Stephen Smith, progressive W.V. candidate, turns campaign into anti-COVID battalion
Candidate for West Virginia governor, Stephen Smith, left, seen here with a supporter, asked coal miners and their families to write a Miners Bill of Rights plan. "Right now our government chooses coal executives over coal miners—every time. It doesn't have to be this way. These lawmakers must be replaced. West Virginia Can’t Wait." | Stephen Smith for Governor

CHARLESTON, W. VA.—Going into the start of this year’s West Virginia gubernatorial election campaign, Stephen Smith, director of a grassroots kids and families coalition for the last six years, knew what he had to do.

As the progressive in the race, Smith faced two establishment candidates in the state’s June 9 Democratic primary: Ben Solango and Ron Stollings. West Virginia Democrats also will choose a senatorial nominee that day.

Whoever wins would face well-entrenched and well-financed Republican incumbents in now mostly red West Virginia: Gov. Jim Justice and Sen. Shelly Moore Capito. Justice is a multibillionaire coal executive. Capito is the daughter of a popular former GOP governor.

Smith has the Progressive Change Campaign Committee behind him, along with the mid-Atlantic affiliate of Planned Parenthood. He also refuses to accept lobbyist and corporate campaign contributions, calls for legalization of cannabis, and wants to rewrite the state tax code to benefit workers, families, and small businesses. That would include a state wealth tax.

Solango, a Kanawha County (Charleston) commissioner, has virtually everybody else: The sole elected statewide Democrat, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, former Democratic Gov. Gaston Caperton, the state’s leading newspaper, and unions ranging from state AFL-CIO to the Teamsters, the Painters, the Building Trades, UFCW, AFT locals, the Steelworkers, the Laborers, the Fire Fighters and the Communications Workers.

Stollings, a state legislator for the last 14 years, leads in money and media attention.

So if you’re a grassroots organizer, as Smith is, what do you do? Answer: Build a grassroots organization. And that’s what he did, he told a PCCC candidate session on June 5: County teams in all 55 counties, senior teams, worker teams.

He offered candidate training for down-ballot hopefuls all running, like him, under the theme “We can’t wait”—and attracted 94 people: Workers, women, LGBTQ people, and people of color in an overwhelmingly white state. And half are under 40. He trained them. He put them to work. And he required them to swear off special-interest cash, too.

And then the coronavirus pandemic hit. As this article goes to press, the coronavirus has infected over 2,000,000 people nationwide, including 2,144 West Virginians. And 84 state residents had died, among the 113,000 deaths around the U.S.

So what did Smith then do? He turned his volunteer brigades, and the others, into a statewide help-your-neighbors-battle-the-virus corps.

“We mobilized 764 neighborhood chapters into coronavirus response teams,” just like his organization mobilized parents, friends, and neighbors to help support the famous West Virginia teachers strike, which shut down every public school in the state for weeks to stop Justice’s scheme of cutting teacher pay, by raising the health care premiums, and killing their pensions.

“All those folks are being threatened by this governor,” Smith added.

He must be doing something right. Solango has a slight money advantage over Smith, but the only poll in the race shows a virtual three-way tie as of late last month: Solango 30%, Stollings 29%, and Smith 27%. That puts them all within the survey’s margin of error.

And, paraphrasing Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and his now-suspended presidential campaign, Smith admits that even if he wins the governor’s office, he can’t do it all. “We don’t think one governor is the answer,” he said in the June 5 teleconference. “Change can only come from the bottom up.”

And while underground coal, now declining as a fuel, was West Virginia’s mainstay, Smith doesn’t want to replace one economic monolith with another. “Every state in the country is competing to get the next Amazon. It wouldn’t take much for us to be the first state in the country to rig our economy in favor of small businesses, union shops, family farms, artists,” he told Yahoo! News last year.

Smith’s like Sanders in another way: Pro-worker. While at Harvard, Smith plunged into helping to organize the university’s underpaid support cafeteria workers, custodians, and their colleagues. They’re now unionized. And while Sanders has not endorsed Smith, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., did.

Regardless of which one of the three wins, they’ll face Justice, who has drawn flak on both financial scandals (his coal companies were found guilty late last year of defaulting on contracts and owing creditors some $60 million) and on racial issues, in an overwhelmingly white state.

When Justice, who is worth $1.5 billion, is not running the state, he coaches the all-white Greenbrier High School girls’ basketball team. On Feb. 12, it narrowly beat the mostly African-American Woodrow Wilson High Team, whose coaches are Black. Justice then called the Wilson team “thugs,” and the state’s social media exploded. Justice later semi-apologized, saying he was sorry if his comment “offended anybody.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.