel road unpaved. Simple economics. For all the efforts to improve and expand broadband access, there are communities in this state so small and far removed it will never make economic sense for any company, large or small, to run provide service there.

There is one surefire way to ensure everyone has access, however: Turn broadband into a public utility. After all, that’s the way rural America received electricity in the early 20th century. By allowing ISPs to become government-approved monopolies, the companies could invest in their infrastructure without any concerns about competition. In return, government agencies could control Internet costs and require providers to meet certain coverage benchmarks.

This will likely never come to pass. Internet service providers certainly do not want to be regulated by the government, no matter the benefits. Competition-minded politicians like state Senator Walters and U.S. Senator Capito don’t want it either. And although it appears some FCC commissioners may be interested in making broadband a lightly regulated utility, no one at the agency seems to intend the Internet be regulated as stringently as electricity, natural gas, water, or railroads.

Whether we invest in middle mile or last mile, for the foreseeable future economics will continue to reign. And some roads, it seems, may never be paved.

To the Dogs

This story was originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus.

When Sam Burdette first visited the Tri- State Greyhound Park in Cross Lanes in the mid-1980s, he didn’t even know how to read the program. The sheets of paper were filled with an overwhelming array of fractions and decimals, arranged in almost indecipherable rows and columns. A buddy had to help him navigate—the strange figures were statistics for each dog in a race, detailing the animal’s weight, past race times, total number of races, and odds of winning, along with the names of the dog’s owner, kennel, and trainer.

Burdette caught on quick. He won $600 on a $60 bet that first night and started mulling a strategy to make some real money. He would use the race standings to figure out which kennels had the most successful dogs, and then bet only on dogs from those kennels. Burdette was a civil engineer, comfortable with crunching numbers. He started keeping a notebook, making hypothetical bets on races based on the handicapping numbers in the program. “Each day I’d tally it up and see if I was ahead or behind. I was approaching it from an analytical standpoint.”

The experiment ran for three months. By the end Burdette realized if he had used real money, he would be $200 behind. “I said, well, you can’t buy groceries with that. My object was to take money away from the racetrack, not leave it there,” he says. “To this day, I don’t bet.”

Instead, Burdette made what he considered a safer wager. After years of hopping from state to state with his job, he moved back home to West Virginia in 1997 to take care of his ailing mother and father. He retired from engineering and decided to start raising greyhounds. He had learned a lot about the industry during his brief stint as a pretend professional gambler, and he fell in love with the dogs.

It was more than the dogs, however. In 1990 the state legislature took a portion of greyhound wagering money and created the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund. In addition to the purse money breeders received when their dogs placed in races, they would now get monthly checks from the state Racing Commission. The payout was determined by the amount of money in the fund and the number of points an owner’s dogs earned during races that month. The more dogs a breeder raised and raced, and the better those dogs performed, the larger the checks would be.

Successful breeders were soon receiving thousands of dollars each month from the fund. As a result, those breeders began doubling down on their investments. They started raising more dogs and taking out loans to expand their kennels. Out-of-state breeders began moving to West Virginia, even though they were required to live here for four years before receiving any money from the fund.

“That’s when I decided to start raising dogs,” says kennel operator Harvey Maupin. He grew up in Colorado, where his father raised and raced greyhounds. As he got older, Maupin began training dogs, and he came to West Virginia in 1988 to work as a dog trainer. He whelped his first few litters around 1995, raising the dogs in the backyard of his Cross Lanes home. He later purchased a farm in Red House in 2000. As his operation grew, he spent $140,000 to get a kennel at Tri-State, and about $100,000 for a partnership in a kennel at the Wheeling Island greyhound track. At one point, Maupin had 15 employees.

“Times were booming,” says Burdette, who is now president of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association. “The Legislature had done something that actually worked. We had created a greyhound breeding industry. Wheeling was the number-one track in the United States. People were making a living at greyhound racing.”

But then the industry’s luck began to change. Nationwide interest in greyhound racing started declining. In 2001 there were greyhound tracks in 15 states around the country. West Virginia is now one of only seven states that continue to race dogs, and the sport has grown increasingly unpopular in this state as well.

A few things are to blame for this downturn in interest. Greyhound racing has faced increased scrutiny by animal rights groups like Grey2K, a Massachusetts-based organization that tracks reports of racing-related injuries and abuse. The group’s findings often gain media attention, which has helped turn many animal lovers away from the sport. But animal welfare concerns are not the biggest threat to the greyhound industry. The major declines in attendance and revenues have come from an enemy familiar to most industries—competition.

In early 1994 the West Virginia Legislature legalized video lottery terminals—better known as slot machines—at state greyhound tracks. By September the machines were up and running at both greyhound tracks. It seemed like a mutually beneficial move for racetracks and the racing industry. Tracks gained an additional revenue stream and, because of the way legislators crafted the law, greyhound breeders and kennel operators would be allowed to continue racing while also taking a 15 percent cut of video lottery money, which was added to race purses and the breeding development fund.

But over time, the slot machines that were supposed to help the greyhound industry began to overtake it. “People switched over from racing to slot machines. They and sit there in a trance and push that button,” Burdette says. He likes to joke—not incorrectly— that it used to take all night to lose $50 at the dog track. With a slot machine, it can take just a few minutes.

Competition only increased after the legislature legalized table games like blackjack, roulette, and craps in 2007. The racetracks began rebranding themselves accordingly. In 2008 both Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center and Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center changed their names. They are now Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort. Live racing had gone from the main attraction to just one more way to gamble and was losing customers in droves to the one-armed bandits.

In addition to the troubles at the racetrack, the greyhound industry has also faced repeated challenges from the statehouse. Every few years, it seems lawmakers take a look at the millions of dollars in subsidies dedicated to greyhound racing and usually decide that money could be better spent elsewhere. In 2001 the legislature put a cap on video lottery subsidies to greyhound racing, with revenues over that cap flowing into the state’s general revenue fund. In 2005 state lawmakers took another chunk of greyhound purse supplements to create the Workers Compensation Debt Reduction Fund. Then, last year, lawmakers again cut greyhound subsidies with the passage of a so-called “haircut bill,” which reduced money for purses and the development fund by 10 percent.

The Spectrum Report

Although it was clear the greyhound racing was suffering, no one had collected the evidence to prove it. So in 2014 the legislature ordered a $68,000 comprehensive study of the industry. The West Virginia Department of Revenue hired the New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group to conduct the study, and the completed report was presented to lawmakers in January 2015. The findings were discouraging.

Although West Virginia does not track attendance figures at greyhound tracks, the Spectrum report found live wagering on races fell by 55 percent between 2004 and 2013, from $35 million to $15.8 million. Researchers also found the greyhound industry now largely relies on video lottery and table games revenues for its purse awards. When purse supplements were first put in place at Mardi Gras in 1995, subsidies from slot machine revenues made up 49 percent of total purse awards. Four years later, slot machine subsidies made up 75 percent of purses. Now more than 95 percent of total purses come from video lottery and table games like blackjack and roulette.

The additional revenue still wasn’t enough to stem the decline in purses, however. As greyhound wagering has declined, slot machine and table game revenues have also fallen as new out-of-state casinos steal gamblers away from West Virginia. As a result, greyhound purse awards declined from $30 million in 2004 to about $18 million in 2013. Without the subsidies, last year’s purses would have been only about $900,000. Most of that purse money also goes to out-of-state greyhound owners. Only $2.6 million of the $11.7 million in purse awards paid at Wheeling Island in 2013 went to West Virginia owners, according to the Spectrum report.

As surprising as some of the findings were, the report only confirmed what many people—lawmakers, greyhound breeders, and track officials—already knew. “It’s not only decreasing in popularity, it’s dead,” says Danny Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras’ parent company, Hartman & Tyner, Inc. And so, for the first time since greyhound racing came to West Virginia in 1976, lawmakers have started looking in earnest for a way out of the dog racing business.

Decoupling

Shutting down greyhound racing is not as easy as it sounds. Back when West Virginia legalized slot machines and table games, legislators included language in the bills requiring greyhound racing to continue alongside those other activities. Casinos never loved that idea. Adkins compares it to the government telling Ford Motor Company, “you can continue to build all the F-150s you want to build, as long as you build the Model T.”

But that’s the law. If racing stopped tomorrow, so would all other forms of gambling at the casinos, unless the legislature passed another law to decouple the activities. If and when that occurs, it will be very important for lawmakers to get the legislation absolutely right. West Virginia uses gambling revenues to fund lots of programs, from the PROMISE scholarship to senior centers, and also uses the money to pay off bonds for projects like the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston and Pullman Square in Huntington. Credit rating agencies would get pretty anxious if the state compromised one of its major revenue streams.

About a month into this year’s legislative session, state Senator Ron Stollings of Boone County introduced a bill crafted by the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association to create a “greyhound racing cessation program.” The bill would have put an end to greyhound racing in West Virginia by July 1, 2015—while also taking $37.5 million from the breeder development fund to bankroll a three-year-long buyout of the industry.

The breeders association previously put forward a bill in the House of Delegates to create a $75 million buyout, but that number didn’t sit well with lawmakers. The state Senate version was more conservative and included $1 million to cover administrative costs and handle adoptions of the greyhounds. The remaining $36.5 million would be distributed among greyhound owners in the state. Payouts would be determined by how many years an individual participated in the breeding development fund, how much money the breeder received from the fund, and how many greyhounds the breeder raised. Breeders who also operated racetrack kennels would be eligible for additional compensation.

Stollings, a Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee, says he knows very little about greyhounds and did not expect the to bill pass, but he hoped it would spark conversations among his fellow lawmakers. “The writing’s on the wall. Obviously the profitability has gone south,” he says. “The idea was, let’s see if there is some way to have a graceful exit.” The bill was ultimately shoved to the side while lawmakers worked on more pressing issues, however.

For the first time in more than 80 years, Republicans were the majority party in the statehouse this session. To celebrate, the caucus took on an ambitious agenda. Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, a Republican from Putnam County, said his committee had more than 200 bills to consider over the 60-day session while also preparing the state’s 2016 budget.

Hall says his committee tried to look into the greyhound buyout but there was not enough time to adequately research the issue. “The lottery statute is very complicated and intertwined,” he says. “The unintended consequences of trying to unwind it in the last two weeks were massive.” As the clock struck midnight on March 14, bringing the 2015 regular legislative session to an end, the buyout bill was still stuck in committee.

Members of the Senate Finance Committee along with their counterparts in the House of Delegates will continue to examine the issue over the next year during legislative interim meetings. “I suspect by next legislative year, we’ll be somewhere with these decisions,” Hall says.

Burdette says members of his organization are well aware of the state of their industry. “As times change, as technology changes, they have to change their business model. If it’s no longer beneficial to have greyhound racing, fine.” But he is adamant a buyout should be included in the phase-out plan. The way Burdette and many members of his organization see it, all those purse subsidies and development fund money were a business agreement between breeders and the state. Breeders agreed to raise dogs and invest money in the industry while the state, through legislation, agreed it would make sure the dogs kept running. “We reinvested with the belief things were going to continue,” he says.

If the state should break its side of that perceived bargain, Burdette believes breeders deserve something in return. He says breeders need the cash to pay off loans and transition into other livelihoods. Maupin says the breeders association has discussed taking legal action against the state if racing ends without a buyout. “This is not a natural death. This is not just, ‘You’re a bad businessman,’” Maupin says. “They’re breaking their promise.”

But outside of the West Virginia Greyhound Owners and Breeders Association, there does not seem to be much support for a buyout. Adkins at Mardi Gras Casino calls the idea “absurd.” Hall says while Stollings’ bill became a “vehicle” for discussing the issue, the bill would never have passed as written. He says there’s not much appetite among Republicans for a buyout. “People took on a business risk when they got into this,” he says. While state subsidies might have enticed breeders to get into the business, Hall does not believe the state has a responsibility to help them get out. “A legislature in the past cannot bind a future legislature,” he says.

There is even a group of greyhound owners who do not believe a buyout is the correct course of action. Despite what lawmakers, track officials, and the breeders association say, the West Virginia Kennel Owners Association insists greyhound racing is still a moneymaking business and should be allowed to continue. “There are plenty of breeders—a lot of big breeders in West Virginia—who are profitable,” says board member Steve Sarras.

Sarras admits the industry isn’t what it used to be. In addition to racing at West Virginia tracks, he stays afloat by sending dogs to Arkansas and Florida to race. He has also tightened his belt at his kennel in Wheeling, eliminating some bonuses and limiting his six employees’ overtime pay. But Sarras says greyhound racing remains a viable enterprise. “Have our profits gone down? Yes. Can we still sustain as a business?” Sarras thinks so.

He says breeders who are pushing for a buyout are just looking for an easy way out of the business—a government-funded retirement plan. “In my opinion, they were just trying to get a handout at the expense of state taxpayers,” he says.

Naturally, Burdette and Maupin disagree. They allege breeders like Sarras and other members of his organization are only able to make money because they are the biggest fish in an evershrinking pond. “They want to keep it going because they’re the ones making the last little bit,” Maupin says.

But Burdette admits some smaller breeders—members of his own organization—also do not want to give up on racing just yet. They hope things will eventually get better, that wagering trends will turn around and the legislature will restore cuts to subsidies. “They hope against hope,” he says.

Maupin doesn’t want to stop racing, but says a buyout is better than a “starve out.” Times have gotten tight for him. He no longer raises greyhounds—the kennel on his big farm is empty. He let the kennel in Wheeling go in November 2013 and now leases dogs from a breeder in Wheeling to fill his kennel at Mardi Gras. When he couldn’t afford his trainer anymore, Maupin went back to training the dogs himself. Instead of 15 employees, he’s down to two. His 27-year-old stepson keeps asking to join the family business, but he refuses. “He keeps wanting to be in it and I’m like, ‘No. This is not going to last.’ I keep pushing him away.”

Instead of raising dogs, Burdette now spends most days substitute teaching for Kanawha County Schools. “After I got up to my neck, I stopped wading out,” he says. He has seven greyhounds left but is working to find them homes. Except one, Hickory. Burdette plans to keep him. Hickory only ran about 30 races before being forced into retirement by an ankle injury, but during that time earned more than $50,000. “He was a good running dog—and I just like him.”

The Flip

This story was originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Talking with Bill Cole, you get the sense he doesn’t use phrases like “over the moon” very often. But that’s how the baritone-voiced, serious-faced Senate President describes his frame of mind on election night 2014.

Although he was not up for reelection, Cole was the chairman for state Senator Evan Jenkins’ campaign for U.S. House of Representatives. He started off election night at a party for Jenkins in Huntington before hopping in his car and speeding down Interstate 64 toward Embassy Suites in Charleston, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and members of the state GOP were watching election returns for her U.S. Senate race.

When he was about 10 miles outside the capital city, his cell phone rang with some big news. Jenkins had successfully unseated 38-year incumbent Congressman Nick Rahall. Cole kept the hammer down. “About the time I hit city limits, my phone started blowing up,” he says. It was more big news. The Republican Party, long relegated to a nearly powerless minority status in West Virginia politics, had taken control of the state House of Delegates. By the end of the night, the GOP also would succeed in tying the formerly Democrat-controlled state Senate.

The national Republican “wave,” as it was being called on cable news networks, had come crashing ashore in the landlocked Mountain State. “I was over the moon,” Cole says. “It was a phenomenal night.” The victory celebrations did not last long, however. By the next morning Cole was at the state Capitol, huddling with fellow Republican senators, trying to figure out how a 17-17 tie in the state Senate might work. Then the phone rang again, with a solution to their problem.

Daniel Hall, the 40-year-old Democratic state senator from Wyoming County, had an interesting election night as well. He spent much of 2014 working on the reelection campaign of his friend Raleigh County state Senator Mike Green, who was running against Republican challenger Jeff “Bubblegum” Mullins.

Shortly before the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., Hall sent Mullins a text message to congratulate him for a well-fought campaign. “I was fully confident Mike Green was going to win,” he says. Not long after, the first election returns were released. Green was trailing behind Mullins, but Hall remained optimistic. “I’ve been around politics long enough to know not to panic,” he says. The tide never turned, however. As each batch of poll results came through, Mullins remained in the lead. Hall noticed something else happening, too. All around the state, Republicans were beating their Democrat opponents.

He watched as the Associated Press called the 3rd Congressional District race for Jenkins. In Kanawha County, Delegate Doug Skaff—who was running for a seat in the state Senate—lost to political newcomer Tom Takubo. By the end of the night, Mullins would beat Green with nearly 57 percent of the vote. “All around the state, you’re talking about a complete swing,” Hall says. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”

Soon, Hall got a text from Republican Senator Dave Sypolt, of Preston County. “He said, ‘You always said if it ever got close, you’d consider switching. I think 17-17 is pretty close.’” Sypolt was right; Hall had said that. In 2006 Hall ran for the House of Delegates in Raleigh County as a Republican, only to lose in the primaries. He thought he was finished with politics, got married and moved to Wyoming County, where he registered as a Democrat. “I changed parties just so I could vote,” he says. Like many places in the West Virginia coalfields, Democrats had such tight control of Wyoming County, the outcome of many local races was decided in primary elections. In general elections, Democrats either ran unopposed or faced very weak challengers.

Of course, Hall’s political career was far from over. In 2008 the newly minted Democrat ran for, and won, a seat in the House. After serving two terms in the lower chamber, he made a successful bid for the state Senate in 2012. From that time on, Hall says Republicans tried to court him back. “I said, ‘Guys, why would I join the minority party?’” Now things had changed. Hall tapped out a two-word message to Sypolt: “Let’s talk.”

The morning after the election, Hall had to be in Huntington for his day job with Frontier Communications. At some point that morning he found out Cole, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, and several other Senate Republicans had already convened at the Capitol. So as he was driving back to Charleston, following the same route Cole had taken the night before, Hall called up Carmichael to begin negotiating the terms of his defection.

Hall stopped at the Capitol that afternoon for face-to-face meetings with Cole and Carmichael. “I did make one demand that was turned down,” he says. Hall wanted to be the Senate Finance Committee chairman, but was informed former Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, of Putnam County, was taking that job. The leadership team instead offered Daniel Hall the position of Senate Majority Whip. He accepted. “Let’s be honest, we’re playing poker,” he says.

That afternoon Hall walked to the Secretary of State’s office on the Capitol’s first floor and switched his party affiliation. “We were going to wait until the next morning, and they said, ‘Let’s just go do it now.’ Some of them were nervous I would back out,” Hall says. “I said, ‘Fine, lets go.’” He waited until almost 5 p.m., hoping he could sneak in and do the paperwork without anyone noticing. “Somebody in the office tweeted it out and within a little bit it was viral,” he says. Reporters jumped on the story and, within the hour, the news was all over the state: The GOP had successfully taken control of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years.

He wrote a post on his Facebook page to explain the decision. “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming, and McDowell counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate,” he wrote. “I have always picked our people over party … and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”

His constituents largely did not mind the switch—“If I can deliver, they’re not going to care,” Hall says—but his decision did upset some members of his former caucus. “Overall it’s been great. A few of them will never get over it.” It’s easy to understand why. With one swipe of a pen, Hall cast Democrats into a role they had never played under the current Capitol building’s big gold dome. Suddenly, historically, they were the minority party.

The Wave

The change in leadership at the statehouse has been described as a “Republican wave,” but the phenomenon is more akin to a volcanic eruption than a tsunami. The signs were there if you paid attention. For instance, West Virginia has been trending red in national elections for some time. The state has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Voters in the state’s 1st congressional district elected Representative David McKinley in 2010, making him the first Republican to serve that district since Arch Moore left the seat to become governor in 1969. Moore’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, remained vastly popular in the 2nd congressional district since she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. And while Rahall was able to keep his seat through several fiercely contested races, in recent years his margin of victory over Republican challengers shrank with every election.

As Republicans made inroads on the federal level, voters began electing more Republicans in state races, too. The GOP has steadily gained seats in the House of Delegates since 2006. In 2012 voters picked Republican candidate Patrick Morrisey over longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

This rising swell of Republican support joined with several other factors in 2014 to pave the way for a leadership change in the statehouse. First, President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular in West Virginia, which turned many voters against state Democrats, too. Republican voters also were motivated to get out to the polls, thanks to several high-profile races at the top of the general election ballot: Capito was running for retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller’s seat, Jenkins was running against Rahall, Alex Mooney was vying for Capito’s old House of Representatives seat, and McKinley was up for reelection.

Jason Crowder, a Cole staffer who first moved to West Virginia to help run his boss’s 2012 state Senate campaign, says Republicans also managed to out-campaign Democrats. Crowder says the GOP worked hard to recruit a slate of top-notch candidates, then used data on voter registration and voter turnout trends to target areas where their message would be most effective. “Like anything, it’s planning and execution,” he says.

Although there was some sense the House of Delegates might flip in the 2014 election, not many people believed the state Senate would follow suit. But about two weeks before Election Day, Crowder began handicapping Democrat and Republican campaigns. It became clear the GOP had a real shot at taking control of both chambers. “If you look at it district by district, it tells a different story,” he says.

Take, for instance, the sixth state Senate district. State Senator Truman Chafin had represented the district since 1982, so no one expected much when political newcomer Mark Maynard signed up to face him in November’s election. Maynard didn’t even raise money for his campaign. According to the Associated Press, he just spent some money out of his pocket to have pamphlets printed, and someone donated $350 in yard signs to his campaign. Yet, to the shock of many, Maynard eked out a victory over Chafin, taking the seat by fewer than 400 votes.

Crowder wasn’t surprised, however. He says Chafin’s district was redrawn in 2011 to include new sections of Mercer County, where voters did not have a strong historical connection to the longtime lawmaker. Maynard also had a geographical advantage because he lived in Wayne County. “So many people vote addresses in West Virginia,” Crowder says. Maynard also had another advantage Chafin did not—the “R” beside his name on the ballot. Crowder says Chafin, like many Democrats across the state, did not think Republicans would put up such a strong fight. They dismissed their opponents, at their own peril. “They didn’t expect it. It’s easier to do when people think it’s impossible,” he says.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler agrees. He says his party did not see the Republican wave coming—although he’s not sure Republicans did, either. “Politics are volatile. Nobody’s backside is welded to any of these seats,” he says. Kessler admits Democrats are partly to blame for their losses, however. Instead of touting their accomplishments—like repealing the state’s food and business franchise taxes, privatizing worker’s compensation, tackling the state’s mounting pension debts, and expanding Medicaid to more than 150,000 previously uninsured state residents—Democrats chose instead to let their challengers control the conversation. “We were so unwilling to call ourselves Democrats because of the association with federal Democrats we stood back, kept our mouths shut, wrung our hands and hoped our two-to-one (voter registration) average played out,” he says. “We did a terrible job of giving the electorate a reason to rehire us.”

Playing Defense

While he’s not happy with the outcome of the election, Kessler says Democrats still have an important role to play in the Legislature. They no longer have the privilege of setting the Legislature’s agenda, but they still can work to influence the agenda set by Republicans.

That’s probably easier done in the Senate, however, where the majority hangs on one vote. Democrats in the House of Delegates have a bit more working against them. “It’s much harder to play defense when one team has a lot more people on the field,” says Kanawha County Delegate Mike Pushkin. Pushkin was one of the few first-time Democrat lawmakers elected last year, so he has no idea what it was like to serve in the majority party. But he says many Democrat lawmakers have found the change in leadership frustrating. “There’s a lot of people who have served for a long time, and they’ve won every battle they’ve fought for years. That’s not happening now,” he says.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley’s frustration is palpable. “We have … very little, if any, influence on what gets on agendas,” he says. Democrats have managed to amend some bills, but nothing that diverts too dramatically from the Republican leadership’s original intentions. “The working relationship has been very cordial, but that doesn’t mean there’s been a whole lot of compromise,” he says. “I believe it was different in the past … but that’s politics. When you have a new majority with a new ideology, they don’t have to compromise.” Miley, who served as speaker of the House during the Democrats’ last session as the majority party, says he is concerned the Legislature will make lots of concessions for corporate interests, but do little to help average citizens. “There’s very little that’s going to be done to help individual families in West Virginia,” he says.

Newly elected House Speaker Tim Armstead, a Republican from Kanawha County, does not share his predecessor’s sentiments. “I really believe the voters have called for change, and we’re giving them change,” he says. “So many of the things we’ve tried to do for years, we’re finally able to get them on the agenda.” The party wasted no time getting to work. Within days of the new session’s start, the Republicans were running bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, establish charter schools, abolish straight-ticket voting, create alternative certification requirements for teachers, establish nonpartisan elections for judges, repeal prevailing wage requirements for state construction projects, audit the state Department of Highways, and reinstate a section of code protecting private property owners from lawsuits if dangers on their property are “open and obvious,” among other things.

Democrats, for the most part, only succeeded in making piecemeal changes to legislation. But the party was not without its victories. Senate Democrats convinced two of their Republican colleagues—Hall and Sen. Chris Walters—to side with the minority and defeat a bill that would limit cash awards in civil lawsuits. Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also were able to convince their GOP colleagues to table a bill requiring photo identification at voting booths. Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat from Pendleton County, successfully amended a revenue bill to divert about $1.5 million annually from the state lottery fund for “veteran-related projects.”

Democrats have also joined their Republican colleagues to support many pieces of legislation, including a repeal of the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act. The law, originally passed in 2009, would have required state power plants to begin using more alternative fuels, including clean coal technologies. Republicans decried the legislation as a “cap and trade” law, saying it would hurt the state’s coal industry and raise families’ utility bills. Some Democrats argued the bill wouldn’t do anything at all, except maybe give the impression West Virginia is not interested in alternative energies. Republican lawmakers pushed the bill forward, however, and it eventually passed the House on a 95-4 vote and the Senate with a unanimous vote. It was the first bill to land on the governor’s desk in the 2015 legislative session.

“There’s an energy here you’ve never seen before,” Armstead says. “Our goal was to be running legislation in the first week. There is a natural procrastination to the legislative process. Our view is, we have 60 days to make significant changes and we don’t want to waste any of those days.” During his 16 years in the minority party, Armstead says the 60-day session seemed to stretch on forever. It seems to go much faster now that his caucus is running the show.

Armstead is the first Republican Speaker of the House to serve in the marbled halls of the current West Virginia Capitol building. Cass Gilbert’s grand statehouse did not open its doors until June 1932, just six months after Republicans ceded control of the Legislature.

Armstead says he tries not to think about his place in West Virginia history, but it sometimes creeps up on him. It usually happens when he’s standing behind his podium at the front of the House chamber. He remembers, early in the session, watching as members debated nonpartisan elections for judges. Republicans have supported the idea for years but never had any success getting it through the legislative process. “It just hit me—we are on the floors of this house, discussing this issue,” Armstead says. “I want the people of West Virginia to look back at 2015 and say, ‘That’s when we changed the direction of our state.’”

Too Soon to Tell

Despite those 83 years wandering in the wilderness of political obscurity, Republicans once had a long, successful run in West Virginia politics. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Republicans dominated the West Virginia Legislature for the first eight years of the state’s existence. And though Democrats would gain control in the early 1870s, the GOP again rose to prominence following the election of 1896.

“We were a progressive state, as progressive as any around us,” says West Virginia State University history professor Billy Joe Peyton. The demand for coal was growing by leaps and bounds, especially after competition from European coal markets dwindled after World War I. That boded well for West Virginia’s economy, as well as Republicans’ pro-business policies. “We became the world’s number one industrial nation, and coal was powering that industry,” Peyton says.

But toward the mid-1920s, European economies began to rebound. It was good news for the global economy, but bad for West Virginia coal mines. “Our production dropped because demand decreased. The price of coal went down, wages went down, miners went out of work,” Peyton says. Although the Great Depression was still years away, the state’s economy began to slip—taking with it Republicans’ foothold in the statehouse. “It’s the party in charge that gets the blame, even if they’re not responsible,” Peyton says. “The Republican Party was the face of the collapse.” The West Virginia House of Delegates flipped to Democratic control after the election of 1930, when voters added 37 Democrats to the lower chamber, giving the party a 68-26 majority.

The transformation was complete in 1932. Voters nationwide went looking for change and found it in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise of a “New Deal.” The Democrats’ sweep in Washington was matched in West Virginia with the election of 22 more Democratic lawmakers, giving the party a 24-6 majority in the state Senate and a 79-15 majority in the House. Voters also elected Governor Herman Kump, the second Democratic chief executive in 40 years.

It would be more than 80 years before the floodwaters would recede. At times, Republican numbers in the House of Delegates got so small the entire caucus could fit in a family sedan.

The parallels are evident. Just like the 1930s, we have the combination of a flagging coal market, voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and a contentious national political climate creating a surge that carried the minority party into power. What remains to be seen, Peyton says, is whether it will last this time. “As a historian, it’s years before you can assess change. It’s too early to tell right now,” he says. “Everybody’s talking about change, but until we see what the results are, you might as well just throw up a coin and see how it lands.”

The farmer makes a run

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Aug. 28, 2012.

FAIRVIEW, W.Va. – Kent Leonhardt wants you to make him the state’s next agriculture commissioner.

He promises he’ll work hard to improve food safety and increase the number of farms in West Virginia. A career Marine who took up farming following two decades in the military, he also wants to find ways to get returning veterans into the agriculture business.

But Leonhardt wants you to know this: Right now, the cows come first.

One recent day, the candidate spent his mid-morning mowing hay in a field he leases from a neighbor a few miles from his own farm. This was the second cut of the year, when the hay is protein- and nutrient-rich, so he’ll use the resulting bales to feed his sheep and goats this winter.

A Ford pickup pulled onto the dirt road running alongside the field. It was Ward Wyatt, a political consultant from Austin, Texas, who moved to West Virginia a few months back to run Leonhardt’s campaign.

Wyatt had driven from his Huntington office to spend the day with Leonhardt. After making one last pass around the field with his tractor, Leonhardt hopped off to talk. He asked Wyatt if he needed to attend the Farm Bureau meeting that night.

Wyatt said it was Leonhardt’s decision. The bureau wasn’t expecting a big turnout, and the group already had promised to support the campaign.

“Well, I might just stay here and cut this hay,” the candidate said.

Such are the dilemmas of the agriculture commissioner race.

On a typical day, Leonhardt, 58, gets out of bed at 5:30 a.m. After firing off a few emails to Wyatt, he goes to meet the constituents he can already claim.

The 380-acre farm is mostly hillside, but Leonhardt has a few pastures divided into paddocks where he keeps 29 goats, 46 sheep and about 30 head of cattle. He visits each group to make sure everyone is OK.

“You make sure your animals have food and water and a healthy environment before you do anything else. The animals’ health is the most important thing,” he said. “The healthier the animal, the better the growth.”

If all is well in the barn, he moves to other chores. He might mow a field or mend some fences. Other times, he will do maintenance work on his farm equipment.

Or, as has been the case in recent months, Leonhardt will try to convince West Virginians he’s the best man to run one of the state’s largest agencies.

He doesn’t have any political experience. He ran twice for Monongalia County Conservation District supervisor and lost both times, although he says those were half-hearted endeavors.

There is nothing half-hearted about his campaign for state agriculture commissioner, however. There can’t be. Leonhardt is running for an office that’s been held by a Democrat for more than 40 years, except for a four-year fluke in the 1980s.

And he’s running against longtime Democratic State Senator Walt Helmick, who has political experience in spades and name recognition from a highly publicized primary campaign.

The Republicans have tried to make up for that handicap by attacking Helmick’s farming background.

State law says the agriculture commissioner should be a “practical farmer” and have made agriculture his or her “chief business” for 10 years before being elected.

Helmick raises neither livestock nor crops, but he runs a successful water bottling operation from his Pocahontas County property.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom ruled earlier this year the “practical farmer” requirement is unconstitutional and unenforceable, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from constantly deriding Helmick as a “fake farmer.”

Wyatt said the GOP plans to challenge Helmick to a goat-milking contest before the Nov. 6 election. Leonhardt recently won third place in a goat-milking contest at the Berkeley County Fair.

But the race is about more than farms and farmers, and Leonhardt acknowledges that. The Department of Agriculture also manages animal health, plant science and food safety and has some environmental regulation duties.

“Every West Virginian needs to be concerned with this race,” he said. “This isn’t just about farmers. It’s about every West Virginian.”

He points to the windstorms that rocked West Virginia and neighboring states in late June.

“There’s only a seven-day supply of food in West Virginia,” he said. “When the derecho went through, it wiped out a lot of freezers.”

He said the Department of Agriculture did a good job after the storm, mobilizing to distribute food to state residents.

“They did a monumental job for something that was unexpected,” he said.

But Leonhardt is worried about what would happen if a crisis were more widespread. West Virginia received help from outside the state after the derecho hit, but those resources might not be available in a larger event.

Leonhardt said increasing the number of farmers in the state would give West Virginia access to a larger in-state food supply.

It’s a safety issue, too. He said the longer food travels before it gets to the dinner table, the greater chance it will be contaminated.

“We need to shorten the distance from producer to consumer,” he said.

Leonhardt figures the state could increase the number of farmers with a four-point approach: educate would-be farmers about opportunities in agriculture, provide them with business models, offer low-cost loans to get started and help market their products.

“The farmers will grow a product if they have a market,” he said.

Leonhardt got into farming because he’s always been interested in animals. His father, a general practice physician in Floren Park, N.J, was a hunter and fisherman and helped his son develop a love of the outdoors.

Leonhardt attended the University of Missouri, where he majored in wildlife management and pre-veterinary studies. He finished that degree but then decided to enlist in the military, realizing returning Vietnam veterans were getting most of the state and federal jobs.

“The only wildlife I ever managed was Marines,” he now jokes.

Still, his interest in animals endured. Despite a complete lack of farming experience, Leonhardt and his wife, Shirley, bought their Monongalia County farm in 1982 while he was still on active duty.

The property had been abandoned since 1957. The fields were overgrown and the house, now beautifully restored, was used to store hay.

Kent and Shirley visited occasionally to clean up the place, often camping in their unfinished home. They moved onto the property full time in 1996, finished fixing up the house and started their farm.

“Most of this is self-taught,” Leonhardt said as he led a tour of his property.

He opened a gate and started across the pasture, a plastic bucket of corn in his right hand.

“Here sheep! C’mon sheep.”

Leonhardt shook the bucket and the animals came running, anticipating a snack.

The cows, goats and sheep are kept in separate paddocks but are rotated regularly because cows will eat weeds that sheep won’t, and sheep will eat weeds that goats don’t, and goats will eat grass and weeds that cows and sheep avoid.

Rotating the animals also helps reduce parasite infections, because cows and goats are not affected by the same bugs that affect sheep.

The farm doesn’t grow any crops except hay, but Leonhardt used to have a large garden where he grew vegetables. The garden is mostly empty this year, however, because the campaign has kept him away from home.

Leonhardt figures he will have to reduce his operation even further if he wins the race.

He would have to work in Charleston during the week so farming would be limited to the weekends. He and Shirley would have to sell some of their livestock to make the herd more manageable. They might have to hire some help, too.

“I’m not going to get rich off of this,” he said, walking back to the house after giving the goats their own bucket of corn.

But that wasn’t ever the plan. Leonhardt said his parents raised him to believe everyone should give their best to help others. That’s another reason he joined the Marines, and why he decided to run for agriculture commissioner.

“I felt I had the knowledge and the experience to do the job,” he said. “The farmer has done it from the ground up. The veteran has led men and women in peace and war and has worked in crises.

“Personally, I don’t think there’s a choice.”

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymailwv.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.

– See more at: http://www.charlestondailymail.com/News/201208270214#sthash.peDJk2QN.dpuf

Walt Helmick: the water farmer

This story was originally published May 23, 2012 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

MINNEHAHA SPRINGS – High on a Pocahontas County ridge, a natural spring spits out 20 gallons of water each minute.

It runs down the mountain through a mile of pipe, supplying water to five cottages and a wood-fired hot tub, before making its final stop: state Sen. Walt Helmick’s pocket.

The man knows how to balance a budget. When Helmick and his wife bought their 200-acre property a decade ago, he wanted to make sure the investment would pay for itself. So he turned the property’s natural spring into a business, Allegheny Lodge Enterprises.

The plant now produces about 5,000 bottles of spring water daily, five days a week, and employs one full-time and one part-time worker. Helmick admits it’s an incredibly small operation (“Coke probably does that in two minutes”), but the plant is doing well.

Allegheny Lodge Enterprises sells its house brand, “Minnehaha Mist,” to grocery stores and produces custom-labeled water for hospitals, schools, insurance companies, tourism companies, athletic teams and churches.

The company has sold water to Mardi Gras Casino and Resort, the state Treasurer’s Office, The Coal Heritage Highway Authority, Charleston Area Medical Center, Allegheny Insurance in Elkins and the Hatfield-McCoy Trails.

The plant also produces one-gallon jugs of water that are sold at grocery stores and five-gallon jugs for use in water fountains.

Helmick keeps a close eye on his costs. He makes all the deliveries for the company, usually in a big single-axle Freightliner. He also can recite, by heart, where each penny of his operation goes.

It costs a penny to haul each 16-ounce bottle from Georgia to the bottling plant. Plastic caps are 2 cents each. Labels cost 4 cents, and Helmick’s hired help costs about 3 cents per bottle.

He loses one and a half cents for depreciation on his equipment. Insurance premiums take half a penny.

Helmick, by the way, is a former longtime chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee.

“If you’re going to buy the place, it’s got to pay for itself,” he said.

His unconventional business plan has drawn fire from political opponents in the last few months.

Helmick remains in the state Senate but is running for state agriculture commissioner.

State law dictates that the commissioner must be “a practical farmer, learned in the science of agriculture, and shall have made agriculture his chief business for a period of 10 years immediately preceding his election.”

While Helmick insists his water bottling operation is a type of agriculture, his opponents don’t agree.

In a YouTube video posted last month, the West Virginia Young Republicans call Helmick a “fake farmer” and allege he doesn’t own a truck. (He actually owns four trucks, including the aforementioned Freightliner and a retired state road pickup he uses on his property.

The group’s website also features a poster reminiscent of the “HOPE” and “CHANGE” posters from President Obama’s 2008 campaign. This poster features Helmick’s portrait and the words “FAKE FARMER.”

His opponents in the Democrat primary also took shots at his agricultural background.

Assistant Agriculture Commissioner Steve Miller’s television commercial ended with the tagline “Steve Miller, a farmer for Agriculture Commissioner.” The announcer emphasized “farmer.”

Helmick’s Republican challenger, retired Marine and cattle farmer Kent Leonhardt, says he plans to continue challenging Helmick’s eligibility in the general election.

Helmick actually plans to use profits from his bottling operation to start a livestock operation . . . but that business plan also is out of the ordinary.

His bottling company was named after a lodge that once stood on the property. The four-story, 16-room lodge was built in 1913 and was a popular recreation spot for years. It burned to the ground in 1983, and the site is now an empty field.

There are already five cottages on the property, including one he uses as his Pocahontas County residence, but he plans to use profits from the water bottling plant to rebuild the lodge.

He already has the blueprints. Helmick worked with students from his alma mater, West Virginia University Institute of Technology, to draw up plans for the lodge based on the old pictures.

Helmick keeps photos from the lodge’s heyday in his desk at the bottling plant.

“I have a goal to see that again someday,” he said.

One of the old pictures shows elk grazing under trees in the lodge’s side yard. Helmick wants to bring the animals back, too.

The elk, which originally came to West Virginia by train from Yellowstone National Park, were set loose into the surrounding woods when the lodge burned. They made their way to neighboring farms, where farmers shot them.

Helmick says he is still trying to decide whether he wants to bring deer or elk onto the property. He said he wouldn’t allow hunting but plans to sell the animals’ meat to keep populations in check.

Helmick said he hopes to have deer or elk on the land by the end of the year. There’s still a lot of work to do, however. State law requires cervid, or deer, farms to erect a 6-foot fence around the whole property to keep wild deer from mingling with farmers’ herds.

Helmick already has fenced about 30 acres, but he needs to put up a layer of woven fencing in addition to the existing post-and-wire fence. He doesn’t seem daunted by the task.

“I’m a worker. I have no intention of ever retiring. I have so much to do,” he said.

There’s really only one thing holding Helmick back from rebuilding the lodge and starting his deer farm: his other job.

“I’m addicted to the political life. We all have our shortcomings,” the longtime senator said.

When the Legislature is in session, Helmick doesn’t get to spend much time in Pocahontas County. He lives in his Charleston residence during that time.

He also has spent the last several months running his first statewide campaign, seeking the Democrat nomination for agriculture commissioner. He won that bid earlier this month, but “Walt Helmick for Commissioner of Agriculture” signs still lean against a wall inside the plant. A “We Want Walt” campaign water bottle sits on his kitchen counter.

His workload could get much heavier in the next few months. Helmick said he plans to take the state agriculture department “to another level” if he wins the commission race this November.

“We’ve got to promote our products in West Virginia. I think there’s potential for this stuff. You can see what we’ve done with it,” he said.

“This is what West Virginia needs.”