May 302014

Sharon Day and Barb Baker-larush.journey's end.Sharon Day and Barb Baker-larush at journey’s end!–Photo by Lee Taylor

981 miles of steps for the Ohio River during the Ohio River Nibi walk! They did it! Thank you, Ojibwe women, Sharon Day and Barb Baker-larush for every loving step you took with each step a healing prayer!

From their first step taken on Earth Day, April 21, 2014 beginning at the Ohio’s headwaters in Pittsburgh, PA, to the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi at Cairo, IL, ending officially on May 26, 2014, these amazing women persevered. Despite torrential rain, they walked every day—sometimes just the two of them or sometimes with others who helped to carry the load. Undeterred by sore feet, heavy traffic, or the hot sun, they just kept walking for the water.

I smiled when I read on Sharon’s Facebook page, that a fish jumped when the water from the Ohio’s headwaters was poured into at the confluence at the Mississippi! That seems to be a good sign for better days to come for the river. Because of Sharon and Barb and everyone else who walked with them, more eyes are on the Ohio River and greater awareness has been raised regarding its current horribly polluted state.

photo (23)“Where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi” from Sharon Day’s Facebook page

I am personally inspired by and grateful to Sharon and Barb for sharing their incredible journey with me and for helping me to know that just like walking for the water requires mindfulness, so does protecting the water require mindfulness. If Sharon and Barb have inspired you in some way to be more mindful about caring for our water, write a letter to the editor to your local paper or call one of your state or federal representatives and tell them you want them to advocate for that greater protection for our streams and rivers. And maybe in the future, you will want to join them on another Nibi walk.

 2014-05-03 18.22.27Dianne Stephenson, Sharon Day, Barb Baker-larush and Keely Kernan at Harris Riverfront Park, Huntington, WV



 Posted by at 7:49 pm
Jan 312014

Elinore Taylor’s memorial service is Saturday, February 1 at Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church in Huntington. Details here.

Elinore Taylor left us January 12.

I can’t remember a time when Elinore Taylor wasn’t associated with OVEC. If you go to our website and type in her name, you will find page after page of results. Elinore was everywhere present in OVEC’s activities and organizational development. Hers was a welcoming smile at board meetings, protests, and public hearings including events that she initiated. Behind that warm smile was not only a friendly, caring woman, but also a dedicated, determined defender of “the least of these, my brethren.” She gave voice to the underdog through her frequent hard-hitting letters to local and state newspapers expressing her personal outrage. A professor from Marshall University, even though retired she continued to educate many people about social and environmental injustices.

Elinore Taylor May 28 2012, on the WV State Capitol steps.

Elinore Taylor May 28 2012, on the WV State Capitol steps.

She was a remarkable, loving woman and a true patriot. She regularly called elected officials and undoubtedly gave them an earful. She exuded both passion and compassion for fellow West Virginians, especially those impacted by mountaintop removal strip mining. From Mother Jones to Memphis Tennessee Garrison, West Virginia women have always had a unique way of standing up for what’s right. And so it was with Elinore who, along with other women, was shorn on Memorial Day 2012, to underscore the untold losses of stripped mountains, forests, water resources, human health and communities.

elinorShe translated her concern about our dwindling democracy, bought-and-paid-for politicians and the environment (especially our mountains) by taking action. She gave generously of her time and financial resources. Elinore understood the connection between environmental injustice and the massive contributions of polluters into political campaigns. For that reason, she was a vocal and stalwart supporter of OVEC’s goal to create a program for public financing of elections. She understood that this system could help decrease the undue influence of coal and other polluting industries on public policy, as well as provide an avenue for ordinary people to run for political office.

Elinore lived in the present, yet also cared about the OVEC’s future. When Elinore decided that it was time to make room for younger people on OVEC’s board, she recommended Robin Blakeman to take her place and brought her to a board meeting in Boone County. As you may know, OVEC senior staff quickly recognized what Elinore knew all along — as an ordained Presbyterian minister, Robin is a gifted organizer. Soon thereafter, OVEC asked Robin to join the staff as a full-time organizer and faith-based liaison. Undoubtedly, Elinore understood the significance of garnering the faith communities’ support and participation in OVEC’s work in West Virginia.

For me and for many others, Elinore was a great role model and steady encourager. She would call me from time to time to congratulate OVEC on a big or small victory or just to see how we all were faring. On occasion, she stopped by our office to retrieve or bring us information or just to say hello, even though our steep stairs could leave her a little breathless. Just this past Christmas Eve, she took time to call me to see how I was doing and invite me to church services; she was concerned I might be alone and knew my only sister was struggling with a terminal illness. Having lost her own beloved Nancy the previous year, she truly empathized. Her wisdom, sharp wit, winning smile and keen intelligence were a gift to all of us. Who but Elinore would refer to the apolitical masses as the “somnambulant public?”

I find it quite difficult to think of Elinore in the past tense, because she has truly left an indelible mark on OVEC, on me, and on so many people and organizations with whom she was aligned. We hope she keeps plotting, scheming, and whispering in our ears along with other strong spirits on the other side, like Winnie Fox, Laura Forman, Judy Bonds and Larry Gibson. We loved her and will miss her physical presence greatly and extend OVEC’s heartfelt condolences to Elinore’s family and friends.

Elinore Taylor’s family requested that memorial gifts in her name be made to the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church, 469 Norway Ave., Huntington, WV25705, for their Child Care Center and Food Closet, or to OVEC. 

Jan 312014

Having lived in West Virginia for 5 years and graduating (long ago) from Huntington High School, the state and its people are often in my thoughts and always in my heart.

Last week I received an email from a friend of a friend who lives in West Virginia and was forwarding an article about the recent chemical spill. She commented that the article expressed many of her questions from the past 35 years she has lived in the state, but she had never felt the rage expressed by the author.

This is what I wrote to her:
I feel this rage so often, with each story about the exploitation of West Virginia, stories I read multiple times a week, probably because I seek out stories about mountaintop removal, coal slurry waste in streams and threatening schools and homes behind “dams”, WV politics (Don Blankenship buying judges, etc.).

This is the rant that I identified most with:

“To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us.”

When I attended my 40th reunion in 2007, I thought I could have a conversation with my HS buddies about mountaintop removal. It was more in the news then, and I was outraged. I naively thought that once the people of WV knew the truth, they would rise up and work to protect the health of their citizens and of their lovely environment.

Boy was I wrong. When I tried to I start that conversation, two of my high school friends looked at each other and then said something like “you don’t understand about jobs in WV”. I was stunned.  Even I, in 2007, knew that the coal industry was employing fewer and fewer people in the state – not because they were purposely reducing their coal extraction but because the work can be mechanized more and more. So now they can rape more of the land without providing more jobs. And, of course, this whole topic begs the question that if the coal company jobs are so great, how come in 2011 WV ranked 49th out of 50 in terms of median household income? As that article says:

“If you keep people poor, you keep them desperate.”

Of course you can’t kick out polluting industries without having a backup plan for new jobs, and that would require the cooperation of the state’s political leaders, the same leaders who have been in the pocket of the coal/chemical companies. Why on earth would the coal companies want to encourage employment alternatives?

Until the Mountaineers get together to clean up their state’s politics and hold their industries accountable for destroying lives and the environment, they will never be free (“Montani semper liberi” is the state motto).
It takes all West Virginians – whether they were affected by the chemical spill or not, whether they can look out their windows and see decapitated mountains or not, whether their wells are now spewing orange and black water or not – to clean up their state. And I, now a Californian, can’t be much help because I am now an outsider. It’s frustrating, and I actually am driven to tears over it.

Jan 102014

Re: Nine-county water-use ban due to Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River

Statement from Janet Keating, executive director of the Huntington, W.Va.-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition:

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) extends its concern to people and communities impacted by yesterday’s release of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol. More than a day and a half after people first noticed the odor that alerted officials to the leak, the smell still lingers near downtown Charleston, though, due to health-department-ordered shutdown of restaurants, there are few people downtown.

On Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 at 12:30 p.m., Capitol Street in downtown Charleston is nearly deserted. Normally, at the lunch hour, the street would be crowded.  Photo by Vivian Stockman

On Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 at 12:30 p.m., Capitol Street in downtown Charleston is nearly deserted. Normally, at the lunch hour, the street would be crowded.
Photo by Vivian Stockman

There appear to be more questions than answers surrounding this event, especially regarding potential health concerns.

For more than 24 hours, West Virginia American Water Company customers in nine counties have not been able to use their water, except to flush toilets.

This scary and broad-scale, emergency focuses our thoughts on the vulnerability of our water supply, especially as it relates to energy development.  We hope our state leaders realize that clean water can not be taken for granted and needs to be actively protected. Water is not only vital to all life, but also necessary for a fully functioning economy.

Ellen's Ice Cream is one of many businesses closed due to the chemical leak.

Ellen’s Ice Cream is one of many businesses closed due to the chemical leak.

With many shuttered restaurants and other businesses across the nine-county area, undoubtedly West Virginia’s economy has taken a hit and our citizens have been inconvenienced as they have searched out clean, potable water.

We will continue to monitor this serious situation and invite citizens to express their concerns to all elected leaders about the need to protect our precious and vital water resources.

Libraries, day care centers, schools, hair salons, bars are among the businesses and institutions closed. Hospitals have cancelled scheduled procedures.

Libraries, day care centers, schools, hair salons, bars are among the businesses and institutions closed. Hospitals have cancelled scheduled procedures.


Nov 152013

janwinterphotoWe have a lofty goal of raising $25,000 in memberships and grassroots donations by December 31.  We can do this, with your help.

As 2013 draws to a close, we here at OVEC are reflecting on our blessings and achievements this year. We are filled with gratitude for folks like you who provide volunteer time, moral support and financial contributions. Your gifts enable our exciting new work on renewable energy (more on that in 2014), as well as our work to end mountaintop removal coal mining and other injustices in West Virginia.  To succeed, we rely on the generosity of our supporters.

Despite the power and resources of the coal industry and its political allies in Washington, D.C., we can indeed claim some major successes. While we haven’t yet ended mountaintop removal entirely, our organizing, public education, media and legal work have played a significant role in curtailing this extreme mining practice.  As we work to ensure that West Virginia’s water is protected from mining-related activities, we also are mobilizing to protect human health and the environment from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) — the extreme processes used for Marcellus Shale gas production. Unfortunately, our state’s leaders appear to be careening down another dirty, fossil fuel energy road.

We are headed in a different direction, envisioning and working for a future where clean water, clean air and healthy communities are the rule instead of the exception. That’s why we’ve been working on campaign finance reform, and why we’re working with West Virginia youth through the Build it Up! program. That’s why we’re working on energy efficiency programs and in the beginning stages of some renewable energy projects that will be groundbreaking when we bring them to fruition. And that’s why we work to end the devastating health impacts of extreme energy extraction.

I hope you share OVEC’s vision and agree that our work moves West Virginia more quickly to a healthier, saner future.  If you’ve recently renewed your membership, thank you! I hope you will further endorse our work by sending a year-end gift. To other folks, please consider renewing a lapsed membership, or officially joining for the first time. We have a lofty goal of raising $25,000 in memberships and grassroots donations by December 31. With your contribution, we can meet that goal. You can donate online via credit card on this secure server or via PayPal, or you can mail in a check.

On behalf of all of the board and staff of OVEC, I extend to you our wishes for Happy Holidays, as well as days filled with love, joy, peace and beauty throughout the coming New Year!

Warm wishes,

Janet Keating, OVEC’s Executive Director

Jul 182013

West Virginia’s mountains and people have lost another passionate protector. Janice Nease, a coal miner’s daughter, founding member and former executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, died on July 8, 2013. Janice was a strong Appalachian woman who clearly understood how our mountains and culture are inextricably linked. She excelled at articulating the problems that people face in Appalachia. At one of the first rallies for the mountains, Janice said: “Coal is the greatest threat to prosperity in West Virginia. Coal never has and never will fulfill its promises.”

For many years thereafter, Janice and other folks organized by Coal River Mountain Watch were central to numerous actions and events aimed at countering coal propaganda and holding elected officials accountable, like the “Coal Ops 2000” conference held in Beckley. At that event, while coal industry management from across the country were inside the Country Inns and Suites talking about the financial benefits to be gained from mountaintop removal and how to repair their ever-darkening public image, Janice, along with people from Whitesville, Seng Creek and other mountaintop removal communities set up a wall of protest signs outside.

Janice travelled frequently with Judy Bonds (another fallen shero) and Freda Williams, spreading the word about the impacts of mountaintop removal and dangerous coal slurry impoundments. Janice was particularly concerned about the Brushy Fork Impoundment, designed by the same engineers of the disastrous Martin County sludge pond that failed in October 2000 in Inez, KY. In excess of 300 million gallons of toxic coal sludge inundated more than 75 miles of streams and rivers in Kentucky and West Virginia killing all the aquatic life, shutting down public water systems and flooding peoples’ yards (more than 7 feet deep).

On one notable summer day, dubbed “Summer Solstice Sludge Tour,” Janice, Judy, Freda and folks from OVEC toured the massive 645 acre Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment. The impoundment was developed in the 1990s by MarFork Coal Company, which was owned by Massey Energy at the time. In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources purchased Massey’s holdings, including the Brushy Fork impoundment. Brushy Fork is a tributary of Little Marsh Fork that flows into Marsh Fork, comprising part of the headwaters of the Coal River upstream of Whitesville.

This spring, federal regulators approved expansion of the Brushy Fork coal slurry impoundment, one of the largest in the nation, increasing its holdings from 6.5 billion gallons to 8.5 billion gallons and to a height taller than the Hoover Dam. I shudder to think about the loss of life if that impoundment ever fails.

At OVEC’s Fourth Interstate Summit for the Mountains, Janice received a well-deserved “Speaking Truth to Power” award. Despite her diminutive size, she never shied from getting in the face of elected officials, environmental regulators, coal guys and others whom she held responsible for the injustices caused by mountaintop removal. I loved that about her and will miss her. She helped lay the foundation for the good work that continues in the Coal River Valley.

Although West Virginia has lost another native daughter who loved the people, the culture and the beauty of our mountains, I can only imagine the jubilation on the other side when Janice was greeted by Judy Bonds, Larry Gibson, Winnie Fox and Laura Forman and other fallen mountain defenders. Thanks, Janice, for all your passion and the countless hours you worked to help preserve our mountains, communities and Appalachian culture.

 Posted by at 3:46 pm
Feb 72013

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) applauds the sponsors of the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act, H.R. 526, (ACHE) just introduced into Congress and supports the ACHE campaign.  After nearly two decades of organizing citizens to oppose this brutal mining technique and after reviewing all the published, peer-reviewed studies, it is clear not only that a moratorium on mountaintop removal is needed immediately, but also that this is the right and just thing to do.  Until federal studies conclude that mountaintop removal does not contribute to a plethora of diseases, birth defects and cancer death near mine sites, this form of mining should be halted.  People living near mountaintop removal mines should not be paying with their lives and health for so-called “cheap” energy.

Our federal representatives in West Virginia have a responsibility to protect the lives of all citizens of the state, especially our children.


West Virginia children deserve a safe, healthy environment–free from mountaintop removal strip mining of coal.

While the silence of our elected officials around the findings of more than 20 studies on mountaintop removal is deafening, you can be assured that we will not be silent.

You can read more about the ACHE Act on Rainforest Action Network’s website here.

If your electricity is supplied by a coal plant, you, too are contributing to illness and disease in our southern mountain communities.  Please do your part.  Contact your representative in Congress and ask them to support the ACHE Act, HR 526.

 Posted by at 3:13 pm
Feb 12013

OVEC’s Vivian Stockman and I took a tour of the beautiful, new Marsh Fork Elementary School during the open house January 4, and on January 18 a formal dedication was held.

The new Marsh Fork Elementary School, built after more than six years of struggle.

A state-of-the-art classroom at the school. Shouldn’t all of West Virginia’s elementary school’s be like this, considering all the natural wealth that’s been extracted?

Not surprisingly, the media left out much of the back story. And politicians like Senator Joe Manchin didn’t utter a peep about all the rallies, protests and arrests that led to the construction of this new, state-of-the art facility at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Manchin sure didn’t mention Ed Wiley’s Herculean efforts as he and Coal River Mountain Watch lead the charge for a new school. If you only read or watch the reports from the media and politicians, one would get the impression that the school was constructed out of the goodness of the hearts of politicians and others who merely came up with a plan and found the money. Voila! A new state-of-the-art school! Nothing could be further from the truth.
So here’s a brief summary of the rest of story. Six years ago, the old school became a center of controversy—a “poster child,” regarding everything bad about coal. Ed Wiley, whose granddaughter attended the school, had a rude awakening when he picked Kayla up from school one day. She was feeling ill and told her grandfather that the school was making kids sick. Ed was well aware of the mountaintop removal, the 2.8 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge and dust, the coal silo and processing plant adjacent to the elementary school. He and others at Coal River Mountain Watch began to demand that a new school be built for the community. They met with bureaucrats and elected leaders to no avail.

The old Marsh Fork Elementary School–too toxic for children! Photo by Vivian Stockman

When their efforts didn’t produce results, Ed and other folks came up with a brilliant campaign. Dubbed “Pennies of Promise,” the campaign’s aim was to generate public support and to draw attention to the issues and impacts of mountaintop removal by collecting pennies. These pennies would be given to the state to aid the funding effort. Their efforts captured the imagination of elementary school kids as far away as New York who collected and sent pennies for a new Marsh Fork Elementary School.
From the Associated Press:Coal River Valley residents launched a fundraising effort to build a new school in Raleigh County by presenting about 90 pounds of pennies and a piece of their mind to Gov. Joe Manchin on Tuesday. The residents say Manchin and his administration have ignored their allegations that Marsh Fork Elementary has a dangerous amount of coal dust in classrooms and that its location below a coal waste dam imperils students. The school abuts Goals Coal, a Massey Energy Co. subsidiary. Kayla Taylor, 11, gave Manchin her green piggy bank and her grandfather, Ed Wiley, laid several cloth bags filled with pennies on the floor of the governor’s reception room at the Capitol before confronting the governor…The bags of pennies, about $460 total, were donated by schoolchildren in New York City who heard about efforts to get a new school, Wiley said. Kayla added her piggy bank and others donated about $50 to the fundraising campaign called “Pennies of Promise.”
OVEC and other groups supported Coal River Mountain Watch and Ed’s campaign by sending out news releases of protests and other direct actions. We also sent Action Alerts like the one found here.

Ed, Day 19: Over 250 miles into the walk, at Bulington, West Virginia (near Romney) on Sunday, August 20.
–Photo by Abbey Chapple

When Ed decided in 2006 to walk the 450 miles from Charleston, WV, to Washington, DC, to talk with Senator Byrd about his concerns, we helped keep the public informed about his whereabouts in daily “Where’s Ed?” posts.
Fast forward to September and Ed arrived in DC, joined at a press conference by numerous supporters after his long, hot, arduous walk.

Ed Wiley at press conference in DC on September 13, 2006. Photo by Vivian Stockman

As a result of Ed’s staggering efforts, Senator Byrd met and prayed with him. But no new school was promised. Byrd indicated that such matters were left to the state. (Really? The esteemed Senator who had building after building and other multi-million dollar complexes in West Virginia named after him because he regularly brought home the bacon, couldn’t shake down the state or feds for the few million dollars it would take? OK. He’s passed on and can’t defend himself, so I’ll let that go for now.)

But Ed and others would not give up. They shook things up by paying then Governor Manchin a few visits in his office at the state Capitol. Who will forget this video where Hillary Hosta was handcuffed and brutally taken away? Many courageous people, including some OVEC folks, were arrested that day. Tears came to my eyes, just watching this again. So the road to building the new Marsh Fork Elementary School was not the walk in the park that present-day politicians and others might have you believe.

Another milestone moment occurred at the school in 2009, when actress Daryl Hannah, climate scientist Dr. James Hansen, former Congressman Ken Hechler, Judy Bonds (deceased) and many others were not only arrested at the mine site, but also were confronted by hundreds of angry miners and their wives. Although Coal River Mountain Watch had reserved the school grounds for a rally, the WV State police allowed the counter-protesters to disrupt and invade the site.

The real turning point came after the tragic Upper Big Branch mining disaster where 29 miners lost their lives as a result of a violent explosion at a Massey Energy mine. The national media flooded into the Coal River Valley, setting up shop on the grounds of the old Marsh Fork Elementary School awaiting word of the miners’ fate. It just so happened that Charles Annenberg, of the Annenberg Foundation was in the Coal River Valley at that time, looking for a project where his foundation could make a difference.

Before he arrived, efforts of the Pennies for Promise campaign had managed to amass a commitment of couple of million dollars from the state and even Massey Energy had agreed to provide a million or so—but that fell short of what was needed. Fortunately, during Mr. Annenberg’s time in the valley, he ran across the good folks of Coal River Mountain Watch. That was when a plan was hatched. Mr. Annenberg would ask for a meeting with the governor to see if the state would match the foundation’s gift of $2.5 million. How could the state and the governor say no?

And so, the deal was done. After six years of struggle, activists like Ed Wiley, young people from Mountain Justice, and too many more to name, could finally declare victory! Endless pressure, endless applied. It took courage and sheer determination and lots of heart.

I can’t help but wonder what positive changes could take place in the Coal River Valley, or anywhere else in West Virginia, if people living in communities actually worked together.

 Posted by at 6:09 pm
Oct 302012

Wow! Happy 25th Birthday OVEC!

Let’s all eat cake!


Who would have thought that OVEC would still be going strong considering our humble beginnings—a small committed group of people that stood up, spoke out and said “NO” to a major polluter? But here we all are, together celebrating a significant milestone in OVEC’s life— 25 years of hard-won successes.


Crystal Good’s reading of BoomBoom wowed the crowd.


We want you to know that we couldn’t have done any of this important work without the thousands of supporters who have been standing with us—and if you are reading this, you must be one of them. We hope you know that you, our members, volunteers, sustaining members, major donors and foundations share in every victory—both large and small. You are the life-blood of OVEC—generous, heart-centered, and committed to environmental justice, as well as clean air, water and land. Thank you!

We know that the only way to overcome the power of organized money is through the power of organized people—a core belief that has been the basis for our many real-world victories. In our early years, with OVEC’s assistance, citizens took leadership in their communities and successfully prevented major new toxic pollution sources in the Huntington Tri-State area and forced dramatic pollution reductions at the former Ashland Oil refinery on the Kentucky-West Virginia border. For 5 years, OVEC organized and led a coalition of groups, as well as hundreds of OVEC members which prevented the construction of the biggest dioxin-spewing pulp mill in North America in Apple Grove, West Virginia.

Appalachia Rising: The power of organized people!

In our quarter of a century life, we’ve learned that major victories are not won overnight. That’s why OVEC also believes in “endless pressure, endlessly applied.” Major pollution reductions at the Ashland Oil refinery took over twelve years of citizen organizing and toxic tort litigation. Standing with impacted communities, OVEC has been fighting mountaintop removal mining and other abuses of the coal industry for fifteen years. While we haven’t won yet, your loyal support has allowed us to stand our ground against injustices perpetrated by a politically powerful coal industry.

Bottom right is what remains of Jarrell family cemetery. Flight courtesy of Southwings (www.southwings.org).

A story aired on MetroNews radio prior to our celebration.  You can read about it here:


You can read more about our celebration here:


Today, while we continue to grieve and stand with those who still suffer the day-to-day assaults of mountaintop removal mining, we can take some solace in knowing that without our efforts, there would be many more active mountaintop removal mines now operating in West Virginia. Again, we want to express deepest gratitude to all of you— our faithful dues-paying members and hard-working volunteers, our board members and partner organizations, and all the attorneys who work with us providing significant time, energy, and resources to help save our precious mountains, streams and communities.

Blackwater Canyon


None of us knows what the future holds for OVEC, but we can all reflect with satisfaction knowing that OVEC’s presence in West Virginia has made a significant positive impact on the quality of life and the environment. We know with your continued support, we can forge a new vision for the state’s future—a future where all people are respected and valued, that preserves our mountain ecosystems and unique culture, is truly democratic, inclusive and, sustainable. That’s a tall order, but with your continued support, we can do this together.

Onward and upward!
Janet Keating, Executive Director
Dianne Bady, OVEC Founder and Co-Director

Aug 272012

More and more these days, I’m beginning to believe that I live in “upside-down” world, the Bo-Zone Layer (thank you Far Side cartoons) or some other convoluted universe. And West Virginia may just be the center.

I’m trying to wrap my mind around the fact that the Michael Callaghan, former chairman of the Democratic Party and former Director of the WV Division of Environmental Protection, is suing WV Secretary of State, Natalie Tennant (Democrat) and the state Election Commission in federal court, claiming that the matching funds provision of the Supreme Court’s public campaign financing pilot program is unconstitutional. (Matching or “rescue” funds allow a publicly funded candidate to receive additional funding for his/her campaign once a participating candidate passes a spending threshold or is targeted by an independent campaign.)

Capitol Dollars.

Callaghan’s reasoning? He says since he supported both Democratic candidates for office that he filed this case to keep West Virginia taxpayers from financing a candidate he opposed. He also pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has ruled that matching funds provisions are an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment rights of candidates and contributors. His arguments are based on the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling that said Arizona’s public financing system substantially burdened the free speech of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups despite evidence to the contrary. I could rant about my view of the twisted logic that led to that ruling, but will save it for some other time.

Regarding the Arizona Free Enterprise ruling, SCOTUS held that the triggered matching fund provisions of Arizona’s public financing system substantially burdens free speech of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups without fulfilling a compelling government interest. In an amicus brief we signed on to in a similar case in Wisconsin, one argument stated that judges, unlike other elected officials, have a duty, under the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, to be impartial. Therefore, reforms to prevent the appearance of courtroom bias represent a compelling government interest.

Of course, the court’s ruling said the anti-corruption interest wasn’t furthered because candidates couldn’t be corrupted by their own money (which is I guess someone could argue in this case since Davis and Chafin are largely self-financed). However, the ruling also said that independent expenditures were not corrupting because they were not coordinated with the candidate. Please! This is the bizarro world we live in.
My initial reaction: “You, too, Democrats?” For years, the effort to enact a bill for public financing of elections in West Virginia has largely been impeded by Republicans in the legislature — though fortunately, some in that party saw the benefits of “voter-owned” elections. Now, it appears that Callaghan’s smarmy action was taken on behalf of a few Democrats’ special agenda. The lawsuit by Callaghan reeks, especially since it was filed by the attorney for a current Democratic Supreme Court candidate.

Here’s where I’m further stymied. Since 2000, when a bill for public financing of was introduced in West Virginia, the Democrats have been primary supporters of this concept — in fact they were the champions of this measure when the pilot project passed in 2010. What a way to breathe fresh clean, air into the WV Supreme Court after the two black eyes it received!

I’m referring to the Court’s appearance of corruption when former CEO of Massey Energy Don Blankenship personally funded, to the tune of about $3 million, the campaign of then no-name candidate, Brent Benjamin. Benjamin unseated Justice Warren McGraw thanks to a shadowy “And for the Sake of the Kids” independent ad campaign funded by Blankenship.

You can read more details about that nasty judicial campaign here:  http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/judges/

Then, photographs of Blankenship and then-sitting Chief Justice, “Spike” Maynard vacationing in Monaco appeared as front page news in a national newspaper at a time when Massey Energy had a $50 million judgment before the Court brought by Harman Mining Company. (Just rehashing these incidents makes me want to run for the shower!)

In all this political confusion, where do West Virginia voters stand on this issue? A 2010 poll of likely voters in West Virginia conducted on behalf of Justice at Stake and the Committee for Economic Development showed that over two-thirds of voters see contributions to Supreme Court candidates as a serious problem and more than three out of four believe that these contributions influence a judges decisions. These sentiments cut across party lines. In addition, the poll revealed strong bi-partisan support for public financing of West Virginia’s Supreme Court elections. If ever a state and an office needs of a campaign system that reduces the appearance of influence or worse, it’s the West Virginia Supreme Court. This pilot project was open to all political parties in the state — Democrats, Republicans and Mountain Party candidates, although only a Republican took advantage of it.

On the brighter side, the West Virginia Elections Commission unanimously decided to defend the “rescue” funds provision in pending state and federal lawsuits. Stay tuned. Maybe, just maybe they will save this much needed public funding system and help restore some voter confidence in the election process and the West Virginia Supreme Court.

Do you support having impartial judges sitting on the West Virginia Supreme Court or just more of the same “bought and paid for” politicians sitting on the bench?  Thank Natalie Tennant, the West Virginia Secretary of State, for defending this much needed pilot project by calling 304-558-6000.