Rockwool Apologists Propose Industrial Future, Ignore Patriotic Past
Author’s Note: What follows are my own observations and speculations. I have not been commissioned or requested to write this article by any organization or individual, period. I am a native-born West Virginian, originally hailing from Wheeling, WV. I recently bought a farm in Jefferson County, where I am writing now. I plan on raising my family here for decades to come. Any assertions to the contrary are blatant lies from individuals and organizations who aim to discredit my opinion on local matters, rather than engage in civil discussion or debate. Those same individuals appear to want Jefferson County’s citizens to feel powerless.
This is a long read that attempts to shine a light on some of the issues surrounding the proposed Rockwool plant and the industrial park that is proposed to neighbor Rockwool and an elementary school.
As any native-born West Virginian knows or suspects, West Virginia’s politics have been rife with out-of-state interests for over a century, beginning with the ruthless coal industry in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Through America’s gilded ages, banks in New York City profited mightily from WV’s and PA’s coal fields, and our miners struggled to survive on coal company scrip.
Knowing this, many West Virginians have simply tuned out local government. With fewer and fewer voters to be accountable to (and those voters being overwhelmingly poor), elected officials and lobbyists are emboldened to enrich themselves by bending over backwards for out-of-state interests.
This is in part why, in 2014, West Virginia’s voter turnout was the lowest in at least six decades. Predictably, pro-corporate politicians on both sides of the aisle once again swept the ballots in West Virginia. (At a turnout rate of 37.3%, nearly 2 out of every 3 registered West Virginia voters did not exercise their right to vote. The politicians who won in 2014 hardly had a popular mandate.)
At the Charles Town city council meeting on February 19, 2019 — I was struck by what I found to be a dumbfoundingly clear example of out-of-state corporate interests attempting to chill debate in West Virginia, and to make Jefferson County citizens and the Charles Town city council feel powerless.
As described in the first part of this essay, the example came from a former Washington DC Capitol Hill staffer — someone who knows first hand about how laws really get passed at the federal level, and how difficult it is for average citizens to have their concerns voiced in Congress.
While this essay will explore that individual’s professional career, it does not mean to generate any animosity towards the individual. He is not the super-villain, and he is not the root of the problems that undermine our constitutional republic and which threaten to undermine decision-making here in Jefferson County.
But tracing this individual’s professional career is very much like tracing the symptoms of the larger sickness — money in politics — that afflicts our country at every level of government.
I begin by examining the former staffer’s February 19th presentation to the Charles Town city council, and I contrast his statements with our proud American history. The essay then looks at how the staffer’s career led him to this point, exploring a few of the out-of-state interests that this individual has bumped elbows with along the way. Finally, I look at the “facts” that this individual presented to Charles Town’s city council, and I explore a brief economic analysis comparing Rockwool’s home in Mississippi with the proposed location here in Jefferson County.
Part One: Limited Power Is Still Power
“Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself.”
— Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, February 2, 1816
It’s a go-to quote for American conservatives who argue that all our nation’s founders wanted a weak federal government, restrained only to the powers explicitly stated within the U.S. Constitution.
The case for a weak federal government has been a fundamental tenet of American conservativism for at least the entire 20th century. Conservatives proclaim that the federal government’s powers are limited and state and local powers reserve most of the authority on most matters. This is the basis of conservative “Massive Resistance” to Brown v Board, and legal challenges to the Voting Rights Act, to Roe v Wade, and to federal environmental laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
So I was shocked to hear what Republican Dan Casto — a former “never-Trump” delegate to the Republican National Committee, and an outspoken member of a Rockwool apologists’ group — had to say at the Charles Town city council meeting on Tuesday, February 19. (His full comments can be found here, beginning about 24 minutes in.)
Casto first thanked the Council for holding the meeting. And then, by way of dismissing the “beliefs” of concerned citizens who don’t want Rockwool in Ranson, Casto patronized the assembly and declared, “let’s still look at the facts though. This city council has limited power. The Clean Water Act — your power — none. The Clean Air Act, none. Federal law pre-empts you doing anything. If folks really have a concern about the law… great. They need to go to the lawmakers who can change the law: members of Congress, House of Delegates, state senate — that’s not your role.”
Dan Casto served on the Jefferson County Development Authority when the Rockwool project was approved. He has been pushing the idea that everyone in the county is powerless to scrutinize or prevent the Rockwool project since at least November of 2018, when he complained to the Charleston Gazette-Mail that “[The county’s elected officials] know that Rockwool is going to be built, they know they don’t have the power to do a thing about it, their legal counsel has all told them so. We were a convenient scapegoat.”
If Casto really believed his own words, he wouldn’t have bothered showing up to the city council meeting on the 19th. His attendance and comments indicate that he’s clearly concerned about the future of Rockwool and the industrialization of Jefferson County.
It’s also worth pointing out that as a lawyer, Casto might know that he should be careful declaring that any interpretation of a law is a “fact” — courts in the United States re-write and strike down well-established laws all the time. The Supreme Court re-interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment multiple times in the 1800s alone. And for a modern example, the Clean Water Act is right now facing a conservative challenge at the Supreme Court. (What started as a “frivolous” lawsuit by pro-industry lawyers could potentially end in the Supreme Court unilaterally re-interpreting and re-writing a law passed by Congress and signed by President Richard Nixon!)
And for as much as Rockwool apologists paint themselves as super-patriots, they seem to be oblivious to the simple historical fact that the American Revolution began with patriotic colonists using their “limited power” to push back against British-granted tax favors to the multinational East India Company.
Part Two: America’s Roots: Resisting Tax Favors for Multinational Corporations
“[English opposers to the Tea Act of 1773 wrote] to America, encouraging strenuous resistance. They represented to the colonists that this would prove to be their last trial, and that if they should triumph now, their liberty was secured forever; but if they should yield they must bow their necks to the yoke of slavery.”
— From, “A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party with a Memoir of George R.T. Hewes, a Survivor of the Little Band of Patriots Who Drowned the Tea in Boston Harbour in 1773”, published in New York by S.S. Bliss, 1834
America was founded from resistance. More specifically, America was founded from resistance to multinational corporations and government favors for those corporations. That’s why American patriots (then-colonists) dressed in disguises and raided a British frigate housing East India Company tea on December 16, 1773.
Despite the anti-historical conservative trope, the Boston Tea Party wasn’t just about protesting taxes.
The Tea Act of 1773 itself wasn’t just about higher taxes; it was about government favoritism for the East India Company. That’s what drove the colonists to toss the tea into the harbor.
As author and radio host Thom Hartmann argues in Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became “People” and How You Can Fight Back: “[The monopoly that the Tea Act of 1773 granted to the East India Company] infuriated the independence-minded colonists, who were, by and large, unappreciative of their colonies being used as a profit center for the multinational East India Company. They resented their small businesses still having to pay the higher, pre-Tea Act taxes without having any say or vote in the matter (thus the cry of “no taxation without representation!”)”
Some colonists saw the Boston Tea Party as the beginning of a just and necessary rebellion. Others saw it as an act of mercantile vandalism; today it might be called a “radical demonstration” or “economic terrorism” by those who resent American protest in all its forms.
One can imagine Dan Casto — clad in knee-high leather boots, a red-jacket and a tricorn cap — objecting to the patriots’ plans: “these are the facts, we are the Virginia colony and we have limited power! If you want to object to the Tea Act, return to Britain and become a lord!”
Part Three: The Casto-way: Wall Street Gets WV’s Congressional Ear
“I am a native West Virginian and there are others like me […] We don’t propose to get out of the way when a lot of capitalists from New York and London come down and tell us to get off the earth. They played that game on the American Indian. They gave him the end of a log to sit on and then pushed him off that. We don’t propose to be pushed off.”
— UMWA District 17 president Frank Keeney, circa 1917
At the Charles Town city council, Casto spoke on behalf of one Rockwool apologist group in favor of the city council rolling over for a multinational corporation and the supremacy of the federal government.
At first, I found it simply absurd — a West Virginia Republican telling a West Virginia city council that they are powerless to resist the federal government and a multinational corporation.
But it’s not absurd. Its what pro-corporate politicians in West Virginia have done for nearly 150 years. It’s exactly what Frank Keeney was talking about in 1917, and it is still going on today.
Under the promise of “development” and “economic growth,” members of in-state political machines sell out the state’s abundant riches to out-of-state industries, who inflate their own stock and give themselves bonuses, sending the money to investment bankers on Wall Street and other international financial centers. Where the money goes once it leaves the state doesn’t really matter though, because the end effect is that West Virginian families are left impoverished and West Virginia’s lands despoiled.
In 2011, a 27-year old lawyer named Dan Casto signed on with one of West Virginia’s most established political machines and became Shelley Moore Capito’s legislative director. Shelley Moore Capito is herself a political legacy in the state, as the daughter of West Virginia’s first two-term governor: Arch Moore.
Casto strolled a short path from law student to his position as Shelley Moore Capito’s lobbyist gatekeeper. As Melanle Zanona wrote for Roll Call on March 4, 2011,
“When he finished law school in 2009, Casto was hired by Sullivan & Cromwell, one of the firms he had worked for during summers while he was enrolled at West Virginia University. He practiced financial law for the firm’s D.C. office for two years. […] He told a friend who used to work for Capito that he was interested in getting his footing on the Hill, and he kept in contact with some of the staffers. When a spot as legislative director opened up earlier this year, he jumped at the opportunity and was ultimately hired by the Congresswoman.” [Emphasis added]
The article was called “Hill Climbers: Capito’s Legislative Director Has Political Past.”
For all the talk today in West Virginia about DC being a swamp, it seems that Casto was ready to dive in head-first in 2011.
And for those who wisely choose to ignore the nitty-gritty of what goes on in Washington, DC — the legislative director in a congressional office is the person who meets with lobbyists and campaign donors and decides what lobbying issues get priority in the office. They’re gatekeepers for lobbyists and donors.
According to glassdoor.com, “The typical United States House of Representatives Legislative Director salary is $80,000.” Casto laughingly told Zanona that, “The only negative reaction I got was that I was taking a huge pay cut” compared to his gig at Sullivan & Cromwell.
Casto’s revolving door move is common in Washington, DC and even in West Virginia’s politics. But just because something is “common” does not make it “right” — and it certainly doesn’t make it “healthy” for our representative democracy.
In the 2012 campaign cycle, Shelley Moore Capito’s campaign committee raked in $48,500 dollars in individual donations from… Sullivan & Cromwell. Her campaign committee only pulled in $149,500 total— so fully one-third of her campaign committee’s war chest in 2012 came from Casto’s previous employer.
As Kevin Cirilli noted in The Hill in 2014 (after Casto had left Capito’s office), “Sullivan & Cromwell is a corporate law firm and has registered lobbyists. [What they donated to Capito] was more than triple the amount that Sullivan & Cromwell employees gave to anyone else in a House race during the 2012 cycle.”
Cirilli also points out that, “One of Capito’s most high-profile financial services regulatory political fights was in 2011. As chairwoman of the House Financial Services subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, she introduced legislation that delayed the implementation of a final rule on “swipe fees,” legislation that Wall Street backed heavily. […] About two months before introducing the credit swipe legislation, Capito hired Dan Casto, an attorney from Wall Street lobbying group Sullivan & Cromwell, to be her legislative director.”*
If only by appearances, it seems that Casto served to give New York City’s Wall Street a voice among West Virginia’s congressional delegation.
To be fair: in Washington, DC, campaign donors and corporate lobbyists have demonstrably more influence over legislators than do average Americans. Two political scientists — Martin Gilens from Princeton, and Benjamin Page of Northwestern — released a groundbreaking study in 2014, showing that “the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do.”
So, in 2012 when Shelley Moore Capito introduced legislation to help the same big banks that crashed the U.S. economy in 2008 (presumably with input from her legislative director), her entire office was simply taking part in “politics as usual”: help big financial interests, ignore working Americans and concerned citizens.
And when Casto tells concerned citizens at Charles Town’s city council to take it to Congress to get the law changed, he likely knows full well that legislation supported by average citizens hardly ever gets passed if it conflicts with the desire of big business.
Part Four: B is for Banks, C is for Coal
“My position as regards the moneyed interests can be put in a few words. […] Ordinarily, and in the great majority of cases, human rights and property rights are fundamentally and in the long run identical; but when it clearly appears that there is a real conflict between them, human rights must have the upper hand, for property belongs to man and not man to property.”
— frmr. President Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910
The $48,500 from Sullivan & Cromwell employees in 2012 was topped only by donations from individuals at a company called “Powell Companies,” based in Johnson City, Tennessee with locations in Beckley and Fairmont, West Virginia. Powell Companies are in the business of “mineral processing and steel erection.” They are interested in West Virginia’s raw mineral wealth: coal.
In 2007, the Vice President of Finance for Johnson City-based Powell Construction explained to the House Committee on Small Business why the federal government needed to go against the free market and boost coal production: “it is essential that we as elected officials, business men and women, state and local officials, and everybody in this room today, should do all we can to sustain this eastern U.S. coal production.”
In 2012, while Dan Casto was Shelley Moore Capito’s lobbyist gatekeeper, Powell Companies donated a combined $72,400 to Shelley Moore Capito’s campaign committee and leadership political action committees.
The company boasts about a ~500 member workforce, which means that if every single employee donated, and if they have 599 employees, that would be about $120 that every single employee in Tennessee-based Johnson Companies donated to a U.S. Representative’s campaign in West Virginia. If that were the case, Powell Companies’ Tennessee employees would be among the most politically active employees in West Virginia.
But every single employee probably didn’t donate.
In fact, according to publicly available data, one employee alone donated nearly $8,000 combined to “SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO FOR CONGRESS” and to the “WILD AND WONDERFUL PAC,” which also benefitted Shelley Moore Capito. That’s one employee who made 11% of the total donations from Powell Companies to Capito’s campaign and an associated PAC.
In total, that single employee donated more than $22,000 to Republican campaigns in 2012 alone. The employee also variously listed her employer/occupation as “Powell Companies/ Department Manager,” “Housewife/Housewife,” “None/Housewife,” “Powell Construction Company/ Administrative Assistant,” and “Powell Construction/ Executive Assistant.”
As someone who holds multiple positions in multiple organizations, I don’t find the employee’s diversity of titles strange. But I do find it strange that she is using each of her titles to donate separately to individual campaigns and to political action committees. It seems peculiar, also, that an “Administrative Assistant” in Johnson City, TN has $22,000 to throw around towards campaign contributions in a single year. (The average income in Johnson City, TN is only $39,000.)
First, this story reveals how out-of-state interests routinely attempt to get an outsized voice in West Virginia politics with campaign contributions. Casto spent several years serving as Shelley Moore Capito’s gatekeeper to lobbyists and campaign donors. In at least one well-reported instance, Capito introduced legislation that would have likely directly benefitted Sullivan & Cromwell’s clients (thereby indirectly benefitting Sullivan & Cromwell, Casto’s former employer).
It’s not outright quid pro quo corruption, but it sure stinks for average West Virginians who want their voices heard.
Second, what this author finds curious about this web of out-of-state interests is that Rockwool’s inputs (slag and by-products of mineral processing) seem to overlap with what one might expect would be the waste from “mineral processing and steel erection” — the business of the Powell Companies.
Or maybe Powell Companies are planning to build another WV plant in the industrial park that will surround Rockwool and an elementary school.
It’s hard to know at this stage.
Part Five: Byhalia, MS & Ranson, WV - By the Numbers
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
— Daniel Patrick Moynihan
At the Charles Town city council meeting on February 19, 2019, Casto spent much of his time talking about a recent “fact-finding” mission that he went on with a few other local Rockwool apologists.
According to Casto’s report to the city council, the group of intrepid fact-finders flew down to Memphis, took a ~30-minute drive to the Rockwool plant in Byhalia, Mississippi, and proceeded to collect “facts” in the form of anecdotes and opinions from Byhalia residents and workers. Every video report from the fact-finding mission found that resident and workers are very happy with Rockwool as a neighbor and an employer.
It’s worth pointing out, that in any research field, when a dataset comes up 100% in one direction or another, it’s a big red flag. That’s why almost all research includes a margin of error. One can’t help but notice that the “fact-finding” mission includes no margin of error in their faux-dataset of “facts” — maybe this groundbreaking research team could help Trident find that fifth dentist to recommend their gum!
Casto also made a big, irrelevant, point of how the Rockwool plant was situated nearby one of Memphis’ high-end suburbs — replete with Mercedes-Benz dealerships and a movie theater! (Unlike, he added disparagingly, Charles Town).
I say that the point is irrelevant because it puts the cart before the horse. I’m willing to bet a horse that the high-end suburb was there before Rockwool was. The comment doesn’t apply to Charles Town or Ranson, because — as he pointed out — that same sort of high-end suburban development doesn’t yet exist in Ranson or Charles Town. And it’s a relatively safe bet that that form of high-end development never will move in if Rockwool moves in first.**
None of the pro-industry speakers who addressed the city council ever once discussed the demographics of Byhalia, Mississippi or the surrounding Marshall County, MS. So, I will.
Here is a table comparing Byhalia, Ranson, and Charles Town — and one for Marshall County, MS and Jefferson County, WV using publicly available data from the U.S. Census Bureau, mostly from 2010.
On the one hand, in 2010, Byhalia Mississippi has a higher median family income and per capita income than does Ranson, WV.
On the other hand, in 2010:
- they had 3,000 fewer people in Byhalia than live in Ranson. So few, in fact, that if Rockwool created 150 jobs and hired all of those jobs in Byhalia, Rockwool would employ more than 1 out of every 10 Byhalians!
2. Over the last nine years, Byhalia is estimated to have lost population. That means, if anything, people who opposed Rockwool may have left town when Rockwool moved in — they certainly didn’t gain population over that time.
3. One out of every four Byhalians lived below the poverty line. If Rockwool employed 150 people in Byhalia, this figure would drop to about one in six Byhalians living below the poverty line. That’s a tremendous positive impact that would not happen at anywhere near the same scale in Ranson.
4. By every other measure, Byhalia is under-performing compared to Ranson and Charles Town. Ranson and Charles Town have more people with more money, meaning they have a wider and deeper tax base, and their populations have grown over the last decade, bringing in even more revenue. These are signs of a healthy economy. (Again, engineers and contractors know: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I’m very unclear as to why Rockwool apologists don’t seem to understand this. This whole project seems like the pipe-dream of reckless leftist accelerationists.)
At the county level, the comparison is even bleaker. Marshall County, MS had just about 37,000 people living within the 706 square mile county in 2010, before it lost population over the last nine years.
Jefferson County on the other hand holds 54,000 people in one-third of the area (212 square miles), and it has gained population over the same period.
In terms of income, Jefferson County families on average in 2010 earned nearly $20,000 more per year than residents in Marshall County, MS, and individuals on average earned $6,000 more than their counterparts in Marshall County, MS.
For Ranson, Charles Town, and Jefferson County to benefit from Rockwool the way that Byhalia, MS and Marshall County, MS have, Jefferson County would have to be much worse off economically. In other words, it would have to be an entirely different town and county. In a different part of the country. Like Byhalia, Mississippi.
These are the economic facts: one might as well compare apples and oranges if they want to compare Marshall County, MS to Jefferson County, WV.
Readers can decide on their own whether these numbers tell a more powerful story and make a more powerful case than the pro-industry anecdotes that Rockwool apologists caught on video.
Rockwool’s apologists and those pushing for an industrial future in Jefferson County want citizens and council-members to feel powerless.
They want concerned citizens to feel uninformed, and they want to dismiss citizens’ concerns as simple “beliefs” — like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
They want West Virginians and Americans to forsake this country’s history and this state’s great history of resisting multinational, out-of-state corporations.
They want the citizens of Jefferson County and the members of Charles Town city council to resign themselves to an industrial future, one that conflicts entirely with this region’s culture, history, and current economic engines (which bring in hundreds of millions of dollars every year to Jefferson County’s families, farms, and local businesses).
Fortunately, families and concerned citizens in Jefferson County are taking the all-American tact of organizing to protect Jefferson County’s long-standing culture, customs, and ways of life.
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*That legislation was co-sponsored by pro-bank Democrat and then-chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Schultz’ campaign war-chest is also perennially lined with Wall Street money. Money in politics compromises members of both parties.
**Memphis is also hardly a model metropolitan area, as a July 2018 headline in USA Today’s “Commercial Appeal” publication declared:
Residents leaving Memphis puts city among top-10 in U.S. for population loss due to migration. In October of 2018, the Memphis Flyer ran a headline, “Report: Memphis Still ‘Distressed’ After Recession, Recovery”.
If a high-end suburb in a declining Memphis is the best case for Rockwool, one can see why Rockwool’s apologists have resorted to petty insults and vague threats to public officials.