Can the Miner’s Daughter Do It?

It turns out that this isn’t the first time that Charlotte Jean Pritt dared to challenged two tycoons vying for the top executive office.

ANDY YALE Mount Hope, West Virginia

‘MOTHER JONES’ IN WEST VIRGINIA”

REPRINTED FROM The NATION Magazine, May 11, 1992

This is a land of few surprises, where change, apart from the ancient cycle of the seasons, is often looked at with COAL MINERS SILHOUETTEmistrust and suspicion. It is a mistrust grown eloquent with despair, engendered by a century’s exploitation of the region’s natural riches, a suspicion fueled by the perception that whatever changes have come to these mountains have been imposed from outside by the same interests that plundered the land’s wealth. Change here has largely been a process of desecration, and has left the bitter taste of disfranchisement in its wake.

The old order is visibIy passing, with no sign of what is to replace it, other than stagnation and decay. The towns are full of empty storefronts, staring blankly; fields long cultivated have gone brown with stickweed; schools and post offices are closing for lack of patrons; factories are sitting empty and open to the wind. What little change occurs appears to be the last spasms of the one-hundred-year degradation that has gripped these mountains. A new strip mine, a new strip mall: both products of the same machineries that pillaged the land of its coal and timber and then ensnared its people in the coils of a tawdry consumerism.

But change, like water, finds its way into places where no one would expect it. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised when I saw Charlotte Pritt on television announcing her candidacy for governor the last day in January. I knew exactly two things about Pritt: first, that she was a State Senator from Kanawha County with a reputation for being a friend of labor and the environment; and second, that Ken Sherman had been running a one-man campaign to draft her into the gubernatorial race since back in the fall.

Sherman and Pritt met at a statewide environmental conference in 1990. A longtime environmental activist, Sherman has championed a lot of causes over the years with a zeal that many of his friends dismiss as quixotic, When Sherman first started his drive to put her in the governor’s mansion, Pritt told him she’d run if he got 250,000 signatures on the draft petition. Since 250,000 names is roughly 28 percent of the registered voters in the state, most people considered this Pritt’s tactful way of putting the project out to pasture for a good long graze -say about four years-until she had time to build a statewide organization or got sick of politics. But here she was on the tube announcing her candidacy, despite the fact that Sherman’s last tally had shown fewer than 10,000 names on the petition, Given the lukewarm response to the draft petition, Pritt’s decision to run seemed to have sprung more from a semi mystical belief in her own destiny than from any indication of voter interest. But the events that followed suggested that maybe her contact with reality was better than I had thought.

The evening that Pritt entered the race, a Charleston TV station conducted a telephone poll in which Pritt trounced the incumbent, Gaston Caperton, garnering 93 percent of the vote to Caperton’s anemic 7 percent. The next day Attorney General Mario Palumbo withdrew from his re-election race and announced he was a candidate for governor. Local pundits think it was Pritt’s showing in the Channel 8 poll that gave Palumbo the backbone to run against Caperton. Whatever the reason, the May 12 Democratic primary is now a three-way race, and the campaign promises to be a hard-fought one. Pritt’s surprise showing in the poll may have been as much a measure of voter disgust with the incumbent as an indication of her popularity. Caperton, a millionaire whose family fortune is based on coal and insurance holdings, is widely disliked for such measures as the 6 percent tax he slapped on groceries soon after taking office. In fact, he is so unpopular that his Republican opponent, Cleve Benedict, is seen as having a serious chance at winning the election. For a Republican to have more than a snowball’s chance in hell in this staunchest of Democratic strongholds has more to do with the ferment that has gripped the body politic than with any appeal Benedict may have for voters.

For Benedict is another millionaire, heir to a sizable chunk of the Procter & Gamble fortune. The spectacle of these two scions of old money contending for the governorship of a state that has an average per capita income near the poverty line struck many observers as offensive. Among them was Charlotte Pritt, whose last-minute entry into the race was largely based on her aversion to the lack of choice that would have otherwise confronted voters.

One millionaire running against another millionaire in the state of West Virginia is obscene,” Pritt says. “These people have never had to worry about health care, they’ve never had to worry about having enough to eat, they’ve never had to worry about getting a job, and if they did get a job, whether it would pay well enough to make ends meet. They have no idea how most West Virginians live, yet they’re trying to lead the state.”

For her part, Pritt claims firsthand knowledge of the woes and fears of the average mountaineer. Raised on a 200-acre farm on Buzzard Rock Mountain, daughter of a coal miner, oldest of six children, she walked a mile each way to a two-room school, carried water from a well to the house and helped tend the big garden that fed her famdy. She doesn’t recall being hungry, but she remembers a haunting fear of sickness-despite the family’s self-sufficiency and her father’s hard labor in the mines, the Pritts could not afford health care.

Pritt’s hardscrabble childhood is probably one of her strongest ties to the voters, a majority of whom look back wistfully on a similar past. They share a nostalgia centered around remembered hardships, which seems to serve as a powerful touchstone in their sense of personal identity. And the experiences associated with the old self-sufficient mountain way of life have been elevated to an almost iconic status, now that this life itself is gone. Pritt isn’t bashful about invoking these icons in campaign speeches. But it’s clear that her background means more to her than just a convenient way to get votes. It seems a genuine determinant of much of her politics, and her voting record during eight years in the legislature reflects this.

Pritt fought valiantly to preserve mine safety measures, she sponsored a parental leave bill that became law and she has been in the forefront of many battles to stave off the nightmare environmental scenarios that raise their ugly heads with depressing regularity. Pritt sponsored bills to license lay midwives, to protect women against domestic violence and to introduce universal health care, which she says was prompted by memories of her fear of getting sick as a child. So unbending is her stand on the issues that her colleagues in Charleston have taken to calling her “the Mother Jones of the West Virginia legislature.”

Pritt doesn’t balk at the comparison to the legendary foul-mouthed Irish agitator who made things hot for coal operators in the early years of this century. She says that being likened to Mother Jones is the highest compliment she could receive. “It says I’m courageous, hard-working and determined -and a staunch friend to working people.” Yet despite her close affiliation with labor -the A.F.L.- C.I.O. rated her voting record at 100 percent -Pritt has been endorsed by only two unions, the Ironworkers and the Boilermakers, along with several chapters of the West Virginia State Employees Union. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. endorsed Caperton, whom it is difficult to view as a friend of labor no matter how far you stretch the bubble gum. Pritt points out that the Governor has been involved with a local anti-union committee and has bitterly opposed collective bargaining by state employees. She says the A.F.L.C.I.O. endorsement of Caperton “can’t be justified in any way. Someone made an unholy alliance.”

Another such alliance, long in the offing, became apparent on March 14 when the United Mine Workers OF America endorsed Caperton. The union is still potent in the region, and its backing carries a moral force that extends beyond its members, influencing many voters who have no current involvement with the union, other than an emotional one. Pritt, who has close ties to the U.M.W.A.-her father IS a former president of Local 1766 -was dismayed but not surprised. She angrily denounced the endorsement as a “pact with the Devil’’ and maintains it does not reflect rank-and-file sentiment

The decision to endorse Caperton seems to be an embarrassment to the U.M.W.A., if one can judge by the touchy, defensive tone union staff members assume when discussing it. Jim Grossfeld, a press officer at the International headquarters in Washington, seemed to resent being questioned about the endorsement at all. “Charlotte Pritt has a fine record,”

he said, “but so does Gaston Caperton, and we felt he was the wisest choice for the U.M.W.A. to endorse.” When I pressed Grossfeld for particulars on how this decision was reached, he referred me to Mike Burdiss. the U.M.W.A.’s international representative in Charleston.

Burdlss was initially no less defensive, characterizing my two neutrally worded questions as “two separate attacks on the union.” He did give me the facts, however: The state compact council, 165 rank-and-file members elected from locals statewide, had met on March 14 and voted 156 to 9 for Caperton. Asked about rumors that pressures from Washlngton influenced the compact, Burdiss vehemently stated, “The U.M.W.A. doesn’t do business that way.” He praised Pritt’s voting record and claimed he had “begged Charlotte not to run at this time,” because the U.M.W.A. is too involved in a fight over health benefits to give her the support she needs to win. He also maintained that the union had not suffered under Caperton’s administration, and cited the restraint the Governor had placed on the State Police during recent labor disputes. This claim that there is now a kinder, gentler constabulary seemed rather out of character coming from the union of the Armed March, the Battle of Blair Mountain and the Pittsron strike. Taken with the uptight manner in which union officials reacted to questions about the Caperton endorsement, Burdiss’s remarks suggested a hidden agenda that might not reflect rank-and-file sentiment.

To check this out, I spoke separately with two mineworkers, both officers in their respective locals. “What the U.M.W.A. believes is completely different from my views,” said the first. “I think rank and file is not going for Caperton that much. Caperton’s family goes back to coal operators, not union. Pritt seems pretty good to me. As to Palumbo, I don’t know much about him.”

Asked about the union compact’s decision to endorse Caperton, he said, “The compact in some ways might be all right, but it really doesn’t represent rank and file. They vote more along the lines of how they’re told to vote. There’s a certain amount of influence from national headquarters as well.”

The second miner, an elected member of the compact, was in a good position to add more details about how this influence is exercised. He explained that in previous elections each candidate appeared separately before the compact to answer questions. In 1992, however, this practice was abandoned without explanation, and it was “recommended” by the compact committee that Caperton receive the endorsement. “A lot of people who made the decision were influenced by what the hierarchy told them. And debate was stifled by a motion made to limit speeches to two minutes each. The compact was created to screen public officials up for re-election. You don’t go with a millionaire just because he can win. You go with someone with a good voting record.”

When I repeated U.M.W.A. spokesman Grossfeld’s remarks about Caperton’s excellent record to this delegate, he snorted, “If Mr. Grossfeld said that Caperton has an excellent record, that shows how out of touch with reality he is regarding Caperton.” He cited Caperton’s membership on anti-union committees and pointed out that the average time taken to adjudicate black-lung compensation claims had doubled under his administration. “It’s coal operator money in that fund, not tax money. If there’s no other reason to refuse the endorsement, that’s reason enough for me as a rank-and-file miner.”

Charlotte Pritt laughed when I repeated Mike Burdiss’s comment about Caperton’s restraint of the State Police. “They [the unions] are scared they’re going to have to strlke if they don’t resolve the health fund dispute,” she said. “This is what the union has reduced itself to -they’re scared of the State Police. It would probably make John L. Lewis sick to his stomach.”

The lack of official labor endorsements may worry Pritt, but it doesn’t shake her profound belief that she can win.

With a minuscule budget, a staff made up entirely of volunteers, and minimal media coverage, she plans to spend the time between now and the primary in May waging an all-out grassroots fight. When she was an unknown high school English teacher, Pritt ran a homemade door-to-door campaign to win her first term in the legislature. But many close to the campaign are worried about the feasibility of a similar effort on a statewide scale. While Pritt shines in addressing small groups-in person she radiates intelligence and sincerity it is an open question whether she can reach enough voters to offset the media’s determination to ignore her candidacy.

What little attention she does get tends to come from The Charleston Gazeffe, which has blasted her on several occasions on its editorial page.

Prltt is further hampered by the Governor’s refusal to debate her or Palumbo. With a campaign chest of more than a million dollars, Caperton can buy all the TV time he is likely to need. An unimpressive public speaker, he seems to be playing it safe, but his refusal to meet his opponents strikes many people here as an arrogant dismissal of the democratic process and may backfire.

Whatever the outcome, the power brokers the current Governor represents appear to view Pritt’s candidacy as a dangerous precedent. She puts it succinctly: “That a coal miner’s daughter would challenge a millionaire has them in turmoil.” It’s a fair bet that many voters will see the contest in the same archetypal terms. And this is perhaps the trump card in Pritt’s hand. Given a choice between a millionaire and one of their own, most West Virginians are likely to remember where their true allegiance lies.

In the meantime, Pritt seems to be doing well. Recent statewide polls show the race to be too close to call. Pritt’s credibility as a candidate has been established, and this heartens her. “If I don’t win the primary, I’ll run as an independent,” she says. “The people have to have a choice.”

That choice will be made clear in May. Pritt’s candidacy may be nothing more than a final ghost dance of archaic mountain values in the face of the media culture that is finally overwhelming them. Or it might signal a genuine groundswell of popular anger that will sweep her into the governor’s mansion in the fall. With a foot in both worlds, the old and the new, Pritt represents a synthesis in which the present and past meld in a meaningful way. In these enduring mountains, which have gazed unwaveringly on so much change, such a synthesis still seems possible.

Author Andy Vale,, writer and photographer, lives in southern West
Virginia.


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