Is a People’s Government Possible in West Virginia?

WV Can’t Wait Co-Chair Stephen Smith says it is past time to replace those in power

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Stephen Smith, a Co-Chair of WV Can’t Wait, recently wrote an article with the headline, “If we want to win a state that works for all of us, our duty is not solely to persuade those in power. We must replace them.”

My response was skepticism. I cut my political teeth in West Virginia politics beginning in 1972. At first, I was enamored. However, in time, my eyes were opened. About a decade later, when joining a relative at an event for a candidate for governor, “donations” of envelopes filled with cash passed back and forth between Republicans and Democrats in a tiny store on Pike Street in Clarksburg. The political class was betting on one another. That leaves out the rest of us.

Some things never change. Or do they?

That is a question that could be answered at an intensive training for community organizers June 23 – 26, 2022. It is co-sponsored by WV Can’t Wait and Training for Change.

WV Can’t Wait Community Discussion. Credit: WV Can’t Wait

It is just one of many efforts and outreaches by WV Can’t Wait, as it asserts on its website, “We’re out to win a government where the people who work the hardest and bear the most are also the ones who write the laws.”

That goal, and the headline on Smith’s article, indicates that WV Can’t Wait plans on replacing West Virginia’s political class. Smith agreed to explain the strategy for achieving that goal. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. Smith’s answers are in bold. 

Questions & Answers:

The website for WV Can’t Wait states, “We’re out to win a government where the people who work the hardest and bear the most are also the ones who write the laws.” Can you share a historical example from West Virginia history where an attempt at establishing populist government succeeded? If so, what lessons does it offer? If not, what makes you think this time will be different?

At the state level, the answer is no. The state government has never been in the hands of the people. Nor could you say there are any states where people pull the levers. (Though Smith did point to late 19th Century Minnesota Populists of the late 19th Century as a sliver of hope). As it’s said, we’ll shoot for the stars and land on the clouds. It is not an either/or proposition. Every step we take makes life for the poor and working class better. We have 19 elected people. There were zero two years ago. Those have been elected to city councils, county commissions, school boards, as a prosecutor and one to the West Virginia House of Delegates. Also, we need to remember the West Virginians who have claimed power – the miners, the teachers. It is a long and ongoing tradition of people claiming power in West Virginia. Our job is to lift others up, support them and help put wind behind their sails.

You are hiring community organizers throughout the state. You have listed four priorities for the community organizers: decriminalizing cannabis, paid sick days, $15 minimum wage, or housing for all. Why have you selected these issues?

Every issue we look to tackle dramatically impacts the day-to-day lives of people. These are also issues that municipal governments have authority over. We look and see where we can win at the municipal level – where is their energy level already. We’ve had hundreds of conversations over the months. That’s where these issues come from. For anyone reading this, if there’s something else you’d like to take up in your city, give me a call. (Smith’s number is 304-610-6512).

On your website and in your writings, you state “Our job is not to persuade those in power. It is to replace them.” Can this be achieved without first enacting significant election reforms?

Yes. We know, because it is already being achieved. We’ve won those 19 elections over two election cycles. Is it hard? Yes. Is it a fair playing field? No. Do we tell people they’re going to win if they work hard and have the best ideas? No. It’s a rigged arena. We want to be that “political machine” supporting those who aren’t rich. We offer all the accouterments of a campaign. Even with our support, it’s an uphill battle. But it’s worth it. The proof is in the pudding.

You have as an objective to “ … help our lawmakers govern after they win.” What do you do to help them?

Imagine you win office in this corrupt and morally bankrupt system. It’s tough. They (WV Can’t Wait candidates) get marginalized by the established power. We tell them we want to be alongside you when you are governing. We have monthly meetings of elected officials. It’s a real cohort which you may not have (where elected). We offer help with mental health, personal safety and security. Just recently, we formalized this by hiring a full time counselor. She is there to respond. Now they have help. We provide tangible resources such as volunteers, and help with strategy and communication. 

Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., convicted on 5 federal felonies.

In his 2007 bestseller, “Blessed Unrest,” Paul Hawken identified the rise of grassroots movements around the world. He wrote, “Healing the wounds of the earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party, only gumption and persistence.” He added, “ .. it is a sacred act … .” Is this an accurate description of how you see the work of WV Can’t Wait?

Gov. Wally Barron, convicted of jury tampering

I would say it is what we aspire to. It’s not what we always live up to. It is a beautiful description. You can feel it in what we do. At a training in Fairmont, not a single person in the room was wealthy. It was a range of people. There was no question that we are all working towards a common cause, that our differences are our strengths. The fight isn’t left versus right. It’s the folks at the top versus everyone else.

What would you say to skeptics who say the powerful simply can’t be overcome today because of a range of issues, from Citizens United to the rise of unchecked social media?

I’d say you’re right. So, there’s an old saying in organizing. We don’t get to choose whether we win or lose. We only get to choose how hard and with whom we fight. We don’t call it a struggle because it’s easy. There are people who think it’s a game. It’s not. It’s about whether or not you get medicine, or education. It’s not about the odds. Never in human history has so much power been accumulated in so few hands. Unless you’re satisfied with the way things are you need to fight.

WV Can’t Wait is co-sponsoring an Organizing Skills Workshop in June. Who will benefit most from this event?

We are trying to put the best organizing training in West Virginia in a generation. It should be a life-changing, terrific experience for organizers to come and learn ideas, trade ideas and find common cause with other organizers around the state.

We don’t get to choose whether we win or lose. We only get to choose how hard and with whom we fight. We don’t call it a struggle because it’s easy. There are people who think it’s a game. It’s not. It’s about whether or not you get medicine, or education. It’s not about the odds. Never in human history has so much power been accumulated in so few hands. Unless you’re satisfied with the way things are you need to fight.

Stephen Smith

How do participants respond upon learning how labor-intensive grassroots organizing is?

Sometimes highly educated people who have extra income get into politics and realize “This is more work than I thought.” On the flip side, middle- and lower-class people are already in politics. I think it depends. The people we are most looking for are the people who are already doing the work. We don’t want to convince people to get into politics. We want to help those who are ready, who don’t need much convincing.

For 2022, you list three strategies: Strategy 1: We Will Contest for Power in Elections; Strategy 2: We Will Help Our People Start Governing Now; Strategy 3: Step in When Government Fails. What makes you think you can reverse the power structure in West Virginia?

We are a people’s organization. We find common cause with Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, independents, Mountain Party folks and unaffiliated voters. We do not have an ideology except that the people should be governing. I don’t think we’re going to win overnight. We might spend the next 30 or 40 years of our lives and never win full governing power. If that happens I’ll die proud and happy that we are steps closer to food, medicine, jobs, and dignity that people deserve.

In what ways will WV Can’t Wait step in “when government fails”?

We are in the hunt for hometown heroes. We know there are people all over West Virginia already stepping in where the government is not. Recovery, underground harm reduction, and creative forms of food distribution are just some of the ways people help. This is already happening. Our job is to back those people up. We’ve raised $50,000 for these hometown heroes. There are 25 getting $2,000 each, no strings attached. We trust them and also offer access to organizing, training, media support, media tools, training on starting a nonprofit and more.

A WV Can’t Wait gathering. Credit: WV Can’t Wait

What is an example of the government failing?

One of the most telling for me was the flood that happened in 2016. There were essentially two responses to the crisis. There was government assistance of $240 million to build houses. And then church and community groups responded. It was two parallel responses. The people that started with no money worked with their neighbors, churches and community groups and built more houses faster. We see the “good old boy” club of government failing and people succeeding.

Take a moment to explain how navigating the pandemic led to the development of the Captain program.

Like everybody else, we were just shocked and scared. We were in the middle of the primary, but then our biggest tool was taken from us – people meeting one another. What we heard from our volunteers was that they wanted to do something to make people’s lives better than trying to turn out voters. Borrowing a model from the folks in Jefferson County, we cooked up this idea to have each volunteer responsible for the people that live near them. We’d ask what they need. Food, unemployment benefits, a ballot, groceries, help with paying the phone or utility company? It was a beautiful moment.

What are non-starters for WV Can’t Wait when it comes to endorsing candidates?

We have very high standards. You have to be willing to sign onto our platform. It was written by thousands of people. You must sign our pledge to not take corporate money or to cross a picket line. There is no punching down. We are looking for people who are willing to run as a slate. The movement is bigger than any one candidate. The thing that separates us is we’re not interested in the lesser of two evils. We will go to bat for those that meet all of our criteria.

Citizen-led media outlets are mentioned as a recent accomplishment. What is the genesis of this idea, how are you making it happen, and do you expect to establish more?

As we came out of the 2020 election cycle, it kept coming up. We asked, “What are we going to do about the media?” It’s dominated by national story telling. It’s not a problem we can solve overnight. So we started talking to our allies that do some sort of blogs or media promotions. What came out of this is citizen media – print, investigative blogs, posts, sponsorships. And then once a month, we get the creators together. It’s a mutual aid project. It’s still in an early stage, but we’ve had some success so far. People interested in learning more about this have until January 31.They can contact me directly. (Smith’s number is 304-610-6512).

You ask folks to invest in West Virginia. Why should they?

If you’re outside the state, it’s because you owe us. West Virginia has been picking up the slack for a long time. All the money is going out of state. From a more practical standpoint, if you live in West Virginia, we matter. We don’t deserve more. We earn it. We know how to stretch a dollar.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2022.

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