A new title: Southwest Virginia correspondent (Virginia Mercury)

Earlier this year I started writing stories for the Virginia Mercury, an independent, nonprofit online news organization covering state government and policy.

Check out my first half-dozen stories for the Mercury:

Southwest Virginia lawmakers push legislation to boost a struggling region

Southwestern Virginia’s economic struggles explain why conservative Republican lawmakers who might not otherwise carry bills that could legalize casinos and create new taxes find themselves doing just that.

Inside the furious social media fight over proposed I-81 tolling

As traditional media has fragmented and more people are turning to social media for their news, interest groups are using those platforms to lobby Virginians on state policy issues like tolling on Interstate 81.

Amid federal criminal probe and a state lawsuit, why hasn’t the Virginia DEQ stopped work on Mountain Valley Pipeline?

Fifty weeks after a governor’s press release heralding an expansion of Virginia’s ability to protect its waterways, the DEQ hasn’t once used those powers to stop work on the Mountain Valley Pipeline, despite the fact that the DEQ and a state contractor recorded more than 300 violations of erosion, sediment control, and stormwater regulations on the MVP between June and November.

Division over bus station move exposes downtown Roanoke’s ‘growing pains’

An influx of new residents in downtown Roanoke have complicated policy decisions in a district that’s traditionally been home to citywide and regional public services. And as to the question of where to locate Roanoke’s Valley Metro bus service, many residents responded in a way that’s far older than the neighborhood itself: “Not in my backyard.”

Softer tone emerges in meetings between community, military over munitions plant pollution

What happened to smooth out relations between officials from the Radford Army Ammunition Plant and its neighbors in the New River Valley? A simple willingness to listen and share concerns. Also, $150 million-plus in recent and planned investments by the Department of Defense to build new facilities that will cut 95 percent of the plant’s emissions by 2023.

‘You’ve got to make your own:’ Rural parents struggle to access mental health services for kids

Parents who raise children with mental health challenges emerge with more wisdom and knowledge. Now, a growing number of programs seek to tap into that hard-won knowledge by utilizing these experienced parents to help other families dealing with the same issues.

A podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia

In late September, I soft-launched Blue Ridge Free State, a podcast about politics, culture, history & life in Appalachia. If you remember There’s Nothing to Do Here!, my regional zine 2003-05, it’s like that but with all the politics I’ve covered since then.

Since the launch, we’ve released six episodes, with more coming soon.

Subscribe on iTunes or on Stitcher.

Here’s a brief rundown on the first seven:

 

1: Our Nerds in Washington (w/ Amy Friedenberger)

In our first episode, we talk about why Donald Trump is campaigning in West Virginia. We also interview Amy Friedenberger, politics reporter for the Roanoke Times, about the 2018 midterm races in Appalachian Virginia.

 

2: Mountain State Melee (w/ Jake Zuckerman)

On this episode, we talk about Donald Trump’s recent swing through Appalachia for Republican candidates for US Senate, and why he’s trying to make it all about himself. We also interview Jake Zuckerman, politics reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the West Virginia teacher’s strike, Gov. Jim Justice’s recent PEIA presser, the Manchin/Morrisey race for US Senate, the Miller/Ojeda race in southern West Virginia, and how healthcare is playing as an issue.

 

3: Can Democrats win in a post-Trump Appalachia? (w/ Kyle Kondik)

On this episode, we talk with elections analyst Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, about a variety of House, Senate, and gubernatorial races in the Appalachian region. We consider how opposition parties have fared in midterms since the 1990s, with a focus on Appalachia.

We also hear an excerpt with Mason and Madelyn Beck of Harvest Public Media from Us & Them, a West Virginia Public Broadcasting podcast about political and cultural divisions in America.

 

4: MDC—Marcin Dishes Candidly (w/ Deanna Marcin)

On this episode of Blue Ridge Free State, we talk about punk and LBGT history in Roanoke, Virginia, and how those two came together at the Backstreet Cafe.

We interview Deanna Marcin about the recent controversy of MDC’s show, how it was cancelled, and how it was rescheduled. She also talks about her journey as a transsexual woman, how she landed in Roanoke, how she came to work at the Backstreet Cafe, the atmosphere there in the years that followed a fatal shooting rampage, how she started booking punk and metal, and what’s happened since then.

 

5: Under Construction—Trauma, Urban Renewal, & 25 Years of Activism in Roanoke (w/ Brenda Hale)

On this episode, host Mason Adams interviews Brenda Hale, president of the Roanoke Branch NAACP. Topics include childhood trauma, urban renewal, politics, activism, the Confederate invasion of the 2015 Roanoke Christmas parade, and much more.

 

6: 2018 Midterm Election Wrap-Up

On this episode, Mason looks back on the 2018 midterms and how they played out in Appalachia. And he looks ahead to the podcast’s near-term future.

 

7: Mountain healthcare, from VW Beetle to Drone Delivery (w/ Teresa Gardner Tyson of SWVA’s Health Wagon)

On this episode, we interview Teresa Tyson Gardner of the Health Wagon, a free clinic serving a vulnerable population in Southwest Virginia’s coal counties.

Teresa talks about the past, present, and future of the Health Wagon, the challenges to addressing healthcare in the mountains—but also how that need drives innovation and creative approaches.

Also, Mason talk about why a Roanoke city school superintendent gave copies of JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” to all of her principals ahead of the 2017-2018 school year.

How the 2018 midterms played in the 20 most rural House districts in the US (Daily Yonder)

I did a quick story for The Daily Yonder about what happened in the 20 most rural (by population) US House districts. The list includes my home district, Virginia’s 9th, where Republican incumbent Morgan Griffith easily won re-election.

Democrats flipped one seat in New York, with another potential flip in Maine still undecided, and Republicans flipped a seat in Minnesota. That plus WV-3, Va-5, the divergent effects of Trump’s tariffs, & much more.

Read the story at the Daily Yonder.

Outdoors at stake in the 2018 midterms (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Whether it’s ownership of public lands or the quality of our environment, funding for land management agencies or the trade and tax policies affecting gear manufacturers, what happens in the outdoors is dramatically affected by elected lawmakers.

I wrote about six races in Appalachia and the Southeast to watch in the November midterms, plus two gubernatorial elections & a ballot measure.

Read the story at Blue Ridge Outdoors.

How a Democrat is poised to win re-election in one of Donald Trump’s best states (The New Republic)

West Virginia gave Donald Trump gave Trump his second-biggest percentage of the vote (67.9 percent) and his second-biggest margin of victory (41.7 percentage points) in the country in 2016, with only Wyoming voting bigger for the president.

Yet as the summer of 2018 wound down, incumbent U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin maintained a tangible lead over Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey——even with Trump campaigning for Morrisey in Charleston.

I wrote for the New Republic about how Manchin’s near-universal name recognition, his campaign’s tight focus on West Virginia, and his draw of a challenger—-as well as how his strengths matched up against Morrisey’s weaknesses–put him in position to win re-election even in one of Trump’s best states.

Read the story at the New Republic.

Amid cultural and political division, can we find common ground in the outdoors? (Blue Ridge Outdoors)

Every now and then I’ll receive a list of potential story topics from my editor at Blue Ridge Outdoors. The list earlier this spring included one that began, “Culture War?” My first response was negative, as I’ve read a lot of stories that tend to overplay cultural divisions, especially in Appalachia. the more I thought about it, though, I saw the potential for a deeper exploration of the question through a variety of lenses.

In the end, I tried to write this story like jazz, taking a theme and running through variations on it. It ran in September’s Blue Ridge Outdoors, which is still available in print at libraries, coffee shops and elsewhere in the Southeast and Appalachia.

Midterm previews in rural Maine and Minnesota (Daily Yonder)

My series previewing congressional midterm races in some of America’s most rural districts continues at the Daily Yonder.

In recent weeks, I’ve looked at Maine’s 2nd District (2nd most rural in the US) and Minnesota’s 7th (7th most rural) and 8th (12th) districts.

All three are fascinating races that will attract national attention, especially in ME-2 and MN-8, both of which are extremely competitive.

Virginia’s Medicaid expansion vote shows the shifting Republican approach to healthcare in Appalachia (Belt Magazine)

Terry Kilgore saw the writing on the wall. The longtime Republican state delegate, who represents Virginia’s southwestern-most district, had watched as Republicans grabbed the White House and both houses of Congress in 2016 and then failed to act on healthcare. A year later, Democrats came within a single, disputed vote of winning parity in the Virginia House of Delegates. And Kilgore’s constituents in an economically distressed Appalachian district were struggling with paying for healthcare.

All that contributed to Kilgore’s flip after four years to support Medicaid expansion in Virginia. He and a handful of other Appalachian Republicans broke ranks to join Democrats to expand coverage for an additional 400,000 Virginians, including many in the mountainous part of the state.

I wrote about the why and how for Belt Magazine. Read it here.

How tree sitters hope to delay and block the Mountain Valley Pipeline (Blue Ridge Outdoors, Belt Magazine)

Since late February, a series of tree sitters and their allies have placed their bodies in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile interstate line intended to move natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations to markets in the Southeast.

I’ve covered this story a few different times in a few different places.

For background, read my 2015 Roanoke Business story on the various pipeline proposals and my 2014 Grist story about how craft brewers were lining up against them.

The tree sits first went up on Peters Mountain, beside the Appalachian Trail near the Virginia/West Virginia line, in late February. In early April, a mother and daughter stationed themselves in trees on their land in Bent Mountain, and later that month, tree-sitters went up in Franklin County, to the east.

My first story on the tree sits appeared in Blue Ridge Outdoors in late April and covered what had happened up to that point.

In early May, however, Red and Minor Terry, the mother-daughter pair on Bent Mountain, were forced down by a court order. I live-tweeted their descent and collected those tweets at Medium. Another story also was published by Blue Ridge Outdoors.

When I was writing that first story for Blue Ridge Outdoors, a guy said to me, “Those people are way too late. They should have been fighting it years ago.” Thing is, the pipeline opponents HAVE been fighting for years, and they’ve more or less done everything right along the way: Packing open houses, filing public comments that right time, activating opposition around assets such as the Appalachian Trail, collecting scientific data to refute the pipeline’s filings, etc.

So I wrote a story for Belt Magazine specifically for the Rust Belt, Appalachian & Midwestern communities that stand in the paths of more than 100 pipelines planned for the near future, many of them moving fracked natural gas from the Marcellus & Utica shale formations. What can they learn from the tree sits & the broader fight against the Mountain Valley Pipeline? You can read that story here.

Meanwhile, the battle between the tree-sitters and MVP construction crews continues. The Franklin County tree-sitters were forced down by a federal court on Memorial Day, leaving one original tree-sitters on Peters Mountain, plus a nearby aerial blockade of a National Forest access road that was blocked for more than 50 days by one woman who has since been replaced by another.

The odds against stopping the pipeline remain long, but the sitters are buying time for a half-dozen or more court proceedings to play out. The story is still unfinished.