In late June of this year, an expression of Pineville’s values appeared on the terraced lawn of the old courthouse. There was no fanfare around the installation of the new stone monument, but like that Kennedy rally more than half a century ago, it was a way of saying how the town felt about where the nation is headed.
The stone is engraved with the Ten Commandments.
The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that this is an encroachment of church on state, and an affront to religious minorities.
But most here seem to agree with Melissa Mitchell, a stay-at-home mom who was getting things organized for a midsummer church picnic at a park near the courthouse.
“We love it, and we will fight for it,” she said of the stone marker.
Why?“Honestly, because everybody in this county hates Barack Obama. That is the biggest reason,” Mitchell said.
Animosity toward President Obama runs high here. He lost Wyoming County by nearly 56 percentage points last year, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1.
But as Mitchell and her friends talked more about it, their conversation turned to fears and anxieties that had little to do with party or politics. They discussed the well-paying jobs that had vanished with the coal industry; the crime and drugs that followed; the changing culture that mocks what they hold sacred.
Ordinary West Virginians used to look to Washington with something close to reverence. It was a partner in good times, a lifeline in bad ones, a powerful ally against the big corporations that came for its coal and timber.
In 2012, that trendline cut more deeply. Obama lost the seven West Virginia counties he had carried in 2008. It marked the first time that a major party’s presidential candidate suffered a 55-county shutout.
“People haven’t changed here. People are still the same,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, a former West Virginia governor.“But I’ve never seen more people pushed away from their traditional Democratic roots or their voting habits than in the last six or seven years.” Manchin has put that fraying bond to the test, having sponsored gun-control legislation that failed in the Senate this year.
Next year’s elections could mark a historic hinge in West Virginia politics. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D), a traditional liberal forged by the Great Society, has announced that he will not run for a sixth term.
His most likely successor is Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of a three-term governor, who would be the first Republican that West Virginia elected to the Senate since 1956. Although Capito is considered a heavy favorite, Democrats came up with a strong contender when Secretary of State Natalie Tennant formally entered the race.
Meanwhile, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, an 18-term congressman and the last surviving Democrat in the state’s House delegation, is facing what many expect to be his most difficult reelection contest.
Rahall has emphasized his differences with the Democratic president over coal, abortion, guns, same-sex marriage and immigration. But he said that the national party’s stances are a growing liability for Democrats here, and asked,“How many more red flags do I have to have on my back?”
Nearly 27 percent of West Virginia’s personal income derives from transfer payments, including retirement, disability, medical, unemployment and welfare benefits, according to statistics compiled by Timothy Parker of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service.
The day after Kennedy was inaugurated, he fulfilled a campaign promise made in West Virginia to use his first executive order to begin the food stamp program. Its first vouchers went to a laid-off miner and his wife from Paynesville, who had 13 children still living at home.
Almost one in five West Virginians receives food stamps today.
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