It’s been a long time since anything interesting and hopeful came out of the politics of my home state.
From 2000 onward, but especially after Barack Obama’s election, West Virginia took a hard right turn, arguably the hardest and fastest in the whole country. All they did was cut taxes, which was super necessary because there are like nine millionaires in West Virginia who really needed huge tax cuts. Then the state elected a schlubby governor—as a Democrat, but he was a coal operator and had been a Republican, and he switched back to Republican after Donald Trump became president and bear-hugged Trump. To almost everyone’s surprise, Governor Jim Justice has handled the pandemic in the state (not a hotspot, but still) with aplomb. But overall he’s a classic mediocre rich man with a reputation for showing up to the office as infrequently as he can get away with.
All of which is why I wish to introduce you to Stephen Smith, Democratic candidate for governor in the primary that’s coming up on June 9. He’s the kind of candidate you might expect to find in, oh, Colorado, or maybe a New England state, some place with the demographic and intellectual infrastructure to elevate such a candidate. That Smith is tied in the polls is testament to his energy, his creativity—and his intelligence about how to run a race that hasn’t let him be easily put into one of our national ideological boxes.
Smith, 40, was born in Charleston, the capital. His father started the West Virginia Coalition for the Homeless. He went off to Harvard, got married, then moved back to the state and started an anti-poverty organization.
He decided a couple years ago to launch a then-quixotic, left-ish populist campaign for governor. That’s the kind of candidacy that doesn’t usually get very far in a place like West Virginia, but Smith did things differently. He stayed relentlessly local in his focus. He built a movement, West Virginia Can’t Wait, that has thousands of volunteers and has recruited more than 90 other candidates for various offices to join up, provided they pledge never to cross a picket line or take corporate PAC money. He wants to raise teacher pay—and the corporate taxes to pay for it. The national lefties like him—he’s been endorsed by Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution and Elizabeth Warren’s Progressive Change Campaign Committee. He told me he’s happy to have their support, he doesn’t try to distance himself from them—but he also doesn’t go around talking about it much.
“We try not to mess with national politics cause there's just a fact about national politics that’s inescapable in West Virginia, which is that it hasn’t produced for the people of West Virginia in a very long time,” Smith told me Tuesday evening. “And so we made a strategic decision early on that what we were going to build was something authentic. Authentically accountable to West Virginia. And that meant not picking sides nationally and not throwing our weight behind a personality or a celebrity. The way that presidential politics plays out is just disgusting. It’s what’s wrong with politics.”
And how do he and his army talk about Trump, in a state where Trump’s approval rating is a mind-bending 66 percent? “We don’t,” he says. “We don’t think that’s where the answers lie.” He continues: “It's actually one of the things we train our volunteers around. If you want to have a real political conversation with someone, the worst thing you can do is bring up national politics, because people just run into their corners, and they start making quick judgments, and they find the areas of disagreement and lean on them.”
It’s an intriguing, and smart, approach. A candidate with his profile could easily get marginalized in West Virginia. He talks smack on coal operators. He actually talks about the environment. And sometimes both of those at the same time. From his website, under “Protect Our Land and Water”: The coal companies’ “new tactic is to tell us that we are each other’s enemies—coal miner and kayaker, gas worker and public health advocate—because they know that the moment we unite is the moment they’ll have to stop stealing from us. We will demand that any company doing business in our state will leave us better off than we were before they came—not worse.” Stealing!
But he can get away with it, or has so far, because he’s not trying to be the Bernie of the Mountains. “It’s cheap and easy to say, well, we’re like this guy at the national level,” he told me. “And when you do that, yeah, you might find a few people who agree with you. But mostly you telegraph that what you’re doing is not authentically local.”
It’s working. He’s raised $900,000, he says, more than any other candidate in the race, and yes, that’s plenty enough to run a primary in West Virginia. The polls show either a two-way or three-way tie (the other main contender, Ben Salango, is also young but has most of the party establishment support).
West Virginia is an insular and suspicious state, and with good reason. For more than a century, outsiders have plundered its mineral riches and taken most of the profits away. Once upon a dear old time, that led to class consciousness and solidarity. But that eroded starting in the 1980s, and today, thanks to the machines that can slice off the top of a mountain as easily as a toddler might fling away some mashed potatoes with a spoon, a few hundred men can mine the same amount of coal that it took many thousands to decades ago. And the only class consciousness that exists now is the kind Fox News riles up against coastal liberals.
All this is why Smith’s relentless localism seems just the right way to go. If he really can convince the coal miners and kayakers that they’re not each other’s enemy, he’ll point the way to a new politics that can begin to change red America.