When Stephen Noble 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.”
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.
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.’”
West Virginia Can’t Wait, the campaign, formally launched at the end of November 2018 and has since held 12 kickoff events across the state. But the campaign doesn’t want Smith to be the face of the movement; the movement is supposed to transcend a single candidate and build a lasting infrastructure of political power.
The roadmap is simple: Organize locally, recruit local candidates who know their neighbors’ needs, and run those candidates in local races. So far, Smith’s campaign has recruited an estimated 56 candidates and potential candidates who are mulling a run in 2020. They have their sights set on positions like city council memberships, magistrate judge seats, county commissioners, and delegates. Their candidate pipeline includes people who are ready to go —and have their campaign website set already — to others who are considering running for office for the first time and want go to a training to get a sense of what it takes.
Smith’s campaign will train candidates and their campaign staff. Perhaps most crucially, West Virginia Can’t Wait will grant these smaller campaigns access to their team and join them on the trail, opening up town halls and events to the local candidates.
“When the election rolls around, the 10 volunteers that you’re recruiting for your city council race combined with the 10 I’m getting from the governor’s race and the 10 someone else is getting for the delegate’s race means that we all have 40, instead of 10 each,” Smith said.
The other part of their strategy is to get at least two “County Captains” in each of the state’s 55 counties, a position intended to act as a community organizer rather than a campaign spokesperson. West Virginia Can’t Wait has recruited and trained more than 160 people to work as County Captains, who are then responsible for building their own volunteer team within the county.
“He’s not using some kind of Democratic machine or some kind of Republican machine where the people on the top are the ones who are making the decisions.”
Those county teams will receive support from the statewide campaign but will be given the latitude to craft their approaches to specific local issues and concerns. West Virginia Can’t Wait has laid out a number of steps toward this end: County teams are to identify local issues by talking to at least 1,000 voters; plan events and actions; recruit and train additional volunteers; identify community members who might want to run for office as part of a slate; and run a get-out-the-vote operation leading up to the primary and general elections.
Another prong of the organizing calls for “Constituency Captains” to build support within their communities, the campaign says. These organizers — distinct from the “county” organizing groups because they instead find likeminded individuals — are to develop an online presence, host meetups, plan public events, and recruit candidates from their crew.
“It’s more a movement than a campaign, to be honest with you, for the simple fact that he’s trying to get everybody involved in his campaign, such as the Muslim community, the youth, the African American community, the LGBTQ community, anybody and everybody,” said Ibtesam Barazi, who has a long history of advocating for immigrant and refugee rights in West Virginia and is an adviser to the campaign as well as a captain of the Muslim constituency team.
Though West Virginia has a small Muslim population, she added, Smith is still pursuing them: “He still wants to know what we want from our elected officials, what it is that we want to change.”
Barazi went on: “He’s trying to get them involved in the campaign, so you really have a stake in his campaign in that you want him to succeed because he represents who we are. He’s not using some kind of Democratic machine or some kind of Republican machine where the people on the top are the ones who are making the decisions.”
“What our state needs is, again, not one person.”
The dynamic speaks to a larger trend in the West Virginia Can’t Wait campaign: Smith is bringing together a diverse coalition. The infrastructure of his ground game, for instance, is being built primarily by women, especially women from working-class backgrounds.
Though Smith is often credited with these strategic turns, the county and constituency organizing groups deliberately omit his name. “It’s not Berkeley County for Smith, it’s not Seniors for Smith; it’s Roane County or Berkeley County Can’t Wait, or Seniors Can’t Wait,” said Smith. “We’re building them from the beginning as independent political organizations because what our state needs is, again, not one person.”
The West Virginia Can’t Wait campaign is building on a renaissance of populism. “West Virginia has a long and deep history of bottom-up politics and distrust for both parties,” Smith said. “And that energy was not invented by our campaign. It was invented, you know, a hundred years ago during the Mine Wars. And people have kept connected to it and building our state off of it for a long time.”
The campaign is seeking to harness the momentum of a major organizing feat last year: a wildcat teachers’ strike. Thousands of public school teachers and staffers across the state had launched an illegal nine-day strike to rebel against years of stagnant wages, poor working conditions, and privatization of the school system. During the work stoppage, Smith joined a handful of other organizers in setting up a support fund to help the teachers and school service personnel make ends meet, raising more than $332,000, mostly from small donations. Not only did teachers win concessions, but the teachers’ victories helped spark a wave of strikes across Republican-led states, including Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.
The resurgence of Appalachian populism might cut both ways: Many analysts think Trump’s election and the Republican takeover of the state legislature suggest that West Virginians are increasingly turning more conservative. Smith disagrees, suggesting that the problems that have left so many West Virginians behind are evident in both parties: “More people stayed home in 2016 than voted for the president in West Virginia.” He also cited polling that has found West Virginians prefer Sanders over Trump. According to a survey a Sanders pollster conducted in late 2017, the Vermont senator would beat Trump by 2 percentage points in the state.
Smith’s wariness of more centrist, establishment-oriented Democrats could become the major theme of his primary race. Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress and frequent Trump ally, may yet jump into the governor’s race: He told Politico earlier this month that he’s thinking about running for the “best job in the world” and will make a decision sometime this fall.
Smith’s supporters note Manchin did a similar dance in 2016 and ultimately decided against trying to get into the governor’s mansion. Manchin barely won his Senate reelection last year — the toughest race of his career — against GOP Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. And despite Manchin’s decisive victory in the primary, that race offered a ray of hope for campaigns like Smith’s: The incumbent senator’s progressive primary challenger, Paula Jean Swearengin, pulled in 30 percent of the vote despite having a fraction of the name recognition and campaign cash. National politics might, however, keep Manchin out of the governor’s race entirely: In 2020, he would be giving up a seat that’s crucial to the Democratic Party’s uphill battle of retaking the Senate.
Smith’s background suits him well for grassroots organizing. He previously ran a youth organization in Chicago, served as a director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and even worked with an AIDS organization in Botswana. In 2012, he became the executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, where he oversaw its transition from a child health policy organization to one that takes on broader community organizing efforts and policy fights.
“You don’t get what you want in politics by being smart or making good arguments. We get what we want when we unite and build enough power to take it.”
His first real organizing experience, however, came on the distinctly non-populist quads of Harvard University, where he was a student. In 1998, he joined others in a four-year fight to raise wages for the school’s janitors, cooks, and security guards. “The university was sitting on billions of dollars in its endowment while paying its workers a poverty wage,” Smith said.
“We did all the things you’re supposed to do, went through all the proper channels. We organized rallies, we met with faculty, we met with the administration, we made our case economically, we got support from the city council in Cambridge,” he said. “And after three years, the university decided to give workers museum passes — you can’t make this stuff up, right? — and other ways to help them achieve more in their life, and then they called the issue closed.”
They planned a sit-in to take over the building housing the president’s office, expecting it to last two or three days at most, he recalled. It ended up lasting three weeks. Within a year of the sit-in, the university officially increased wages and improved benefits. The experience taught him a powerful lesson: “You don’t get what you want in politics by being smart or making good arguments,” he said. “We get what we want when we unite and build enough power to take it.”
During his six years leading the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, the organization helped win more than 25 policy victories, from raising the minimum wage in the state to expanding school breakfasts by more than three million meals a year. The group under his leadership also worked in rural communities on projects including community gardens, walking trails, and farmers markets.
“It was a daily lesson, y’know, that the people in the neighborhoods and communities in West Virginia were ten times smarter and more compassionate, more capable than the lobbyists running the government,” he said. But to win the government the people want, Smith said, they will have to run for office across the country. His campaign is predicated on his hope that they do. “And,” he added, “if they want an ally doing so, to give us a call in West Virginia.”