On Election Night, after all of Nicholas County’s 28 precincts had been counted in less than two hours following poll closings, Garrett Cole made the short, two-block trip from the tabulation center to Republican headquarters in Summersville to join supporters in celebrating his victory in the Nicholas County Commission race.
Fellow county resident Caleb Hanna had been watching the votes come in, too. But there was more counting to do in his race. He was the GOP candidate in the House of Delegates’ 44th District, which includes nine precincts in eastern Nicholas County, three in Upshur County, one in Randolph County and all 14 precincts in Webster County, the home turf of his opponent, three-term incumbent Democrat Dana Lynch.
Hanna had built an 801-vote lead over Lynch in Nicholas, Upshur and Randolph counties, but Webster County had not reported its results. For 26 years, the district seat had been held by Webster countians, all of them Democrats.
“Webster County holds their results until all the precincts are in,” he said. “I really wasn’t sure what would happen.”
Growing more anxious by the minute, Hanna decided not to join Cole and others at GOP headquarters.
“I went to McDonald’s (in Summersville) and waited until Webster County came in,” he said.
And when the Webster results were reported, Hanna had not only held on, he expanded his winning margin. He won the county by 434 votes over Lynch. Districtwide, he won with 60 percent of the vote.
Cole, meanwhile, also had a big night. He won the Nicholas County Commission race over Democrat Patricia “Pat” Copley with 69 percent of the vote.
In doing so, the two apparently made history. Hanna is 19 years old, a 2018 graduate of Richwood High School and a freshman economics major at West Virginia State. Cole is 21, a 2015 graduate of Nicholas County High School and a business and economics major at WVU Tech.
Hanna said he had been informed that he will become the youngest African-American to hold office in the United States.
Cole said he believes he is the youngest county commissioner ever elected in West Virginia.
“We both understood the kind of hesitancy people might have with our age,” Cole said. “I felt I could be an asset to the county. My age at first might have been a concern. When it gets down to it, I think people realize age might be important, but at the end of the day, it’s a number.”
In addition to running an active campaign, Cole did his homework on the role of a county commissioner.
“I’ve studied the entire section of the West Virginia Constitution concerning county commissions,” he said. “I’ve talked with commissioners from seven to nine counties. I have all the handbooks from the state auditor on budgets. I studied campaign laws. I’ve attended some commission meetings here and watched others (on Summersville Community Television).
“I’ve already been in contact with Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer and Richwood Mayor Chris Drennen. Both are very willing to work together. I want to be a commissioner for all the people of Nicholas County. That’s what my campaign was about. Now I have the opportunity to put it to use.”
Hanna said he talked with Cole on how their ages could not only play a big role in their campaigns, but a positive one as well.
“I made sure to be very open about my age,” he said. “Experience doesn’t really have a lot to do with it. It’s working your tail off to represent your constituents, and that’s what I plan to do.”
Like Cole, Hanna is not one to let the grass grow under his feet. During his campaign, he put 40,000 miles on his yellow Mustang, reaching every area of the 44th District at parades, fairs and festivals, ramp feeds and candidate forums.
“I also worked a ground game,” he said. “I knocked on a lot of doors, spoke to a lot of voters. I ran my campaign the whole time like I was 10 points behind. I felt if I continued to work hard, I could do it. And a lot of people helped me along the way, getting my message out. You can’t just credit me.”
Hanna said he would remember every step of the campaign.
“The people I met, their stories will stick with me for a lifetime,” he said. “As the election neared, I told myself, ‘Win or lose, I’ve met so many great people.’”
One of the first to congratulate Hanna was Gov. Jim Justice.
“I was really excited to see that Caleb Hanna was elected in the 44th House District,” the governor said the day after the election. “He is a bright young man and I hope he sets the example for more of our young people to seek office and get involved.”
Hanna believes what he and Cole accomplished will set a precedent to get more young people involved in politics and public service.
“You don’t have to run for office,” he said. “The important thing is to get registered to vote. Help your favorite candidate. Politics affects everything you care about.”
"The kind of strength Caleb showed should be an inspiration for anybody who has a heart for southern West Virginia," Cole said.
Cole also had praise for Copley, his opponent in the general election. A former Richwood business owner and world crossbow champion, she defeated incumbent Commissioner Ken Altizer in last May’s Democrat primary.
“Pat ran a very clean campaign, a very good campaign,” he said. “Some of my campaign signs got cut in half, and she offered to fix any sign she found cut in half.”
Commissioner-elect Cole lives in Canvas, just east of Summersville and a place that five generations of his family have called home. His grandfather operated the former Groves Dairy.
At Nicholas County High School, he was a four-term class president. He played soccer for two years, was a two-year president of Interact, a high school version of Rotary, an Eagle Scout and an NCHS basketball radio broadcaster for a year.
In 2016, he was the Nicholas County coordinator for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and was a field representative for Congressman Evan Jenkins’ successful re-election campaign.
Cole filed pre-candidacy papers for the Nicholas County Commission race in June 2017.
“I saw it as an opportunity to get involved in a lot of areas of the community,” he said.
“My main focus is the economic aspect,” he added. “We’ve always been a coal county. And coal has been good to us. But with D.C. politics and the fact that it’s getting harder to produce coal, especially in Nicholas County (where depleting reserves have made it more difficult to mine), it’s important to diversify as much as we can.”
Cole said the county has a “wonderful opportunity” with Patriot Gardens, a $5 million West Virginia National Guard-backed project designed to create an orchard community of “thousands and thousands” of apple trees at an old mine site in the Muddlety area. Down the road, Cole said, it could lead to a food production or distribution facility in the county.
“We’re also sitting on a four-lane highway (U.S. 19) where 20,000 people pass through each day,” he said. “You don’t have to be on that highway long before you’ll see vehicles from Ontario, Pennsylvania, Florida. Just as well as they can drive through here, they can stop here, too. We have a lot of room to make progress. If we can show we’re on the move upward, the more investment we’ll have.”
Cole also wants to improve broadband service and said he would work to try to find more funding for public service district infrastructure needs, volunteer fire departments and the county sheriff’s office.
He lobbied for legislation last winter to give Nicholas County a seat on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System’s Board of Directors.
“If we one day get an ATV trail, I want a trailhead in Richwood,” he said, adding that tourism and outdoor recreational opportunities exist throughout the county.
Cole will officially begin his six-year term in January. He will join Republican Lloyd Adkins and Democrat Lyle Neal on the three-member commission.
“I’m going to be heavily involved,” he said. “We have one big, beautiful county here.”
Cole commutes to his classes at WVU Tech in Beckley. He expects to graduate in the spring of 2020.
He doesn’t see himself as a career politician. But during his time in public office, he plans to go “above and beyond” to help make the county the kind of place where people have every reason to stay, not leave.
“I’m determined to live in Nicholas County the rest of my life,” he said.
Delegate-elect Hanna is from Fenwick, just outside Richwood.
During his four years at Richwood High School, he was a four-time Poetry Out Loud state finalist and a county and regional place-winner in social studies, math and science competitions. He served on student council for four years and was student body president his senior year before graduating summa cum laude.
He was a three-year competitor in track and cross country, and he played one year of basketball and one season of golf. His resume also includes 11 years of 4-H.
“I’ve always followed politics, always been interested,” he said.
As a high school freshman, he began taking college credit courses, just in case he would be elected to office and would have to defer college enrollment for a semester or two.
He also led a voter registration drive among other 18-year-olds at RHS through the nonpartisan Inspire West Virginia program.
“Nicholas County High School had the program, but Richwood High School did not,” he said. “I worked with (RHS teacher) Kayla Thomas to get the program started at Richwood, and we registered 100 percent of the students who were eligible.”
He said he decided to run for the 44th District House seat “because I was not pleased with the leadership our district was getting. My message was that it was time to send a new era of leadership to Charleston, proactive leadership. The people of the 44th District never really had a voice.”
Hanna believes he has a good reading on the district’s needs. He mentioned more vocational training options, better broadband service and water expansion to put the district in a greater position for investment, development and jobs.
He said it was too early to speculate on what committee assignments he would have in the House of Delegates. He said an organizational conference would be held in December.
“I have a few in mind,” he added. “Education would be one.”
He will begin his two-year term with the start of the 60-day legislative session in January. He planned to meet with his academic adviser at West Virginia State to discuss options for the second semester.
He is ready to get started.
“I don’t think January can roll around soon enough,” he said.
At the same time, he doesn’t plan to be a career politician.
“As long as I can help people, I will stick around,” he said. “But at some point, I want to settle down and have a private life.”