MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Mingo County, West Virginia, is far down in the southwest corner of the state. It's one of the coalmining counties where President Obama lost the May 8th Democratic primary. Many voters there believe the president is waging a war on coal. Mr. Obama did win statewide in West Virginia, but in Mingo County, he lost to Keith Judd, a convicted felon serving time in Texas for extortion. Judd managed to file his papers and get on the ballot from prison and he got 61 percent of the vote.

NPR's Noah Adams went to Mingo County to find out what happened.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: (Unintelligible) state West Virginia, they vote the way they want to vote. Republicans have won the state in the last three presidential elections. The governor is a Democrat and the two Senators, but still, how could a president running in his party's primary lose 10 counties to a guy in prison?

LEIGH ANN WELLS: You saw this person's name you've never seen before and he was on there, on the Democratic ticket.

ADAMS: Keith Judd?

WELLS: Mm-hmm.

ADAMS: What did you do?

WELLS: I voted for him.

ADAMS: This is Leigh Ann Wells. She works for the Mingo County Commission. That night, when she went home, the election results were on television.

WELLS: My husband was sitting on the couch. He said, you know that Judd guy who was on the ticket against Obama? And I said, yeah. He said, he's a felon in Texas. He's in jail.

ADAMS: The overwhelming issue in Mingo County is the future of coalmining. You will hear, see and read talk about Obama's war on coal, people blaming the White House for mines shutdown, coal burning power plants shut down, jobs gone.

And I talked with lots of people just like Leigh Ann Wells who would have tapped the voting screen for Keith Judd even if they did know he was in prison, even if it meant the TV talk shows would make fun of West Virginia.

WELLS: It was a little bit embarrassing and I don't care. It was more so a stance against Obama. Here in West Virginia, people feel like he doesn't even know we exist.

ADAMS: The White House would say there's a push for coal, not a war against it. In his State of the Union 2011 speech, President Obama talked about energy sources, including natural gas and clean coal. The president said, we will need them all, and he's promised more investment in coal technology, so maybe not a war, but there is a battle coming. It's over the word clean, in front of the word coal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN WHISTLE)

ADAMS: When you drive into Mingo County and first get out of the car, you'll smell coal in the air. After a day or so, you won't notice it. By the second night, you'll sleep without hearing the coal trains, but you always seem to be aware of the mountains, the hills, close in, all around.

BILL RICHARDSON: These very rugged mountains have isolated us.

ADAMS: This is Bill Richardson, historian and a Mingo County native.

RICHARDSON: It even shaped the accent because the old English accents didn't get blended away. It made people very clannish. They knew when there was a stranger in town because people didn't come here. It also made people very rugged and self-reliant.

ADAMS: I took a drive way back in the country. Go out to Dingess, people said, if you really want to see Mingo County. You'll get to go through an old railroad tunnel. It's almost a mile long.

I'm going to walk in the front of the tunnel here to get a sense of what it sounds like. When it was built, it was for a rail line carrying lumber and people. It's very dark and very drippy here.

The community called Dingess is a road through a winding narrow valley, small houses along each side. The people who live here come from people who always lived here and, to them, the coal trucks speeding by, that can be a friendly sound.

WADE MARCUM: I retired from coalmines March 15, 2000.

ADAMS: Wade and Madge Marcum talked with me out in the yard.

MARCUM: That (unintelligible) is in prison, that's the one I voted for.

ADAMS: The Marcums worry about retirement and the jobs for their family and neighbors.

MADGE MARCUM: The coalminers and that, they're upset over it because he's not for coal and that's what these people do, you know. It's all they know.

ADAMS: Farther along the Dingess Road, another front yard. Meet Sammy Vance.

SAMMY VANCE: Obama there, hell, if he'd bend over a little backwards there to West Virginia and get that - what is that? APA? Tell them to get on down the road and hell with the lizard. Man needs to work.

ADAMS: The EPA?

VANCE: The environmentalists, just like at Bang(ph) Creek here. They had permits and everything setting up there and, all of a sudden, they just yanked them.

ADAMS: A coalmine up here?

VANCE: Yeah.

ADAMS: Sammy Vance made a reference there to the salamander, often endangered by mining activity. A few of us are talking, leaning on the back of a pickup. Sam White looks ready for this question.

What exactly has Obama done to hurt coal? Because the jobs have gone up, I read, seven percent...

SAM WHITE: No, sir.

ADAMS: ...since he came to office.

WHITE: Jobs in what? In the coalmining industry?

ADAMS: In West Virginia.

WHITE: Well, I'll tell you, if you look at your statistics, I know that not there. I work for a contracting shop. Man, they right now are 40 people down.

ADAMS: At a crossroads called Lenore, there's a mini mart running busy all day with the trucks. A couple of old friends sit on a bench. Eugene Newsome says he will vote in the presidential election, but he won't stay with his party.

EUGENE NEWSOME: I've been a Democrat all my life, but I'm going to vote Republican this fall.

ADAMS: But his buddy, Lee Goff, says he's 100 percent behind the president, especially on clean air issues.

LEE GOFF: He wants the power plants to go clean fuel, which that's common sense to do. He's done what's right for the country, I believe.

ADAMS: In this part of West Virginia and across the Tug Fork River in Kentucky, there's a new measure of pride in the Hatfield and McCoy legend. A television miniseries has been stirring up tourism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLE)

ADAMS: And the outdoor sports money is more solid. People come from all over to ride the Hatfield McCoy trail system built for ATVs, the all-terrain vehicles. Sometimes, you'll ride on the old coalmine access roads.

BILL WILSEY: This is a Polaris 850. Our two boys are riding Yamaha 250s.

ADAMS: Bill Wilsey's(ph) family of ATVers getting set to head up Buffalo Mountain - they came from Fort Worth, Texas.

WILSEY: We don't have riding like this in Texas. Too much private land. There's not any public land to ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALL-TERRAIN VEHICLES)

ADAMS: The tourism money is encouraging for Mingo County, but this is a coal economy sliding further away from any prosperity, losing out to natural gas, threatened by tough regulations that make coal more expensive to mine and to burn.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, held a public hearing in Pikeville, Kentucky. If you wanted to object to any of the EPA actions, you could stand and do so.

BOBBY MAY: Hello. I'm Bobby May, chairman of the Republican Party of Buchanan County, across the border in Virginia, and I'm going to say something to all these manners assembled here tonight that you're not going to hear it from Barack Hussein Obama and that's God bless a coalminer. Hussein, in Arabic, means I hate coalminers. And, folks, I want to say this to you now. To anybody that thinks that coalmining is ugly, just wait until you see poverty.

ADAMS: Throughout the night and the day, coal trains roll out of Mingo County, West Virginia. In President Obama's vision, coal will be a part of a clean energy future. If the political advocacy group Friends of Coal has its way, a different president will help make different choices.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.