The first time I remember learning that my grandpa had been a school principal in Webster County—and that my dad had been a student at his school—I thought what a wonderful situation that would be, to have your dad there in school with you, to be able to be unafraid that you’d be sent to the office and get in trouble.

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Grandpa Shock, mid-1930s, with a car

It was the short-sightedness of a kid, for sure. I had not learned to think things through, or see things from the perspective of others.

My dad was quick to disabuse me of the notion that he got special treatment from his dad–or that getting special consideration would even be a good thing.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I had to be on my best behavior because my dad didn’t want it to look like I got any special treatment.”

He went on to share stories illustrating how his father held him to a higher standard–how my dad’s friends actually thought the poor principal’s son to be sadly unlucky, because he got in trouble for small infractions, his punishments were steeper, and of course his father always found out about any little thing he did wrong.

For this and many other reasons, my grandfather Maurice Shock was a respected and well-loved educator. The students knew, and their parents knew, that his aim was to help each child in his charge, not just pave the way for the success of his own kids.

Grandpa understood it would take more than simply not being biased. It would require an extra effort to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Grandpa set a good example.

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He set a good example in many ways.

 

As the WV Supreme Court of Appeals wrote in IN THE MATTER OF WATKINS, WV (2013):

It is not enough that we know ourselves to be fair and impartial or that we believe this of our colleagues. Our power over our fellow citizens requires that we appear to be so as well. How else are ordinary citizens to have the faith in us . . . ? An impartial manner, courtesy, and dignity are the outward sign of that fairness and impartiality we ask our fellow citizens, often in the most trying of circumstances, to believe we in fact possess. Surely it is arrogance for us to say to them that we may not seem impartial, but we know we are, and so they must submit. Precisely because the public cannot witness, but instead must trust, what happens when a judge retires to the privacy of his chambers, the judiciary must behave with circumspection when in the public eye.

Many politicians today, however, purposefully do things that—best case scenario—LOOK crooked. Why, one wonders? Didn’t they ever learn this basic lesson, to avoid the appearance of impropriety?

I could go on and on about all the ghastly details of various national races, but I’d rather focus on West Virginia politicians right now. It happens on both sides of the aisle. I’ve called out a few already, including Woody Ireland (R) and Governor Tomblin (D), who are not listed here simply because neither is running for office this year.

Top Four Questionable WV Politicians

  1. Bill Cole, currently GOP candidate for governor. As a used car dealer–one that moreover  owns dealerships that have been “defendants in eight lemon law or auto fraud lawsuits,”  Bill Cole should not have used his position in the WV Senate to push for legislation that would weaken “lemon law” consumer protections for car buyers in WV.
  2. Jim Justice, Democratic candidate for governor. Without competing bids,  Justice sold an unsolicited $34 million in coal to AEP. Should Justice be elected, he’ll be choosing 2/3 of the seats on the state’s Public Service Commission, responsible for regulating AEP and other utilities in the state. In addition, he is pressuring other democratic candidates to sign a pledge promising to help his business. Conflict much? The pledge also asks them to support miner safety at the same time Justice personally has the worst record of mine safety violations in the nation.
  3. Joe Manchin, currently “Democratic” US Senator. Just about everything having to do with Joe Manchin and his family looks crooked, anymore. We’ve talked at length about his EpiPen/Mylan connections. We also know that he handpicked and then endorsed Republican Justice to run as a democrat for governor. We know as well that he exerted political pressure on the WV State Democratic Executive Committee by throwing that last minute luncheon to “honor” his two establishment choices for the state party chair and vice-chair (who went on to win, what a surprise!). Delegates–myself among them–saw much of this first hand, but it’s also been covered by state press.
  4. The WV DEP. This is not a politician, of course, but I’ll call out the secretary who directs the department. By not taking part in the court actions against Jim Justice mines, it looks as if the WV DEP is responding to behind-the-scenes pressure. WV DEP Secretary Randy Huffman has already stated that he can’t do a good job of protecting people here in Ritchie and Doddridge because “If I start pounding my fist, it is going to be a fruitless effort. I would become ineffective. There are too many entities at play in Charleston. If I did that, they’d laugh me out of the capitol building. It would limit my effectiveness.”

Is the Secretary of the WV DEP there to protect us, or is his job really just to explain all the corporate rationalizations to the potential victims?

I mean, we get it. We get that politicians have families and friends, too. They have businesses. People will always question their motivations—as they should. We need to be skeptical and on alert, simply because this country has such a serious problem with money in politics.

So,  for a moment, let’s imagine that everyone I’ve just listed above is, in actuality, on the up-and-up. None of them is really crooked… it just looks that way. Just imagine.

Now imagine what Grandpa Shock might say: “You have a responsibility to do more than that, boys.”

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Grandpa Shock playing his guitar, WWII

How hard would it be to just take that extra step? How hard is it to be the principal who wants to make sure it doesn’t look like his own family is getting special consideration? How hard is it to make sure it doesn’t look like one’s own family or friends can get away with anything? To be fair, it’s probably harder than it looks.

But please… you have to look like you’re trying.

Should Cole have avoided pushing legislation that would benefit his own business? Perhaps he could be working to get an industry started here that would benefit us all, instead? How can Justice even disentangle himself enough from his business of not paying people and dirtying our water to have any appearance of working to help regular people? The Public Service Commission last year approved nearly a 12% increase in rates. What will it look like when the rates go up again, knowing Justice makes money from them? What will it look like when yet another WV community gets poisoned, and still the safety regulations are loosened?

Should the DEP  pass on our concerns to the governor and our legislators… otherwise why take up out time with a meeting where they purport to listen to terrified, exhausted, anxious people trying to save their water sources and in some cases their homes?

The sad thing is that this isn’t a new story by any stretch. West Virginians seldom seem to have any real choices; it feels as if all they give us are liars and dirty politicians.

But the good guys tend to finish last.

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1974: Grandpa in his wheelchair. After liberating victims in a concentration camp in WWII, he came home, and struggled to get appropriate care as he got sicker and sicker.

Regardless of what you believe about The Dirty Four—whether you think they’re guilty, or you think they just LOOK guilty— you must admit they could do a FAR better job of avoiding the appearance of it.

The priority should always be to help regular West Virginians, rather than simply being out to help your own business, or get appointed/elected again.