West Virginia's Mountain (Party) Mama

Author Denise Giardina was sick of seeing West Virginia politicians selling out to King Coal. Although the establishment keeps trying to stop her, she has gathered more than 13,000 signatures, formed her own political party, and is running for governor. But are the big boys afraid to debate her?

| Wed Sep. 13, 2000 2:00 AM EDT

West Virginia often seems like America's very own slice of Third World. A powerful clique of good-ole-boys rape the earth for natural resource wealth, while the masses contend with shabby schools and inadequate public services. Far-flung economic interests own much of the valuable land. Public servants work for peanuts, while powerful corporations lavish pliant politicians with campaign contributions. Crony capitalists -- most notoriously from the coal industry -- rotate in and out of public office.

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But there's one important difference between the state and a real banana republic: West Virginia is a democracy. That's a fact that Denise Giardina plans to take advantage of.

Fed up, she is launching a grassroots effort to topple the entrenched oligarchy and break the state out of a downward spiral it has been riding since she was a girl. No, she's not the leader of a local militia marching through the Appalachia plotting a bloody coup against King Coal. Close, though.

She has launched her own political party, called the Mountain Party, and is running for governor.

A university lecturer, lay preacher, and acclaimed author, Giardina has no experience in elected office, but her background gives her ample insight. She was born in West Virginia and brought up in a coal camp. Two of her four books are tales of the state and its coal heritage; perhaps her most famous is 1992's account of failing coal mines and weakened miners' unions, "The Unquiet Earth." Her "Storming Heaven," published in 1987, fictionalizes the historic West Virginia mine wars, in which Mary Harris "Mother Jones" was a central figure. "Storming Heaven" is being made into a mini-series by Turner Network Television.

Polls show Giardina in the single digits. Nonetheless the Democrats in general, and front-runner Bob Wise in particular, appear to be shaking in their boots over her candidacy.

In fact, the state's entrenched Democrats have battled -- in some very undemocratic ways -- to stymie her run for office. It's been an ongoing war that has, ironically, enabled Giardina to show that she is ready to take on the state's pillars of power and fight for West Virginians, as she promises.

In 1999, before Giardina and her Mountain Party were on the radar screen, the legislature doubled -- to 2 percent of the voters -- the number of petition signatures needed to get on the ballot. Giardina's camp says that this was an attempt to thwart upstart candidates, in a state where Democratic voters out-number Republicans 2-to-1. After she announced her campaign, the Democrats intervened against her court battle to overturn an archaic and obstructive ballot access law. A Democratic judge handed down a decision in the party's favor. Yet she qualified for the ballot, with more than 13,000 valid signatures.

Most recently, Democratic candidate Wise vowed to dodge debates that include Giardina. He cites presidential debating standards (advocated by -- and favoring -- the major parties) that only allow candidates polling more than 15 percent of the electorate to participate. Wise spokesman Mike Plante says this rule is necessary to give West Virginians adequate time to view the two major candidates.

But the League of Women Voters (LWV), which hosts a public television debate in October, says that polling and presidential standards are irrelevant and impractical in West Virginia, and that Giardina has earned her place at the podium. "We understand why there are restrictions at the federal level," says West Virginia LWV president Ellender Stanchina, "but in West Virginia it is very difficult to get on the ballot. Once you are on the ballot you have a right to participate in the debate. That's what democracy is."

Some say that a debate between the two major candidates in West Virginia would merely plumb new depths of ennui: Wise has said that he agrees with 85 percent of what his opponent, Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood, has done -- though Wise's spokesman, Mike Plante, says that the remaining 15 percent is fertile turf. Wise's refusal to face Giardina prompted the Charleston Gazette to label him a "chicken."

The real reason, according to Giardina's campaign manager Vince George, is that "Giardina has been raising issues that he simply doesn't want to talk about, issues of unfair taxation, corporate favoritism, sales tax on food, and the lack of timber regulation. He's afraid to talk to her on the same stage and give her credibility. This is a lady who doesn't have any party affiliations, she's just looking out for John and Mary Doe West Virginia and she says what she thinks." Those interests, according to Giardina and many other West Virginians, don't happen to coincide with the interests of the Democrats, nor the party's faithful patron: big coal.

Not true, responds the Wise campaign. Spokesman Plante dismisses Giardina's candidacy: "Denise is in a position of being nowhere in the polls with no substantial [financial] support -- she has to make sensational statements like that in order to breathe life into what has otherwise been a failing campaign."

West Virginians agree that the most pressing issue in the gubernatorial race is the languishing economy -- which many see as a result of the decline of coal-mining jobs in the state (actual coal extraction is at record levels). Economic growth is nearly stagnant, and the state's biggest employers are Wal-Mart and the state government itself, which is now running deep in the red.

In this setting, coal mining jobs are seen as precious plums, paying $45,000 per year. But for years mining companies have been laying off workers, blaming cheap western coal. This has served as an excuse for politicians -- typically with close ties to the industry -- to turn a blind eye to unprecedented environmental destruction perpetrated by the industry, most notably in the form of "mountaintop removal" mining. This technique, which mushroomed in the 1990s, uses mammoth machines (and relatively few workers) to literally move whole peaks to get at the coal.

To Giardina, mountaintop removal is tantamount to bloodletting -- both for the economy and the state's natural heritage. She intends to staunch it.

"When looking across the nation it becomes very clear that sound environmental protection is also sound economic policy," she writes on her campaign Web site. "States which put a high priority on environmental protection are states that prosper. And West Virginia's place at the bottom of the economic barrel goes hand in hand with our history of environmental destruction."

She argues that the only way to change the status quo is to clean the house of State. "West Virginia's lack of care for the environment can be traced directly to the lack of political leadership and the co-opting of our political process by industry. Coal set the tone, and others have taken advantage of the situation."

In fact, both Gov. Underwood and environment commissioner Michael Castle are former coal executives. The Clinton administration, despite a renowned romance with the mining industry, has been so displeased with West Virginia's oversight of mining laws that it recently threatened to take over the states enforcement program.

"Agencies which supposedly exist to protect the environment are in fact run by industry hacks who think their mission is to grease the wheels for polluters and ward off citizen complaints," says Giardina.

While some West Virginians view Giardina and her Mountain Party as a single-issue liberal movement, a closer look reveals a freethinker willing to break from the mold -- even if it means an accidental allusion to Gov. George W. Bush's platform. In a July 24, 2000 op-ed column in the Charleston Gazette, Giardina wrote, "[One] of my first priorities would be to appoint people to help me who would be compassionate tightwads," to cut waste without "endangering essential services."

She hopes to bolster the state's economy by offering corporations incentives to use the resources they extract to manufacture goods before shipping them out of West Virginia (turning timber into furniture, for example). She opposes the state's burgeoning gambling industry, and vows to tighten the purse strings on the government's growing debt.

While she pledges to maintain or decrease taxes on citizens, she would impose an "excess acreage tax" on landowners with more than 10,000 acres and a tax on coal royalties paid to landowners. This, she argues, would be lucrative and would encourage big, absentee landowners, like Georgia Pacific and Norfolk-Southern Railroad, to free up regions of the state that they dominate, ending a stranglehold on economic development.

Giardina points out that 80 percent of land in southern West Virginia is controlled by outsiders. "West Virginia's citizens are bearing the tax burden of this state they own little of, while those in control get a free ride." She says that resident taxpayers are actually subsidizing the coal and timber industries by paying more property taxes and by funding the cleanup of the messes they cause.

A political science professor in the Charleston (who asked not to be identified because the state pays his salary) said that while he was initially skeptical, after reviewing all the candidates he is impressed with Giardina. "She's a person of integrity, very bright, with good ideas, [particularly about] growing small business instead of smokestack industries."

Yet he says that her chances of winning are slim. "It isn't fair," he says, but under the current campaign finance laws "she has no chance of getting elected. The only way she could win would be if she had money, she could do television and get her name out. With her stance on the mountaintop removal issue and other issues she may have had a shot. But we often don't elect our best."

Giardina, who has to return to her university job in the fall, has only one paid campaign employee, Vince George -- a disaffected Democrat and self described political junkie. He earns $1,000 a month, and runs the campaign out of his home.

George says the campaign has spent less than $20,000 in cash, a remarkable feat of thrift considering that it has engaged in a court battle and collected signatures from 2 percent of the state's voters. He stresses that this is truly a grassroots effort: "I don't know how to estimate the time energy and resources of people who have volunteered, who have made phone calls, sent faxes and given other in-kind services." In an otherwise humdrum race, the campaign has also garnered interest from the local media.

Meanwhile, the other candidates are running million dollar campaigns, funded by the entrenched interests that Giardina contends are milking the state dry.

George concedes that the cards are stacked against the Mountain Party. But as long as Giardina gets one percent of the vote the party will be able to run a full slate of candidates in 2002. Moreover, he points out that with only about 650,000 regular voters and a population of fewer than 2 million, "this is still a hand-pressing style campaign. It's still possible to reach everybody face-to-face. And we expect lots of people to vote who wouldn't otherwise, because this time there is a real choice."

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