Why you should care
Because the real coal country isn’t in Appalachia.
In Gillette, Wyoming, Mayor Louise Carter-King is making a speech to celebrate the opening of a new dormitory for the local community college, dubbed, without a hint of irony, Inspiration Hall. In this city of just over 30,000, Gillette’s first female mayor, wearing a vermilion jacket and gripping the mic with matching nails, has presided over both a temporary tanking of the local coal industry and its sudden resurgence this year.
“Here we are again at another ribbon cutting,” Carter-King says before pausing and then asking, “Are we cutting a ribbon?” Yes, there is a ribbon, she’s told. “Oh, good,” she responds, before grabbing the giant scissors and charging ahead.
Carter-King may not be on top of every detail, but the 59-year-old has overseen the evolution of a city whose growth she has played a major role in creating. And today she’s Gillette’s biggest promoter, at a time of impressive transition. The city is emerging from a poorly planned hodgepodge of homes and hotels offering quick relief for coal miners between shifts and turning into a legitimate and bustling community — one where families are welcome, glistening sporting complexes are raised and Gillette College, once just an idea in her parents’ storefront, has become a reality. The college’s CEO, Mark Englert, credits Carter-King, saying she “brings a community vision to the table.”
Wyoming produces around 42 percent of America’s domestic coal, nearly four times as much as West Virginia. No other state comes close.
The story of Gillette’s positive evolution is not the narrative one expects to hear from a coal town in a nation where many had proclaimed coal dead. And yet the Powder River Basin in Wyoming — of which Gillette is the biggest city and unofficial capital — is rebounding, adding jobs after mass layoffs last year. The gains could be attributed to Donald Trump, except that many here feel that his campaign promise to save coal country was pitched mostly to Appalachia, not the Cowboy State. However, Wyoming produces around 42 percent of America’s domestic coal, nearly four times as much as West Virginia. No other state comes close.
Set against that backdrop, it’s not hyperbole to call Carter-King the true representative of a coal country that barely earned a mention in last election’s Appalachia-dominated discussions. She’s done her time, serving on the city council since the early ’90s, after her father — Gillette’s mayor in the ’80s — convinced her to run. (The city’s positions are officially nonpartisan; she’s never had to run as a Republican or Democrat.) Married to a coal miner, with two kids and two grandchildren, Carter-King is raising her voice at a time when Washington is more interested than ever in her blue-collar views. Yet, despite Trump’s pledge to bring back coal jobs, her message is not what the criticism-averse president likely wants to hear.
Trump’s November win was praised by many of Carter-King’s constituents, and while she won’t say who she voted for — “not Clinton” is as much as she’ll offer — she acknowledges that Trump’s presidency has boosted morale in a region that, on a single day in March 2016, lost nearly 500 coal jobs.
Now Trump needs to fulfill the promises he made, she says. His decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord was a mistake, she asserts, a criticism echoed by many coal companies in her area, including Cloud Peak, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal. And she balks at Trump’s East Coast–centric approach, criticizing him for entertaining a plan from Jim Justice, governor of West Virginia and a Trump family friend. Carter-King says the proposal would, in essence, undercut the West and bail out Appalachian coal — which is less clean, and poses more danger for workers, than the surface mines across Wyoming. “I would like to talk to him about that,” she says, looking like she’s about to start walking to the Oval Office that very moment. “I think we all need to have a level playing field.”
Her position has drawn support from free-market Washington, D.C., conservatives and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead. “I have empathy for the people of West Virginia,” Mead tells OZY, but “it’s a mistake because it pits states against states.” Instead, Mead and Carter-King want President Trump to invest in research and open more ports for coal exports — they’ve worked to form an Integrated Test Center, which is bringing scientists to the Gillette area to study ways to produce emission-less coal while identifying alternative uses for coal byproducts. Mead, who has watched Carter-King’s work closely, says Gillette has had “a run of good leadership,” adding that, “in terms of picking itself up by its bootstraps, it’s been a remarkable place.”
As mayor, Carter-King hopes to continue that tradition. But she still faces challenges, including the boom-bust cycle that could set coal back on its heels again before long. For decades, leaders have talked of “diversifying” the economy to no avail, she admits (the closest they’ve come is coal-adjacent industries like the work done by local company Atlas Carbon, which repurposes coal to make water-purification filters). And as a citizen lawmaker — her day job is running Powder River Office Supply — it’s clear Carter-King isn’t always up to speed on policy specifics, turning frequently to her communications manager, Geno Palazzari, for fact-checks (in response, Palazzari told OZY it is “unrealistic to expect a part-time public servant to have immediate recall of all relevant information).
In an age when bold, well-spoken leaders can change the course of a city single-handedly, à la Cory Booker, maybe Carter-King doesn’t need all the answers. She sees her job “as an ambassador,” she says, and when others urge her to “take a breath and cut it out,” she doubles down and keeps pushing Gillette ahead. “We have to make sure we continue to progress,” she says, and to do whatever it takes to move the coal industry forward, she’s more than prepared to pick up the first shovel.
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