A West Virginia City’s Rising Fortunes Widen the Political Divide

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Atop a hill just west of this university town stands a gleaming 400-acre entertainment and recreation complex, converted in recent years from a former coal mine.

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To Morgantown residents, Mylan Park, which last year added a $48 million state-of-the-art aquatic center, serves as a sign of the city’s recent ability to thrive, even as much of the state and region have struggled from job losses and a shrinking population.

Yet as the city of 30,000 on the Monongahela River, home to hospitals and West Virginia University, has grown more prosperous and shed some of its blue-collar roots, it also has become more politically polarized, at least compared to surrounding rural counties that have tilted toward Republicans.

Now as many residents look ahead to a Biden administration, they are split between hope and trepidation.

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Some 46% of jobs in Morgantown and surrounding Monongalia County are now in management, education, law and other white-collar fields—the highest share of any West Virginia county, according to an analysis by the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization.

Blue-collar jobs in construction, transportation, energy extraction and other fields account for 16% of county employment, the lowest share in the state.

Politically, Monongalia County is the least Republican county in West Virginia, the nation’s second-reddest state after Wyoming. Former President Donald Trump won the county in November by 1 percentage point—49% to 48%—far closer than any other county in the state.

Four years ago, Mr. Trump won the county by 10 points. The swing away from the president in 2020—which followed trends in other areas with more affluent and educated voters—was larger than in any other West Virginia county and one of the largest voter swings in the nation.

The county’s population grew by 10% from 2010 to 2019, and employment grew by 16%, census data show. By contrast, all four neighboring counties lost jobs and residents over that period, and the statewide population fell by more than 3% as the state shed 3% of its jobs.

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But the growth, and uptick in prosperity, has helped widen a political divide.

Dave Laurie, 73 years old, a retired coal miner in Morgantown who was hospitalized with Covid-19 this fall, said he worries about this divide. “I’ve picked my brain apart thinking, how can we bring this country back together?” he said. “I can’t see it happening.”

As a 50-year member of the United Mine Workers of America, he said he has always voted Democratic. But this year, for the first time, he didn’t cast a ballot for either presidential candidate when he voted.

“How can I vote for Biden if he’s going to shut the rest of the coal mines down?” Mr. Laurie asked. “I can’t do it.” Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to move away from fossil fuels like coal and oil and to more renewable energy sources. But he also has said that transition shouldn’t happen so quickly that it risks further decimating a workforce now in the middle of a pandemic-fueled slump.

In Morgantown, political change has followed economic change, said Greg Thomas, a political consultant for conservative candidates, based in South Charleston, W.Va.

“It’s what’s happening in the rest of the country,” said Mr. Thomas, referring to the general political split between urban and rural areas. But it “didn’t happen in West Virginia until the last decade.”

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While many urban, white-collar workers in Morgantown have growing economic prospects, those tied to the declining coal and gas extraction industries fear for their futures, said Mr. Thomas.

“They’re very much worried about what this administration is going to do to them and their livelihoods,” he said.

Dale Sparks, 62, a photographer and frame shop owner, said his political views are getting more conservative. He is a big fan of former President Donald Trump and liked his policies on taxes, immigration and gun rights.

“Somewhere in 2015, I woke up and realized what the heck was going on,” he said. “I realized that I am very much a Republican in my core beliefs. It’s only getting stronger.”

Mr. Sparks, who last year lost 90% of the revenue he normally earns photographing West Virginia University sporting events due to Covid-19, said he now fears President Biden’s policies will hurt his business further.

“I’m literally scared to death of what’s going to happen now,” said Mr. Sparks. He said he worries about higher taxes, policies that could hurt coal mining and fracking, and more liberal positions on immigration policy and gun rights.

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Danielle Walker, 44, moved to the city in 2012 from Louisiana, partly because she felt her son, who has autism, could get good care in Morgantown.

This fall, she won a second term as a state House delegate as a progressive Democrat. She said that after she attended a Black Lives Matter protest in September that led to a confrontation with counterprotesters, she has received death threats.

Ms. Walker, who wears a bulletproof vest when she leaves home, said she is hoping Mr. Biden will help unify the country and that people act with more civility. But she said she doesn’t plan to become less vocal on behalf of constituents.

“I wanted to take a stand for the single parents, the working poor, the working person, the retired person, the disabled, those facing addiction and recovery,” she said.

Phil Mauser, 39, a Republican and the owner of Daniel’s, a men’s clothing store in Morgantown, said he voted in 2016 and 2020 but not for president, because he was too conflicted each time.

A self-described optimist who sees the glass “5/8ths full,” he said he thinks Mr. Biden’s ability to unite the country will depend on the strength of the economy and how soon pandemic restrictions are lifted.

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“I love to sell clothes to Republican registered voters, and I love to sell clothes to Democratic registered voters,” he said. “I would love to know why people are so divided.”

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