5 years after a deadly coal mine disaster, what’s changed (Grist)

It was mid-afternoon on the Monday after Easter, April 5, 2010, when a 1,000-foot longwall shearer bit into sandstone, kicking up sparks and igniting a methane fireball that traveled down the mine into an area rich with coal dust.

The resulting explosion ricocheted in several directions, tearing through two and a half miles of mine, killing 29 of 31 men working in the area and searing the Upper Big Branch mine into history as the site of the most deadly coal-related disaster in nearly 40 years.

Five years later, the explosion continues to reverberate, in the courts and elsewhere.

Read my story at Grist to find out more, including coal country’s growing hostility to former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, changes to the coal industry, political ramifications and more.

The biggest issues facing Virginia—and 49 other states (CQ Roll Call)

It’s no secret that states produce a lot more legislation than Congress. Federal lawmakers passed 352 bills and resolutions in the last session. In the states, that count topped 45,000.

What are the issues that are driving all that productivity? That’s what CQ Roll Call’s 50 State Project was designed to find out.

Along with Dave Ress and Travis Fain of the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), I contributed to a list of the top issues facing Virginia. The full list, which includes not only Virginia but the other 49 states, is available for download at CQ/Roll Call. It’s free but CQ Roll Call asks for some information in return.

Here’s a sample including my take on Virginia’s energy issues:

ENERGY: What’s the Right Balance?
Virginia’s central location on the East Coast has presented it with a series of energy quandaries. President Obama has proposed opening the coast from Virginia to Georgia for offshore drilling. Virginia also sits along the path between the Marcellus and Utica shale formations—where there’s now a surplus of natural gas thanks to hydraulic fracturing technology—and a massive potential market in the Southeast. No fewer than three natural gas transmission pipelines have been proposed to connect the two. The proposals have been welcomed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and a bevy of state lawmakers, but they’ve also fired up landowners along the routes and created a political issue. Throw in questions over whether to remove a moratorium on uranium mining; the push to cut carbon emissions, which sparked argument over a tax credit for miners and regulatory changes to ease the closing of coal-fired plants; and last year’s derailment of an oil train that spilled into the James River, and policymakers face a dizzying array of energy questions.

For more, go to CQ Roll Call’s “50 State Project” page or use #statenews on Twitter.


Fugazi’s politics are still frighteningly relevant today (Noisey)

On the 1988 self-titled EP by Washington, D.C.’s Fugazi, Ian MacKaye sang, “You can’t be what you were”—a line directed, perhaps, at fans expecting a new iteration of Minor Threat, Rites of Spring or Embrace. But it could also have applied to the Fugazi of 2002, looking back at a fifteen-year run as it geared up for its final U.S. and European tours. The band evolved musically and lyrically over six albums, three EPs and more than 1,000 live shows played around the world. During that run, Fugazi built its own culture around low ticket prices, offbeat venues and expectations that its audience members would treat one another with respect.

The band’s albums are packed with political songs that still resonate today, from “Suggestion,” a song about rape from the first EP with implications that play directly into the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, to “Five Corporations” from 1998’s End Hits, which addresses the ever-growing influence of multinational companies. The band’s final album, 2001’s The Argument, was released a month after the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the performances that followed in 2002 occurred during those bizarre, awkward months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.

MacKaye and Picciotto often devoted time between songs to discussing issues such as patriotism, gentrification and the increasing militarization of America’s police departments—topics that remain as crucial today as in 2002.

For more, read my story on Fugazi’s politics, then and now, at Noisey.

How demographic shifts are (& aren’t) affecting Southwest Virginia’s political power (Roanoke Business)

It’s no secret that growth in northern and eastern Virginia has outpaced that in the rest of the state, particular the western mountains.

The 2010 population of Southwest Virginia, north to Alleghany County and east to Franklin and Henry counties, was 1.07 million. Fairfax County alone is 1.08 million.

Those numbers don’t bode well for the rural parts of the state when it comes to numbers of representatives in Congress and the General Assembly. However, that doesn’t always mean an immediate loss of political power, either: Seniority, partisanship, legislative coalitions and other factors play into it too.

In January’s issue of Roanoke Business magazine, I return to Virginia politics — a beat I covered for seven years at the Roanoke Times. Read my cover leader in the January issue on newstands or online.

Regional 2014 wins and Roanoke City Council’s relative stability (Roanoke Business)

The December 2014 issue of Roanoke Business features a cover leader written by me and Jenny Kincaid Boone that covers 2014 economic development wins by locality.

My byline also adorns a story later in the issue that looks at the relatively stable state of Roanoke City Council——especially compared to the knock-down drag-out battles over Victory Stadium in the mid-’00s——and what that means for business.

The issue is available online, at the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce and at many grocery store lobbies in the Roanoke and New River valleys.

Roanoke Congressman Bob Goodlatte’s growing influence on Capitol Hill (Roanoker)

The fact that Virginia 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte is such a familiar face in Roanoke makes his regular appearances seem routine. Yet he serves as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee — a hugely powerful body that takes up legislation ranging from intellectual property and copyright law to immigration reform.

During a three-week stretch this summer, Goodlatte visited the Rio Grande section of the U.S.-Mexico border to obtain more information about the large number of children and teenagers, mostly from Central America, who have massed there. He appeared a few days later on Fox News to discuss the issue on “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” Soon after, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by Goodlatte and that would permanently ban state taxes on broadband Internet access.

“I think he works very hard,” says Newt Gingrich, who took over as Speaker of the House in 1995, just after Goodlatte had completed his first term, and held that position until 1999. “He is very much a people person. He does his homework in a quiet methodical way. I believe he has a very substantial influence in the House on some key issues. People know he is a commonsense conservative who studies the facts, who knows everybody and whose basic approach is to try to bring everyone together to get to a solution.”

Read my profile of Goodlatte online at the Roanoker, or pick up the issue, now on newstands.

One note of disclosure: Reporters don’t write headlines, so I didn’t come up with the “Clark Kent” theme. I do think the David Suetterlein quote from which it was drawn, however, is one of the best lines I’ve heard about Goodlatte.

Politics can be hard on people: The dual fates of Creigh Deeds & Bob McDonnell

Teddy Roosevelt famously praised those who engage in politics as the “man in the arena,” “who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Described thusly, politics sounds glorious — but it also extracts a toll on the lives of those who choose to participate.

Consider Creigh Deeds, D-Bath County, and Bob McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach, who engaged in the closest statewide race in Virginia history in 2005 before meeting again four years later.

Read the rest of my thoughts in a piece that was published on the op/ed page of the Roanoke Times on Sept. 14.

New Work for the Roanoker’s 40th Anniversary Issue: What $82 Million Can (And Didn’t) Do for Roanoke’s $14 Million Poff Building

The $14 million Richard H. Poff Federal Building was heralded as part of Roanoke’s “new era” in the inaugural issue of The Roanoker in the fall of 1974.

A photo of the under-construction, 14-story tower ran alongside a cover-story essay by Founder/Publisher Richard Wells that cited the new federal building as part of downtown Roanoke’s reinvention.

No longer.

Today, the structure has become a different kind of symbol: One of governmental waste, malpractice and bureaucracy.

“It’s a slap in the face of the taxpayers,” says 6th District Congressman Bob Goodlatte.

The Poff Federal Building was selected for a $51 million renovation project funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus.

But through a mix of mind-bogglingly bad (and allegedly illegal) bid management, cost overruns and all-around poor planning, the project cost has escalated to more than $80 million.

Read more at the story’s home on the Roanoker website, or find the full digital version here.

New work for Politico Magazine: Do Democrats Need a Bubba Strategy? 7/8/2014

The so-called Bubba Strategy might be the only proven way of getting rural-minded residents of very red states or regions to vote Democratic.

It was first road-tested in the state in 2001, when in his landmark run for Virginia governor, Democrat Mark Warner sponsored a truck operated by southwest Virginia’s Wood Brothers Racing team in a NASCAR race, appeared with bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley and slathered the deeply working-class region in “Sportsmen for Warner” signs signaling his support by and for gun owners.

Read more about Bubba Strategy architect Dave “Mudcat” Saunders and what—if any—future the political strategy may have among national Democrats in my first story for Politico Magazine.

Since the story was published, it’s been discussed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Hardball with Chris Matthews and, of course, Fark.

New work: Politics story in Washington Post, 4/26/2014

I worked as the lead political reporter in the Roanoke Times’ newsroom for more than seven years, but since leaving I really haven’t written a politics story (** well, aside from this Jan. 2014 Roanoke Business story about how western Virginia businesses make political contributions — but it’s more of a business story**).

That changed Saturday when the Washington Post published my story on former Virginia House Speaker Vance Wilkins’ attempt to comeback from political exile. Wilkins helped build a Republican majority in the state house, and in 2000 he became Virginia’s first Republican speaker. He resigned only two years later, one week after the Post published a story that he’d paid a former staffer $100,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim.

He’s quietly worked with a few candidates in Republican primaries but mostly had remained out of site in his Amherst County home. After a string of statewide Republican defeates, Wilkins re-emerged this spring to challenge Wendell Walker, a man who came up working with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority group in Lynchburg, for 6th District Republican Committee chairman.

The result, as reported yesterday after the convention: Wilkins failed.

Although he outperformed expectations of many Republicans I spoke to, but Wilkins ultimately couldn’t overcome Walker. The defeat means that although Wilkins may continue to be active in Republican politics, he won’t play nearly as central or public a role.

You can find my story in the Washington Post here, and you can find the follow-up (by Martin Weil, not me) here.