WV Can’t Wait candidates take next steps toward the November elections
CHARLESTON — While community organizer Stephen Smith did not win the Democratic primary for governor, the movement he helped create saw several candidates continue on to the general election to face entrenched incumbents.
WV Can’t Wait, which united several Democrats, Republicans, Mountain Party members, libertarians and independents, saw more than 43 of its candidates win races on June 9, running on a populist platform to take on the good old boys and lobbyists.
Victories include electing Rosemary Ketchum as the first transgender woman on the Wheeling City Council, re-nominating Morgantown Delegate Danielle Walker as one of five incumbents for the 51st District, a woman of color who received more votes in her race for a second term in the House of Delegates than any other House candidate in both parties, and sending six teachers on to November.
Smith might not be joining his fellow WV Can’t Wait candidates, but he has pride in what the movement has accomplished in its first election.
“I’ve never been prouder to be a part of something in my life than this movement, and I’m not going anywhere,” Smith said. “We’re not going anywhere. The project of winning a people’s government in West Virginia is a worthy project. And one that was always going to take a generation, not an election cycle, and we’re committed to sticking around as long as it takes.”
According to the declared results submitted to the West Virginia Secretary of State, Smith lost to Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango in the Democratic primary for governor by 4 points. Salango received 74,781 votes while Smith received 65,530 votes.
Smith, the founder of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, which has since been renamed Our Future West Virginia, and the Our Children Our Future, started his campaign for governor in November 2018 after the midterm elections.
But Smith set the groundwork for his new coalition early by not focusing the campaign around his name. By calling his campaign WV Can’t Wait, Smith was able to rally different groups, constituencies and candidates under its banner. Smith’s campaign strategy early in the process was recruiting like-minded people to campaign with him and run for office.
“There really is no precedent in West Virginia history for what just happened, that in the last two years, a bunch of volunteers got together and built a political movement and a slate that delivered 46 victories all across West Virginia, every region of the state,” Smith said. “That slate was also more representative of the people West, Virginia than any slate either party has ever put forward.”
The WV Can’t Wait coalition included candidates for federal, state and local candidates. It included candidates for county commissions, magistrate courts, school boards, mayors and councils, the Legislature, the Board of Public Works and Congress.
Every WV Can’t Wait candidate for the U.S. Senate and House of Representative made it through, including Paula Jean Swearengin challenging incumbent Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Natalie Cline for 1st Congressional District to challenge incumbent Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.; and Cathy Kunkel in the 2nd Congressional District to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va.
In the 3rd Congressional District, both Democrats Hilary Turner and Lacy Watson were WV Can’t Wait candidates. Turner, who will face Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., narrowly won the Democratic primary against Watson by 67 votes. Swearengin, Cline, Kunkel and Turner are an all-woman slate of congressional candidates.
“Not only that, every single one of us won our races without taking a dime of corporate PAC money,” Swearengin said in a statement. “We are 100-percent people-funded.”
All of the WV Can’t Wait candidates signed pledges to never take corporate political action committee campaign donations.
“We can’t continue electing leaders whose whole goal is getting paid to do the bidding of the same corporate lobbyists who flood our mountains with drugs and death in exchange for money,” Swearengin said.
During his campaign for governor, Smith broke records for the number of small-dollar donations under $250 each to his campaign. According to his last campaign finance report, Smith raised nearly $1 million for the election year-to-date, or $201, 816 more than Salango. Smith did this without taking out a single loan to fund his campaign, which sits on $111,718 in cash-on-hand.
Smith plans to use leftover campaign donations to help other candidates and keep fundraising to ensure WV Can’t Wait candidates have a fighting chance against the Republican incumbents they face.
“The No. 1 priority before June 9 was to help a whole bunch of candidates with everything we possibly could, trainings, money, field operations, access to social and earned media, and that’s still our No. 1 priority,” Smith said. “I think we’re actually in a particularly good position to do so in the general.”
One area where WV Can’t Wait candidates want to make a dent is the Legislature. Twenty-seven statehouse candidates are part of the WV Can’t Wait movement, three candidates for Senate and 24 candidates for the House of Delegates. Of those races, 13 were in contested party primaries.
After two years of strikes over pay raises and an education omnibus bill that originally had several provisions teachers found to be punitive, such as penalties for striking teachers, removal of seniority, charter schools, and education savings accounts, six teachers won primaries for the Legislature.
Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, is seeking a second term in the 43rd District. A social studies teacher at Elkins High School, Thompson sought public office after the 2017 teachers strike.
He credited the win of WV Can’t Wait candidates with a focus on the needs of local communities versus a Republican legislative majority that has focused more on model legislation and lobbying from advocacy groups from outside the state.
“That’s why I got involved in the first place. I wanted to be a voice for my district,” Thompson said. “So much of the legislation the majority party has passed and pushed through have been attempts by out-of-state corporations and PACs that are pushing big money into pockets. I think (WV Can’t Wait) is taking a step back and saying whoa, let’s focus on West Virginia. What do West Virginians want instead of what out-of-state PACs and organizations want to push their agenda here.”
Smith said that attitude was what helped develop the WV Can’t Wait platform, which developed from 197 town halls and 11,000 conversations with people all over the state starting last summer.
Called the New Deal for West Virginia, the platform focuses on increasing rights for West Virginia workers, greater union protections, increased taxes on out-of-state corporations, increasing the minimum wage, an increased focus on white-collar crime and political corruption, and a state bank to encourage small business ownership. Other planks include fighting for Medicare-for-All, capping prescription drug prices, legalization of recreational cannabis and greater criminal justice reform.
“What you see from our candidates, regardless of what party they’re from, is adherence to the will of the people of West Virginia. And that’s not just a slogan,” Smith said. “What emerged is this policy platform that people across the political spectrum can look at and go, ‘I don’t agree with everything on here, but if we win this, my life is going to get better.’ That’s what politics should be.”
Smith is hoping the populist approach of WV Can’t Wait candidates can appeal broadly to as many West Virginia voters in November as possible. It’s a movement, he hopes, that will have staying power in state politics for years to come.
“We never asked what party are you from, or which national politician you voted for when we ask people what matters to them? Cause we don’t think that that question is worth asking,” Smith said. “In fact, that focus on national politics and giant corporations is exactly what’s wrong with our political system.”
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.