Curtis Tate Published

Emmett Pepper Came Back To Charleston For Work And Family. Now He's On The City Council

Emmett Pepper.jpg

Charleston attorney Emmett Pepper spent 12 years away from the city where he grew up.

Already active in the community, he’s taken a seat on the city council, though under tragic circumstances.

He was appointed to fill the vacancy created when his friend and mentor, John Kennedy Bailey, was killed in an accident in September when a tree fell on his car on Greenbrier Street. Pepper said he’s honored to continue Bailey’s legacy.

In the meantime, he’s continued his work arguing on behalf of West Virginia ratepayers at the Public Service Commission. He also helps lower income residents get financial assistance to make their homes more energy efficient.

Pepper spoke with me in the council chamber last month about why he left West Virginia, and why he came back. He also told me what his experience living in other parts of the country and visiting other countries changed about the way he saw his hometown.

So you grew up in West Virginia, right?

“I grew up in Charleston, I lived on the west side. I lived in Cross Lanes. I lived on the East End. And I graduated from George Washington High School. So I lived in the South Hills, too. And now I live on the East End. I went to college at Virginia Tech down in Blacksburg, Virginia. And after graduating, I ended up working in Richmond, and for some grassroots campaigns, and, and then moved to the northeast living in New York and Connecticut, working there for a grassroots organization called Citizens Campaign for the Environment.”

How long were you in the Northeast?

“So in 2008, I decided I wanted to go to law school, for some reason at the age of 30. And so I ended up going to law school in Washington, D.C., at American University, and graduated from there in 2012. And came back.”

Was there a specific opportunity that brought you back?

“I think like a lot of people, the reason I moved back was jobs. I had a job that I was able to come to here working for the Supreme Court, and family. My father still lives here. A lot of family in the area. My brother lives here. And so I live near my family. And it’s nice now raising my own family here.My three-year-old gets to see his grandfather. So it’s really nice to have that support network and to have that connection to a place.”

How do you feel about your appointment to the council?

“There’s a lot of emotions swirling around with being on City Council. The main one is that I’m honored and excited about the work. But of course, the circumstances are difficult. I considered him to be a mentor. He helped me. He was instrumental in creating the green team, which is a citizen-led group of volunteers to help find solutions for making the city more sustainable. We got through one policy related to energy efficiency for the city together and we were planning to do more work on recycling, and we’re already doing work on that. And I was really honored that the mayor and his widow both gave their vote of support for me to be appointed. It’s not something I sought. But when I was asked, of course, I felt honored and really just wanted to help burnish his legacy and continue the work I was already doing in the green team.”

How did living away from West Virginia help you see it differently?

“I think living somewhere else, and actually, even traveling somewhere else is so important to just getting some perspective on life. It was really formative for me to go to Europe, and to just see other people’s experience, and what it is to be human is different there than it is here. I lived in the Bronx, in New York. That was a very different experience from living in Charleston. And I’ll admit, growing up in Charleston, the one of the criticisms from people who live in other parts of West Virginia is the people from Charleston feel insular. I will admit, I have not spent as much time outside of the city, and around the state as I would like, since I moved back, I’ve done more of that. It’s something that I think is needed: For people to get around this state and to see the different ways of living in our state. Living somewhere else, you can get a perspective on your home in a way that you can just visiting somewhere else. And so I’ve noticed that a lot of the people who are involved and active in West Virginia, a lot of times are either people from other places or who have lived in other places. And that’s not always true, but it often is true. And and and I think that’s because it because of that perspective, and I’m actually really impressed when there’s people who have lived here all their lives who can still get that perspective because that even that speaks even more so to their abilities to to be able to think outside of the box and then to see the possibilities out there, which is harder if you haven’t experienced it firsthand.”