Meet the progressive populist who wants to take West Virginia back from Trump

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
Stephen Smith at a rally to support West Virginia teachers and school service personnel. (Photo: Ric MacDowell/WV Can’t Wait)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A few days ago, the little-known political neophyte Stephen Smith got a huge break. Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, declared that he was staying in Washington rather than making a run for the governor’s mansion in Charleston, which he had previously occupied from 2005 until 2010.

This thrilled national Democrats, who need Manchin’s seat if they are to have any hope of reclaiming the U.S. Senate from Republicans. It also thrilled Smith, a 40-year-old Harvard-trained community organizer who is running for governor as a progressive Democrat in the mold of Bernie Sanders. Manchin is popular with his constituents; his name recognition and ability to raise money would have made him difficult for an insurgent like Smith to defeat. But with Manchin gone, Smith has a much easier path to the nomination. If he makes it to the general election, he will face incumbent Gov. Jim Justice, a billionaire businessman who is facing a federal investigation related to allegations of public corruption.

Smith met Manchin’s decision with the same kind of unusually high-minded rhetoric that has marked his unusual campaign. “West Virginia needs a movement, not a king,” he said, adding that “no elected official” alone could save West Virginia, because, as he put it, “we have to save ourselves.” Smith’s statement proceeded to denounce “the media and political class” for obsessing over “this soap opera,” by which he presumably meant the speculation over Manchin’s political future.

A few days after that, Smith got more good news, in the form of an endorsement from U.S. senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. This was the latest sign that his campaign has relevance beyond the borders of West Virginia.

And that’s exactly how he wants it. Smith’s challenge is not just about Justice and his diminishing political capital, but rather a test of whether unapologetic Warren-style progressivism can find traction in states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Smith campaigns in Roane County, W.Va. (Photo: Alexander Nazaryan/Yahoo News)

“There is a myth that West Virginia is Trump country,” Smith said during a recent campaign swing through several counties in the southwestern section of the state, close to the border with Ohio. “Bernie Sanders is more popular than the president.” Even more popular, he likes to add, are the public school teachers who went on strike in 2018 in order to win a pay raise. Their victory, to Smith, is proof that West Virginia is underestimated and misunderstood.

As Smith spoke, the intern-piloted Jeep that is his campaign vehicle sped past the Trump 2020 headquarters on the outskirts of Charleston and began to roller-coaster along hills where Confederate flags drooped from front porches. Donald Trump won every one of the state’s 55 counties.

Smith is fully aware of the sway Trump holds, but he also thinks voting for Trump was not an endorsement of the Republican Party. Over the course of two days, Smith on several occasions drew a chart of West Virginia party affiliation in 1996 and 2016. During that time, the share of voters registered as Democrats dropped from 65 percent to 45 percent. Republican registration stayed flat during that same time. What increased fivefold in those two decades, however, was the number of independents, whose share in the state rose from 5 percent to 25 percent by 2016.

Smith very much models himself on Sanders, especially in regard to how much influence corporations should command (a lot less) and what government should have the power to do (a lot more). Also like Sanders, Smith has managed to generate considerable hype, not usually a feature of West Virginia politics. Last spring, he was profiled favorably in the Intercept, the progressive-leaning online publication that was an early endorser of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Far more surprising was a lengthy feature in the U.K.-based Financial Times, which cast Smith as West Virginia’s potential savior. Both publications are vastly more influential in New York and Washington than in Charleston and Huntington. That could turn Smith into one of those unlucky candidates who are cursed with admirers who can tweet but cannot vote.

The campaign has done little to hide its own sophistication, to pander in the way that nearly all campaigns do. Smith announced his run for governor, as well as the formation of a grassroots organization, West Virginia Can’t Wait, in an expertly made video posted to the web early this year.

Smith in an early campaign meeting with adviser Shanequa Smith. (Photo: Ric MacDowell/WV Can’t Wait)

The video opens with a female voice that bears an unmistakable West Virginia twang.

“I want to tell you a little about Blair Mountain,” she says.

The narrator explains how workers of many ethnicities and races united to fight coal mine owners in 1921, in what came to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. The strikers wore red bandannas, which led to a disparaging nickname: “rednecks.” Supporters of Smith — a crowd seemingly more diverse than one might expect in West Virginia — are shown with similar bandannas around their own necks.

Smith himself does not appear until 40 seconds into the ad. He is tall, trim and dressed like a law firm associate on a Friday. He was educated at Harvard, where he overlapped with future presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. It was in Cambridge that Smith realized, as he put it to me, that “the meritocracy I had been taught to believe in my entire life was a lie.” He spent his time organizing university employees for a living wage. After college, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago and then West Virginia. Until announcing for governor last year, he had never run for office.

In the video announcing his campaign, Smith talks of returning government to the people, and he pledges not to take corporate contributions (all West Virginia Can’t Wait candidates must make the same pledge, whether they are running for the state legislature or the Mingo County Board of Education). Plangent music plays. It is reminiscent of the viral video that launched the political campaign of Ocasio-Cortez, the young star of the 116th Congress from the Bronx. His story lacks the Horatio Alger quality of hers, but it makes a similarly soaring appeal, hoping to reach people who are immune to ordinary political pitches.

Smith genuinely believes that progressive activism has a deeper hold on West Virginia than Trumpism does. He talks about Blair Mountain because he is there, fighting for the West Virginia that once elected socialists for mayors, the West Virginia that welcomed hippies during the Back to the Land movement, the West Virginia of the recent teachers’ strike.

I met Smith at Black Sheep, a downtown Charleston brewpub. Smith ordered a falafel burrito. He does not eat meat or drink caffeine, a hint at his personal discipline. He did not drink alcohol, he says, until he was 35. Other than family life, community organizing appears to be his one true passion.

Smith has been an active community organizer in West Virginia. (Photo: Alexander Nazaryan/Yahoo News)

For someone entering politics, he has a remarkably strong distaste for politicians. Asked about political heroes, he says he has none. A question about current governors meets the same response.

“Government isn’t the answer,” Smith told me. “A people’s government is the answer.” He talks about taking power away from corporations — which are especially powerful in West Virginia — and returning that power to unions. He envisions citizen councils that watch over state agencies, that inform those agencies’ work.

Power to the people is a noble idea, but it is not exactly a platform. Voters may want empowerment, but what they really need are promises. Smith makes few of these. He says that he will allow movement activists to settle on a platform this fall.

Smith does want to start a state bank, which only North Dakota currently has. That bank would lend to small businesses, to small farmers, etc. Greater taxes would be levied on the rich. Some of those taxes would be used to pay for universal health coverage for West Virginia. Roads would be rebuilt. Cannabis will be legalized. Corporate lobbyists will be chased out of town.

What Smith very much does not want is to make West Virginia into the next digital mecca, into the “Silicon Holler” some are so desperate to see. He is a West Virginia loyalist, decrying the influence of out-of-state corporations. “We’re not going to diversify our economy by replacing one giant with another giant,” he said. The departed giant is coal; he does not want another, not even if it comes with catered lunch and Ping-Pong tables. “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.”

His vision of West Virginia couldn’t be more different from that of Justice, the scion of a wealthy family who is now the wealthiest person in West Virginia. According to a slew of recent allegations, he may also be the most corrupt. Democrats regard him as the most vulnerable Republican governor in the country, along with Matt Bevin of Kentucky. “Jim Justice is a lonely man on an island right now,” said David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “His mismanagement of state government, and fleecing of West Virginians through his businesses, make him uniquely vulnerable in 2020.”

Smith speaking at a Kanawha County town hall. (Photo: Ric MacDowell/WV Can’t Wait)

Smith has a name for politicians like Justice and Manchin, between whom he sees little difference: “good old boys” (he told me this before Manchin had made known his plan to stay in the Senate). They are, in his telling, the denizens of West Virginia’s political swamp. “It’s not left versus right” in West Virginia, according to Smith. “It’s the good old boys versus everybody else.”

After lunch, we set out through the humid afternoon toward Roane County, a poor and rural area in the middle of the state. An intern drove. Interns on the Smith campaign are not yet paid, but the six staffers (half of them part-time) are unionized, in what he believes to be the only unionized gubernatorial campaign in the nation. The campaign vehicle appears to be what Smith and his wife also use to transport their two sons. When he asks for money at the end of a campaign stop, Smith says that a portion of donations will go toward gas.

Fundraising totals are often seen as evidence not just of a campaign’s viability, but also of its more fundamental legitimacy, the dollars presaging votes. On that front, Smith has good reason to be optimistic. Recently released fundraising numbers show some confirmation of that belief. For the most recent quarter for which fundraising totals are available, Smith raised about $146,000. That’s a strong but not astonishing number. The astonishing part is that 2,449 of those were “small donations,” meaning they were $250 or less. By contrast, Justice has all of 13 small donors. He began his campaign with a rally alongside Donald Trump Jr. — and by making $131,500 in loans to his own campaign. Woody Thrasher, Justice’s former commerce secretary, who is challenging him in the Republican primary, has eight small donors.

Much like Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor now running for president, Smith has put political narrative over policy proposals. But the story Buttigieg has been telling is highly personal, focusing on the compelling aspects of his own biography: Harvard, the military, South Bend, being young, coming out as gay. Smith, by contrast, is loath to talk about himself. One of the few personal details he offered during a lengthy interview in West Virginia, and in subsequent conversations, is that he cooks to relax. As to which cuisines he favors, Smith did not say.

The story Smith tells is of hard-working people exploited by “out-of-state monopolies,” which is to say coal and other industries. Those monopolies have long been abetted by “the good old boys” in Charleston, whose political campaigns thrive on corporate donations. But the people of West Virginia have had enough. The government has failed them for so long, they’ve begun to govern themselves. Smith tells the story of a grandmother in Mingo County who started a halfway house for addicts after having to care for an addicted daughter of her own.

At the end of a rally, Smith brings his son on the stage to sing a number from the musical “Hamilton.” (Photo: Alexander Nazaryan/Yahoo News)

His campaign is now in listening mode. Smith and members of the West Virginia Can’t Wait campaign intend to hold 10,000 conversations with West Virginians over the summer. Smith conducts several of these per day himself. And so in Spencer, a town employee imagined opening a small business incubator, one that could potentially spur a growth in the craft brewery movement. And in Huntington, at a bar deck where children played loudly with wooden blocks, fire chief Jan Rader, a pioneer in opioid treatment, told Smith about how such treatment could be improved.

At a gun range outside Huntington, Smith — who does not own a gun and made clear that he was not going to shoot one during the visit — spoke to the owner about small businesses, the two of them standing near a wall lined with SIG Sauer rifles. During each conversation, Smith leaned into his speaker and listened intently. He asked questions and wrote down the answers in a small, stylish black notebook.

Smith held a town hall at each stop. Some of these meetings were small, like the one in Spencer, where only a dozen older people filled a cavernous community hall. But the next day in Huntington, Smith packed a brewery with an energetic, diverse crowd that seemed genuinely happy to attend a political event. A young white man performed a rap song. “No more racism and poverty in our policies,” the song went. Smith’s speech went pretty much the same way. “We have the best people and the worst politicians,” he told the crowd. There was real enthusiasm in the room, yet when it came time for donations, Smith managed to earn only a few hundred dollars.

There is no stump speech, not yet. Instead, the former community organizer uses his hour to make the case for community organizing. “We don’t think that the most important thing is to pitch voters,” he explained. “We think that the most important thing is to listen.” He says that West Virginia Can’t Wait will ratify a cogent platform in the fall. Considering that the gubernatorial election isn’t until the fall of 2020, it wouldn’t be fair to say that Smith’s campaign lacks such specifics.

Smith in conversation with Aiden McCloud at a West Virginia Can’t Wait summer internship training. (Photo: Ric MacDowell/WV Can’t Wait)

And yet specifics will have to come, as voters start to ask him the most basic question a politician can be asked: What are you going to do about it? When I asked his staff if he supported construction of the Appalachian Storage Hub, a Trump-backed massive petrochemical project on the banks of the Ohio River, his campaign’s response studiously avoided taking any stance at all. Supporting the petrochemical hub would make him look like a Republican, while opposing it would lead to predictable attacks about Smith being an effete liberal unresponsive to the needs of West Virginians.

There was a similar reluctance to say where he stands on guns, which are culturally important in West Virginia but do not exactly enforce the communitarian vision Smith espouses. And the same went for his insistence that he be called a populist, not a progressive. Populist, after all, is a much more vague term: Sanders is a populist, but so is Trump. There is a lot less ambiguity about what a progressive looks like.

Yet Smith is thinking as deeply as anyone about what politics can and should look like in 2019, in postindustrial West Virginia, where droves of destitute whites voted for one billionaire to become their president and another to become their governor. Stephen Smith is no billionaire. What remains to be seen is whether he is willing to become a full-blown politician.

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