Mr. Randolph Goes To Washington


Whether we like it or not, decisions are made in our nation’s capitol every day that have a direct impact on life here in the mountains. This year, Appalachian Voices hired a staff member in Washington, DC, to serve as our full-time voice for the mountains on Capitol Hill.

J.W. Randolph is Appalachian Voices’ new legislative associate in Washington. His primary focus is passing the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill that will curtail mountaintop removal coal mining, as well as educating members of Congress and their staff about mountaintop removal. He is also working on efforts to reduce air pollution and protect special places on our public lands. One of J.W.’s favorite parts of his job is helping volunteers from the mountains meet with their Members of Congress when they come to Washington.

J.W. was born and raised in east Tennessee, and is a passionate defender of the mountains. A graduate of Appalachian State University, J.W.’s political experience includes spearheading a letter signed by 80% of the members of the North Carolina state legislature opposing the weakening of federal clean air laws, as well as running for a seat on the Boone Town Council. He sat down with the Appalachian Voice to talk about his job, missing the mountains, and close encounters with Barack Obama.
Voice: Tell us what it’s like working for Appalachian Voices in Washington.

J.W.: It’s such an honor to work on the Appalachian Voices staff with so many miraculously talented and hard-working people. I’ve enjoyed developing my own niche in the staff and working closely with Lenny Kohm, who is an environmental icon for thousands of people and my professional hero.

Working and living in the bustling city is quite a change of pace from Boone, or the rural lifestyle that I grew up with in southern Tennessee. Folks don’t just give the same smile and wave. But my job is to work with Congress to ensure the passage of the Clean Water Protection Act, and the sooner we pass the bill, the sooner I get to back
come home to the mountains and look people in the eye, smile, and wave (hopefully on some trail in the woods.) The frustration of dealing with people who can be aloof is rewarded by the fact that I get to educate the movers and shakers in this country about mountaintop removal.

People always ask if I get nervous, but as people who have been fighting in the coalfields for a long time already know, if you’re going to let them scare you at all, you’re going to be scared all the time. It’s impossible to be functional that way, so you have to let those feelings go and march forward. We’ve got the truth and we’ve got the support of people in the coalfields working to stop mountaintop removal. The truth is our best weapon, and we must be fearless in our delivery.

Voice: Why do you think it’s important for Appalachia to have a full-time, homegrown voice in Washington?

J.W.: Building day-to-day relationships here is the best thing we can do to ensure that — when push comes to shove — we can pass the Clean Water Protection Act. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know staff members, and folks from other organizations who have been doing this work for a long time.

Politicians aren’t the biggest risk-takers, and the easier we make it for them to support us, the better. There’s a saying in DC that “the greased wheel gets the oil.”
Grassroots organizing all across the country is essential to our success. When we also have someone in Washington clearly communicating our message to elected officials on a regular basis, then we’re maximizing and enhancing all of the incredible work that people do all around the nation. Lobbying is the second blow in the 1-2 punch! Every time there is a big push from the grassroots, it makes it much easier for me to approach a Representative’s office and ask for their signature on our bill.

Coal companies spend millions of dollars a year on lobbying efforts and political activity, to try and persuade Congress to do things that benefit those the heads of those companies and hurt the people of Appalachia. The fact that Appalachian Voices now has a full-time presence in Washington means that Congress will be hearing more from our side on a daily basis.

I believe that the most powerful person in America is a concerned citizen walking the halls of Congress. Congress, we have to remember, works for us, and answers to the people of this country. It’s so important that people communicate to their elected officials. Speaking of which, sign up for the Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington (see page 18)!

Voice: What has been one of the highlights of your time in Washington so far?

J.W.: Getting to ask Barack Obama about mountaintop removal. He said that he opposed it, and then (I would find out later) after the meeting he went back and told his whole staff that some guy from a group called Appalachian Voices had asked a question about mountaintop removal mining!

I was also thrilled to be in the room for Al Gore’s global warming hearing sporting my Appalachian Voices shirt. I was about ten feet from Vice President Gore during his testimony.

It’s still a great feeling anytime someone signs onto the bill. As I was writing this, I got word from Congressman Charlie Rangel’s (D-NY-15) staff that he would be signing back on as a co-sponsor. Congressman Rangel is the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Moments like that make it worthwhile.

Voice: While you’re the only Appalachian Voices staff person in Washington, you have a big support system behind you here in the mountains. How has that helped you with your work?

J.W.: Since I started out at as a volunteer at Appalachian Voices and had to bug Dr. Matt Wasson every day to ask him which handle opened the door and where the pencils were kept and what a NOx was, the generosity of the Appalachian Voices staff has been incredible. But there is one person who has done more for me in this job than anybody else, and that is Lenny Kohm. To be able to come in under the wing of a legend, who has spent the last 30 years fighting for people and for the environment, is something that I am grateful for every day. We call him Yoda for a reason (and its not just because he’s short).

Lenny has spent decades building up an impeccable reputation on the Hill and in the national activist community, and has earned his place at the table as someone who is both inspiring and exciting, but also personable and hilarious to talk to.

It would be easy to come to Washington and feel like an empty cup in the middle of the sea. The city and the political ball game can be so overwhelming and infuriating that sometimes you just want to pack it all up and head for the hollows. Lenny has given me, and thousands of others, the confidence and the tools to command our own ships up here, so to speak. He has given me the chance to do good work for my home in our nation’s capitol, and that means the world to me.

The individuals who fight in the coalfields are in a daily war over their right to live in peace and with dignity, and they are my inspirations to help bring their fight to Washington. I’ll never forget being with Ed Wiley on his walk to Washington, watching Maria Gunnoe tell the DEP where to stick it at a public hearing at Marsh Fork Elementary School, or standing on the lip of Kayford Mountain next to Larry Gibson with tears in my eyes. Hearing the encouragement of Judy Bonds, or watching the grace of Debbie Jarrell and the courage of Mary Miller and Pauline Canterbury, makes me grateful to be alongside all these amazing people doing this good work.

Voice: Where does your passion for the mountains come from?

J.W.: My home, a place called Middle Creek, and from my father. I grew up in a house he built, in the middle of the woods, on the shores of the Tennessee River. I spent my youth in caves and in trees and mud and woods without an adult for miles around. Sometimes Dad would come along and teach my brother Drew and I about birds and trees and fish. The creeks and woods are also valuable teachers, and I want my children to have somewhere they can go and learn some of the same lessons I was taught.
I’ve had a very privileged life, surrounded by the most fantastic people, including my family, friends, and my long-time girlfriend Elizabeth who is currently working at an orphanage in Tanzania. It doesn’t seem like much to ask that I do everything I can to give our children the potential to grow up in a world where mountains are not
blasted off the face of the earth, and where they can drink the water from the tap.

The last thing I look at every day when I walk out my door is the American flag that Ed Wiley carried with him when he walked from Charleston, WV to Washington, DC, to raise awareness about the plight of Marsh Fork Elementary School, on the front lines of mountaintop removal. Ed carried that flag in order to ensure that his grandchildren, and their children, and their children, have the opportunity to grow up in a world that is safe and full of wonder. It’s an immense honor to be able to serve that same purpose with Ed through my work for Appalachian Voices.

I recently got to go home to Watauga County, NC, and split wood and sit on a porch and drink coffee on the New River in the early spring with my best friends in the world, and be reminded that the mountains will always be. We will stop mountaintop removal. We have to. And when we do, I look forward to going home and repeating that scene many, many times.

I can think of no greater honor than to represent the people of Appalachia here in Washington. Anyone who is coming for a visit and would like my help setting up a meeting with their Representative, or wants to know more about the Clean Water Protection Act, please contact me at, or 202-669-3670.


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