Powered by the People
Written for The Intercept by Aída Chávez
A Genuine Populist Is Running for West Virginia Governor. His Donor Rolls Broke the State’s Campaign Finance Software.
When Stephen Smith’s campaign sought to present its 62-page finance filings to the West Virginia secretary of state, something went wrong. During the online submission process, the software broke down.
“They had to call in the people who actually created the software because the file was too big to load,” said Smith.
The breakdown is emblematic of what is different about Smith’s campaign for the Democratic nomination to be West Virginia’s governor. His campaign raised money from more small donors in the first quarter of the race than the incumbent opponent, billionaire Gov. Jim Justice, had in the entire two-year 2016 cycle. “That’s how we’re going to win,” Smith said, “by having a campaign that’s funded by all of us.”
“That’s how we’re going to win, by having a campaign that’s funded by all of us.”
While Smith has his sights set on the governor’s mansion, the progressive-populist campaign he’s running isn’t just about that. Smith is setting out to build a statewide movement; his gubernatorial run is just the anchor.
“What we’re interested in is fundamentally changing who the government works for, and you can’t do that with one candidate, no matter what the office is,” Smith said in a phone interview with The Intercept. “So the way we do that — the way we win that — is by building an unprecedented political infrastructure in our state’s history.”
Operating with the battle cry of “West Virginia Can’t Wait,” the campaign is setting out to create a pipeline of progressive, working-class candidates to defeat the “good old boys.” The plan isn’t to get a new governor “and pat ourselves on the back,” Smith said.
The result is a broad political organizing effort: locally organized groups led by local “captains” and leaders dubbed “Constituency Captains” who volunteer to mobilize their communities. “This movement will be built by 1,000 leaders, not one,” says the campaign’s website. Key to these efforts are the small donors, who made up the rolls that broke the secretary of state’s software.
Democratic candidate for West Virginia governor Stephen Noble Smith speaks during the People Experiencing Homelessness Constituency Meet-up at the Bartlett House Tuesday, May 15, 2019, in Morgantown, W.Va. Raymond Thompson Jr for The Intercept
Smith speaks during the People Experiencing Homelessness Constituency Meet-up at the Bartlett House in Morgantown, W.Va., May 15, 2019. Photo: Raymond Thompson Jr. for The Intercept
SMITH WON’T IDENTIFY himself as a “progressive.” Yet his campaign draws inspiration from the Battle of Blair Mountain, an armed uprising of coal miners in West Virginia, widely considered to be the largest labor rebellion in American history. “In 1921, West Virginia mineworkers — black, white, and immigrant — marched together on Blair Mountain against corporate rule,” says a video on Smith’s campaign site. “They wore red bandanas to identify themselves in battle.”
The video cuts to a West Virginia Can’t Wait event where red bandanas are being handed out, then showing a crowd of onlookers with the kerchiefs around their necks.
Though stopping short of taking up arms, Smith in fact takes a host of standard progressive positions. He is emphatic about rejecting corporate cash, unapologetically supports a single-payer health care system, and is in favor of free college. But he refers to his ground game as a “people’s campaign.” The outlook is based on the fundamental belief that the everyday people of West Virginia are far better suited to solve their problems than the out-of-state lobbyists, out-of-state landowners, and monopolies that dominate the state. Smith said, “Our government would work a whole lot better for all of us if all of us were in charge, instead of a handful of lobbyists.”
It’s not an exaggeration. In January, Justice, the Republican governor, handpicked a registered lobbyist who represents his own family’s companies to replace former state Sen. Richard Ojeda, an aggressively pro-labor Democrat who left his seat for a short-lived presidential run. Justice, who campaigned in 2016 as a political outsider, is the wealthiest person in West Virginia. He inherited his coal mining business from his father, which allowed him to build a massive business empire of more than 100 companies.
It was Justice who gave the Republican Party nearly full control of West Virginia, long a bastion of southern Democratic support that has turned increasingly red on the state level. Justice had switched to the Democratic Party to run for governor, only to switch back to the GOP less than seven months after taking office.
Smith’s campaign wants to turn the governor’s mansion blue again, despite the fact that West Virginia handed Donald Trump his second largest margin of victory in the 2016 presidential race. The state is not inherently red, Smith’s team contends, and their anti-establishment message paves a plausible path to victory. After all, it’s the same state that voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary.
“What we’re seeing all across the country is that the government is failing our people and both parties are failing our people,” Smith said. “Our people are picking up the baton and saying, ‘You know what, we can govern ourselves.’”