In coal country, Trump holds sway despite failing to revive industry

Coal miners wave signs at a Trump rally in Charleston, W.Va., in 2016.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

More than 600 feet underground in the Appalachian region of southwestern Pennsylvania, it’s almost like John Morecraft, a 45-year-old history teacher turned coal miner, is back in a classroom.

Several of his former high school students work in the mine, still calling him Mr. Morecraft, or coach. Some of the older men who never got much of an education look to him to explain current events.

And when it comes to presidential politics these days, in the words of another miner, “It’s pretty much Trump all the way.”


During the grinding impeachment process, Morecraft said, the miners were “watching it very closely. They’re passionate about it. And angry about what’s going on.”

On the surface, that’s no surprise. In 2016, Trump won a whopping 68% of the votes here in Greene County, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 28%.

But as recently as 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain split the vote evenly in the county, which has a total of four working coal mines and a population of about 36,000. And before that, the area was a dependable Democratic stronghold in the state.

What lies beneath the enormous shift over the last decade — and its endurance despite Trump’s mostly failed promises to bring back coal — contains a somber warning for Democrats, and not just in coal country.

Many voters here — and likely in many other areas across the country — see the Democrats as a party seemingly out of touch with their everyday interests and concerns.

While that indictment may not be entirely fair or representative of every miner, the overall impression here is of a party that cares about other people, not them, whether the issue is immigration, student debt or universal health coverage. Greene County’s population is 1% foreign-born, less than one-fifth have college degrees and just 6% don’t have medical insurance.


Then there’s the environmental issue. Some of the miners will concede that climate change may well be an enormous problem, and ending use of fossil fuels may be desirable, even necessary. But what happens to them and thousands of others whose jobs and livelihoods depend on it right now? they ask. What do the Democrats offer on that?

And it’s not just coal’s future that has people here anxious. A surge in fracking for natural gas in recent years has softened the blow to the region’s economy. But as Wednesday’s Democratic primary debate made clear, most candidates want to toughen requirements for fracking or even end it.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, asked specifically about the potential loss of thousands of jobs in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, defended his call for a ban on fracking as a moral imperative to save the planet. There was even less sympathy for coal, with Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who made his debate debut Wednesday, proudly noting that 304 out of 530 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. have been closed.

Tony Brnusak, a lifelong Democrat who heads the United Mine Workers local representing 560 workers at the Cumberland mine in Greene County, blames Trump for breaking his promise to stop the closures.

“He was blowing smoke then and he’s doing it again,” said Brnusak.

A handful of utilities continue to operate coal plants with no plans to shut them down, defying economic and political headwinds.

Feb. 4, 2020

But the 42-year veteran of Cumberland added: “The Democrats keep shooting themselves in the foot saying they’re going to kill coal.”

So even though Trump has failed to revive coal mining, as he promised when strong support here and in other rural areas was key to his narrow victory in this swing state in 2016, there’s little doubt inside the Bailey mine about whom Morecraft and most of the other 600 workers will be backing in November.

Consider the reasoning of Jake Kehoe, at 28 one of the younger workers at Bailey. When he got out of high school and began looking for work, he found mostly dead-end jobs.

Then, seven years ago he landed a mining job. Last year, with overtime, he pulled down $115,000.

Kehoe knows the reality of a declining coal industry: “This is one of those careers, one day it’s here and tomorrow might not be,” he said.

But for now, Kehoe is living well with his wife and two young children in Carmichaels, a town of about 500 in Greene County that for decades has hosted a Bituminous Coal Show in the summer, complete with a mine-rescue competition and the crowning of the annual Coal Queen.

“Actually I didn’t vote until the last election, and it’s the first time I’m a Republican,” Kehoe said, adding that he’s sure to cast his support for Trump in November.

As Kehoe said, it’s not that he doesn’t understand the long-term uncertainties of the coal industry.

Although Trump signed a bill last year that bailed out retired mine workers’ pensions, and has cut back on mine inspections and other environmental regulations to try to help coal, they’ve not begun to reverse decades of coal mining decline in the U.S.

“Anything with the Trump administration, it has not hurt, but it has not had any measurable impact” helping the industry either, said J. Gregory Driscoll, president of Blaschak Coal Corp., a leading producer of anthracite coal in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The reality is, market forces — accompanied by changes in energy production and environmental concerns — have foiled Trump’s best efforts. And there’s little he can do about it.

Coal-burning power plants have continued to close or face weakening demand, thanks to cheaper, cleaner natural gas and growing use of renewable energy sources. Last year alone eight coal producers filed for bankruptcy and the Energy Department is projecting coal’s share of power generation to fall to 22% this year, down from more than 40% at one time.

That’s the long-term reality. The voters in Greene County live in the here and now.

Employment at the Bailey mine has been fairly stable over the last several years. It’s helped that it’s also an efficient producer of coal for steel-making, some of which is hauled by rail to Baltimore and shipped to overseas markets.

Last month’s U.S.-China trade deal held out the promise that the Chinese could buy a lot more American coal, along with crude oil and liquid natural gas, as part of Beijing’s promise to ramp up U.S. imports.

Yet analysts and industry executives say transportation costs, capacity at U.S. ports and other competitive factors make a big increase in exports unlikely, especially to faraway Asia. Australia, Indonesia, Russia and China all produce a whole lot of coal.

“He has offered a lot of hope, and hope does not -- no pun intended - trump the marketplace,” said Dennis Wamsted, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

But such analysis doesn’t seem to cut it here in Greene County, where Bailey and nearby mines make it one of the nation’s largest coal-producing areas.

What counts is that Trump says he’s concerned about local voters’ problems and keeps announcing — and sometimes undertaking — schemes that he says will help them.

The avalanche for Trump in 2016 here, as well as in nearby coal counties such as Washington and Somerset, started with a statement by Clinton that her renewable energy policies were going to put coal miners and companies out of business.

“The biggest placards around here were all to do with how Democrats had a war on coal,” said Glenn Toothman, a former fifth-generation coal miner who years ago worked at the now-shuttered Emerald mine on the western edge of Waynesburg, the county seat. (Toothman later went on to law school and served as Greene County district attorney.)

In the eyes of his supporters, Trump may not have solutions, but he looks like he’s trying. He’s on their side, they feel, he never backs down, and he’s a brawler, which has some appeal to men who spend their days doing hard, dangerous work.

“Well, I’m sure he’s helped some, but he’s tied up by people in the House and 100 senators. They can’t agree on nothing,” groused Brice Rush, a retired miner who lives just outside Waynesburg.

If anything, the political tide has turned even stronger in Trump’s favor over the last three years. At the end of 2016, Democrats accounted for 55% of registered voters; that’s since fallen to 49%.

For decades Greene County’s dependence on coal linked the region with the United Mine Workers, steel manufacturing and the Democratic Party -- all part of an industrial superstructure that seemed as assured as the Monongahela River here flowing north to meet the Alleghany in Pittsburgh.

Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, grew up and took his first union steps around here. As recently as 2008, fully two-thirds of the county’s voters were registered as Democrats. Republicans made up just a quarter.

Morecraft, the former history teacher, was himself once a staunch Democrat, just like his father, grandfather and two uncles, all of whom worked in the mines.

He voted for Obama in 2008. The next year he was laid off when the school where he had taught for several years closed. (Falling enrollment and tax revenue from coal’s decline have pinched Greene County’s schools.)

It was around then that Morecraft began studying climate change, reading authors like Bjørn Lomborg who have questioned the efficacy of policies aimed at curbing global warming.

“When Democrats made a personal attack on my livelihood, I had no choice but to switch parties,” he said. Clinton’s remarks on coal only cemented the trend for him and many others in the county.

Since then, Morecraft, married and with two young daughters and a son on the way, says he hasn’t seen anything from the current crop of Democratic candidates that suggests they are any more supportive or understanding of local realities.

“We’re all here pretty happy that the Trump administration is fighting for blue-collar jobs, especially with coal,” he said. “Even if they didn’t always succeed, it’s still better than the other side.”