Photos by Nicole Craine for The Lily.
For years, Carol Miller drove back and forth to the elementary school in Huntington, W.Va., to teach a class on manners.
“Imagine you’ve been invited for dinner at the White House,” she would say to a classroom full of fifth-graders. The boys were to picture themselves as NBA players; the girls, as ballerinas, summoned by the president to celebrate their success.
Miller would set the school desks just so, with her own cutlery and fine China: salad and dinner fork on one side of the plate, knife and soup spoon on the other. “Always work from the outside, in,” she would tell the class. “And if you ever don’t know what to do, that’s okay — just look at the hostess.”
The 68-year-old congresswoman from West Virginia’s third district — and the only Republican woman elected alongside a suffragette-white-clad crowd of female Democrats — is still known to many in Huntington as “Miss Manners.” She continued her lessons at home, raising her children — two hulking, football-playing sons — to be gentlemen. On a date, they knew to always open the door for the girl and walk closest to the road on the sidewalk, just in case a car jumped the curb.
“I was just trying to give them the tools to become good adults and make our world better.” Miller smiled, wearing her favorite Burt’s Bees cherry lip shimmer, and tucked her smooth blonde hair behind her ear. “I’m a little Pollyanna, I guess.”
In 2016, 73 percent of Miller’s district voted for President Trump over Hillary Clinton, making it one of the most pro-Trump congressional districts in the country. Two years later, Miller’s campaign strategy was to tie her name to Trump’s whenever possible: In the month leading up to the election, over 65 percent of her Facebook posts mentioned the president, his family, members of his administration or #MAGA. “You can always count on me to put America first,” Miller said, standing beside the president at a campaign rally last fall. During the congressional hearing for Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen in February, Miller garnered national attention for her fiery defense of Trump. “I am appalled,” she said. “This is another political game with the sole purpose of discrediting the president.”
Miller has long been surrounded by what she calls “wild hare” men. (Not to be confused with wild-haired men, as she was quick to clarify.) “It’s an old expression,” she says, often used to describe men from the ranches and coalfields of southern West Virginia, where she has lived for 45 years. “They’re ornery, fearless, independent … spit-in-your-eye.”
She married a wild hare, she says, and raised two more. In one of the most hostile congressional races of 2018, she ran against another, a former Trump supporter covered extensively by national media, Richard Ojeda. Now that she is in Washington, she has positioned herself as an ardent supporter of the most famous wild hare in the world. And this puts her in a tough spot. Over the years, Miller has learned to love the men who act on impulse and defy social convention — but she has also spent her whole life sitting them down, looking them square in the eye, and teaching them some manners.
“Carol, we want to hear more about you,” says Annie Dickerson, deputy finance director for President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, on a Thursday afternoon in mid-January. “It’s such a wonderful success story. Because we now want the 2020 class of women coming up to emulate you … and win like you.”
Dickerson leans in toward Miller, and the room — packed with GOP strategists, pollsters and congressional staffers — leans in with her. There are four panelists, all women, sitting on a makeshift stage in this nondescript corporate Washington event space, discussing what Dickerson calls the “icky” number of Republican women in the House of Representatives (13, as many as there were in 1989). Each of the speakers was a Republican candidate in 2018; Miller was the only winner. For the next half-hour, she is peppered with questions about women: how they should fundraise, how they should campaign, how they should balance politics and family.
Everyone is very interested in Miller as a woman. When asked how it feels to be the sole newly-elected woman on the Republican side, she rolled her eyes. “Well that’s sort of been the question, hasn’t it?” It does not feel like much of anything, she said, because she does not know anything different.
“I am a woman. It defines me as far as my DNA, but that’s just who I am. I’ve never made a big deal out of it. I just enjoy being a human being.”
Miller, along with the vast majority of the Republican Party, shirks identity politics. If she were a man, she said, she would be exactly the same kind of candidate, legislator and leader. “Except I might have been 6-foot-3 as opposed to 5-foot-8½.” As soon as the conversation moves away from her own political career, however, Miller is quick to elaborate on how she’s shaped by her gender. Negative ads, she says, are probably harder for women to handle “because of our makeup.” Asked whether she ever drops down into the bullpen at her family farm, alongside her husband, she glances around, confirms no one else is listening, then whispers, “I’m a woman, I’m not going to do that stupid s---!”
Miller said she was raised “to be a lady”: Her father, Samuel Devine, an 11-term Republican congressman from Columbus, Ohio, insisted on it. In the late 1960s, as teenagers across the country were staging protests against the Vietnam War and planning pilgrimages to Woodstock, Miller’s parents enrolled her in ballroom dancing lessons and elocution classes. They signed her up for community socials, where she would mingle with shiny-shoed boys from their leafy, well-to-do suburb.
After Miller’s older sister went to college at Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, and came home a liberal, Devine decided his youngest daughter would not be taking the same path. “He wanted me to go to a more conservative area,” said Miller. “He was more comfortable with Southern values.” Devine sent Carol to Columbia College, a small women’s college in South Carolina, where she lived in a suite with three other girls and a “housemother.”
As soon as Carol met Matt Miller — who had grown up in Huntington — during her junior year at Columbia, she could tell he was different from the other guys she knew.
“Carol is never going to poke anyone in the eye ... but I might,” Matt says, chuckling to himself. “Oh boy, I might.” The “wild hare” gene goes way back in the Miller family, Matt says. And while Carol has tried to “tone it down” in their two sons, Chris and Sam, they still have it.
Earlier this month, Chris Miller, Carol’s oldest son, flew to the Westgate Resort and Casino in Las Vegas to participate in his first amateur boxing match, facing an opponent under bright floodlights. His wife, dad, uncle and brother all went to watch. His mother wanted nothing to do with it.
“I told him, ‘I really like your arms ... I love your kidneys ... I worked really hard on your brain,’” Carol said, shaking her head.
When Chris was little, Carol used to chase him around the house with a plastic spoon, a “punishment” that usually led to the two of them rolling around on the ground, belly laughing. The boys sometimes tried their mother’s patience, sneaking out late at night to TP the neighborhood and, later, hiding cases of beer beneath the eaves in their attic. But they also knew where she drew the line, said Carol’s younger son, Sam — and they rarely crossed it: “You just always knew: Don’t do this. And if you do, here’s gonna be the result,” he said.
Now that her sons are in their late thirties and early forties, heading up the Miller family’s chain of car dealerships, Carol has a little less control. When one does something she wishes they wouldn’t — like sign up to fight in Vegas, or dress up like “Donaldt Rump” in a commercial for the dealership — she will often look over at his wife, if she’s around, and throw her hands in the air.
“I’m sorry,” she’ll say. “I tried.”
The Millers own one of the only bison farms in West Virginia. Twenty minutes off the main road, up and over and around a succession of dips and humps deep in the Appalachian Mountains, they keep their herd of buffalo — as many as 100 at a time — penned in a pasture with electric wire. “But you have to be careful,” Carol says. “They’re wild. There’s no fence that can hold them in.”
Carol and Matt started their farm with a couple of horses and a butterscotch-colored cow, but Matt wanted more of a challenge. In 1994, they bought some bison from a ranch in Ohio — five females and one bull — and watched the herd grow. There was something captivating about an animal that, 500 years ago, roamed freely across the United States by the tens of millions. As Carol walks along the perimeter, one takes off toward the edge of the fence, and the others, each some 1,500 pounds, stampede after him. The earth shakes, even from 30 yards away.
Bison were at the fore of Carol’s congressional campaign. Her campaign logo, plastered on yard signs and bumper stickers all over the district, featured a black-and-white drawing of a bison head. She shot many of her campaign commercials at the farm, bison pen in the background. “Cut the bull. Build the wall. Put America first,” she says at the end of one ad, crossing her arms in the oversize dark-green jacket she usually wears on the farm, as the bison sketch reverse fades onto the screen.
In the run-up to the election, national media flocked to Ojeda, Miller’s opponent. He appeared on CNN, MSNBC and PBSNewsHour and toured West Virginia coal towns with filmmaker Michael Moore. An outspoken former paratrooper from Logan, the coal-mining capital of West Virginia, who voted for Trump in 2016, he seemed like he might have the secret blueprint for “how a Democrat can win in Trumpland”: He said whatever he felt like saying, drawing comparisons to the president.
“I will not shut up for nobody,” Ojeda told Moore. “And I don’t give a s--- who you are; I’ll fight you in the damn street right now.”
Ojeda seemed to love the campaign trail; Miller hated it. Everything about the act of campaigning felt unnatural to her. It was rude to ask people for money. It was rude to insult someone in public, even ruder to do it on TV. It was not until the end of the election that she caved to pressure from her staffers and agreed to counter Ojeda’s throng of attack ads with a few of her own.
When national media would contact Miller, asking to talk to her about Ojeda, she would always turn them down. She was not eager to talk to local media, either, especially after the Herald-Dispatch, her hometown paper, endorsed Ojeda. Throughout the general election, Miller only agreed to a handful of media interviews, choosing to end one with the Charleston-Gazette Mail 14 minutes early, when reporter Jake Zuckerman asked her to respond to one of Ojeda’s negative attacks.
“I don’t want to talk about what my opponent may or may not say about me. That is his business; that is not who I am,” Miller said. “It was great talking to you, Jake. I’ve got to go.”
Miller decided not to debate Ojeda, who responded by filming himself asking people around the district whether they had seen Miller, accusing her of being “in hiding” and pushing the hashtag #WheresCarol. When Miller spoke to Ojeda for the first time, at a parade on the 4th of July, Miller and her staffers told me, he called out to her from 15 feet away. “Hey Carol, they want us to debate.” She turned around, smiled, and said, “Thank you for letting me know.”
“I’m sure some people thought I was shy or backwards or something,” she says, but she did not care. It would not have been “constructive” for her and Ojeda to debate each other, or even to be in the same room together, because they were led by “different compasses.”
“His manner and mine are so different,” Miller explains. “My gift is to listen, as opposed to talk, talk, talk.”
Miller entered the West Virginia House of Delegates in 2006 — where she served as a state representative for 12 years — because her community was, quite literally, dying. After the major employers around Huntington — the steel mill, the railroad-car factory, the nearby coal mines — downsized or closed down completely, young people fled the area in droves. Many who stayed behind became addicted to opioids, making the city of Huntington “Ground Zero” for the opioid crisis. Cabell County, where Miller lives, has the highest opioid-related overdose death rate of any county in the country.
The single issue that means the most to Miller is something most people have never heard of: “justice reinvestment.” It is a movement — which Miller helped lead in its early stages while in the state House — to enroll low-level drug offenders in drug recovery and rehabilitation programs as they serve out their sentences. The idea brought Miller national recognition from nonpartisan advocacy groups working on criminal justice, but it did not always sit well with her Republican colleagues.
“There will always be some people who want to lock [drug-offenders] up and throw away the keys,” she said. “But we can’t have everyone in jail. Some of them just need good counseling and a second chance.”
Miller wishes Congress would spend more time talking about the opioid crisis. But even in her district, where almost everyone is affected, it is usually not a top priority. Miller’s campaign team decided against running TV ads on the opioid crisis, instead opting for messages that would score higher with potential voters: Making English the national language. Ending trade deals that send jobs overseas. Building the wall.
The three-layer coconut cream pie arrives just as the conversation turns to the president. There are more than a dozen people — the mayor of Milton, W.Va., his wife, and a group of other locals — gathered around a table at Shonet’s, a neighborhood diner known for its homestyle turkey and dressing. Miller flashes her iPhone screen around to show everyone the photo: It’s of her and Trump, walking on the tarmac from Air Force One to a Huntington campaign rally. She is wearing a string of pearls and a Make America Great Again hat.
“Did he like the hat?” someone asks.
“Oh, he loved the hat,” Miller says.
As she describes every detail of meeting with the president that day — the whipping wind, her messy hair, watching Air Force One emerge from the clouds and swoop down on the Huntington airport — the table is listening to every word.
Trump is still wildly popular in West Virginia. He has a higher approval rating there than in any other state, save one (Wyoming). He has visited West Virginia nine times since taking office; President Obama visited three times in eight years.
Many in West Virginia’s Third District will offer the same simple narrative to explain Trump’s popularity: Obama killed coal — the economic core of what has become one of the poorest states in the country — and Trump brought it back. It is not exactly that simple — only 2,000 new coal jobs have been created since Trump took office, a change some economists say isn’t statistically significant. But many of Miller’s constituents feel that, with Trump, they are at least moving in the right direction.
But there is something else, too. “He says what he means,” Miller said.
It’s a personality trait that, on Trump’s best days, means straight talk on the issues that matter most to West Virginia working families. On his worst, it means cruel, ad hominem attacks on Twitter and crude statements about women captured on video.
When asked how she feels about the statements Trump makes sometimes — the ones that are, quite indisputably, impolite — Miller hesitates. Tom Moran, her communications director, walking beside her, tries to pivot to a different question.
“What I will say is this: I am in charge of what I say,” Miller says, glancing over at Moran. “I don’t know how to reword that... I am more interested in the policy coming out of the White House than the words.”
“Is that better, Tom?”
A few days earlier, Chris and his wife, Cassie, discussed how their mom — “Miss Manners” — has come to align herself so completely with Trump.
“I mean, sometimes you have to play the game a little,” Cassie says.
On Capitol Hill, one unseasonably warm day in early February, Congresswoman Miller has a packed schedule, power-walking in her favorite tennis shoes from a Mongolian new year celebration to an NAACP meeting to a conversation with West Virginia police officers, flanked by her highest-level aides. She sees her top staffers — mostly 20- and 30-something men — as her kind of surrogate children, she tells me. They are just a little younger than Chris and Sam.
“Like a mom, she doesn’t get mad — just a little annoyed,” says Matthew Donnellan, Miller’s chief of staff, as he sets out the two lunch options he has selected for his boss: chili and minestrone soup.
“These all have beans in them,” Miller says, shaking her head. “Beans are rude. You don’t eat beans in public.”
She proceeds to eat them both.