HUNTINGTON — Somewhere tucked away in nearly any American's mind is a fond memory or two (or several) made with a hot dog in hand.
It remains as ubiquitous to the American experience as it is humble and satisfying — a testament that a meal doesn't need frills or silverware to hit the spot like it always has.
It's that collective appreciation that's made the annual West Virginia Hot Dog Festival in downtown Huntington a repeated success for 15 years. The 14-hour-long day of food, music, games and live entertainment is led by the city's long-established trinity of much-beloved drive-ins: Stewarts Original Hot Dogs (founded in 1932), Midway Drive-In (founded in 1939) and Frostop Drive-In (founded in 1959).
"We've been here a long, long time, and we're a fabric of people's lives here in Huntington," said John Mandt Jr., the fourth-generation owner of Stewarts Hot Dogs, speaking of the three old-guard establishments. "Hot dogs are all-American and just fun, and that's what Huntington's been based on for years."
It's an experience people remember as a child in the backseat of a car parked at a drive-in, to graduating to the front seat as an adult behind the wheel, Mandt explained. The experience changes little over the years, and one bite is a ticket back to a different time spent with loved ones, some of whom are no longer alive.
It's a similar story to the ones they hear across town at Midway, said co-owner Cory Hutchinson.
"It puts goosebumps on you," Hutchinson said. "We get Midway alums from the '60s and 70s come in and tell us stories about how they did it, and someone will come in, sit at the same spot on the same counter and eat the same hot dog and the same peanut butter milkshake like they had 50 or 60 years ago.
"It's a comfort food, man," Hutchinson added. "A lot of people relate to it, whether it's at the ballpark or at a cookout, and it just brings back memories."
But hot dogs were just a small portion of the day-long event that's grown to include hours of live music, children's games, pro wrestling in the street, and other vendors.
The festival started bright and early with the annual Heiner's Bakery Bun Run 5K through downtown Huntington. Caleb Keller, of Charleston, was the top finisher overall, while Kristina Skioutoukkay was the top finishing woman.
Naturally, the hot dog eating contest remains one of the most popular draws. This year, however, six-year reigning champ Woodrow Lewis — who once finished 21 hot dogs in 10 minutes — was unable to attend.
When Mandt asked the crowd to fill in a few open spots in the competition, Mark Alderman volunteered. He hadn't eaten yet that day, so he thought maybe he could eat six at the most.
But in a close two-man race, the Chesapeake, West Virginia, native pushed himself to hold down 14 hot dogs in 10 minutes, winning the contest on a day he had no intention of entering an eating contest.
"Just smash them in water," Alderman outlined his on-the-fly game plan. "I watch (world champion competitive hot dog eater) Joey Chestnut do it.
"It took everything to get that last mouthful down, but I did."
Another major attraction is the wiener dog races — now open to all breeds in another class — where dachshunds push their stubby legs as fast as they can while 3rd Avenue fills up to watch them in the street. The races are purely for fun, as the majority of wiener dogs fail to cross the finish line for disinterest or distraction.
That's what happened to Chance, a 9-month-old mottled dachshund owned by Tiara Brown, a Marshall student from Fayette County, West Virginia. The pup moved about 3 feet from the starting line before freezing, disregarding Brown waiting at the finish line, and instead trotted to the sidelines.
"He just kind of got scared and gave up. He was super excited, but I think he just got overwhelmed," Brown said. "But it's really just good to get him out doing fun activities with a bunch of other wiener dogs that look just like him."
Proceeds from the festival benefit the Hoops Family Children's Hospital at Cabell Huntington Hospital. Since it began, the West Virginia Hot Dog Festival has raised more than $200,000 total.
HUNTINGTON — When it comes to wielding power and influence in American politics, money talks in several ways, and statewide elections are no exception.
According to a November 2018 data analysis by The Associated Press, last year candidates for statewide offices raked in roughly $2.2 billion in campaign contributions, almost equaling the $2.4 billion collected by U.S. House and Senate candidates.
The report revealed that "the list of the largest contributors across all state-level elections is dominated by self-funded candidates." Nine candidates for governor last year spent more than $10 million on their own campaigns.
Such large numbers are especially significant considering the reality that in the U.S., the candidate who raises and spends the most money wins his or her race the vast majority of the time. While The Washington Post reported in 2014 that the candidate with the most money in congressional races in the U.S. wins the election over 91% of the time, an analysis of gubernatorial elections across all 50 states from 2001-16, as reported last year by Follow The Money, revealed that incumbent governors specifically lost just 3% of races described as "monetarily non-competitive," compared with 24% who lost races against challengers who were "monetarily competitive."
However, for West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith, whose campaign outraised every other gubernatorial campaign in the state combined in the last quarter, the primary goal has never been simply about winning.
"Sometimes you have to make decisions based on what you really believe rather than what you think is going to get you the most votes or the most money," Smith said, "and we decided early on that regardless of the strategic ramifications, we are not going to take corporate money, because we want a government independent of special interests."
Smith's campaign for governor is part of a broader coalition of constituents and candidates known as West Virginia Can't Wait, which aims to build a working-class movement to change the power structure in West Virginia so that people most affected by issues in their communities are the ones making influential decisions about those issues.
In the last quarter, Smith's campaign received nearly 2,500 small donations, more than each of the candidates received in West Virginia's last Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2016. Smith's campaign raised over $146,000
last quarter, with roughly $39,000 collected from donations of $250 or less and around $71,000 from donations of $250 up to $2,800.
The grassroots fundraising of Smith's campaign provides a stark contrast to that of the other top-known gubernatorial candidates in the state, including former Democrat-now-Republican Gov. Jim Justice and his primary challenger, Republican businessman and former West Virginia Department of Commerce secretary Woody Thrasher.
Justice and Thrasher garnered a combined total of 21 small donations in the last quarter — Justice 13 and Thrasher eight — with the bulk of each of their funding coming from their own money. Last quarter, Justice loaned his own campaign more than $131,000, as Thrasher spent nearly $375,000 toward getting himself elected. In 2016, Justice loaned his own campaign roughly $3.85 million.
Discounting self-funding and loaning. Smith's campaign raised over $50,000 more than the campaigns of Justice and Thrasher combined in the last quarter, with Justice receiving roughly $58,000 in contributions and Thrasher collecting around $36,000.
Smith said the fundamental differences in fundraising strategies and results between the campaigns is indicative of the reality that West Virginians are ready for "a different kind of government" — one he says more accurately and consistently represents their own values and interests.
"We need an electoral system in which having a lot of money or having a lot of friends with money does not make you more able to run for office. I want a world where what qualifies you for running for office is the service you can provide to the people in your neighborhood and community," Smith said. "Right now, far too many people are simply priced out of politics, and that is a tragedy for a representative democracy."
If U.S. and West Virginia citizens were allowed the political power to make important decisions in their own government, money would have been removed from the political system a long time ago, but such is not the reality of modern politics, Smith said.
"We see policy after policy that doesn't make any sense, and that's because those policies aren't a representation of the people in our state; they're a representation of a handful of people playing the game of politics with big stacks of money," he said. "That's what we have to change."
While studies on such dynamics in state politics are relatively rare, a data analysis of donor demographics throughout the 2018 national election cycle, conducted by independent nonprofit organization Open Secrets, provides weight to Smith's sentiment regarding key players in modern American politics. The analysis found that "a tiny, elite" group, comprised of just 0.47% of the country's population, is regularly responsible for more than 70% of all individual contributions to candidates, PACs, parties and other groups.
To avoid raking in contributions from such big-money donors, and with the goal of engaging and involving as many West Virginians as possible in their movement, Smith's campaign has utilized a unique organizing and fundraising strategy from the beginning, Katey Lauer, Smith's campaign manager, said.
The campaign conducted about 800 one-on-one conversations with residents throughout the state and hosted three statewide meetings before officially announcing in November last year to receive input from locals about how to build long-term political infrastructure, Lauer said.
"We did a lot of work to gather wisdom, advice and input before the campaign even officially launched," she said. "Our kick-off strategy was informed by all those conversations."
Since announcing last year. Smith's campaign has hosted 92 public town halls and events throughout the state and participated in more than 450 visits to union halls, recovery programs, churches and various other community gatherings.
Lauer said the campaign's grassroots strategy and small-dollar fundraising achievements are representative of the movement's — and Smith's — accountability to everyday working people. "That's how politics works — the people who give you money are the people you are accountable to," she said.
Lauer also encouraged voters to contrast the strategizing, organizing and fundraising of Smith's campaign to those of his opponents.
"I think what the campaign finance report reveals is that our opponents are primarily accountable to themselves and, in many cases, to company CEOs who have shared business interests with them, which is just another way of being accountable to themselves," Lauer said.
One of the most prevalent lessons to be learned from Smith's campaign is of the faultiness and inaccuracy of what many consider to be conventional wisdom in modern politics, Lauer said.
"Conventional wisdom is focused on maintaining the power and the teams that already exist in politics. We are actually interested in a very different project, which is attempting to get a lot more people legitimately invested and engaged in the political process," she said, "and conventional wisdom does not work to achieve that goal."
Primary examples of such conventional wisdoms about politics include the sentiments that candidates must spend money on out-of-state consultants, bring in staffers from Washington, D.C., and court corporate donors to have any serious chance to win, Lauer said.
"Because we have an all-West Virginian staff, we've been able to build relationships, trust and connections and be true to our values in a way we wouldn't have otherwise been able to," she said.
While campaigns like Thrasher's have already spent upward of $90,000 on political advertisements, Lauer said. Smith's campaign has spent roughly that same amount on its staff and only about $100 on advertisements in local newspapers.
Lauer said she believes the current influence of big money in politics is a significant factor into why so many people have abandoned politics altogether.
"It reveals that who politics is designed to be for is people who already have a lot of wealth, so I think our choosing a strategy that is more aligned with our values also speaks to people and is a part of why it's possible for us to fundraise this way," Lauer said. "Our strategy and our values are aligned."
Such an alignment of strategy and values is one capable of defying partisan divisions to form a movement much larger than, and not dependent upon, winning any single election. Smith said.
"It matters a lot to us that this campaign is not being led by me; it is being led by hundreds of people," he said. "We don't believe any one politician can save us — not Jim Justice, not Woody Thrasher, not Joe Manchin and not me. We don't need a king when we have a movement."
The West Virginia Can't Wait movement has constituency teams in all 55 counties in West Virginia and is running roughly 43 candidates up and down state ballots.
Other individuals whose campaigns have filed finance reports for the second fundraising quarter, making them eligible for a 2020 gubernatorial bid:
• Former Del. Michael Folk, a Republican from Berkeley County, collected around $14,000 in contributions, including over $3,600 from more than 80 individual contributions of $250 or less, in addition to a beginning balance of over $9,000 from last quarter;
• Army veteran and former Division of Highways employee Charles Sheedy, a Republican, collected zero contributions;
• Republican Shelby Fitzhugh, of Martinsburg, reported zero outside contributions, with around $775 of in-kind donations to her own campaign;
• Democrat Jody Murphy, of Parkersburg, who has worked for organizations in Pleasants County like the Area Chamber of Commerce, raised $75 in addition to a remainder of $325 from last quarter;
• Buckhannon native attorney Erika Kolenich, a Libertarian, collected $950 last quarter from four individual contributions.
The campaign of senior Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III, who previously served as governor from 2005-10 and has reportedly been mulling over another gubernatorial bid in recent months, filed a report of zero contributions in the second quarter, in addition to a beginning balance of around $8,300 from last quarter.
CHARLESTON — In Point Pleasant, West Virginia, population 4,350 in 2010, pharmacists at Fruth Pharmacy gave out 7.3 million painkillers between 2006 and 2012.
Less than a block away, across Jackson Avenue, a Rite Aid dispensed more than 3.9 million pills in the same seven-year window.
Those numbers come from recently released U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data, which shows how chain drug stores around West Virginia put hundreds of millions of powerful painkillers into the hands of West Virginians while overdose death rates surged.
Chain drug stores' individual locations reported lower pill dispensing totals than many of the smaller, family-owned pharmacies that topped the DEA's list for opioid disbursements. Two West Virginia pharmacists who were indicted earlier this month on federal charges of conspiring to distribute controlled substances ran two of these smaller "pill-mills" — Tug Valley Pharmacy in Williamson, where pharmacists dispensed the fourth highest number of pain pills in the state; and Westside Pharmacy in Oceana, which was 13th on the list.
An analysis of DEA data, however, shows the outsize role corporations played at the end of the pharmaceutical supply line.
According to the DEA data, in West Virginia between 2006 and 2012:
• Rite Aid pharmacies dispensed 140 million painkillers at 108 locations
• CVS pharmacies dispensed 96.7 million painkillers at 50 locations
• Walmart pharmacies dispensed 67.4 million painkillers at 41 locations
• Kroger pharmacies dispensed 58 million painkillers at 43 locations
• Fruth pharmacies dispensed 35.2 million painkillers at 14 locations
• Walgreens pharmacies dispensed 17.1 million painkillers at 16 locations
This data was submitted in federal court as part of litigation brought against a wide range of pharmaceutical companies from hundreds of towns, cities and counties affected by the opioid epidemic. The companies are accused of conspiring to saturate the country with opioids. The data was not available to the public until attorneys for HD Media, which owns The Herald-Dispatch and Charleston Gazette-Mail, and The Washington Post successfully fought for its release.
While a total of 67 pharmacies were operating and dispersing pain pills in Charleston over this time, six Rite Aid locations alone provided nearly 8.8 million doses to the city — nearly 30% of all the opioid prescriptions filled in the state's capital over those seven years.
In Belle, an eastern Kanawha County town where 1,260 residents lived in 2010, two Rite Aids were the only pharmacies in town, according to DEA data. There, the stores provided nearly 2.8 million doses of pain pills between 2006 and 2012.
Concurrently, the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths tripled between 1999 and 2016 across the country, federal data shows. Between 2005 and 2015, heroin use doubled in adults aged 18 to 25. About 45% of people who used heroin were also addicted to painkillers.
In the Brooke County seat of Wellsburg, population 2,805 in 2010, Rite Aid and Kroger pharmacies provided 2.4 million pain pills to residents.
Brooke County has the second highest rate of opioid-related hospitalizations in the state, behind only McDowell County, according to data from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Walgreens, Walmart, CVS Health, Rite Aid and Kroger are among the pharmacies named in federal lawsuits accusing them of flooding the country with billions of opioids and flouting requirements that they notify the DEA of suspicious orders.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs say an official at CVS who was listed as the company's DEA compliance coordinator admitted it was not her real job, and that other drug store chains did almost nothing to report suspicious orders, according to The New York Times.
Michael DeAngelis, senior director of communications at CVS Health, said in a statement that pharmacists at the company evaluate all prescriptions they receive for controlled substances, like opioids, before filling them.
"While we have taken numerous actions to strengthen our existing safeguards to help address the nation's opioid epidemic, it is important to keep in mind that doctors have the primary responsibility to make sure the opioid prescriptions they write are for a legitimate purpose," DeAngelis said. "Opioid medications are only a small percentage of the overall prescriptions our pharmacies dispensed."
He noted that no individual CVS pharmacy topped the DEA's database for the highest number of pain pills dispersed.
Unlike the other chain pharmacies, Fruth Pharmacy is a West Virginia-based company, operating about 30 pharmacies in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
Fruth Pharmacy President Lynne Fruth said she would not comment on data "she has not been given a chance to see." Invited to view the numbers, she said she wouldn't have time to look.
Chris Krese, a spokesman for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores — an industry group — warned that people should "take care" in drawing conclusions from the data released by the federal court.
"It does not lend itself to clear interpretations, and it is leading to some incorrect conclusions that are harmful to entire communities," Krese said.
Krese would not elaborate on what conclusions were incorrect, or how communities were being harmed.
Walgreens spokesman Phil Caruso said the company's pharmacists are highly trained and committed to dispensing legitimate prescriptions.
"Walgreens has not distributed prescription controlled substances since 2014 and before that time only distributed to our chain of pharmacies," he said. "Walgreens has been an industry leader in combating this crisis in the communities where our pharmacists live and work."
None of the representatives speaking for the pharmacy chains would discuss whether the companies' prescription-filling practices played a role in the opioid epidemic that has taken thousands of lives in West Virginia alone.
Representatives from Rite Aid, Kroger and Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.
'The pills don't just go out'
Dr. Rahul Gupta, West Virginia's former state health officer, said the data indicates the pharmacies didn't seem to be reporting suspicious orders to the federal government.
"Clearly, the retail pharmacies were not looking to actually look at these orders with a suspicious eye. They were dispensing; they saw their role as being dispensers," said Gupta, currently chief medical officer for the March of Dimes.
However, he said there was a culture of "complicitness" up and down the supply chain, including doctors writing prescriptions, distributors delivering the pills, and pharmacies giving them to patients, that ultimately cost human lives.
"Everyone that touched these pills... is responsible ultimately for the end results that happened and continues to happen," he said.
Mike Goff, executive director of West Virginia's controlled substance monitoring program, declined to comment on the chain drug stores' role in the opioid epidemic.
However, Goff said some blame lies with the doctors who wrote the prescriptions, not just the pharmacies that filled them.
"The pills don't just go out," he said. "The pharmacies filled them and the numbers are big, but there are also doctors out there who wrote those prescriptions to be filled. So there's another piece to this."
Dr. Michael Brumage, former director for the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy, said that while it's easy to point fingers and shift blame, no one involved in these practices — executives, distributors, doctors or pharmacists — is innocent.
"They all have plausible deniability by blaming everybody else, but in truth, everybody was culpable in this," Brumage said. Anybody who made a lot of money off the opioid crisis, at some point or another, conveniently looked the other way."
Brumage, who currently works as the medical director for Cabin Creek Health Systems and as a program director at West Virginia University's School of Public Health, characterized the opioid epidemic as one of the "biggest catastrophes" in the history of public health. He called it "a Vietnam (War) happening practically every year" because of the number of lives lost.
This epidemic, though, is one that was in the works for years before it was noticed, Brumage said, and while the numbers can be shocking at first glance, at this point they should be expected.
"This is something that is easy, I think in many respects, to externalize and look for the bad guy," Brumage said. "But this is a monster that we invited into our homes. This is not something that beat down the door. This is something we invited in."
Those responsible for negligent prescription practices here, Brumage said, are all concerned with the same thing: making a profit. It's not a lack of information or understanding that has distributors sending pills to the area, doctors writing prescriptions for them and pharmacists filling those prescriptions, he said.
"It's indifference. It's indifference to the harm you're causing by focusing on the bottom line," Brumage said. "That's sort of the lesson here: Big pharma and these pharmacy chains and the distributors, they don't care about the common person. I think they knew damn well what they were doing, but they were blinded by the inflow of cash."
Money, Gupta agreed, is what's at the center of it all.
"Everyone that monetized it has to be held responsible," he said. "It's a monetary thing at the end of the day."