A Coal Miner's Daughter Is Fighting King Coal

Mountain Party candidate for governor, Denise Giardina, is taking on West Virginia's coal industry and demanding an end to brutal mountaintop removal that she calls a sin. The incumbent, a former coal company executive, is considered a likely winner.

Candidate Denise Giardina

CHARLESTON, W.Va.-Whether penning her true-life fiction, preaching from a pulpit or exhorting supporters at a campaign rally, Denise Giardina speaks with passion of the mountains of McDowell County where she grew up, where she climbed, explored and watched them change with the seasons.

“I absorbed their beauty, their mystery and their protection into my very bones,” says West Virginia's Mountain Party candidate for governor, a coal miner's daughter whose family went without when the mines petered out. “Our mountains are the oldest in the world.”

Giardina is running a long-shot, third-party campaign for the Governor's Mansion to stop what she calls the “horrible changes” that have mauled her beloved hills-an environmentally devastating and highly profitable practice called mountaintop removal.

Giardina became an acclaimed author writing about events played out in the Appalachians: the 1921 pitched labor battles with the U.S. army. Her accounts of family legend, in fact, are the topic of a forthcoming television miniseries. She teaches English literature, plans a new novel about mountaintop removal and carries her messages about economic and spiritual renewal as a lay preacher in an Episcopal church.

For Giardina, ending mountaintop removal is so important that virtually everything else pales in comparison. The practice involves blasting the tops off the state's trademark peaks-a fast, cheap way to reach the coal reserves beneath. The practice has flattened many mountains and left some ranges looking like smiles missing teeth. The dirt and rock scooped off the mountaintops is dumped into valleys, sometimes burying streams and degrading water quality. The practice has been curtailed by last year's federal ruling, but not ended.

“I believe God created the earth-the coal industry didn't,” Giardina tells rallies. “I don't understand how a person whose lifespan is 70 or 80 years thinks they have the right to level these mountains that have existed since the beginning of time.”

Her passion about her home and anger over its desecration attracted considerable attention-not all of it favorable-and environmentalists drafted her to head the new Mountain Party in 1999. The party got a boost last year when a federal district court judge restricted the practice of mountaintop removal after a landmark lawsuit filed by environmentalists and others.

Economy Hurt By Coal Slump; Giardina Says It's Time To Diversify

The state administration and the coal industry blame the ruling for subsequent layoffs in the industry and economic hard times. But Giardina says she's running for governor because it's time to rethink and diversify the economy.

Politics seems at first an unlikely avenue for the shy, usually soft-spoken Giardina, but she says her literary muse has been mute for a while, allowing her to shake hands, kiss babies, march in parades and take part in debates. She has only one paid staff member but a host of passionate volunteers.

She faces incumbent Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood, a former coal company executive, and U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, a Democrat. Underwood has been criticized for being too cozy with his former industry, especially for his appointment of former coal executives to head the state Division of Environmental Protection. Recent polls show Wise and Underwood closely matched, with Giardina far behind, at less than 5 percent.

Giardina and her party have largely been dismissed by the two major parties. However, the ruling Democrats battled vigorously, though unsuccessfully, in court to make it tougher for her to get the signatures she needed to be on the state ballot.

The reason? Her pro-environment stand could siphon votes from Wise, and she might tip a close election to the pro-coal industry governor. And if Giardina and her Mountain Party, one of the few homegrown third parties in the nation, gain just one percent of the popular vote in November, the Mountain Party will be on the ballot in 2002, despite political machinations in the old-time machine state.

Politicians Try To Keep Third Parties Off the Ballot

So getting the 13,000 signatures necessary to get on the ballot next month was a struggle for Giardina and her supporters. In West Virginia, it's against the law to sign a third-party candidate's petition and then vote in a primary election; the criminal penalty has been removed, but the vote can still be thrown out.

She challenged the law, the Democrats fought back and won. But she surprised them all, ending up with more than enough signatures anyway.

Giardina is a strong supporter of women's issues, like increased funding for domestic violence shelters and violence prevention. But her main issue is ending the savaging of the environment. “I don't care if people are pro-abortion or anti-abortion, as long as they join us on this,” says pro-choice Giardina.

In addition to ending mountaintop removal, Giardina has pledged to force out-of-state coal companies and landowners to pay higher taxes. She also calls for the diversification and renewal of West Virginia's economy, in which the two main employers are the state government and Wal-Mart. Replacing lost coal mining jobs with more durable jobs is top priority and Giardina warns against relying on increased gambling revenue to make up for revenue lost from mine closings. The state remains poor, and one in four children in West Virginia still lives in poverty.

“It's all related,” Giardina claims. “Because we rely so heavily on coal, we're susceptible to the lure of more gambling money” to make up for losses when mines shut down. “And because these companies don't pay their fair share of taxes, we don't have enough money to fund our schools.” She also argues for smaller schools in order to give students more attention and improve academic performance.

Almost Heaven? Not for Women Candidates for High Office

Although Giardina has taken strong, and largely unpopular stands, she has managed to escape much public criticism, even in a conservative state where feminism is more than suspect. She's only the second woman to run for governor. The first, Charlotte Pritt, was defeated in 1996; many observers said the state just wasn't ready for a female chief executive.

Giardina says she's escaped many slings and arrows because the coal industry would rather ignore her than address the issues and partly because of her own authentic and unassailable roots in the coal fields.

“My background does defuse the criticism, because no one can tell me, ‘this is how it is,' because I've lived through it. I know what effect coal has had on the state.”

After her father was laid off in 1963, Giardina's family moved to a better-off county. She studied hard, became a Merit Scholarship finalist and later studied in England. She was homesick for West Virginia and, although she could have joined a faculty elsewhere, she returned home to teach literature.

Can a Real Person Run for Office and Win?

As she considers her mission to save the mountains and the consequent rough-and-tumble of politics, Giardina says she has been asking herself a question: “Can a real person run for office and win?” The answer is evident: “It's quite a long shot.”

Passionate though she is, Giardina admits the campaign has made her “homesick for who I was, which was a writer.”

Still, she's already got her next novel-about mountaintop removal-mapped out. Whatever happens in November, don't expect Giardina to pen any political memoirs.

“I'm not even sure I could turn this into a book,” she says with a chuckle. “And I don't think I want to revisit it in a book, actually. This is enough.”

Dan LeRoy is a free-lance writer who covers politics and music for several publications, including the Charleston, W.Va., Daily Mail. He also writes about music for Launch, Virgin Megastores and Musicblitz.com.