Taking on Big Coal Governors: West Virginia Mountain Party Candidate Inspires the Nation

I did an interview with Dr. Bob Henry Baber on his campaign, the issue of mountaintop removal mining, and how he sees it within a national movement for clean politics and energy development.
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In a blatant genuflect to the coal industry's stranglehold over state politics, the West Virginia Broadcasters Association blocked the participation of popular Mountain Party gubernatorial candidate Dr. Bob Henry Baber last week, as it hosted a widely denounced debate between the two climate-change-denying, Big-Coal-bankrolled candidates.

Never has West Virginia seemed more like an embarrassing 19th-century throwback to dirty politics and absentee corporation control over the very heart of democratic elections than in the upcoming gubernatorial race.

Never has Baber's inspiring and heartfelt campaign platform for a just transition to a sustainable and clean energy economy in ailing coal country seemed more timely -- and threatening to the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Campaigning on the frontlines of the mountaintop removal humanitarian crisis, the former mayor of Richwood also see his campaign as a national litmus test for traditional Democrats, labor groups, greens and independents to hold Big Coal Democrats accountable for their reckless policies.

In an op-ed for the Charleston Gazette last week, long-time broadcaster and activist Bob Kincaid spelled out the decay of the Democratic Party in the Mountain State: "The West Virginia Democratic Party's inexplicably tone-deaf subservience to an industry actively engaged in poisoning, deforming and killing innocent bystanders ensures and hastens its own irrelevance to a rising generation that knows the only future in the coal industry is a sad path to early graves."

Former West Virginia governor and current Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), of course, is a notorious coal peddler who has become the punchline of late-night comedy shows for his millionaire earnings while mountaintop removal operations and outlaw mining companies have leveled his state. Earlier this year, Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin issued a "call to arms" to defend the absentee coal industry in his state.

I did an interview with Baber on his campaign, his background as a nationally acclaimed author and activist, the issue of mountaintop removal mining, and how he sees it within a national movement for clean politics and energy development.

Jeff Biggers: Based in the central Appalachian coalfields, do you see your campaign as part of a broader national effort to hold Big Coal accountable, especially in terms of mining operations like mountaintop removal?

Dr. Bob Henry Baber: All of us are, and will remain for the near future, dependent on coal for electricity. Over 10 percent of the electricity for the entire country is produced by West Virginia. We should be a wealthy state akin to Texas; instead we are a third-world state in a race with Mississippi to see which can be the poorest and unhealthiest in the nation. Mountaintop removal is the complete annihilation of an ecosystem, from the diversity of one of the finest hardwood forests in the world to the complete loss of topsoil and the wholesale burying of thousands of miles of streams and the polluting of many more. Coalfield residents who live in proximity to mining are being subjected to poisoned wells, toxic air and a near-total degradation of the quality of their lives. Furthermore, the deaths last year of 29 miners at Upper Big Branch, and the resulting reports, which predictably laid the blame on weak inspections and Massey Energy's ingrained culture of cutting safety corners and intimidating miners, taken together with the horrors of MTR, prove that millions of Appalachian people are struggling to survive in an unofficial "national sacrifice zone." My campaign is now merging with national outrage over mountaintop removal and with disgust over robber-baron coal industries' "profit before people" practices.

JB: Mountaintop removal mining has drawn a lot of national attention. Do you feel West Virginia should abolish the strip mining practice, and if so, how would you deal with the repercussions for coal miners?

BHB: If we had a real Environmental Protection Agency, mountaintop removal would never have come into existence. It is the insane monster of collective corporate greed and our culture's voracious appetite for electricity. The environmentalists are absolutely right. We should cease and desist immediately, period! Unfortunately, 6,000 direct jobs and as many more indirect jobs are tied to this renegade industry. There are good, hardworking people in MTR who have no choice but to participate in the destruction of their culture. In order to go to war, one must vilify one's enemy. The mountains as God made them have become that enemy, and the false argument that sparsely populated coalfields need more flat land for development is the rationale that is being used to justify MTR. It is a near-total lie. Only 7 percent of stripped land is being redeveloped. The other 93 percent is a barren wasteland of desert-like eastern mesas. Now neither of my two-party opponents will admit we have an addiction, and both are staunch defenders of the industry. This has been the case for a century. However, I do readily acknowledge our problem and have a long-term plan to utilize greater severance taxes on coal and Marcellus shale and recapture federal abandoned mine land funds to "put the dozers in reverse," reshape stripped land to become solar collection farms, and develop solar factories so as to begin transitioning MTR miners to the green and sustainable energy jobs of the future. To some this may sound naïve. But I'd rather have my head in the sky than my feet mired in mud. Now, I don't think for a second that this will be anything but extremely difficult -- as we have a recalcitrant legislature, powerful coal and gas lobbyists, federal politicians (including West Virginia's Joe Manchin, the only Democratic Senator to take funds from the notorious Koch brothers) and many others who want to gut the EPA. We've also been conditioned to a cultural mindset that is seemingly sometimes resistant to change -- even for the better. Alas, we have become adapted to being oppressed and sometimes even defending our well-known oppressors. Still, I believe we can retrain workers, diversify local economies, assist small towns in redevelopment, secure broadband, promote tourism and more. Finally, we also need to plant millions of nitrogen-fixing native locust trees, which, remarkably enough, would at least begin the painfully slow process of reclaiming ruined land currently lying sallow. West Virginia literally is ground zero for climate change. If we can't stop MTR here and begin the turn towards sustainable energy, where and when will we start?

JB: Given West Virginia's central role in energy production -- from coal mining and burning, natural gas fracking to wind farms -- how do you see your campaign as ground zero for other national electoral efforts focused on clean energy and environmental issues?

BHB: Although it's happening late, MTR (which is seriously impacting eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia, and other Appalachian states) is thankfully becoming one of the largest environmental movements in the United States. One exposure via the media, a speaker, or the Net is enough to convince most reasonable Americans that they've seen enough. That's a good thing, because MTR can ultimately only be stopped on a national level since political corruption is entrenched in the coalfields. That is why I hope to take my campaign on the road and follow in the footsteps of other activists who have already done so in carrying the message far and wide.

JB: Describe how the Mountain Party is different from the Green Party, and why West Virginia is especially fertile ground for third-party candidates?

BHB: The Mountain Party shares core social justice issues with the National Green Party. As the country veers perilously towards the right, at least for now, the Mountain Party is the only party offering alternatives values and ideas here in West Virginia. I was the first Mountain Party person elected to office: the mayorship of the dying but developable, historic town of Richwood. This has proven to give me enhanced credibility with the media and the voters. I would hope that young people in particular will join the Mountain party and run for local offices. This is how the Greens changed European politics -- from the grassroots up.

JB: With the issue of jobs foremost on most voters' minds, can you explain your vision for a just transition from West Virginia's coal economy to a sustainable clean energy economy, especially in terms of green jobs?

BHB: Although the state's ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans is 3 to 1, this is merely a psychological "hangover" from the 1950s, when West Virginia, a state of 2 million, had 125,000 union coal miners and was as "liberal" as Massachusetts. Today the state has just 20,000 miners, only about 6,000 of whom are union. Deep-mining jobs have been supplanted by MTR, which, though it employs 6,000, has probably cost two to three times that many deep mine jobs. Ultimately, MTR is a job breaker, not a job maker.

JB: How has the Democratic Party failed West Virginians, and do you see the Mountain Party as a vehicle for organizing other statewide races beyond 2012?

BHB: West Virginia will probably never again vote for a Democratic president. For the last time it almost did in the 2000 Gore/Bush race. Had West Virginia gone for Gore, Florida would have been irrelevant. That is one of the great untold stories of the 2000 election. Anyway, Cheney and company shrewdly cobbled together a crew of pro-gun, anti-gay, pro-stripping voters who, to Gore's shock, flipped the state, which he and his staff had mistakenly "pocketed" after their convention. It proved to be the costliest error of the campaign. The only reason that Republicans haven't made greater inroads locally is that they have fielded weak candidates, and, most importantly, "real" West Virginia Democrats who will stand up for common citizens and the environment are an endangered specifies. It's hard to run against Democrats who are in fact, if not in name, Republicans. For example, in the current gubernatorial race, Tomblin, the Democrat, has as his slogan: "More Jobs, Lower Taxes." Wrong, says Maloney, the Republican; it should be "Lower Taxes, More Jobs." Imagine these two arguing over a phrase cooked up by an overpaid public relations consulting firm that could be working for either one of them. Absurd. Either way, the phrase is a two-legged stool that means nothing without the third leg: capital -- which neither party has the guts to demand from the fossil fuel industries that have historically dominated the state. Ironically, the national pundits will probably talk up the significance of the West Virginia race as a "bell-weather" for the 2012 elections. Unless I win, chalk up the talking heads' conjecture as mere nonsense.

JB: In many respects, West Virginia tipped the scales in the Gore-Bush presidential campaign in 2000. How do you see your campaign vis-à-vis the Obama administration and other presidential candidates? What sort of support have you picked up across the state, and are you touring nationally to raise funds and support?

BHB: My support from the state is growing. I've asked voters, "As we head into the mine of West Virginia's future, do you prefer a lumbering elephant, a stupid donkey or a canary that can warn you of danger and sing a song of hope?" And by appealing to the average West Virginian's sense that we've given too much and seen far too little in return, I've tapped into the discontent of people of many different political persuasions. I've also been careful not to appear "overly" pro-environment to the extent that I seem insensitive to the complexities that face transitioning from an extraction mentality to a sustainability mentality. Finally, I've spoken quite a bit about fiscal responsibility. As a person who is into reclamation, recycling and reducing waste, I feel my "green" principles aptly apply to managing the state budget of $4 billion prudently.

JB: Can you give us a little background on your own work as a writer, an educator, a small-town mayor and an activist?

BHB: I became a writer because my Appalachian father was an artist. He painted with oils on canvas. I paint with words on paper. In the 1970s I was quite fortunate to stumble into Antioch/Appalachia, where I met fellow poets dealing with the issues of stereotyping and strip-mining. We formed a group called the Soupbean Poets and printed a literary magazine called What's a Nice Hillbilly Like You....

In 1977, after a huge flood aggravated by strip-mining and clear-cutting, I co-edited a small anthology called Mucked that collected regional writers concerned with environmental issues. One of the contributors was Gail Amburgey, a survivor of the horrid Buffalo Creek flood in 1972 that killed over 100 people, and that the coal company whose slag dam failed described as "an act of God." My second poetry book, A Picture from Life's Other Side, was published in 1994. It had many anti-strip-mining poems in it and precipitated a call from the West Virginia Coal Association to Concord College's President. "We're never going to give a plug nickel to Concord until you get rid of Bob Henry Baber," was the message he received. I was soon shown the door. Unemployed and buoyed by a Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship, I decided to run for the governorship in the 1996 Democratic primary. Just before the primary I bowed out to the front-runner, Charlotte Pritt, who lost in a very close election. In 2004, I was elected mayor of Richwood. It was by far the hardest job I've ever had. Despite sometimes intense local resistance, I was able to secure $4 million to clean up the Cherry River and another $1 million for sidewalks, historic repairs, worker raises and more. I used the bully pulpit to advocate for the growing of the nearby Cranberry Wilderness, for which I won the Hero Award of the National Wilderness Society. That was a John Muir moment! But in the end, I couldn't stem Richwood's decline. My perspective on that: the Marcellus shale gas rush, which is threatening the entire state and my ancestral farm because I only "own" the surface, the continuing nightmare of MTR, and the current status of the "Republicrats," nationally and here in West Virginia, have compelled me to run in what one reporter characterized as a futile effort. To me, speaking for common people about issues that matter most, telling the truth is never a futile effort.

The recent publication of my novel, Pure Orange Sunshine, the true story of my being shot in 1971 with a .38 and charged with attempted murder of a police officer by the LAPD at an Easter Love-In they turned into a riot with agent provocateurs, combined with my efforts to reshape the consciousness of West Virginia in my run for the governorship, has made this one of the most rewarding years of my life. This is a bad time for teachers, unions, the unemployed, the uninsured and the environment, but it's a very good time to be an American boy who still believes in the American dream and who is willing to fight for it no matter what the cost.

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