This extensive interview is conducted and posted on OpEd News by Kevin Gosztola a student pursuing a career in documentary film.
Americans concerned with whether the GOP will steal the election or not have had their minds focused on early voting reports especially early voting reports coming out of West Virginia that show that votes, according to Wired News, are being flipped by ES&S voting machines (touch-screen machines with paper trails or optical-scan machines). The counties where reports have surfaced detailing vote flipping have been ordered by the state to recalibrate their machines.
One West Virginia voter reported that vote flipping happened when voting for candidates in the governor, state senate, and state Supreme Court races.
In West Virginia, the governor of the state used to be the Secretary of State in charge of the voting machines. The governor, Democrat Joe Manchin, is now in a race against two candidates, state senator Russ Weeks, a Republican, and Jesse Johnson, a Mountain Party candidate (the Mountain Party is affiliated with the Green Party). Johnson was a 2008 Green Party presidential nominee.
I took some time to talk about voting problems and mountaintop removal, a central issue in West Virginia, with Jesse Johnson, who has been endorsed by Mike Gravel:
West By God Virginia is blessed to have a homegrown maverick, Jesse Johnson, who is seeking the all-important office of governor. Although I don’t have much faith that either presidential nominee will change Washington, I’m excited by the opportunity for real change in West Virginia, a state where I have some longstanding knowledge because of my service under Senate Public Works Chairman Jennings Randolph and Bob Byrd, whom I nominated for the Whip leadership position. Yes, I’m that old.
I’m proud of Jesse Johnson. He’s his own man — a real maverick. Jesse has the courage and integrity to put the interest of the people above political party and special interests. That’s the kind of a person West Virginia should have for governor.
Jesse grew up in the West Virginia hills and knows its problems first-hand. The main thrust of his campaign is dealing with the problem of mountaintop removal and its impact on the state’s water resources and scenic beauty. He is not opposed to the coal industry, but he is opposed to absentee owners ripping off the state’s resources and leaving their physical and unemployment mess behind.
The South Charleston Tech Center is another case in point. Dow is letting the center die on the vine. Jesse wants to see it become a world-class coal research center undergirded by the universities of West Virginia. California, Massachusetts and North Carolina have created fantastic research centers. So can West Virginia. All it takes is leadership and vision — not the same old tired hack politics where the party and personal interest are more important than the interest of the people.
Johnson’s an innovator eager to work with other innovators ready to turn West Virginia around. I hope West Virginians get to know him over the next eight weeks. I hope you get to hear some of his innovative ideas that I know will save your state, your environment, your economy and your characteristic independence.
Gravel actually flew to West Virginia to formally endorse Jesse Johnson. In addition to that, the Green Party released a statement spotlighting Jesse Johnson as one of the top state and local candidates running for election:
Jesse Johnson, Mountain Party candidate for governor of West Virginia, who has participated in three debates and has attracted attention for his promotion of a ban on mountaintop removal mining by West Virginia’s powerful coal industry and his leadership on other state issues. Mr. Johnson was endorsed by the Sierra Club on October 3.
“Because of mountaintop removal and the power of the coal companies, West Virginia has become ground zero for global climate change in the US,” said Jesse Johnson. “The Interior Department is now relaxing rules on mountaintop mining, which will bring untold devastation to the natural environment and a massive threat to public health, through contamination of water and other resources. I’m the only candidate addressing this crisis, because the Democrat and Republican are too
closely allied with the coal companies that are plundering West Virginia.”
Video clip of Jesse Johnson speaking at a West Virginia Youth Commission forum: http://vimeo.com/2013238
When I interviewed Johnson, he said he had heard about “potential vote tampering in West Virginia” and had heard hearsay that “one of the storage facilities for the machines was not secure and those contracts possibly go back to Gov. Manchin who was Secretary of State.”
He knew nothing more, though, than what had been reported and confirmed that voters were voting for Obama and then looking up and seeing that their vote had switched to McCain.
I asked Jesse Johnson about why votes might be flipping in the state Supreme Court race or what was at stake in those races since a voter reported his vote flipping when he voted for a candidate for state Supreme Court in West Virginia. Johnson said:
The Chamber of Commerce and the coal industries have a lot at stake in these state Supreme Court races.
Recently, there were monumental court decisions that affected the gas community. There has recently been a recent ruling where this Governor filed an amicus brief and wanted to see due process for DuPont Chemical in a case concerning the community of Spelter, WV (they have a Spelter smelter). The community received a settlement for continued health testing from DuPont.
Then, there’s the infamous issues with the WV Supreme Court with Don Blankenship at Massey Energy with Supreme Court Justice Maynard. They grew up together but Blankenship had spent 3.5 million dollars to get a Republican attorney onto the Supreme Court and that as a new justice on the Supreme Court refused to recuse himself on cases that involved Massey Energy and Don Blankenship.
Potential outcome of decisions by the courts have profound effects on these industries [that] are clearly violating the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, etc. all the time. Massey Energy alone has ranked up 2.4 billion dollars in fines in violation of the Clean Water Act. It was ultimately settled for 20 million dollars.
The taxpayer in WV is constantly getting the shaft. And so are the communities. But in the case of DuPont, you have a governor wanting to see due process given to this corporate citizen by the name of DuPont as opposed to due process to his own public employees which he denies.
There’s a lot here. It’s a quagmire. It’s a can of worms. Once you open it, it will take quite awhile to sit through.
In addition to talk of voting irregularities, Johnson talked about West Virginians and the battle to get paper ballots:
West Virginians are very compliant people unfortunately in many ways, and when people in positions of authority tell them everything is okay and the news corroborates it, then they tend to want to believe it. The biggest battle we had a few years ago was to make sure that there was some paper trail. However, I found that not to be very effective. I know when I voted the last time I was unable to see my paper trail. As far as a push for paper ballot, that push has not been made by the citizenry in mass but I expect it will be made especially when considering the reports we are receiving now.
Johnson’s race has featured all the characteristics of a race where a third-party candidate is struggling to be regarded in the same manner that the two prominent parties are regarded. He was not allowed in the first debate but was allowed into the rest of the debates. (Four were held altogether and included a television, a newspaper, a radio, and a public broadcasting debate.)
The first debate was the only state-wide network televised debate. According to the Charleston Gazette, his complaint against the West Virginia Broadcasters Association, which sponsored the debate, and the Clay Center, which hosted the debate, was, according to David Barnette, a lawyer for the broadcasters’ group, a publicity stunt.
Barnette cited the fact that Johnson had held a news conference and released a statement to the press to make his case and then compared the debate Johnson was being kept out of to the recent debates in the presidential campaign saying that those did not include third party candidates either.
Johnson has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and said that it had helped “incrementally” because no news agency had been interested in talking about how for the first time in the 116 year history of the Sierra Club they have endorsed someone outside of the two-party system. (Since then, the Citizen Action Fund has endorsed Johnson too.)
I’ll highlight this fact again—The Sierra Club has never before endorsed any minor party candidate for any important office in the history of the U.S, according to Ballot Access News.
Johnson talked about how he explains to other people all the trials and tribulations of campaigning as a third party candidate for governor:
I try to get people to understand it’s tough to support a third party candidate when most people believe a third party candidate has no chance of winning. However, in WV, the lines are very blurred. 2 to 1 Democratic but those Democrats are very conservative Democrats. There was a time in the history of America when they would have been considered Dixiecrat. Getting them to donate money and convince them that they will not waste their vote is a tough thing to do. However, I like to emphasize that they should vote for their values. They need to find common ground with their neighbor and find out what the majority of West Virginians have in common. Certainly, mountaintop removal (MTR) is a rallying battle cry because in the state of West Virginia nearly 70% in most polls are against MTR. I put forward the concept as best I can but the media limits my exposure particularly in these debates but if every West Virginian forgot whether there a Democrat or Republican and focused on the fact that they are West Virginians and their heritage and their jobs and their water and their atmosphere and their culture is being destroyed by this one single practice—then for the first time in 100 years they could actually have someone sitting in the governor’s office who would truly advocate for the people and not just those big extractive industries that are absentee landowner industries anyway.
MTR refers to the blasting away of mountain ridges to get to the coal underneath.
Johnson opened up about the whole issue of mountaintop removal, a practice few Americans are aware of, and specifically talked about how activists organizing against the destruction of their land often receive threats:
West Virginia is a poor state that is rich in possibilities and rich in natural resources. It’s rich in possibilities but poor because of these few who have controlled the purse strings and the government within the state for a very long time. There’s a long history of intimidation going back to the southern coal fields during the early parts of the 20th century, which was the real birth of union activism in this country, back to the battle of Blair Mountain, which was the second largest insurrection in the history of the United States next to the Civil War when 15,000 miners marched on Blair Mountain fighting for lives, rights and their family. The southern coal fields of West Virginia were the last to unionize, and it was the final battleground between this burgeoning spread of unionizing in America.
Even today when we try to commemorate that battle or celebrate labor in this country, most labor knows nothing of it and whenever we try to commemorate it some forms of intimidation occur. The coal operators threaten to pull up stakes and leave communities and leave the jobs and families unable to fend for themselves. That’s the kind of intimidation by the coal company on its own employees and it provokes the employees to go protect their turf from these vilified environmentalists. Then you have miner vs. miner and labor vs. labor dynamics flaring up.
Not only has Blair Mountain been on historic registry—their trying to get it on a historic reservation site. Simultaneously, two coal companies own the rights to that coal and they have it scheduled for demolition. That should be a battleground for all countries to help preserve what happened there. I propose they create an Internat’l Museum of Labor. It was just a few years ago Ken Heckler, secretary of state before Manchin, served with FDR and Truman and was a Congressman in WV is now 94 at 89 he was out marching with us and commemorating the battle of Blair Mountain and some of these miners attacked him and pushed him to the ground. This is outrageous when considering that he was responsible in Congress for the Mine, Health, Safety Act and responsible for getting the Federal Black Lung program passed.
It’s dangerous when I’m out traveling. I’ve received death threats. I’ve been harassed on the road by other vehicles. Endangering my passengers. These things happen in the hills of WV. We’re our own little isolated frontier just outside of Washington, D.C.
Johnson talked about the role of religion in all of this and further revealed how corporate interests reign supreme in West Virginia:
Religion has made it more possible to occur. You have to understand the culture and most people outside of West Virginia don’t. You have to understand the company town mentality. Many of these coal mining towns even before the days of MTR the workers were often brought in right off the ship from Ellis Island brought down by train. They didn’t speak English but were immediately offered jobs. They would be in one hollow and another and would have language barriers. They would be paid in company script and not the currency of the time. The possibilities were limited and they could never become a part of the investment class. They had nothing negotiable as tender outside of their tight community.
Communities were built by the coal company. Every store that you purchased anything from was owned by the company. The house was owned by the company. Transportation was owned by the company. There was very little opportunity to get out of the coal camp.
The coal companies would build the churches and then supply the home and job and paycheck of the clergy that would come in and serve that community. They too were on the company payroll. It became very easy for them to manipulate the public and at this point, that is tradition in the state of West Virginia.
There is a new movement about MTR though. Minister Allen Johnson from the southern part of state has been very vocal about reminding people that those who are more inclined to look at the world through the eyes of their religion should realize this is God’s creation and we are only stewards of it and we are being really poor stewards of it. There is a resurgence of this idea within those churches and some parishioner to be better stewards of the land and to fight against MTR.
Broadly, religion is still a problem. It’s a contant problem here and nationally. And particularly at the buckle of the Bible Belt, which we often fall in here, there are definitely blurred lines between church and state.
Johnson talked about how Manchin appointed himself the head of public broadcasting and has adopted this attitude of impropriety, which allows him to not take responsibility for certain scandals that have developed in West Virginia like the WVU scandal, etc.
He ended with some points on renewable energy and the economy:
WV’s [economic] growth is slow and steady and anchored by virtue of the rampant environmental destruction for these nonrenewable resources being extricated and taken from the people of this state and exported with very little left in the state to show for it. The commons/value is extracted and the people are left with basic environmental degradation. Potential superfund sites are being created.
They practice sludge injection, which is really where they came up with carbon sequestration—injecting sludge into the ground [a practice that clean coal supporters would use]. That has polluted the water for communities, such as, Printer, WV in Boon County. If you would see the water, you would be absolutely shocked. It’s too toxic to even bathe in. All of the water has to be brought in and of course, that’s not being paid for by the mining companies that are spoiling the water table and the local water supply. It’s being paid for by the water supply. They literally have to have every drop of water including bathing water, etc. trucked in.
The Coal River Mountain Wind Project exists. We have been urging the governor for a stay of execution for the Coal River Mountain, which is now also much like Blair Mountain. They could start blasting tomorrow, which if that were the case it would immediately deplete that area’s wind power potential. It will cause the communities to truly suffer in various ways, not only the loss of a green economy but the loss of tax dollars which we projected to show that one area in Raleigh County alone by employing people with the wind project versus surface mining (MTR) the revenue to the county would be more than 7 times when redirected to Raleigh County by virtue of wind energy. We’ve been working to get the governor to do this but he doesn’t want to do it and we’ve had a camera crew record this. And Weeks won’t stay the execution. He believes Mother Nature will reclaim itself.
The opportunity for West Virgina to be a rich state is there. People hopefully will find out on Election Day and will also find out how well the electoral system is working but will find out as to how many people this has reached then by virtue of whether I am elected. I think there’s a great awakening taking place but you would be startled and amazed at the brainwashing that takes place here. Billboard after billboard, newscast after newscast exist here limiting the choices of the citizenry and directing their attention with misdirection.
If Jesse Johnson were to win, his presence as governor of West Virginia would surely be felt in Washington, D.C. Powerful corporate and special interests would shudder at a man who has the fortitude and courage to put people before profits and stop the wrongful economic destruction being perpetrated on the people of Appalachia.
Once you think about the effect his win could have on Washington in terms of policy change, it becomes evident that this is one of many state and local elections Americans should be following closely.
Kevin Gosztola goes to Columbia College in Chicago where he is studying film. He hopes to become a documentary filmmaker. He is currently working as a production assistant on a documentary called "Seriously Green" which traces the development of the Green Party throughout the 2008 election. He has a passion for journalism and writes articles or press releases in his spare time. Kevin Gosztola is also a student activist who believes in questioning the way America’s systems work(its electoral system, its military-industrial complex, its foreign policy of American exceptionalism, its media which has become the Fourth Branch of government,etc.)
His ambitions have him currently organizing and raising money for a Chicago Conference for Media Reform in April or May of 2009. It will be organized by college students to promote youth involvement in media reform and justice. Those interested in attending or helping with the organization of the program should contact him.