CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In between national elections, West Virginia is in the midst of a changing political landscape.
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump won the state over Hillary Clinton by more than 42 points in the 2016 presidential election. In the Democratic presidential primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders beat Clinton by almost 16 points. Sanders has since found a political hub in West Virginia, taking part in town halls and rallies throughout the state this year.
Additionally, there is the heated 2018 U.S. Senate race, with U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey going after each other for the opportunity. to challenge U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. The conservative Democrat is caught in this shifting political scene while also being challenged for the Democratic nomination by activist Paula Jean Swearengin.
It is the state’s political climate that led to the creation of the Working Families Party’s West Virginia chapter. The party held its launch event Saturday at the state Culture Center garden. Around 60 people were at the kick-off gathering.
“We’re about building an economy that works for us and a democracy where every voice matters,” West Virginia Working Families Party State Director Ryan Frankenberry said. “We’re for the majority of West Virginians who do not feel represented by either political party, and we will recruit, support and endorse candidates from any party who stand for working families and our issues.”
The Working Families Party platform includes middle-class tax cuts, family leave, free higher education and protecting government programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
In a speech, Frankenberry noted the changing party demographics in the state; in 1994, 65 percent of West Virginians were registered as Democrats, with 30 percent being Republicans and 4 percent were independents. As of July 31, 2017, less than 44 percent of voters were registered Democrats, 32 percent were Republicans and 21 percent were not members of any party.
“We’re not a fringe party; we’re the party that’s going to decide elections, and we’re going to get there,” he said.
The national Working Families Party began in 1998 during the New York gubernatorial election. The state party’s roots date back to October 2015 in the midst of the Democratic Party presidential debates with another group, Mountaineers for Progress. The Morgantown-based organization was founded in hopes of gathering energy from the Sanders presidential campaign for activism efforts.
“After November, like I’m sure everybody else here, we were all really upset,” said Andrew Cockburn, the founding president of Mountaineers for Progress. “We started to get angry, then we started to get determined.”
Mountaineers for Progress’ first election effort was the Morgantown City Council election, which included a candidate forum, collecting petitions and analyzing candidate funding statements. Cockburn left his position to become a party co-chair.
Stephen Smith is one of the group’s 35 starting state committee members. He said the party is about bringing new energy into the state.
“We think we’re at a point where a plurality of West Virginia voters say, ‘Neither party represents me,’” Smith said. “Those people are rational that, over the last 30 to 40 years, both parties have turned their back on rural America.
“What we’re saying is we’re choosing West Virginia over Washington, D.C., we’re choosing workers over Wall Street and we’re choosing justice over hate.”
Other organizations represented by the state committee members include representation from the West Virginia AFL-CIO, West Virginia Citizen Action Group and various NAACP chapters.
While the party did not endorse any candidates Saturday, a few individuals interested in higher office were at the launch. This includes state Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, who announced his campaign for the 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives in May. Jenkins currently holds that seat.
“I know that the people in this organization are focused on trying to help others, and that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I’m not out here looking for endorsements from Friends of Coal or the (West Virginia) Coal Association or Big Energy. I don’t want the support of Big Pharma. I want the individual person.”
Ralph Baxter, of Wheeling, is the former chairman of the Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe law firm. He said he is considering running against U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., in the 2018 midterm election as a Democrat.
“We need more than anything to create more high-paying jobs for the state and for our district, and I know how to do that,” he said.
The party’s platform also includes supporting a $15 an hour minimum wage and overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizen United ruling on corporations and unions spending money on election candidates.
“We know that if we take big risks, we’re going to have failures,” Frankenberry said. “But we’re going to get right back up, help each other out and take more risks.”
Jennifer Wells, of Huntington, said the party should be a voice to those who feel rejected, referencing her experience living in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“When a natural disaster struck, I was one of those left out and was powerless,” she described. “That’s been a moment that’s defined my life and continues to define me.
“We have power, but sometimes we don’t know how much we have. We have a voice, but sometimes we’re not picked to use it. In every moment of my work and every support I can give to this party and to you as well, we will be empowering those very people. This will not be repeated in West Virginia.”
The West Virginia Working Families Party is one of the co-sponsors of the West Virginia Grassroots Summit to be held in Buckhannon in September. According to a party release, the event will allow attendees to get training on how to run for office as well as community activism.