Karen Caltrider retired recently as the partner in an accounting firm in Parkersburg, West Virginia, giving her enough time to reflect on politics at her local Cracker Barrel — “the closest restaurant to my house,” she said, a reflection of an unspoken economic reality that repeats itself throughout much of the American heartland. In fact, belying the classist stereotypes about West Virginia, Parkersburg faces many of the same challenges as other cities that have lost their major industrial employers and are trying to figure out how to fit into the 21st century.
“It used to be that most people here were employed at the factories,” Caltrider said. “Now the major employers are the school district and the government,” a fact born out by employment statistics from the federal government. In many former factory towns in proximity to government centers — like Schenectady, New York, once where General Electric once employed 40,000 people and now employs less than 4,000 — government jobs often fill in the gaps. In the case of Parkersburg, former Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-WV) plan to move much of the Bureau of the Public Debt to the area has made it the go-to place for jobs, especially for the city’s young accountants.
Parkersburg’s economy, she added, is also helped by the presence of a university. “This area has grown hugely because it has invested in and attracted technology, in part because of West Virginia University” — another commonality among former factory towns with a proximity to large educational institutions. But, she said, “The fact that we were an industrial nation for so long worked well for us… without industrial jobes, there’s not a lot out there for people who don’t go to college.”
When it comes to politics, despite its reputation for conservatism, Caltrider says elections in the state rarely follow straight party lines. “When there’s an election, it’s hard to tell where it’s going to go,” she said, pointing to the popularity among conservative-leaning voters of Governor-turned Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) as an example. “He’s one of the few voices of reason right now in our Congress because he will stand on his own and not bow to pressure.”
Like many Americans, Caltrider is frustrated with the current political system. “The fact is that our political situation does not work, there is no compromise,” she said. “I’m a registered Republican,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I vote a straight Republican ticket.” The current Republican primary field — for which she’ll be able to vote on May 8 –doesn’t give her much hope. “Mitt Romney shows me nothing but a typical politician,” she said, adding, “Santorum is just so far out of it. I admit I’m somewhat influenced by my [liberal-leaning] daughter, but the more I listen…” She said she might have been interested in Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) at one point, “but now it seems like he’s pretty out there, too, when you listen to him.”
The GOP field’s well-documented issues with women’s rights issues have rubbed Caltrider, like many women, the wrong way. “Why the treatment of the female of the species?” she asked rhetorically. She was particularly displeased with Santorum’s positions on women’s issues: “You can’t tell me all of [Santorum’s] remarks are out of context because that’s not true.” She isn’t buying conservative talking points on Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke, either: “Obviously Rush Limbaugh hates women. Why would he come out and say that on the radio?”
Not that she wants to be mistaken for a Democrat, though: “I don’t necessarily agree with Obama on all things, or many things, actually,” she said, but she’s just not finding candidates in her party that reflect her political values.