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West Virginia Isn’t Just “Trump Country”

Since the 2016 election, West Virginia has been stereotyped as a bastion of Trump supporters. But community organizer Stephen Smith believes that a campaign for economic justice can attract broad support in the state — and he’s running for governor to prove it.

West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith. Ric MacDowell / WV Can't Wait

West Virginia is a state that embodies the tensions and possibilities inherent in the recent antiestablishment turn in American politics: it is a state that voted 68 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, and it is the state that kicked off a national wave of rank-and-file labor militancy in 2018.

And now West Virginia has a candidate for governor in 2020 running an ambitious antiestablishment campaign. Stephen Smith, who has been described by the Intercept as a “genuine populist,” is a thirty-nine-year-old community organizer who is seeking to realign West Virginia politics, not just for one election but for the long haul.

Until very recently, West Virginia’s political establishment was solidly Democratic. The Democratic Party controlled both houses of the state legislature in an unbroken rule from 1932 to 2014. The perceived recent “red” turn in West Virginia politics has been not so much pro-Republican, but rather antiestablishment. In 1998, West Virginia’s registered voters were 63 percent Democrat and 29 percent Republican. By 2019, the fraction of voters registered as Democrats had dropped to 41 percent, but the defectors had largely switched to “no party” (22 percent), with the Republican party at 33 percent.

The seemingly abrupt collapse of the West Virginia Democratic Party in 2014 revealed long-standing contradictions in the party. The party historically drew its organized base of support from industry (particularly coal executives) and labor. With the decline of organized labor in the state over the past thirty years, the party has become more accountable to industry heads. When the Republican Party decided to place the blame for the post-2008 collapse of the West Virginia coal industry on President Obama’s relatively modest attempts to enforce environmental regulations (rather than the reality of competition from the natural gas industry), the West Virginia Democratic Party was unable to respond effectively. Unable or unwilling to throw off its ties to the coal executives and advocate for a true economic transformation of Appalachia that could benefit workers, the state party tried to outdo the Republicans in attacking the so-called war on coal, a losing endeavor.

Smith, who is running as a Democrat, is seeking to appeal to the base of people that the state Democratic Party has largely abandoned. Smith’s campaign points its finger directly at West Virginia’s political elites and their historic and ongoing collusion with outside industry as the source of many of West Virginia’s economic and social ills — an analysis that the West Virginia Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of providing because many of the party’s top leadership are those elites.

His campaign draws a contrast between the leadership of both political parties and everyday West Virginians who are struggling to get by — and fighting back. Smith’s website cites the 2018 school employee strike as one of the factors that inspired him to run.

According to Jessica Salfia, a Berkeley County teacher and volunteer for Smith’s campaign, “Teachers over the last two years have become more politically involved than maybe ever in their lives. Teachers are tired of feeling like they’re not being represented.”

Campaign manager Katey Lauer explains, “So many people have been left out of politics for so long that our potential coalition is enormous.” The challenge is organizing it. “We have a lot of work to do to reach out to folks who believe, for very legitimate reasons, that politics will never serve them and who, for very legitimate reasons, don’t trust the Democratic Party.”

A Thousand Leaders, Not One

This organizing challenge requires the Smith campaign to undertake the work that would normally be done by a political party: building local political infrastructure, supporting down-ballot candidates, constructing a basic political analysis to cohere his supporters, and constructing a platform that is not constrained by the influence of corporate donors (which he doesn’t have).

The Smith campaign is building this infrastructure with the intention that it will last beyond the campaign. His fifty-five county-level field teams are not branded with Smith’s name but rather with the “Can’t Wait” slogan (e.g., “Kanawha County Can’t Wait,” “Braxton County Can’t Wait,” etc.). And they are finding that in many of these counties, simply listening to people is a radical act. Based on fifty-five town halls and thousands of conversations that the field teams will be holding this summer, the campaign will be constructing its people’s platform this fall.

Salfia notes that her Berkeley County Can’t Wait team is made up of “a lot of first-time organizers, first-time political activists . . . And that’s the exciting part of it, to see so many folks showing up who have never been involved in politics before.”

Shalom Tazewell, county captain for Summers County Can’t Wait in southeastern West Virginia, reflected that “so much of the work is all about talking to people and giving people a chance to express their views. People have such a positive response to being asked. Sometimes you can’t always tell if the impact is immediate and direct, but you always have an impact, as long as the conversation is approached positively and with respect.”

West Virginia Can’t Wait is also recruiting down-ballot candidates to run with Smith, united by a pledge whose top item is a commitment to not take corporate cash. The goal is to have West Virginia Can’t Wait slates in every county.

West Virginia Can’t Wait is also attempting, with difficulty, to communicate a different theory of change than one usually finds in electoral politics. Examples from the United States, such as the Richmond Progressive Alliance and Cooperation Jackson, and abroad show that electoral insurgencies to take power from corporate interests succeed when they are backed over the long term by organizations that can hold their elected officials accountable to the movement. This is a theory of change that is loudly embraced by Bernie Sanders but by almost no one else in our political culture, which fetishizes individual candidates as saviors. Nevertheless, the Smith campaign — with its motto of “one thousand leaders, not one” — is doing its best to build movement infrastructure for the long term.

“We say it a lot — that it will take all of us to win a West Virginia that works for all of us. But, more than that, we really build this philosophy into the organizing. Each county has a county captain or a team of them, and they and their team have real autonomy over what they build and what actions they want to take, to really create an organization that is advocating for their county,” says Lauer. Summers County Can’t Wait, for example, has identified substandard low-income housing as a major problem in the community and is organizing to educate renters about their rights.

Smith vs. the Establishment

It is highly likely that, in the Democratic primary, this campaign will go up against the person who epitomizes West Virginia establishment politics: Joe Manchin. Manchin, who won reelection to the US Senate just last year, has publicly stated his interest in returning to West Virginia to campaign for governor.

Manchin has been the state’s most prominent Democratic politician since the death of Senator Robert C. Byrd in 2010. Most of Manchin’s personal wealth derives from his family’s coal brokerage business, which he previously helped run. His second largest campaign donor is Mylan, the company that infamously jacked up the prices of EpiPens and whose CEO is Manchin’s daughter.

As governor of West Virginia, Manchin enacted corporate tax cuts that have since cost the state more than $200 million a year, contributing to multiple state budget crises and cuts to education that striking school employees protested last year. He proposed cuts to business personal property taxes. He oversaw the privatization of the state’s workers’ compensation fund. And, symbolically, he attempted to change the state’s motto from “wild and wonderful” to “open for business,” until popular backlash forced him to reconsider. As governor and then as senator, he doubled down on the Republican Party’s anti-Obama and anti-EPA rhetoric, rather than advancing a proactive agenda to rebuild the state’s economy as the coal industry went bust.

Manchin exercises significant influence over the state party apparatus. His former campaign manager and former chief of staff, Larry Puccio, chaired the state party from 2010 to 2015. Puccio was succeeded by Belinda Biafore, Manchin’s cousin. In 2016, the Democratic Party recruited billionaire coal CEO Jim Justice to run for governor, with Larry Puccio serving as one of his campaign managers. Justice switched parties less than a year after his election. Puccio continued to work as a lobbyist for one of Justice’s coal companies.

Even if Manchin loses the Democratic primary, it is all but certain that he will do his best to influence the outcome of the election — in favor of the Republican. This is exactly what Manchin did in his first gubernatorial bid in 1996, when he lost the Democratic primary to Charlotte Pritt and then orchestrated a campaign of “Democrats for Underwood,” helping to secure a victory for the Republican candidate, Cecil H. Underwood, during the era when Democratic voters in West Virginia outnumbered Republicans two to one.

A contest between Manchin and Smith will draw a line in the sand, forcing those interests that have traditionally adhered to the state Democratic Party’s coalition to decide whether they believe in a party that continues to be dominated by corporate interests or one that seeks to build a genuine popular movement to benefit working people.