WAYNESBURG – International interest in the American presidential race has focused its attention squarely on Greene County and the state of coal mining here.
Film crews from at least five countries, a PBS team based in New York City and several newspapers from across the country visited Greene County and the CareerLink services office in Waynesburg over the past three months to discuss the presidential election and the future of coal.
“It's shocking that the coal miners' stories are so interesting internationally,” said Terri Cooley-Taylor, an administrator of the CareerLink offices in Washington and Greene counties. “It's sad it's taken a negative thing to bring the interest and attention of the world to us, but we're hoping that positive things will come out of it.”
An Israeli film crew kicked off the international parade when it visited Waynesburg and Marianna in June to do a story on coal mining after learning about the closure of Emerald Mine and the layoff of 235 union miners last November. They were followed by a New York City-based news team with PBS that aired a similar story about the miners and their strong support of Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election.
That program caused a cascade of international filmmakers from Australia, Germany, Japan and, just this past week, France.
But while international and domestic journalists have been eager to talk about politics and Trump's rise through the Republican primary, those featured have tried to turn the conversation back to unemployed coal miners and how they're getting back on their feet.
Cooley-Taylor said workers interviewed in her office tried to steer the attention onto the coal miners, but the crews kept hammering away on what they thought is a fascinating election.
“We knew when they were coming that the election was going to be a topic. But we didn't realize it would be a lot of the focus,” Cooley-Taylor said. “They tried as hard as they could. They pressed us and pressed us and pressed us. They were confused that politics was not involved in the way we do our work.”
Interest in the election was the reason Nathalie Gros, a French journalist with CAPA Presse in Paris, focused on Greene County. But as she received pushback on politics, her team turned its attention to the laid-off miners, finding hope and optimism that is quintessentially American.
“We met some great people,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “They really hope coal is going to come back. It's not such a bad situation that they are desperate. They still have a little bit of hope and (saved) a little bit of money.”
The team also spent time in Pittsburgh, visiting Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute and interviewing Mayor Bill Peduto to learn about the tech boom there. She enjoyed both communities, but especially the small-town feel of Waynesburg, although she noted how few sit-down restaurants there are to patronize.
“The idea of a tiny city in America. The houses, the downtown center,” Gros said. “I'm leaving Pennsylvania with great memories.”
A week earlier, Toshihiro Nakayama, a professor at Keio University in Fujisawa, Japan, came with a team of five filmmakers to interview laid-off coal miners and the job placement workers at the CareerLink office. Nakayama will host a two-hour documentary that will air just before the election on Japan's NHK-TV, a news station similar to the BBC.
He said Trump symbolizes the worldwide stereotype of Americans as “argumentative, loud and brash” and that people in Japan at first were “making fun” of the election as his campaign gained momentum.
“Understanding what is happening in the U.S. is very important for the people in Japan,” he said. “As the primary went on, people started to think seriously about a Trump presidency. It will change the whole geopolitical (structure). There's uncertainty, and people are worried about it.”
He said people in Japan are especially considered of Trump's tough talk on trade and his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“Japan is very pro-American,” he said. “People like America. We rely on the U.S. and are partners.”
But the Japanese film crew wanted to meet and talk to Trump's supporters to see “what's behind his rise?” They thought about visiting West Virginia and Kentucky, but settled on Greene County because of the recent closure of Emerald.
“His message is resonating. I see frustration rising in this country. The coal miners (encapsulate) those frustrations and Mr. Trump has tapped into that,” Nakayama said. “I know they're not all racists and bigots. They have their own views. There has to be some reasoning behind it. All the reasons might not be here, but some of them are here.”
But people like Dave Baer, a former miner and peer counselor in the CareerLink office in Waynesburg who helps other laid-off miners, were in no mood to outwardly discuss their opinions on the election.
“I didn't mind if they came in to talk about us and coal mining and losing our jobs,” Baer said. “But to talk politics? Nope.”
He said the conversations with the film crews would constantly shift back to Trump and, at times, it got tiring as crew after crew streamed through the doors. He began to wonder why there was such international interest about the election centered on Greene County, but soon got his answer with each interview.
“They don't want Donald Trump in there,” he said.
Baer plans to watch the documentaries, some of which have already aired and can be viewed online, as do others who were a part of them. County Commissioner Blair Zimmerman is equally baffled by the interest in Greene County, but said that the coal miners' stories must have struck a chord with a worldwide audience.
“Coal is sold around the world and (exporting) it was a big thing when I left Alpha,” Zimmerman said. “I can't put a finger on it. I expect it must affect their countries somehow.”
Cooley-Taylor sees the slew of documentaries as an opportunity to market Greene County to an audience that could drive business to this area.
“Maybe once the stories go out nationally and internationally, maybe businesses will look at Greene County in a different way and see people who are hard-working and willing to do a good job. Maybe they'll look at our labor market and want to bring their business market here,” Cooley-Taylor said.
“Any kind of attention is good attention, even if it starts with a negative connotation in the beginning. Let's turn a negative situation into a positive opportunity.”