The Shutdown in Coal Country: Why the Worry?

Trevor Hughes | January 21, 2019 | USA Today

Ten words in faded red ink adorn the glass door of the federal building: “Please hold mail for duration of government shutdown. Thank you.”

Here in this northern Colorado coal town, those 10 words, and the unplowed parking lot of that Bureau of Land Management facility, are among the few obvious signs that the nation’s federal government is partially closed, resulting in nearly 1 million American workers not getting their taxpayer-paid paychecks.

Many of Craig’s 9,000 residents are just fine with that.

In this low-slung Western town that still celebrates cowboys and cattle rustlers, Christmas and Christ, and where the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants bracket the broad valley, residents wonder aloud: Doesn’t the shutdown prove their long-held argument that the federal government is too big, too powerful and too expensive?

“It kind of makes me question what they do on a day-to-day basis,” says Paul James, 31, who runs the town’s sole medical marijuana dispensary. “If I don’t miss them, what were they doing?”

“The federal government is our biggest enemy out here.”
John Ponikvar
Mayor of Craig, Colo.

Sure, some folks are worried that their relatives in the military aren’t getting paid right now. Others are worried about access to federal loan guarantees or getting their tax refunds on time. More than a handful believe the shutdown makes the country look foolish. But generally, Craig’s residents are unfazed by the shutdown that’s approaching one month and showing no signs of ending. They point out that federal employees eventually will get their salaries even though some didn’t even work and that many of those nonessential workers are getting a lengthy vacation.

A Republican stronghold

For many Craig residents, the shutdown remains mostly abstract: The federal government isn’t a big employer here, and people are mostly worried about how air-quality regulations are slowly squeezing the life out of the coal mines and power plants. That helps explain the popularity of GOP candidates, where voting for Republicans comes as naturally as breathing, regardless of how you feel about the president. This is a town where pickups and SUVs rule the roads and renewable energy is often scorned as unreliable and unproven.

Here, the shutdown is an initial victory in President Donald Trump’s fight to shake up and pare down federal bureaucracy. Trump drew more than 80 percent of the votes in the 2016 election in this county, and for his supporters, every day the federal government isn’t interfering in their daily lives is a win.

“Just remember, Trump has never been a politician,” says Chris Nichols, a city councilman whose shirt with a faded monogrammed “M” reminds people that he used to own several McDonald’s franchises. “And maybe that’s what’s firing up his base.”

The shutdown has hobbled environmental enforcement, slowed permits for power lines to serve the Wyoming wind farms that compete with coal, and means there’s less daily oversight from the land management bureau, which manages coal leasing on public lands. Decades of frustration with their treatment by the federal government has left Craig’s residents suspicious of regulators trying to tell them what kinds of cars to drive, what to feed their kids and how they should make a living.

“I don’t feel like they’re here for us,” says Tammy Burch, 41, whose husband and father-in-law work at the nearby Twentymile coal mine.

Like many Craig residents, Burch is a native. Her Healing Lights spa on Breeze Street serves people she has known all her life. And like many here, Burch says she still feels personally targeted by the policies of former President Barack Obama. USA TODAY first began visiting Craig during the run-up to the 2016 presidential campaign, to take the pulse of the coal mining town whose fate was widely seen as hanging in the balance.

‘Coal Keeps the Lights On’

Today, many of the residents are resigned to the fact the coal’s heyday is ending, replaced by cheaper natural gas and more popular wind and solar power. They’re thankful that Trump’s election has given them at least four years of breathing room to transition their economy from coal.

“The damage that Obama did is here, the damage is done,” Burch says. “And I do believe that if Hillary got in, this town wouldn’t exist.”

Along the main street, yard signs remind drivers that “Coal Keeps the Lights On,” an indicator of how important it is to miners’ families, the overall economy and the power plants that burn it to make electricity. While the mines around Craig are among the biggest employers, the two nearby coal-fired power plants employ hundreds more. Equipment operators at the mines start at around $26 an hour and can earn nearly $41 an hour with the right experience.

Craig’s residents make a clear distinction between the president and the federal government he oversees – a federal government he has vowed to drain, slash, cut and otherwise hobble.

“The federal government is our biggest enemy out here,” says Mayor John Ponikvar, who has owned a NAPA auto parts store here since 1995.

Speaking in his shop office, which is decorated with Republican presidential memorabilia, Ponikvar, 62, says many residents believe the federal government does far more harm than good, especially when it comes to the coal beneath the ground. It’s a refrain repeated by the Sunday evening drinkers at J.W. Snack’s Bar & Grill and the retired miners sipping morning coffee at The Other Place Sports Bar & Grill.

Perched at his usual corner seat at the bar, Snack’s bar owner Danny Griffith slides a sticker from a clear plastic folder and hands it to a visitor: “Friends of Coal,” it says.

“If Hillary had gotten elected, we would really be feeling it,” says Griffith,

“There’s not too many Democrats in this town. This is an energy town.”

As a result, Griffith knows on which side his proverbial bread is buttered – in his case, it’s catered brisket lunches for miners and power-plant workers when they’re working on special projects or having big meetings, or the Sunday night rib-eye sandwich specials he sells when workers and their families come in for dinner.

Like many Craig residents, Griffith isn’t much worried about the shutdown. He considers this break a paid vacation for federal employees who will eventually get their paychecks even if they have not been working. The real issue will come when people start expecting tax refunds.

“I think that’s the main concern: people getting their taxes back,” his wife, Terri, chimes in from behind the bar.

A sense that the system is rigged

After his overnight shift at the ColoWyo Mine, heavy-equipment operator Martin Jackson spent the morning sprawled out at a table with a handful of retirees at The Other Place, debating the merits of various dirt-handling techniques and catching up with the waitresses he has known for years.

Like many miners, Jackson, 29, says it’s unfair his industry is targeted for closure by city-dwelling environmentalists who appear tone deaf to the plight of the men and women who helped power the country’s economy for generations. He’s especially annoyed that so many people love to hate coal miners and yet aren’t infuriated that furloughed federal employees eventually will get paid for work they didn’t even do. While tens of thousands of government employees are working without pay, tens of thousands more have been told to stay home and wait for the government to reopen.

To Jackson, it’s just more evidence of a system rigged against conservative men and women.

In dozens of interviews with Craig residents about Trump, none brought up the Robert Mueller investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible influence on Trump as a concern, and several laughed at the big-city media’s obsession with the shutdown and White House turmoil, which includes multiple high-profile departures, including his chief of staff, defense secretary and U.N. ambassador.

“In Craig and Moffat County, we are more concerned about how federal policies can, and will, affect our way of life now and for our future,” says Ponikvar, the mayor. “The Russia investigation is just another excuse or distraction that keeps Congress from being productive on the real issues of health care, border security, water issues, education and energy, the things that are important to us.”

That concern about illegal immigration also helps maintain Trump’s popularity in Craig, where many residents say the shutdown is warranted because congressional Democrats who used to support a border wall now oppose it. Polls show nearly 60 percent of Americans oppose the border wall plan and want the government reopened. Nationally, Trump’s popularity is sliding: A recent CNN poll showed he stands at 37 percent approval to 57 percent disapproval.

The president can count on Craig, however. Make America Great Again signs adorn store windows, and many residents here will back him in 2020 because he’s doing what he campaigned on: protecting their jobs, fighting the “swamp” and building a wall on the Mexican border.

“I wish everyone would just shut up and let him do his job,” says Burch, who owns the pain-management spa. “He’s delivering on everything he’s promised.”

They’re not hurting – yet

That’s not to say Trump’s support is monolithic in Craig, mind you. The town’s tiny cadre of Democrats will be voting against him in the next election, even if they do have to avoid talking politics in a town where they’re essentially a rounding error on the rolls.

“That’s how I survived as a teacher in a conservative community,” laughs JoAnn Baxter, 78, a retired educator and former chairwoman of the county’s Democratic Party.

Baxter said some Republicans in Craig have confided they’re more upset with the president than they’re letting on, especially when it comes to potential financial damage from the shutdown. If the closure lingers for months, it may force the school district to drain its reserves to make up for lost federal free-and-reduced lunch payments, and a $29 million medical office building being built with a USDA loan could grind to a halt by March.

“We’re not hurting yet. But I don’t know how much longer that can go on,” Baxter says.

Like many residents, Baxter decries the harsh rhetoric used by both sides in Washington and wonders aloud if the country can ever come together again for the good of all Americans. The problem, everyone acknowledges, is no one can agree on what’s good for all Americans.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican Andrea Camp worried aloud as Trump tweeted outrageous statements and used harsh language against his opponents. It wasn’t enough to stop her from voting for Trump, and the past two years have only given her more evidence that she made the right decision, especially when it comes to the Supreme Court. Camp, 47, said she was at first concerned about the kind of example Trump was setting for her two adult daughters and three grandkids. Now, she sees the progress he’s making and is a little more willing to forgive the language.

“He’s a lead, follow or get-out-of-the-way kind of person,” says Camp, a member of the Craig City Council. “It’s refreshing in politics to have someone who does what he says he would do.”