Thursday, November 12, 2015

Coddy Johnson, the man who saved West Virginia

A year ago, West Virginia finally threw off the shackles of the Democratic Party, elected a Republican Legislature for the first time in 82 years. The state also elected its first Republican U.S senator in 56 years, and all three congressional seats are now Republican. After voting Republican only 11 times in the previous 14 presidential elections, West Virginia has gone Republican in the last four elections with Mitt Romney taking all 55 counties in 2012.

The revolution began in April 2000 when a 22-year-old student at Yale ignored Karl Rove and spent more than 30 seconds thinking about West Virginia.

The student was Collister "Coddy" Johnson, whose father was a roommate of George Walker Bush at Andover and Yale. Both his father and Bush were Texans. Bush was Coddy's godfather.

As the 2000 election approached, Coddy was headed for Oxford, but Rove reeled him in saying, "Get your ass down here. This will change your life. Twenty-five years from now, you'll look back, and this will be the thing that set you on your course."

Rove knew how to package a low-paying job that had long hours, and lots of travel. Eventually, Coddy rose to regional field director. He had five states: Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Clinton had carried four of those states, including Al Gore's Tennessee.

But the stakes for Coddy were high. Ohio was the key. Rove knew that no Republican ever won the presidency without Ohio. Both campaigns poured money into Ohio.

West Virginia -- where there were two Democrats for every Republican -- was a gimme for Gore, a two-inch putt. West Virginia was one of the 10 states Sad Sack Mike Dukakis carried in 1988. Rove told Coddy: "If you spend more than 30 seconds of your time thinking about West Virginia, you'll be fired."

But Buck Harless, the coal and timber millionaire -- and maybe the only Republican in Mingo County -- was convinced of two things 1. That George W. Bush would make a better president than John McCain, and 2. that this could be the year Republicans carried West Virginia in an election. Maybe he thought that second thing every four years

Harless was convinced Bush could stop Gore, which would stop the Kyoto Protocol once and for all. Traveling from his home in Gilbert, West Virginia, by helicopter to Yeager Airport in the state capital to the capital of Texas, Harless met with Bush, heard him out, and pledged to raise $100,000 for the state primary.

Now the Bush campaign was skeptical. In 1996, the whole of West Virginia had contributed just $22,154 to Bob Dole's primary campaign. And here was this old man from the backwoods of West Virginia coal country pledging six figures?

Harless raised $275,000.

In fact, Bush had ignited hope in the coal industry in the state, which raised $3.8 million -- tripling its 1996 contributions.

"We were looking for friends, and we found one in George W. Bush," Harless told the Wall Street Journal in 2001.

But it would take more than money to beat McCain in the primary and to beat Gore in the general campaign. Harless convinced Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, who in turn convinced Dick Kimbler, an unemployed United Mine Workers official, that Bush would stop Kyoto. Never mind that Bush's father had signed the Clean Air Act into law. Kimbler kept the union on the sidelines.

Harless also needed help from the Bush campaign, which seemed happy to accept the money, but not willing to spend the money in West Virginia.

That is where Coddy came in. Just before the May 2000 primary in West Virginia, Coddy did a statistical profile and found that despite party registration, West Virginians were socially conservative and pro-coal, even though the state has more teachers than it does coal miners; we enjoy the cheap electricity and taxes coal provides. Rove did not fire Coddy. He told him OK.

The Gore campaign took West Virginia for granted -- as well as Arkansas and Tennessee. Eight years later, Barack Obama gave the Democratic Party view at a San Francisco fete of Pennsyltucky -- that political tag for coal mining country:
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Or as the Waco Kid told Sheriff Bart in "Blazing Saddles":
You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know: morons.
Republicans devised a plan to portray Al Gore as the environmental extremist he is, even inviting Kimbler to speak at the Republican National Convention. Kimbler and Raney formed the Balanced Energy Coalition for Bush-Cheney. Kimbler told the Wall Street Journal, "I would go way up into the hollows and talk to people, and they would say to me, 'This is the first time anybody's asked for my vote,' I went on TV and told them I was the president of UMW Local 2935 and I was backing George Bush and asking all the people to vote for him. The mineworkers union got [mad] at me. But I wouldn't stop."

Nor would Gore start. Coddy's region, which included four Clinton states, went all in for Bush as Coddy delivered 55 Electoral College votes in a race decided by five.

That included West Virginia's five.

Without West Virginia, Florida would not have mattered.

Sadly, party in-fighting kept Republicans from converting Bush's 2000 upset into gains in the Legislature. Coal magnate Don Blankenship set up his own organization and money to try to offset the provincialism of the party in an attempt to re-take the Legislature in 2006, but with Bob Byrd heading the Democratic ticket and dismay with the Iraq War, Democrats rebuffed those efforts.

But a new group of organizers built on that defeat and eight years later under the guidance of state Senator Bill Cole and others, finally took the Legislature.

After working in the White House and the 2004 campaign, Coddy married actress Carrie Southworth in 2005 and moved to Los Angeles. In 2007, he became a brother-in-law of Google billionaire Larry Page, who married younger Southworth's sister, Lucinda. Coddy is now an executive vice president and CFO of Activision.

Raney still runs the coal association.

Buck Harless died at 94 on January 1, 2014, in Gilbert, West Virginia, population 512, where he was born, raised, schooled, and worked his way to riches. No man was more generous to his community. And now there are 1,882 registered Republicans in Mingo County -- and 17,623 Democrats.

Oh well, these things take time -- and it did not prevent Republican Mark Maynard from knocking off 32-year Democratic state Senator Truman Chafin in 2014.


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  1. Can't win if you don't go all out.

  2. I'm glad someone is singing these unsung heroes.