What are the differences in the positions of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and Republican challenger, Bill Maloney, on taxes, economic development, coal and gas, the environment, healthcare, worker safety, abortion, and same-sex marriage?
The answer? There are no differences or, if differences exist, the men’s positions are but a hair’s breadth apart.
Both support tax reduction – particularly on businesses -- as the primary strategy for economic development. Both oppose same-sex marriage and abortion. Both are strident advocates for coal and gas development. Both aggressively oppose the Environmental Protection Agency and question or deny the existence of man-made global warming. Both oppose most or all of Obamacare, with Tomblin pleading that his actions to implement the law are undertaken only because he is legally required to act. Neither supports worker safety protections, particularly in coal mining, beyond those mandated by the federal government.
In fact, the only discernible differences in the political postures of the two men are that Maloney fervently supports judicial reform, which Tomblin opposes, and Tomblin is an ally of unions, which Maloney generally opposes. But, even those differences have less to do with matters of principle than they have to do with whose supporters stand to gain or lose – trial attorneys and teachers for Tomblin and businesspeople and the Chamber of Commerce for Maloney.
It’s pretty much one political ideology and two candidates whose primary interests lie in taking care of their own.
This sameness of ideology isn’t confined to gubernatorial politics. After they win their parties’ respective nominations, Senator Joe Manchin and Republican John Raese will compete again this fall for the US Senate. Raese will face the daunting challenge of finding issues on which he differs from Manchin. Once Raese thought he had openings on Obamacare and Cap and Trade legislation. But, Manchin took those away by announcing just prior to the last election that he had changed his position and would henceforth oppose Obamacare. Then he famously put a bullet through the Cap and Trade bill.
Sometimes the sameness of ideology in West Virginia is ironic. In the last election cycle, ethically-challenged first district Democratic congressman, Alan Mollohan, lost his primary race to former state senator, Mike Oliverio. Mollohan tried to cast his opponent as a pawn of right wing interests because Oliverio was the West Virginia co-chair of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing think tank funded by the arch-conservative Koch brothers and an assortment of corporations. Mollohan might have had a point since ALEC is the source of many highly conservative “model bills” that inspired the Wisconsin law attacking state employee collective bargaining rights; voter ID laws that are accused of disenfranchising students, old people, and minorities; an assortment of measures designed to repeal Obamacare at the state level; and the “stand your ground law” made famous in Florida’s Trayvon Martin case, which has also been enacted in West Virginia.
The effectiveness of Mollohan’s accusation was blunted, however, by his own bad behavior and by the fact that Oliverio’s predecessor as the West Virginia chair of ALEC was one Joe Manchin. In true bipartisan spirit, the current West Virginia ALEC chair is Republican state Delegate and Tea Party favorite, Eric Householder. And ALEC’s most enthusiastic supporter may be local Delegate Jonathan Miller who is challenging Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito from the right.
Even West Virginia news media are largely monochromatic. West Virginia MetroNews, content-provider to 57 radio stations statewide and home to the popular Hoppy Kercheval, is owned by the afore-mentioned senate candidate, John Raese, to whom Kercheval is a campaign contributor as well as an employee. Meanwhile, the state’s largest newspaper chain, Ogden Publications, Inc., which owns the Journal in Martinsburg and five other daily newspapers in the West Virginia, is reliably conservative and pro-business in its editorial positions.
Taken together, West Virginia’s political class is almost invariably allied with business interests and largely silent on issues that make West Virginia last in the nation in nearly every measure of well-being. We don’t have Democrats and Republicans. We have an “Accommodationist Party” with two only slightly differentiated wings.
West Virginia is in dire need of new perspectives. We need voices that, instead of reflexively condemning Obamacare and ignoring the state’s health crisis, will propose ways of achieving universal coverage and expanded access to care. We need voices addressing the state’s lowest-in-the-nation level of educational attainment and proposing policies that will make advanced education and four-year degrees an expectation, if not an inevitability, for all West Virginia students. We need voices pointing out that simple-minded tax cutting is a myopic, inadequate, and failed strategy for attracting investment to the state and that, instead, we must address shortcomings in infrastructure, workforce, and quality of life. We need voices demanding action on licit and illicit drug use, the associated rise in violent crime, and our dearth of prevention and treatment options. We need other voices pointing out that coal is a dying industry and that it along with natural gas, while having value, has not been, is not, and will never be a major engine of prosperity for West Virginia. And we need recognition that the coal industry, in its death throes, is cannibalizing the state economically and environmentally and that it has already shed 80% of the jobs it once provided and they aren’t coming back.
But, in our homogenized political environment, these points go unmade and there is no debate. And we are the losers because of it.