I haven’t lived in West Virginia for a long time, but if you ask me today I still say that’s where I’m from. It’s the place that, more than anywhere else, made me who I am and helped me figure out what I cared about.
West Virginia has long been the poster child for states which are hurting or backward or down on their luck. There are some heavy stereotypes which come with all of that — and there’s a lot of misleading broad-brush painting when even the most sympathetic folks talk about its nature and its plight — but there’s a lot of truth too. I love my home state, but I also hurt when I see how much it and its people hurt. I want better for West Virginia.
Last night I met someone who wants better for it too. He’s the first person who’s come along in a long, long time who seems to understand how to make things better too. His name is Stephen Smith and he’s running for governor in the 2020 election.
Smith is running hard now, early, because he has to. He has to because he’s decidedly not the hand-picked choice of the Democratic Party establishment to take on incumbent Republican Jim Justice. When you listen to him speak, as I did last night, you quickly understand why.
Smith’s aim is not merely to put an end to Republican rule in West Virginia. It’s to end more than a century’s worth of exploitation of West Virginia’s people, its wealth and its resources at the hands of wealthy, largely outside-the-state interests. Businessmen, landowners and extractive businesses who have treated West Virginia as their personal piggybank but who have no stakes in its people, its future or its prosperity. It’s a system of exploitation that was just as prevalent during the 80 years when the Democratic Party dominated state politics as it has been under the relatively recent phenomenon of Republican dominance. Its a system that the current Democratic establishment, led by former governor and current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, has shown no interest in fighting.
Smith’s argument is that West Virginia’s problems are not a function of Democrats vs. Republicans. Not a matter of the left vs. the right. Rather, “it’s the good old boys versus the rest of us.” Smith says to, “find the West Virginians who are working the hardest and hurting most — that’s whose side we’re on.” That side is not one anyone in power or most of the people seeking to take power in West Virginia have cared too much about, historically. As such, when you’re aligned against both the Republican and the Democratic establishment as Smith is, you have a tough fight on your hands. They’re backed by powerful, wealthy forces.
Smith, however, has some things working for him.
Chief among them is organization. Smith has spent 20 years as a community organizer, running the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. Such work is not done from an office in Charleston. Most of it is done on a hyper-local level. It’s the sort of work that lends itself to local organization and such organization has been the core element of his campaign.
Already, more than a year-and-a-half before the 2020 election, Smith has recruited campaign captains in each of West Virginia’s 55 counties and has recruited 41 down-ballot candidates at the local and county levels to help spread his message. By the end of May he expects to have visited every single county in the state. That early work has already led to a network of volunteers and donors that, in numbers, are several times larger than his closest competitors. In a state where candidates tend to rely on a few TV commercials, a few mailers and the belief that West Virginians will simply do what they’re told by the people in power, Smith’s campaign has a remarkably uncommon energy that is sure to work to its advantage. West Virginians are hungry for candidates who will listen to them and talk to them rather than talk at them, patronize them and take them for granted.
The message, obviously, is just as important as the organization.
Smith is not afraid to speak frankly about class. About race. About people taking that to which they are entitled as citizens as opposed to politely asking those who have taken so much from them already to kindly give a little back if they can be bothered to do so.
His campaign appearance last night began with a video referencing the Battle of Blair Mountain in which striking miners took up arms against coal companies, bought-and-paid for sheriffs, strikebreakers and their hired guns. He talks about how he worked personally to help aid striking teachers during the 2018 work stoppage who, like the miners at Blair Mountain, wore red bandanas when they marched (he handed out red bandanas to people in attendance last night). He notes that some of those miners and some of those teachers were Democrats, some Republicans, some independents and some apolitical. He notes that the miners who took up arms and the teachers who hit the picket line were white and black. He notes that the majority of striking teachers were women. The common thread was that the wealthy and powerful will do anything they can to divide and exploit those who are less powerful, but that when the less powerful band together they can take back what is rightfully theirs.
Smith minces no words when he says how to do that:
- Smith notes that, despite the general belief of how poor West Virginia is, West Virginia is actually experiencing its highest-ever level of GDP per capita. The problem is that that prosperity is sharply inequitable. To fix that he intends to raise taxes on the rich — especially on out-of-state landowners — and cut taxes on the poor;
- He wants to create a Works Progress Administration to help rebuild West Virginia roads, water and internet infrastructure which has gone neglected by both Charleston and Washington for too long;
- He supports Medicare for All;
- He supports a woman’s right to choose and vows to work hard for reproductive choice;
- He wants to fight, rather than ignore, the growing wave of white nationalism in this country with a multi-racial political grassroots that shows hate is a minority viewpoint in America;
- He wants to fight the opiate epidemic, which has hit West Virginia harder than any other state, as the health crisis that it is rather than just the latest front in the War on Drugs, and he wants Big Pharma to underwrite that fight.
All of these are things which make perfect logical sense but which, for whatever reason, political candidates are afraid to say out loud. Probably because they get most of their support from the wealthy interests who have taken for so long and stand to lose when the people stand up and fight for themselves. Or because they are simply afraid to fight those interests.
I’m a politically outspoken person. Anyone who reads this site knows that. I’m not, however, a person who has worked for campaigns, donated in any great amount to campaigns or who has spent much time advocating for a specific candidate. That’s probably because I care deeply about a certain set of ideas and values and, in my lifetime, it has been extraordinarily rare to find candidates who share those ideas and values in more than the most temporary or tangential of ways.
That has changed with respect to the 2020 West Virginia gubernatorial race. I am supporting Stephen Smith, both with my time, my effort and my money. I’d ask that, if you share these ideas and values, that you consider supporting him too. I’d ask that you do that whether or not you’re from or whether or not you live in West Virginia. I ask that because if Smith’s organizational model, his energy and his message can win the day in West Virginia, it’ll be proof that they can win anywhere.
And God knows we need more of that everywhere.