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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide’ Chronicles WV’s History of Political Corruption

Posted by kinchendavid on July 23, 2006

The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.
William Faulkner

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

Hinton, WV   – The history of West Virginia is more or less a sordid history of political corruption, with the entire state a rotten borough. That’s the impression this constant reader comes away with after reading “Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide” by Allen H. Loughry II (McClain Printing Co., Parsons, WV, 658 pages, illustrated, annotated, indexed, with forewards by Robert C. Byrd and John McCain, $34.95)

The “rotten borough” reference comes from Carey McWilliams, the legendary editor of The Nation magazine, and was made in 1946. A rotten borough in England was one that was thoroughly corrupt. It certainly makes Faulkner’s comment about the past appropriate, because not long ago I did a story about more than 6,000 dead voters – or at least dead people who are still on the state’s voting rolls – in West Virginia. I’ve got to say this for the Mountain State: I feel at home here, having spent much of my childhood and early adulthood in Illinois. There’s a saying that if you’re dead, you should move to Chicago because the dead can still vote in the Windy City.

The book’s catchy title comes from a comment attributed to Joe Kennedy during the 1960 presidential primary in West Virginia that pitted John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, against Hubert H. Humphrey, a Protestant. Sensing that a state where 95 percent of the residents are Protestants of varying sects, the JFK campaign, masterminded by his father Joseph Kennedy, decided to play by WV Rules and buy the votes necessary for the charismatic young senator from Massachusetts to win the state on May 10, 1960 and the Democratic Presidential nomination at the convention in Los Angeles later that summer.

No less an authority than President Harry S. Truman believed this story and is quoted by Loughry, a law clerk to WV Supreme Court Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard: “He [Joe Kennedy] bought West Virginia,” Truman said. “I don’t know how much it cost him; he’s a tightfisted old son of a bitch; so he didn’t [spend] any more than he had to, but he bought West Virginia, and that’s how his boy won the Primary over Humphrey.”

Kennedy won the state by an 84,000 vote margin and was particularly strong in the state’s southern coal counties, where Catholics aren’t particularly thick on the ground. Throughout the book, Loughry states that while political corruption and vote buying is evident in all 55 counties, it’s particularly strong in coal counties including – but not limited to Logan – probably the champion – Mingo, Wayne, Lincoln, McDowell and Boone – “all of which were dominated by political factions.”

“Factions” isn’t a word I would use to describe Logan Sheriff Don Chafin or one of two nose-biters cited by Loughry in his tome. A particularly “cornpone” one – who could have been created for Al Capp’s “L’ll Abner” — came from the southern part of the state and was a Democratic Party worker named Harry “Geets” Johnson who was caught by a revenue officer in “Coal Branch Creek with a load of moonshine. Geets was arrested and sent to jail, although not before he had bitten off most of the revenuer’s nose.”

I remember stories about the other nose-bitter while on the staff of The Register-Herald in Beckley. This dude was called Joseph Troisi and he was a circuit judge in Pleasants County in 1997 when he stepped down from the bench and bit off a piece of the nose of 29-year-old defendant William Witten (Page 291). I’ll grant him this: He was a considerate nose-biter: “After biting Witten, Troisi ordered him to be sent for medical attention and began to adjudicate the next case…” A very un-Pleasants County for Witten and others who faced the judge, a prime candidate for anger management.

Some of the book’s material would seem to be unrelated to the subtitle’s thrust: “The Sordid and Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia.” I particularly point out the very entertaining material on the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the Matewan Massacre of 1920, immortalized in John Sayles’ magnificent film “Matewan” which had in its cast a friend and colleague at the R-H, the late, great Neale Clark.

I think Loughry is trying to make the point that the ethnic makeup of West Virginia – predominantly people from the largest and poorest of four migrations of “Albion’s Seed” – contributed to the violence and corruption of what was less than a state and more of a chattel colony of Big Coal, Big Steel, the railroad and other outside interests.

(“Albion’s Seed” is a seminal 1991 book by David Hackett Fischer that explains the European settlement of the United States as voluntary migrations from four English cultural centers. Families of zealous, literate Puritan yeomen and artisans from urbanized East Anglia established a religious community in Massachusetts (1629-40); royalist cavaliers headed by Sir William Berkeley and young, male indentured servants from the south and west of England built a highly stratified agrarian way of life in Virginia (1640-70); egalitarian Quakers of modest social standing from the North Midlands resettled in the Delaware Valley and promoted a social pluralism (1675-1715); and, in by far the largest migration (1717-75), poor borderland families of English, Scots, and Irish fled a violent environment to seek a better life in a similarly uncertain American backcountry. West Virginia represents the latter. This summary draws on the Library Journal description of the book.)

Too, the companies of Big Coal to this day continue to control the votes of the residents. Today, Don Blankenship of Massey Energy (Pages 202ff) represents this effort, Loughry cites. In fact, in my old paper – The Register-Herald – on Friday, July 21, 2006, there’s a story by ace political writer Mannix Porterfield headlined “Casey Accuses Blankenship, GOP of Collusion in House.” The Casey in question is WV Democratic Chairman Nick Casey.

In Chapter 8, Loughry discusses the strange case of Arch A. Moore Jr., a member of the “Greatest Generation,” a WW II war hero and probably the most corrupt figure in the state’s history. He’s one of two governors to have served time in prison – the other was Wally Barron. (I’ll have to look this up, but I think Illinois leads in the category of governors going to prison.).

As described by Loughry, Moore, of Glen Dale, Marshall County, was a six-term congressman from 1957 to 1968 when the state had five members of Congress (we’re down to three now, including Moore’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd District). At the start of his first term in 1969, Moore promised to clean up the corruption that had pervaded the state almost from its inception in 1863. This obviously was an empty promise as Moore went on to be convicted in 1990 “of numerous criminal charges and convicted in federal court in 1996 of additional civil charges.” Loughry is particularly scathing in his account of Moore’s attempt to regain his law license.

After covering several election cycles in the state, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Mountain State’s poor voter turnout – especially for primary elections and off year municipal ones – comes from a sense of cynicism from the voting – or rather, nonvoting – public. The argument is “what good does it do: the election is bought and paid for.” All too often, as Loughry cites in this well-document book, this is the case. Some of the southern coal counties have more registered voters than people and a few dollars and a half pint of whiskey is all that’s necessary to buy a vote.

Loughry covers recent corruption in the state, including disgraced Del. Jerry Mezzatesta from the Eastern Panhandle and Bob Graham, who parlayed a senior citizens center in Wyoming County into a job that paid four times what the governor is paid. Mezzatesta has finally (according to news reports on July 22, 2006, paid his $2,000 fine) and Graham was indicted on Jan. 26, 2006 on 21 counts of embezzling, illegally transferring money and filing false tax returns.

The husband and wife lawyer team of Mark Hrutkay and his wife (now ex-wife) Lidella Wilson Hrutkay is discussed in detail. She’s still in the legislature, representing the 19th District, which includes Logan County and she attributes her lack of knowledge of her multimillionaire husband Mark Hrutkay’s vote buying involving Logan Sheriff “Big John” Mendez to Mark’s not including her in his life (Page 117). Lawyers like the Hrutkays, Lidella’s disbarred father Amos C. Wilson, Moore and many others do not come across as shining examples of probity in Loughry’s volume.

The author himself has four (!!) law degrees, in addition to his bachelor’s in journalism from West Virginia University. He’s in his mid 30s and grew up in Parsons, Tucker County, and includes a great deal of his own background. While some might object to all the photos he includes of himself with numerous political figures, including Bill Clinton, Robert C. Byrd and Gaston Caperton, I found it charming, including the story of how he met his attractive wife Kelly. To sum up, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn of West Virginia’s trail of corruption that led to one tongue-in-cheek commentator suggesting a “West Virginia Politics Hall of Shame” recognizing the state’s convicted political felons.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.mcclainprinting.com

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