West Virginia Gubernatorial Primary Shapes 2012 Challenges for Progressives

Earl Ray Tomblin and Bill Maloney, Democrat and Republican, will line up alongside Mountain Party candidate Bob Henry in October for a special election to determine a successor to the unexpired term of Joe Manchin, former Governor, who replaced the late Sen. Robert Byrd last fall. The election is gaining national attention as the first major battle previewing the politics of the 2012 election cycle.

Tomblin is the former president of the state senate – a political insider, and “good ol’ boy” extraordinaire. “God loves coal, and so do I,” he declared at a recent “rally for coal” against EPA objections to plans for mountaintop removal mining.

Tomblin is “pro-life,” courting the reactionary conservative Christian fringe groups. He is “pro-gun,” an NRA supporter. He got the top endorsement from coal industry lobbying groups. He claims to be pro labor but always supports roadblocks in the way of public employee bargaining rights. (The West Virginia labor movement thus supported challenger Rick Thompson.) Tomblin’s also pro Marcellus Shale drilling and can’t be bothered to wait for how they will be regulated, inspected, or taxed. Reports of people’s water faucets set on fire with a Bic lighter after gas drilling produced leaks into water tables were dismissed by Tomblin as “inflammatory”!

On the plus side, Tomblin DOES support investments in higher education, critical for West Virginia. He supports the Affordable Health Care act. He opposes cutting public employee benefits, Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare. He favors collecting greater revenues from coal and gas for diversified development, but is vague about what that means. He is all but silent the 9.6 percent official unemployment, or thousands of youth never having useful work, or nearly the lowest (53.5 percent) workforce participation rate in the nation.

Not much to get excited about for many forces in the progressive movement. But, of course, Republican Bill Maloney is much worse. His only claim to fame is a career in the mining and gas industries. His solution to EVERY issue except two is: shut government down and let business “do its thing.” (Where have we heard that before?) Those two exceptions, of course are guns, and identification with anti-abortion and anti-gay rights religious factions. Here’s a candidate for governor who does not even know how a bill is passed.

The Mountain Party candidate, Bob Henry, is a nationally recognized poet and environmentalist who has led a celebrated fight against mountaintop removal mining. But he can’t seem to make up his mind about Marcellus shale fracking or job creation or education. On the one hand he supports gas development as a resource for “green development,” but on the other he supports private property rights that would effectively block any natural gas development. He is against all trade agreements and all wars. He is pro choice, against discrimination based on sex orientation. However his effective only role will likely be as a spoiler that would help elect Republican Maloney – clearly the worst outcome. On the biggest economic issues of the national 2012 elections, Tomblin will be an ally, but a weak one.

The challenges for progressives is to find a mobilization path, beyond the governor’s race in which broad grassroots unity and participation in the election process is not nullified, the biggest threat to preventing a Republican victory. The best opportunity for that is winning the most universal state adaptation to the Affordable Health Care Act. Vermont demonstrates that movement founded on the principle that health care is first a human right not a business opportunity, can have a profound impact on how reform is realized. The possibility of bringing improved health care to hundreds of thousands of citizens, is also the single biggest opportunity for job creation in the immediate future. This does not address the environment. But, we are the poorest state in the nation – other things will have to come first if the serious challenge from the right is to be defeated.

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