20-something David Felinton is the kind of guy you probably already met at a college party: a super mediocre student, he flunked 10th grade and was suspended many times "for being a bad ass". He picked up a possession of marijuana charge a few years ago while catching some rays in Ocean City, Md. While he has spent time as a substitute teacher, he never held a full-time job . . . until now. Felinton is the Mayor of Huntington, W.Va... Felinton, a Democrat, ran against the 73 year old Republican incumbent, Jean Dean. Dean pretty much fell asleep at the wheel, remaining silent as the interstate was constructed to pass by the city. Huntington’s population free-falled from nearly 100,000 to 52,000. Dean remained silent as industries packed up and left town. Felinton came up with some solid economic development ideas and figured the city couldn’t get any worse.
But Felinton is no born-to-the-manor Kennedy: nobody in his family has ever served in public office and he comes from a middle-class background in suburban Baltimore. He continued to live a frugal existence before he was sworn into his $62,000 a year job; if Felinton broke a shoelace, he’d get pretty upset about it.
West Virginia has many economic problems: the coal mines are stripped, the glass mills have shut down, many uneducated folks. How do you plan to solve Huntington’s problems?
David Felinton: We’re a little bit different here in Huntington. We have Marshall University, which has 13,000 of educated people. Huntington is located on the Ohio River right where the trains meet the water. It’s a major train center. But, our population has dropped from 100,000 to 52,000. Our infrastructure is for 100,000 and we can’t afford it. One of my plans is to give up our airport, which is not equipped for major travel anyway, and have a new one built halfway to Charleston, which is 40 miles away. It’ll be new and better equipped to handle business flights in.
What errors did your opponent make that helped you get elected?
David Felinton: There was a perception that she took care of the wealthiest people in town. She was only seen in certain parts of the city; while I talked to everybody. I have 52,000 bosses now. In this job, you’re not above anybody. She’s 73 and has a British accent, which came off as elitist.
You’ve said regarding campaigning, "It’s a balance of money and time . . . that if you don’t have one, you have to compensate with the other." Did you have a lot of time on your hands?
David Felinton: Well, I had been substitute teaching. In the last few months before the elections, I wasn’t able to, I wasn’t working. I didn’t have as much money, but the sacrifices were worth it. My father lent me some money. I have a lot of discipline, which will help when I’m in office. I watched the long-distance bills, there wasn’t a lot of eating out. I lived like a college student for years, I bought my little groceries and ate in. I’m very conservative with money.
You raised $5,000 in fund-raisers. Tell me about that.
David Felinton: I had one fund-raiser! I didn’t even raise $1,500. The Democratic Women’s Club really supported me, they actively took me under their wing. They took me to meet people. I invested in signs. That definitely adds credibility. Individuals contributed to my campaign. The big money people have to give me more respect now. Without money, you gotta get as much free publicity as you can.
You had to repeat 10th grade and were suspended on several occasions for being a "bad-ass". What is the secret of your success?
David Felinton: Never give up! Make the most of every opportunity you have. You don’t want to step on people on the way. I didn’t underestimate the people without much money.
You’ve been arrested for possession of pot. Did that come up during your campaign? How do you feel about how personal lives of politicians being reported?
David Felinton: It’s part of the job. It didn’t even come up during the campaign -- the local newspaper didn’t take me seriously enough.
In Huntington's Herald Dispatch, they endorsed Jean Dean overwhelmingly and they hardly mentioned you at all. How will you deal with harsh editorials?
David Felinton: That was after their debate. They had this debate, so I called them and I wanted to know the rules, what they wanted to cover. They wouldn’t tell me the rules! So, I wouldn’t participate. They endorsed her and praised some write-in candidate to no end. I can’t even say what I think of the write-in candidate, other than the citizens are lucky they didn’t elect him. I have a much better relationship with the newspaper now. They have shown signs that they are going to treat me more fairly. And they know, there’s another paper just over in Charleston. If they don’t, I will just go to them and they know it.
What kind of advice do you have for young people?
David Felinton: Don’t think that politics is out of reach. I didn’t have any connections. I have been in Huntington for 6 years, 5 were in college. Young people need to vote. I had lots of help from university students. They didn’t realize their vote would count.