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.

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.