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.