Politics & Policy

Moonrise in West Virginia

A “refugee” from progressivism hoists the conservative banner in the Mountain State.

‘The loyal opposition.” That’s how Alex X. Mooney summarizes his role in Maryland politics, where he served for twelve years as a state senator and then for two years as GOP chairman. In a political climate dominated by the left wing of the Democratic party, Mooney’s pugnacious conservatism won him attention from his first election in 1998.

As a freshman senator, Mooney battled tax hikes, union giveaways, and gun-control measures. Miffed at such errancy, Maryland Democrats redrew his district and tapped a veteran state delegate to run against him in 2002 — to no avail. He won handily and went on to serve two more terms before losing to former Frederick mayor Ronald Young in 2008 — by 51 to 49 percent, in a year when Barack Obama carried the district by ten points.

After serving two years as party chairman, Mooney resigned in February, moved his family to Berkeley County, W.Va., and announced a run for the state’s Second Congressional District — long represented by Republican Shelley Moore Capito, who is leaving to run for Jay Rockefeller’s Senate seat in 2014. Against an increasingly crowded GOP field (including two former state legislators and former George W. Bush official Charlotte Lane), Mooney stands out for both his newcomer status and his combative style.

When I reached the candidate by telephone, I began with the most obvious question: Why should Mountain State voters trust an outsider to represent their interests? Mooney is forthright about his decision to hop the border: “I moved about half an hour from where I lived. I moved just from one side of the Potomac River to the other. You know my mother’s a refugee from Cuba. That country was taken over by the Communists — I’m now a refugee from Maryland!” While he emphasizes that his former district and West Virginia are “basically the same region,” the latter boasts one key difference: a lively tea-party movement. Mooney is aggressively courting his district’s 17 tea-party chapters: “I hope they will judge me not by where I used to live, but by where I stand on the issues,” he says. “And so far that’s borne out to be true.”

Mooney is not one to leave doubts about where he stands. His website promises that, if elected, he will “stand up to the gun grabbers, the radical pro-abortion zealots, the tax hikers and out of control government agencies such as the EPA and IRS.” The Environmental Protection Agency is particularly despised in West Virginia, which comes second only to Wyoming in domestic coal production. The way Mooney sees it, the White House’s attack on coal offers an opening for a straightforward conservative. “Voters don’t want somebody who’s going to be moderate in defending the coal industry,” he says. “They want somebody who’s going to stand up and fight!” Ditto the Second Amendment: “They don’t want somebody who’s going to be moderate in the defense of their Second Amendment rights. . . . A lot of people, that’s the only question they ask: ‘Where do you stand on my Second Amendment rights?’” He refers again to his record: “Judge me by what I’ve done, not just by what I say.”

Mooney’s conservatism extends much further back than his career in Bay State politics. His mother and her family were early opponents of Castro and were imprisoned after the Bay of Pigs (a fiasco that leads her son to dismiss JFK with the one-line verdict, “weak on foreign policy”). Her flight from Cuba eventually led her to the Catholic University of America and to Vincent Mooney, an ROTC student of Irish descent who would earn a Bronze Star in Vietnam.

The second of four children, Alex came of age during the heyday of the Right in American politics: “I know it sounds clichéd, but I grew up with Ronald Reagan as president. . . . I just grew up being told by my parents to honor and respect the president of the United States, and I looked up to Reagan immensely.” His late father set an example of political involvement, running for mayor, volunteering for Reagan’s campaign, and subscribing to National Review. While his dad instilled a love of politics, “my mother made sure we got the faith.” A devout Catholic, Mooney led the pro-life student group at Dartmouth and served as vice president of the Catholic center on campus. Today he describes his faith as “why I do everything I do.”

For Mooney and his wife, that includes homeschooling their two children. Dr. Grace Mooney (herself a daughter of Cuban immigrants) practiced neurosurgery until last year; now she is a full-time mother and teacher to their son, ten, and their daughter, eight. “It’s really a wonderful situation,” Mooney says. “We’ve homeschooled for three years now. My wife’s a dedicated person — she was dedicated to being a doctor when she was pursuing that; now she’s happy, for at least a period of time, to be a full-time teacher, mother, and wife.”

Aside from his family, Reagan, and Winston Churchill (whose years in the opposition offered solace earlier in his career), Mooney names Marco Rubio as a role model. Although he disapproves of the Florida senator’s immigration bill (too weak on enforcement, says Mooney), he sees in Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Ted Cruz a promising trend of principled conservative politicians.

On immigration, Mooney expresses frustration at the Left’s appeals to self-interest: “I feel that folks who immigrate to this country, the moment they get here, are inundated with lies from the Left, that ‘we will take care of you, we’ll give you all this free stuff, Republicans are hatemongers.’” Yet he remains optimistic that newcomers will respond to a truthful alternative: “Somebody has to pay. And actually that’s been said to me by folks who come from other countries, where frankly they’re usually a lot poorer, and if the government gives you something, it’s got to come from somebody else. . . . That system does not work, and they’ve seen that in their home countries.” He concludes that “the role of conservatives is to reach out to all people, regardless of their race, color, or ethnicity, with the message of conservatism.”

As he gears up for the primary, Mooney hopes that voters in his adopted state are ready for that message. “The folks in West Virginia live within their means,” he says. “And they look at the federal government, and they’re spending like drunken sailors! . . . I tell you, the people of West Virginia are very upset with that. And that’s where they want somebody who’s really going to be a fighter.” If this is indeed what West Virginia voters want, then Alex Mooney is poised to deliver.

— Will Allen is an editorial intern at National Review.


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