The vibrant Syrian-Lebanese cuisine of Roanoke, whose mayor wants no refugees (Munchies)

Last fall Roanoke Mayor David Bowers went viral when he cited Japanese internment camps during World War II as a reason why the city shouldn’t accept Syrian refugees.

The discordant statement not only flew in the face of Roanoke’s status as a destination for refugees, but it also disregarded the contributions of the many Syrians who migrated to the city in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th.

In those days, “Syrian” meant something far different than it does today. Before World War I, the Ottoman Empire incorporated not just Syria as we know it today, but the bulk of the Middle East, North Africa and southeast Europe. Between 1880 and 1920, about 150,000 people left the Ottoman Empire—and many landed in Roanoke.

I and photographer Suzie Kelly explored Roanoke’s rich (and tasty!) history of Syrian and Lebanese cuisine from the early 1900s to today in this story for Munchies.

The shape of music to come, based on who wins the presidency (Noisey)

Presidents can shift the direction of art and culture by providing an inspiration, sometimes as a hostile response to whoever inhabits in the White House.

At the dawn of the Iowa Caucuses—and thus the start of the 2016 camapign in earnest—I charted the future of music under 15 different potential presidents.

Yes, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore is there.

Read my story at Noisey.

Coal kingpin faces possible prison sentence after mine explosion (Grist)

I spent much of 2015 tracking the criminal trial of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was indicted on criminal charges relating to West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

None of the three felony charges directly accused Blankenship of causing the disaster at Upper Big Branch mine, which happened when a spark from a longwall shearer ignited a fireball that hit accumulated coal dust, triggering a massive explosion.

Yet, the explosion overshadowed and informed every bit of the trial.

On Thursday, Blankenship was convicted of misdemeanor consipiracy to willfully violate mine safety regulations.

Read my story at Grist covering the trial and its outcome.

Foreign companies invest in western Virginia, & a new regulation affects wood stoves (Roanoke Business)

The October 2015 issue of Roanoke Business features a pair of my stories:

– The cover leader looks at international investment in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Volvo, Korona Candles, Red Sun Farms — why are these companies locating here, and what does it mean for the region?

– I also examined the impact of a new EPA regulation on a Floyd County wood stove dealer.

Read more, either online or in the print edition, which is available free this month on racks in Roanoke & NRV grocery stores.

The changing fortunes of farming, hydroponics & the Virginia Senate (Roanoke Business)

The September 2015 issue of Roanoke Business magazine features three of my stories:

The changing fortunes of farming, the cover feature, which examines southwest Virginia ag in 2015 through the five-year USDA Census of Agriculture and interviews with key players.

“About as high-tech as it gets”: Red Sun Farms may be agriculture’s future under glass, a sidebar that looks at the hydroponic tomato grower’s 18-acre — and growing — operation in Pulaski County.

Power in balance: The region’s races could determine which party controls the Virginia Senate, a round-up of issues and candidates in the three-way races in the 19th and 21st districts, which encompass most of the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Dylann Roof’s Rebel Yell (Politico Magazine)

It’s been 150 years since the Civil War ended, but the Confederacy never really went away. It just got reabsorbed, more or less intact, back into the United States. And today the fight is still going on. Indeed, in some ways—ironically thanks to social media—the nation is more segregated and disunited than ever.

The last battle of the Civil War ended at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 13, 1865, and yet many more battles have been fought since then. Reconstruction was marked by racial terrorism, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and the return of former Confederates to government leadership in the South, where they set about writing laws to disenfranchise blacks and keep them a few pegs down the societal ladder, if not quite in the chains they wore as slaves. Even when Jim Crow segregation laws were eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Civil Rights movement in the past half century, the spirit of the Confederacy endured in the hearts and homes of many in the South.

Read more about the persistence of the Confederacy and what how it relates to last week’s Charleston shooting in my story at Politico Magazine.

Dr. Harry Wilson: Gun control debate likely off the table (Roanoke College)

The 2016 presidential election is more than a year away, but aspiring candidates already have started the debate on everything from taxes and the economy to immigration and foreign policy.

In next year’s pivotal race for the White House, every issue is in play—with the likely exception of gun control. Unless there’s a mass shooting that garners national attention between now and Election Day, says Harry Wilson, a nationally renowned expert on firearms politics and policy, the question of gun control likely will remain off the table.

In his new book, “The Triumph of the Gun-Rights Argument: Why the Gun Control Debate Is Over,” Wilson, Roanoke College professor of public affairs and director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research (IPOR), explains why the issue essentially has been decided for at least a generation.

Read more at the Roanoke College news archive.

The Great West Virginia Divorce (Blue Ridge Country)

Spring, 1861: Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, new President Abraham Lincoln mobilized the Union army and Virginia joined the wave of southern states voting to secede from the United States.
Delegates to the secession convention from northwest Virginia, who had opposed the split from the U.S., quickly left Richmond and returned home. As the war hit Virginia over the next few months, Union troops experienced early success in what is today West Virginia. The gains established the reputation of Union Gen. George McClellan, who subsequently left the front when he was handed command of the Army of the Potomac. It also gave those northwest Virginia delegates the opportunity to meet in Wheeling for two conventions and begin the process of forming a new state.

One obvious question loomed over the proceedings: Where should the delegates draw the boundary between Virginia and the new state? The answer involves railroads, slavery, troop movements during the war and, as always seems to be the case, politics.

“There was a group that wanted West Virginia to be reasonably small,” says historian Kenneth Noe of Auburn University. “They weren’t eager to go much farther than Charleston. There was another group that really wanted all of western Virginia down to North Carolina and Tennessee. Practically, it became a question of what could they actually control.”

Those decisions made by a small group of northwest Virginians in the 1860s continue to affect those who live in the mountains along the West Virginia border today.

Read more in my story for Blue Ridge Country about on how Virginia and West Virginia split and decided where to draw the lines that separate the two states today.

This Democratic coal baron wants to be the next governor of West Virginia (Grist)

For a half-decade now, Republicans have slammed Democrats running for office in Appalachia for propagating a so-called regulatory “war on coal.”

They may find it considerably more challenging to make that argument stick against Jim Justice, owner of the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River, who announced last month he’s running for the 2016 Democratic nomination for West Virginia governor. The only West Virginian in the Forbes 400, Justice is worth an estimated $1.69 billion.

Justice is not to be confused with another wealthy West Virginia coal baron, “Dark Lord of Coal Country” Don Blankenship, the former Massey CEO who will soon be tried on charges that he conspired to skirt safety regulations at Upper Big Branch mine, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners.

Justice too has a reputation for ignoring mine regulations, but he’s built up a positive reputation in the state in other arenas. His public images feel contradictory in a way that eludes easy caricature. (The Justice campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.)

In eastern West Virginia, Justice is beloved for buying the historic Greenbrier, a luxury resort that famously served as Congress’ personal fallout shelter, out of bankruptcy. He established a PGA event, the Greenbrier Classic (Tiger Woods is among the golfers competing this year), and built a $30 million training facility for the New Orleans Saints on the Greenbrier grounds. Justice invests lots of his time in youth sports; he’s been president of Beckley Little League since 1992 and has coached boys and girls basketball for 30 years, racking up 761 wins and 156 losses. He’s donated millions to charities such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Cleveland Clinic, and Marshall University.

At the same time, Justice’s coal companies, some inherited after his father’s death in 1993, have racked up millions in fines for labor, safety, and environmental violations. In November, NPR reported that Justice owed nearly $2 million in overdue fines.

Justice’s outsized profile means that announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy last month attracted notice from national press — more than might otherwise be expected for a first-time candidate.

Read more in my profile of Jim Justice at Grist.

The longtime link between beer and politics (All About Beer)

When at the bar, never discuss politics, religion or sex, it’s said, and you’ll have a fine time.

Despite the long shelf life of that truism, all three subjects stubbornly remain hot topics for discussion while quaffing beer. When it comes to politics, that conversation may lead well beyond the barroom.

Take, for example, John Hickenlooper at Wynkoop Brewing Co., Brett VanderKamp at New Holland Brewing and Roger Baylor at New Albanian Brewing Co., who ran for governor, state senate and city council, respectively. Of the three, only two-term Colorado Gov. Hickenlooper was successful, but all three campaigns stemmed in part from the business of beer.

Their stories illustrate only the latest version of the longtime connection between politics and beer. Both, after all, are based in relationships.

Read more about the longtime link between beer and politics at All About Beer.