I love West Virginia. I love the people, the mountains, and the history of a people not dependent on the corporate state. Yes, Virginia—there is a history of West Virginia not dependent on the corporate state.
The early northern European settlers here were self-sufficient agrarians— hunting, fishing, foraging, farming, and making their own rye whiskey for drinking and for currency—before they were seduced by wine-sipping East Coast elites into becoming wage slaves to the timber and coal corporations.
This self-sufficiency lived on in some ways until only two or three generations ago, when families still spent only about $500 a year in the cash economy. (To learn about the fallout from the eventual corporate transformation of West Virginia in some greater historical detail, see Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia and then, of course, the classics from the late great West Virginian Joe Bageant—including Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir and Deer Hunting with Jesus.)
Liberal Democrats, attracted to the natural beauty of the state, come here to get away from the hustle and bustle of Baltimore and Washington, but are shocked, shocked by the “backwardness”—by which they mean people who disagree with them on guns, gays, gender, abortion, race, religion, or immigration. And these same liberal Democrats are generally intolerant of anyone who mildly suggests that they might be wrong.
When I suggested in early 2016 that Trump had a good chance to win the election against the corporate militarist Hillary, a number of liberal Democrats I know angrily informed me that I was stupid and ignorant, that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that I should be ashamed to support Trump. (I didn’t support Trump—I just wasn’t going to support Hillary and was describing a surge of enthusiasm for Trump in my home state.) A group of us here in West Virginia have spent a good deal of time over the past thirty years organizing against the corporate-controlled Democrats and Republicans, working for an independent political movement outside any party structure. That hasn’t happened—yet. But something is happening in West Virginia. And the question is, will it end with the recent triumphant teachers’ strike?
The Republican legislature and the Republican governor—Jim Justice, the state’s only billionaire—have just cut a deal to end the historic strike, giving the teachers a 5 percent pay raise and shielding them from any premium increases in their health insurance through next year—to be paid for, Republican leaders say, by cuts to other programs. That raise would not have happened without the teachers flooding the Capitol building in Charleston for two weeks. It was an impressive surge of energy that seemingly came out of nowhere and closed down all fifty-five county school systems for nine days.
And there was little doubt that it was a straight-out political struggle between the teachers and the corporate legislature. In fact, the first day students and teachers were back in school Governor Justice was on statewide radio admitting that as a condition of giving the teachers the 5 percent raise, he had to commit to the Speaker of the House to sign natural gas industry legislation, called the co-tenancy bill, that would allow a gas company to drill for gas on a parcel where it secured the rights from 75 percent of the mineral holders. Current law requires permission from 100 percent of mineral owners before you drill. The reduced drilling threshold represents, in practice, a license to steal for any developer that can buy up enough rights. But that was the deal.
This boondoggle, together with the cuts to Medicaid that some of the legislature’s leaders are seeking in order to fund the teachers’ pay hike, drives home the need for continued grassroots resistance to corporate rule in West Virginia. The question on the ground is whether the teachers’ strike is going to energize a political movement to overthrow the state’s controlling corporate political elite.
Right now, it feels like a tossup as to whether teachers and their fellow citizens will sink back into their man caves and Netflix couches or stand up and counterpunch—but there are also some early signs suggesting that the counterpunchers could be on the way.
First and foremost is the political rise of State Senator Richard Ojeda (D-Logan County).
Ojeda is a piss-and-vinegar straight shooter—a tattooed, buzz-cut former Army paratrooper, and a coal miner’s grandson. When he was first running for Senate in 2016, someone with brass knuckles beat him into a coma. Ojeda thinks it was a political hit job. He came out of the hospital and won his Senate seat by 59 to 41. Ojeda’s seat is squarely in the middle of the coal fields that Trump won with 80 percent of the vote in the same election cycle.
Ojeda is a rock star among the striking teachers. Ask any of them who was their leader in the legislature, who stuck with them from beginning to the end—and the answer, nearly to a person, will be Ojeda.
During the strike, Ojeda was swarmed in the Capitol building by teachers looking for selfies. Teachers love him, but the mainstream Democratic Party has ignored him. (Ojeda voted for Trump for president, a vote he now says he regrets.) Along with the West Virginia teachers, Ojeda is becoming a national story; he was the subject of a recent lengthy profile in Politico Magazine. (In a recent interview with the Guardian, he said that Big Pharma is “no different than the Taliban and al-Qaida that I fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.”)
And Ojeda knows his West Virginia labor history. During the strike, he took a picture of himself with a red bandana around his neck and tweeted it out with this caption: “The term redneck started when WV coal miners tied red bandanas around their necks during the bloody battle of Blair mountain to unionize. Today, our teachers channeled their history. #UnionStrong”
Ojeda is now running for Congress in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District—in the heart of coal country against mainstream corporate Democrats and Republicans. Local political observers give him a strong shot at winning, thanks to his strike-tested profile as a down-home fighter for the people with deep roots in West Virginia.
Compare Ojeda to West Virginia’s best-known political figure, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. He is a corporate Democrat who is destined to lose his re-election campaign this year, even if the Republicans nominate Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, who was convicted of crimes related to the deaths of twenty-nine of his employees at the April 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion.
Blankenship is running in the May 8 Republican primary against another pair of handpicked candidates of the corporate oligarchy: West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is firmly in the pocket of Big Pharma and the corporate Democrat turned corporate Republican Congressman Evan Jenkins. Blankenship is wealthy—he reportedly had a $86 million golden parachute upon leaving Massey—and he’s spending freely on statewide ads. (Last week, a liberal Democrat friend of mine said to me that there was no way Manchin will lose to Blankenship. “Isn’t that what you said about Hillary and Trump?” I replied.)
Or compare Ojeda to Talley Sergent, the leading corporate Democrat in West Virginia’s Second Congressional District. She was the 2016 state director for Hillary’s campaign, and a one-time public relations executive for Coca-Cola. She’s also been involved with a Coca-Cola campaign to get West Virginia University’s School of Public Health to sponsor studies showing that it’s not so much sugary drinks that cause obesity—West Virginia leads all other states in its obesity rates—but lack of exercise.
Her opponent in the May 8 Democratic primary is Aaron Scheinberg, another Army vet supported by the neoliberal-corporate national campaign of Congressman Seth Moulton (D-Massachusetts) to get veterans to run as Democrats for Congress. (Moulton ignores Ojeda, even though he’s a Democrat and a veteran with a good chance to win. What else could it be?)
The Second District’s Republican Congressman, Alex Mooney, is a carpet-bagging corporatist, but he won’t be defeated by either Scheinberg or Sergent for the same reason that Manchin is in trouble. It’s incredibly difficult to beat a corporate Republican with a corporate Democrat in a red state.
The anemic Democrats failed to put up a candidate in many races across the state—so the teachers, energized by Ojeda and the strike, are stepping up.
In my home district, our State Senator Charles Trump (R-Morgan), who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been carrying water for corporate lobbyists during the three years he’s been in office. He was part of the gang of twenty senators who were dragged kicking and screaming into the teacher pay raise deal.
The Democrats failed to field a candidate to face Charlie Trump, so just this week, Jason Armentrout, a social studies teacher at Frankfort High School in Short Gap, West Virginia—and the school’s wrestling coach—decided to run as an independent against Trump. (Armentrout needs only 270 signatures by August 1 to get on the November ballot as an independent.)
Armentrout has been a lifelong conservative Republican. But now he says he’s had enough. “I grew up in a conservative evangelical household,” Armentrout told me. “I grew up to respect my elders, including my teachers. And lot of these conservatives today don’t respect teachers. Now they have taken it to a new level, to push private school vouchers, to pressure public education. The Republicans are so nasty. And Charlie Trump is enslaved to that platform.”
“I agree with Senator Ojeda. We need to increase the severance on natural gas. How is so much of the land in West Virginia absentee owned, out-of-state owned? That’s a big issue. It’s been a big issue for generations. We have watched out-of-state interests —timber and coal—pillage our state. The companies that made off like bandits are headquartered in New York and New Jersey. We got nothing out of that. The severances were minimal.”
Even though the teachers were out on strike, they were teaching an important civics lesson to West Virginia and to the rest of the nation, including their union brothers and sisters in Oklahoma and Kentucky, who are on the verge of striking themselves. The populist equation goes something like this: Want to defeat the corporate lobbyists and their politicians? First, find people rooted in the community—people like schoolteachers.
As you try to recruit candidates for office, reach out to someone with an independent streak, who’s not beholden to the corporate state, and who understands and carries with them West Virginia’s history of down-home independence. Then fight like hell to the end, and refuse to back down.
As Richard Ojeda will tell you, if you survive, you might win.
This piece first appeared at The Baffler.