Thursday, October 14, 2004

Local Politics

October 14, 2004

FOR THIS year’s primary election, West Virginia’s political registration stood at 655,646 Democrats and 321,586 Republicans, plus independents and third-party adherents. That’s a more than 2-to-1 Democratic advantage.

For the general election three weeks away, strong feelings of this crucial campaign are swelling registration, but the 2-to-1 edge probably will hold.

Yet current polls show Republican George W. Bush slightly leading the neck-and-neck presidential race in the Mountain State. Obviously, vast numbers of West Virginia Democrats intend to turn against their party again and support the opposing candidate, as they did in 2000.

Why is it happening? Why is our state veering toward the much-discussed red, or “retro,” bloc of states? The biggest reason, I think, is oversimplistic, one-issue misperceptions.

For example, many West Virginia gun-lovers claim that a Democratic victory might threaten hunting weapons. But this is erroneous. Gun-control efforts focus on criminal guns — snub-nosed stickup pistols and rapid-fire assault weapons favored by druglords — not the rifles and shotguns of hunters. Election of Democrat John Kerry wouldn’t affect sporting guns.

A bigger simplification involves fundamentalists who embrace Bush because he underwent an emotional religious conversion after years of heavy drinking. One such Kanawha County Democrat told reporter Eric Eyre that she’ll vote for Bush because he’s “a fundamental basic Christian” who opposes abortion and gay marriage. Her view echoes thousands in West Virginia.

For example, a group called the Coalition of Pro-Family West Virginians is flooding conservative churches with a “2004 Election Voter Guide” saying: (1) Bush wants school prayer and often “asks God to bless America,” but Kerry doesn’t; (2) Bush will appoint judges “who believe our rights are derived from God,” but Kerry won’t; (3) Bush supports the Boy Scouts for “not allowing homosexual scout leaders,” but Kerry doesn’t, etc.

West Virginians for Life, which claims to have 250,000 Mountain State members, endorsed Bush, saying he will appoint anti-abortion judges and will strive to curtail women’s right to choose abortion.

All this antipathy to gays and abortion, expressed in the name of religion, actually contradicts the very heart of Christianity. Jesus said nothing about gays or women’s right to choose. Instead, he advocated peace, compassion for underdogs, and religious privacy — values opposite those of the administration in Washington.

Jesus said to care for the poor — but Bush demanded enormous tax giveaways to the wealthy. Jesus said, “blessed are the peacemakers” — but Bush insisted on invading Iraq, an attack his clique had planned even before he gained office and before the 9/11 terrorist tragedy.

Jesus told his followers to pray alone in secret — but the White House backs public, government-sponsored displays of piety. Jesus opposed the death penalty, saying that only the sinless should cast the first stone — but Bush presided over a record-breaking 152 executions as Texas governor, and mocked pleas of the condemned.

Values that Jesus stood for are mostly opposite the president’s — yet fundamentalists adore Bush as their hero. It’s baffling that they embrace a warmonger who favors the rich. Nonetheless, GOP strategists do their utmost to milk votes from this church group.

Speaking at West Virginia State University Sunday, former Gov. Gaston Caperton urged Democratic campaign volunteers to try to counter the Republican support flowing from such churches. He told the volunteers to remind voters that Democrats support raising the minimum wage, providing health care and other compassionate concern for little people. In short, he said, Kerry’s values are closer to the Bible than Bush’s are.

Last month, leaders of a West Virginia Democratic women’s group called Drema Dems urged voters to “not be sidetracked by the three Gs — God, guns and gays.”

Wednesday’s New York Times contained a long analysis implying that Bible Belt churches and the gun lobby may be decisive factors on Election Day in West Virginia. It quoted Beckley insurance agent Bill Miller, a board member of the National Rifle Association, as saying of Democrats: “Next, they will try to ban my hunting rifle.” The Times added that “fliers distributed in church parking lots say Mr. Kerry favors ‘anti-Christian, anti-God, anti-family’ judges, same-sex marriage and abortion.” Those allegations are grotesquely distorted — but they show the intensity of the fundamentalist effort.

Thousands of Mountain State Democrats remain committed to the progressive, humanitarian values of their party, and aren’t sidetracked by these emotional issues. If they stand firm when the showdown arrives Nov. 2, they can outweigh the one-issue groups.

However, it’s a sad fact that great numbers of registered West Virginia Democrats don’t bother to vote. Fewer than half of them turned out for this year’s primary election. In the 2000 general election, total turnout was only 60 percent of all registered West Virginians of all parties.

If too many mainstream Democrats stay home on Nov. 2, highly mobilized gun-lovers and fundamentalists within the party may deliver West Virginia’s five electoral votes to Bush again. That would be a dismal mark on the state’s identity, I think.

Therefore, every standard West Virginia Democrat should feel a supreme urgency to get to the polls in this crucial election.

Haught, the Gazette’s editor, can be reached by phone at 348-5199 or e-mail at

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