The Wheeling suspension bridge is closed to traffic for construction. Photo by Ian Karbal.

On a sunny Monday in April, Maddie McDevitt watched a Kroger employee load her groceries into the trunk of her car. She wondered aloud whether a trip to the Wheeling Walmart would have been cheaper. 

“You gotta watch what you buy,” said McDevitt, a 78-year-old who relies on her monthly Social Security check. 

From behind a face mask — she had just recovered from a second bout of COVID and didn’t want to expose anybody — McDevitt said her rising grocery bills are top of mind when it comes to choosing a member of Congress to represent her.

Several hours southeast of Wheeling, on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest, Laura Ward says she wants a representative who can focus on two different constituencies: the older folks she serves at the Randolph County Senior Center, and young college-educated people like her son who see a lack of well-paying jobs in the state. 

“They need to find a way to balance changing things enough to keep the young folks here without forgetting about the people who built the state,” she said.

And in Martinsburg, Berkeley County Council president Doug Copenhaver is worried that an influx of new residents will dilute the spirit of his community. Plus, he sees major infrastructure needs that need to be met to accommodate the population.

“What makes Berkeley County different than the state of West Virginia is that we’re growing,” said Copenhaver, a fifth generation Berkeley County resident. “And on top of that it increases the demand on public safety, all infrastructure, bridges, highway, water, natural gas… and electric.”

West Virginians like McDevitt, Ward and Copenhaver have big choices to make.

On May 10, residents of the state’s northern and northeastern counties will decide which of two incumbent Republican congressmen will be on the ballot in November’s general election.

Lawmakers threw Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney into a faceoff when they combined McKinley’s former 1st District and part of Mooney’s old 2nd District. West Virginia’s declining population cost the state one of its three U.S. House of Representatives seats.

West Virginia’s redistricting re-drew the state’s congressional districts, after population loss eliminated a U.S. Representative. Map courtesy WV Legislature.

The new map cuts the state in half east to west. The new 2nd District includes communities from Parkersburg, up the Ohio River to the Northern Panhandle, east through Morgantown and dipping as far south as Lewis County and stretching across the mountains to the Eastern Panhandle. The district varies from mill towns and college communities to farmlands and D.C. bedroom communities.

But a sampling of residents, interviewed as the start of early voting approached, shared their worries about future job opportunities, concerns about deteriorating roads and other infrastructure, and the rising cost of their weekly grocery runs. They see West Virginia changing, and they want leaders who will cooperate to create a brighter future.

Fixing the roads

In Wheeling, signs of infrastructure problems are rampant. 

To get from the grocery store to the nearby senior home where she lives, Maddie McDevitt drives over pothole-strewn roads and across the oldest bridge in West Virginia, a stone arch that’s carried traffic since before the Civil War, and is valued for its historical significance. A 2019 Federal Highway Administration report found “significant deterioration” of the bridge, caused in part by pieces of concrete falling into Little Wheeling Creek, exposing porous limestone in the foundation to the waters. But since then, repairs have been delayed repeatedly. 

This isn’t the only area bridge in trouble: overall, the state’s bridges rank among the worst in the country, according to Federal Highway Administration data. And among the counties in West Virginia, Wheeling’s Ohio County, ranks the second worst behind McDowell County at the southern end of the state. Wheeling-area traffic has been further complicated in recent years with construction on the local section of Interstate 70 causing slowdowns and closures all around the area.

The Fort Henry bridge in Wheeling. Photo by Ian Karbal.

If you listen to the candidates themselves, infrastructure funding has emerged as a key issue in the race. Both Mooney and McKinley have nearly identical voting records, but with one key difference: Mooney voted against a massive infrastructure spending bill last year, citing the $1.2 trillion price tag. McKinley voted for it, referencing the district’s crumbling roads and bridges. 

Thirty miles up the road, winding along the Ohio River, the connection between infrastructure spending and jobs is particularly stark. 

In downtown Weirton, the mix of commercial streets and industrial buildings hint at the town’s past role as a center of tri-state industry. Now, on a weekend afternoon, there’s still some foot traffic near the book and ice cream store, diners and vape shops in low, flat buildings. For decades, the steel industry provided tens of thousands of good-paying jobs in the Weirton area that promised almost any able-bodied worker access to the middle class.  

Now, one of the last remaining steel mills in the Northern Panhandle, the Mountain State Carbon coke plant in nearby Follansbee, recently closed. 

“Most people thought they would make coke in Follansbee, West Virginia — my generation, at least — through their lifetime and well into the younger generation’s,” said John Saunders, a Wheeling native and local union leader who’s worked extensively in the Weirton area.

Saunders is worried about what the plant closure will mean for the city of Follansbee and its tax base. But he’s grateful that most of the workers were transferred to other jobs in the area through the plant’s owner, Cleveland Cliffs.

Saunders is a Democrat, but is actively campaigning for McKinley partly due to that vote on the bipartisan infrastructure deal. The bill will bring $6 billion to West Virginia alone, funding highway and road projects, as well as expanded broadband internet. Plus, similar upgrades nationwide mean a higher demand for steel.

That view is shared by Christopher Siler, the newest member of the Randolph County Commission. Siler, who was born and raised in Elkins, and spent 25 years in law enforcement in the area, also supported the federal infrastructure bill, which he thinks will help drive businesses to West Virginia.

“When you have industry coming in, you know, they look for things like, ‘do they have access to public water, do they have access to the sewage, do they have these different things,’” Siler said. “That’s important for when you have a factory, you know?”

Creating opportunity

In Morgantown another union leader who’s been through a factory closure sees things differently.

Joe Gouzd spent the better part of the last year fighting to keep the Mylan pharmaceutical plant open. For more than five decades, the plant employed thousands of area workers, but as 2020 neared its end, the plant’s owner, Viatris, announced the closure, surprising many. 

Gouzd, president of the United Steelworkers local in Morgantown, spent the next seven months appealing to anyone and everyone he could think of who could help keep the plant open, including every member of the state’s congressional delegation. 

Joseph Gouzd, president of United Steelworkers Local 8-957, sitting in the union building. Photo by Douglas Soule

McKinley agreed to a Zoom call, and Gouzd gathered a handful of his Viatris co-workers for the event. All wearing masks, they sat at separate tables in the union hall to keep socially distanced as best they could.

“We tried and tried to get [McKinley] on board, to do anything,” Gouzd said. “He gave us 15 minutes.”

At the end of their conversation, Gouzd remembers, McKinley said that he would do what he could. But later that year, the plant closed and Gouzd and hundreds of other Viatris workers would be out of a job. And Gouzd hasn’t heard from McKinley since.

Mooney, who didn’t represent Morgantown at the time, never responded. To Gouzd, who believes both representatives care more about re-election than helping their constituents, the lack of response at least felt honest.

Gouzd voted for Donald Trump, and in spite of some distaste with Trump’s behavior, he believes much of Trump’s “America First” agenda was right for the country. He wants a representative who will prioritize job growth and industry, and focus policy on what will help people already inside the country’s borders.

The Mylan plant in Morgantown. Photo by Douglas Soule

In Elkins, Laura Ward also wants policies that will help people who are already here — but for her, that means the elderly residents she works with as the director of Randolph County’s  senior center. 

“We have to take care of the people who built the state in the first place. Who taught us, who built the roads,” she said. “They did all these things for us. And we have to make sure that we are still remembering that.” 

But at the same time, she sees a need for different policies that will serve a younger sector of the population.

Ward’s son is studying neurobiology in an out-of-state doctorate program. And while she would love him to come back to West Virginia, she’s aware that current opportunities in the state are limited, especially in the kind of specialized field that he’s studying.

“I would love for him, when he’s finished with grad school, to have something lucrative to come back to,” she said. 

Downtown Elkins, WV. Photo by Douglas Soule.

Ward sees this as perhaps the dominant issue facing West Virginia. She wonders how the state can look out for its oldest residents, whom she believes need expensive social programs and government protection, while at the same time being an attractive place for young people and industries, whom she believes need fewer government regulations to attract opportunities.

A three-hour drive east, outgoing Berkeley County Council President Doug Copenhaver has his own anxiety about a generational change. He sees it in the county seat of Martinsburg, a city that has increasingly become  a part of the Washington, D.C., metro area.

“Any time your population grows, my biggest fear — not fear, but concern — would be the change of our culture,” Copenhaver said.

Berkeley County is the fastest-growing county in all of West Virginia, due in part to the expanding commuter population. The population has been growing for decades, but Copenhaver really took notice when he started working on the County Council.

Now, Copenhaver says the Eastern Panhandle needs to invest in amenities to attract and retain all those new residents. One important service: the MARC train which takes commuters from Martinsburg to D.C. three times each morning.

“It’s gonna be pretty important in the future, more so than it is now,” Copenhaver said about the train.

That community change Copenhaver is talking about is visible from the rail platform near downtown. In the pre-dawn light and brisk April weather, a handful of mostly young commuters wait for the 5:30 a.m. train, bleary-eyed, with coffees in hand. 

Figuring out how to balance the needs of these commuters, along with the needs of the families, steel workers, senior citizens and young people who make up the new 2nd Congressional District is a task that will fall to the new congressperson. 

The primary election is May 10, but early voting begins April 27. For more information about the election, read this explainer.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.