Talking with voters in the Mountain State
This is the first in a series of dispatches from Melinda Henneberger, who’s talking to voters around the U.S. about their views on the environment and the election.
Huntington, W.Va. — Door-knocking for Barack Obama in a state where he expects to get stomped today has been kind of thankless for Pam Wonnell, a nurse and old friend of mine who moved here from Illinois last year for her husband’s job in coal mining: “I am not feeling the love” while phone canvassing or standing on front porches watching the people inside pretend not to be home. “But I’m not quitting, ’cause I’m a fighter, like Hillary,” she says, and laughs at her own joke. “Isn’t that Hillary-ous?”
Canvassing with her in her hilly, aerobically “butt-busting” neighborhood on the eve of the Democratic primary, though, one surprise is the can’t-wait-for-November enthusiasm for Obama among … Republicans? Hmm. Another is that even — or perhaps especially — in this coal-mining state, where billboards along I-64 scream, “Yes, Coal” and “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” voters say they want to hear candidates talk more about the environment, not less.
Carolyn Jarrell, for instance, is a retired teacher’s aide whose late husband ran a juvenile detention center; their family lived over the store and “nobody ever wanted to come and play” with their kids. She’s a registered Republican who is not in love with any of her presidential choices — “I don’t know that there’s anybody on the ballot I can’t live without” — yet she’s leaning toward Obama in the fall. “I just think he has it more than the other two,” Clinton or McCain, she says. Given that Jarrell sees universal health care as “socialized medicine” and worries more than anything about violent crime, that seems to come literally out of left field. Until, that is, she details what it is she’s waiting to hear from her (slightly) preferred candidate: “I’d like to hear Obama say, ‘Carolyn, I’m going to clean up your environment and stop this mountaintop mining and get your streams nice and clear and give you another tax rebate.'” Nah, just kidding about the tax rebate, she adds, laughing. “That was so silly.”
Only having said all that, now Jarrell is worried that she may have offended her new neighbor, because she knows Wonnell’s husband works in coal mining. “I hope I’m not stepping on your toes,” she says, “but that mountaintop removal has been such a detriment to our state.” Not at all, Wonnell says, hastening to assure her that she couldn’t agree more: “It’s OK, Carolyn. My husband does not do mountaintop.” They also agree that plain old litter is a big problem.
Another neighbor, Gloria Pauley, whose husband is a college professor at Marshall University — yes, the one from We Are Marshall — suggests that’s because it’s not easy being green in West Virginia. In their neighborhood, she says, some people dump because trash pickup costs extra, and recycling pickup costs even more. “We used to do little things, like recycle, but they took away the boxes,” and kept making it more expensive. Wonnell tells Pauley that she finally canceled her recycling service after her husband saw the trash collectors picking it up one morning — and throwing it in with the rest of the garbage.
Though Pauley is also a Republican, she’s disenchanted with her party, over the war and the economy, and shocked to find herself really taking a shine to Hillary Clinton. “Right now I feel very sorry for Hillary, being abandoned by everyone,” she says, “and this is a woman I couldn’t stand when she was in the White House, but I actually think she might make a good president.” And her Democratic rival? Not so much: “When I saw Obama had called his grandparents ‘typical white folks,’ what is that? It would be exciting to have a woman president — and it would be OK to have a black person, too,” she adds.
But what’s top on her list of concerns as a voter is “the man across the street just lost his car — the other day the son stopped by and said, ‘Can you buy me some dog food?’ — and the people over here lost their home, and they both work! I’ve never known anybody that lost their home or their car.” This summer, she and her husband will be leaving their RV parked in the driveway, and she is not happy about that, either: “Two people who’ve worked hard all their lives? I’m not going to have an oceanfront home, but a little Winnebago tooling around shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
For candidates — or pollsters, or anyone who makes a living trying to figure out voters — the wisps of smoke that electoral decisions sometimes turn on can seem frustratingly difficult to figure. Melanie Adkins, who has been refinishing furniture all day and apologizes for answering the door in her “Well, aren’t we just a freakin’ ray of sunshine?” T-shirt, says she’s voting Hillary because she just heard on the news that Clinton had spent more time in her state. Joe Cameron says he’s a “straight Democrat” who has been warned by his coworkers in asbestos removal that Obama will raise taxes, and “is not the man for the job.”
But the through line of these conversations is not so different from the narrative of the election as a whole: “Obama just seems honest,” because he panders less than the other candidates, says Kareem Ahmed, a 20-year-old first-time voter. When Wonnell seconds that emotion — “Oh, good!” — he says, “It’s not just good; it’s virtually nonexistent.”
Deborah Navy, a teacher who has voted Republican since “the early Reagan days,” says she can’t wait to switch parties come November: “Obama is fresh and idealistic and a Bobby Kennedy type; I trust his judgment.”