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Running for Governor of West Virginia, Stephen Smith visits Rhode Island



“I’m exhausted by a politics that says it’s our job as the citizenry is to go up to the capitol and try to get people to listen to us. The idea of the campaign is to instead of doing that, instead of trying to get them to listen to us, let’s try to replace them with us.”

West Virginia, says 39 year-old Democrat Stephen Smith, who is running a grassroots, ground up campaign for Governor, is thought of as a red state, a state where the people vote against their own interests, yet, “for 80 years Democrats have held power in West Virginia, and the lives of poor and working people got worse. Especially over the last 20 and 30 years. That is a fact. So when you have a vast array of voters abandoning a party, the best thing to do is not to say, ‘Y’all don’t know what’s going on,’ – but to listen. And if you listen to West Virginians, the people who put them in the dire straits we’re talking about were mostly Democrats.”

Smith was in Providence at the home of a college friend, fundraising and raising awareness about his campaign. He showed this video to the thirty or so people in attendance:

West Virginia is know for a lot of negatives. Obesity, teen pregnancy, opioid addiction and overdoses, lowest percentage of higher education degrees, a hopeless attachment to the coal industry…

“The story is that we are a place that is hurting, and that we’ve done this to ourselves,” said Smith. “At best, that’s half the story. West Virginia is number one in the amount of time we spend with our neighbors, we’re at or near the top of the list in charitable giving, in volunteer service, in military service, in the time we spend with extended family, and we are the state that sparked the nationwide teachers and school personnel strike…

“In West Virginia, our overdose death rate is one and a half times higher than the second highest state.

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“Is the West Virginia Attorney General joining the lawsuit against the Purdue Pharma?” I asked.

“He’s owned by the pharmaceutical industries,” replied Smith. “I don’t know the specifics. He knows that he has to do some cosmetic things, so he sort of shows up every now and then, but he’s completely in the pocket of big pharma.”

West Virginia is experiencing a population decline of about 41 people per day, “because there’s an obscene and horrible amount of misery,” said Smith. “There’s no one the drug crisis hasn’t affected. In a first grade classroom… you’re more likely to find a child who will grow up and overdose than a child who will be a doctor.”

“The conventional wisdom in West Virginia is that the Democratic Party can’t win the governor’s race in 2020,” says Smith. In order to bring about the change that Smith wants, he needs to not just be elected Governor, he needs a slate of people to run for office at every level of government.

“We think winning the Governor’s office is actually the wrong goal. The goal is to capture the government, and you need a legislature, and you need a governor, and you need people up and down the ballot, to be able to tackle these massive problems like reorganizing the economy. One person in one office can’t do that by themselves.

“I’ve spent my career, since I was 18 years old, working in jobs like this,” continued Smith, “where the job is half organizing local people to solve their own problems and half organizing local people to keep politicians from hurting them. It has made me completely faithful about the potential of everyday citizens to solve their own problems. I’m exhausted by a politics that says it’s our job as the citizenry is to go up to the capitol and try to get people to listen to us. The idea of the campaign is to instead of doing that, instead of trying to get them to listen to us, let’s try to replace them with us.”

If West Virginia taxed the richest at the same level as the rest of the state, Smith estimates the the state would have an extra $525 million to work with.

“A lot of the systems of government in West Virginia, whether it’s the education system, the health care system or higher education, have been starved over the last couple of decades,” said Smith. “This is the way one brand of government works: You starve something until it’s almost dead, then you blame it for being almost dead, and then you starve it some more.”

“I noticed that in your presentation tonight you didn’t mention the big, hot button, almost intractable, nuanced issues like abortion, guns, health care or climate change,” I said.

“Our campaign unapologetically supports single payer insurance, whatever the best version of that we can get,” said Smith. “If the best version is Medicare for All we support Medicare for All. It means finding Congressional candidates we can support. But it also means figuring out how we can get as close to it as possible if we don’t get Medicare for All at the Federal level. Getting single payer at the state level is difficult to do but possible.

“What we actually think about what have become known as these traditional hot buttons issues, these wedge issues, is that there’s a whole lot less disagreement than there appears to be. Some of the disagreement is sport. It’s a way for this drama to play out – red team vs blue team – Democrat vs Republican – you’re the worst, no you’re the worst – yet, even these issues that appear from the outside to be totally intractable, there are ways for people to see them for how they really are.

“For instance,” continued Smith, “even on an issue like abortion, we have pro-life leaders inside of our campaign, even though I have a public record of standing up for the right of working women and rural women to choose. The reason is that we have pro-life people who may disagree with us on when viability happens or on strictly abortion policy – but they’re just as fed up as so-called pro-choice people about the way that rural women, working class women [and] children are treated.

“We can either spend all of our time fundamentally disagreeing about viability, and the week and all of that, or we can spend some of our time fundamentally disagreeing about that, and the vast majority of our time solving problems of like, 7000 children in foster care in West Virginia or what would it look like if the access to health care and educational opportunities and economic opportunities were so abundant in West Virginia for rural women and working class women that the abortion rate and the unplanned pregnancy rate went down anyway.

“That possibility, that government could get us something that could actually make things better, rather than just be a stage for this drama to play out, that’s a pretty exciting opportunity.

“Even on an issue like guns…”

“Like an assault weapon ban?” I interrupted. “It would seem to me that in a rural area like West Virginia that would be a pretty hard sell.”

“I think that would be true,” replied Smith. “But a way in for a campaign like ours is that the policy that is currently being made in the West Virginia State House is not pro gun owner, it’s pro gun company. Even on the issue of guns, what we have is a corporate lead policy that claims to represent gun owners, but if it did, [my campaign] wouldn’t have a gun owner constituency team in our campaign that says ‘We aren’t being represented. Our interests, as people who use guns in a safe way, or we use guns because it makes us and the people in our communities feel safer -‘

“There are gun owners in West Virginia who are absolutely not represented by the NRA or the pro-gun company lobby and there’s an opportunity there for people to come together and create gun laws that make us fundamentally safer while also protecting the right of people to defend themselves. And part of the reason that is a fundamental thing in West Virginia is that a lot of us have family members who can remember a time when people actually did have to defend themselves from company rule. 100 years ago, the Federal Government was dropping bombs on mine workers in West Virginia. So the right to bear arms is in some ways a fundamentally different thing in an area that has that history. There are ways for us to come together and find the right answers rather than handing our politics over to the gun companies.”

Stephen Smith and family

“I believe climate change is real,” said Smith. “I will probably be the only serious candidate in the 2020 West Virginia gubernatorial race that runs on things like having safe drinking water and clean land…

“You have water issues out there right now?” I asked.

“Oh my gosh yes,” said Smith. “Water and roads are probably the two number one infrastructure issues. West Virginia is one of the last state legislatures to approve the water protections recommended by the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You can imagine that these have already been watered down. This is the Trump EPA. So the new rules go to the committee, and the West Virginia Manufacturing Association shows up, and the argument they make is that West Virginians are overweight, so we can handle more toxins in our water.

“Wow,” was all I could say.

“So the most remarkable thing, in my opinion, about this story is that that argument worked,” continued Smith. “This is what politics is. Politics is not an intelligent argument between two sides. It’s a contest for power. It didn’t matter what the head of the Manufacturing Association said, it wasn’t about convincing people of stuff. It was an exercise in power.

“We actually believe that the energy economy in West Virginia positions us well to transition us to energy economies that will help us fight climate change and that we have the experience already of taking an energy economy and turning that energy economy into one that serves and creates middle class jobs.

“One of the most frustrating things to me is when national politicians wag their fingers at coal miners and say ‘You’re never going to have a job that pays that well again. You need to just suck it up,'” continued Smith.

“Screw you. They earned that. In the wealthiest time in United States history, we should all be able to live with dignity. So workers are absolutely right to be angry with national Democrats that say, ‘We’ll train you for a job that pays one/third as much,’ and they’re right to be mad at Republicans who say, ‘Don’t worry, against all evidence that you’ve seen your entire life, these coal jobs are coming back. Coal miners know better than anybody that the workforce employed by coal has been declining for a long time. What a lot of us are saying in West Virginia is, ‘Let’s take the lesson from coal mining and make all of these jobs jobs that you can raise a family on.”

Smith’s movement, “West Virginia Can’t Wait,” has adopted the red bandanas worn by striking coal miners in the 1920s and the striking teachers this year.

“With the new identification of your movement with the red bandana, it seems like you’re resurrecting the old time lefty progressive values of the early 20th century,” I suggested.

“I think a lot of the ways progressivism plays out now is a bunch of experts coming up with the solutions for everybody else,” said Smith, who seemed uncomfortable with the word progressive. “What the roots are in West Virginia is a deep faith that only the people are qualified to govern. And at the moments when we take power into our own hands, that’s when the most powerful transformation will happen. Change happens. So, yes, we are tapping into that and West Virginia has a proud history. The reason why there’s a West Virginia is because during the Civil War, a big chunk of Virginia said ‘No, we are not seceding, we are setting up our own Virginia with a separate capitol, and we’re staying, as part of the union.’

“During the Black lung Strikes of the late 60s, when this horrible thing was happening to working people, it was West Virginia that said, “No. This is a protection that we demand and deserve.’ And then again 50 years later with the teachers and school service personnel. So that tradition, we think, is far deeper than the current popularity of the President.”

“You called that populism,” I noted. “A lot of people think of Trump as a populist.”

“I know,” said Smith ruefully. “It’s a total misunderstanding of the term.”

“So are you talking about socialism?” I asked. “Economic democracy?”

“The way we talk about what we’re doing is first of all, it’s a question, not a dogma,” replied Smith. “And the question is: What would it look like if we had a people’s government? A government where the people who were hurting the most and working the hardest were in charge. A government where the people in pain were the ones in power. And that to me is fundamentally different than the word socialism or progressive or economic democracy because all of those start as ideologies, rather than starting from the individual experiences of people in pain.”

“Speaking of pain and Trump,” I said, “is white nationalism something West Virginia has to deal with?”

“We deal with it across the country,” said Smith. “In moments where government is failing people in American history, there are two streams that then become attractive to the electorate. One stream i white nationalism and overt white supremacy that says that the enemy are Jews and people of color. That’s the worst of America.

“The alternative, in moments of great crisis and failure by the government, is that we also have our best moments when people join together across race and across religion and advance the country – often in leaps and bounds in short periods of time because the people rarely have control over the levers of government, so when we do, we make all kinds of big things happen. – the New Deal, the Civil Rights generation – there are these moments, these flash points, where lots of things become possible all at once because the failure of the government leads to a multiracial coalition seizing the reigns of government.”

“That ‘s the moment we’re in and West Virginia is place where this decision is going to get made,” said Smith. “It’s not going to get made, we don’t think, in big cities or on the coast. It’s going to be made in places like West Virginia where the pain is so acute, that either we’ll be the place continues to venture into this horrible path of corporate white nationalism, or we’ll be the place that models what it looks like when the people have control and the wealth of the state ends up in the hands of the people that created that wealth.”

Here’s video of Stephen Smith pitching his ideas at the event in Providence:

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Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading.