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by Aída Chávez at The Intercept

As the coronavirus pandemic upends most aspects of everyday living across the country, political campaigns have abandoned in-person events and transitioned to virtual town halls in efforts to keep their bids afloat. In West Virginia, Stephen Smith, a 40-year-old community organizer running a movement-based campaign for governor, is attempting something even more ambitious…

The progressive-populist candidate has remade his campaign’s field operation to spearhead a statewide response to the pandemic, filling a void left by Republican Gov. Jim Justice’s administration. Smith’s anti-establishment campaign, known as West Virginia Can’t Wait, had a coronavirus response website up before the state government did and recently released an 11-point policy plan calling for drive-through coronavirus testing in every county, vote-by-mail legislation, and moratoria on evictions and utility shutoffs. “Over the course of 72 hours, we completely reimagined the campaign,” the gubernatorial hopeful, who is running as a Democrat, said. …

The Smith campaign has created an “adopt-a-voter” program, under which campaign volunteers aim to check in with 100 voters who live near them once a week with information about local coronavirus resources and volunteer opportunities, suggestions for how to vote by mail, and offers to hear more about the campaign. The campaign is also working toward recruiting and training 1,000 volunteers on how to check in on their neighbors without leaving their homes, Smith said, covering topics like “‘Where do I get food? Where do I get testing? How do I apply for my unemployment benefits? How do I apply for SBA disaster loans or paycheck protection?’ and on and on and on.” 

A next step in the campaign’s coronavirus response is to create a library of resources and how-to videos and information for the entire West Virginia Can’t Wait network, a slate of dozens of candidates running for various statewide positions. Equipped with those tools, “our neighborhood captains can answer just about any question that someone has,” Smith said. Another prong of the campaign’s organizing strategy calls for “Constituency Captains” to build support within their communities, as well as constituency organizing groups, like Seniors Can’t Wait, LGBTQ+ Can’t Wait, and Educators Can’t Wait, that deliberately omit Smith’s name.

This week, each of the neighborhood captains wrote and sent 100 letters to people in their communities, which included coronavirus information, brief background on the West Virginia Can’t Wait movement, and a personal message. Jenny Craig, a public school teacher in Ohio County and a member of Educators Can’t Wait, said the letters represent what their movement has been about since the beginning: “just checking in on each other, not for political gain.” 

“The letter has very little about Stephen’s campaign, and it doesn’t even say ‘I’m Stephen Smith and I’m running for governor,’” Craig said. “It just really is about taking care of each other.”

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