CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Right now is the “richest time in West Virginia history” in the eyes of Stephen Smith.
“It just doesn’t feel like it because that wealth is not staying in our communities. It’s not staying in our schools and roads and people’s pockets,” he said. “Instead, it’s leaving the state. There are people in West Virginia who are working and producing more than we ever had, and there are people profiting off that work.”
Smith said he is on the side of “the people doing the work,” which is the core of his campaign to become West Virginia’s next governor.
Smith announced Tuesday his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, less than two years before the 2020 general election.
“We actually think it’s important for the next governor to visit every single county, and not just once,” he said regarding the timing of his announcement.
“For too long, both parties have bet on outside interests. Tax break after tax break, regulation after regulation, out the window for these out-of-state companies,” he added. “I think the way for anyone to win, Democrat or otherwise, is to make the argument it’s time to bet on our people, bet on our small businesses, bet on working people.”
Smith, a Charleston resident, recently stepped down as director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition after six years at the helm; the organization advocates for policies aimed at reducing poverty, including the expansion of education programs and increasing the minimum wage.
“There’s a saying in my line of work: Never, ever do for someone what they can do for themselves,” he said. “We knew there was no one more capable and more creative than the folks in West Virginia neighborhoods. In some respects, that’s the fundamental idea of this campaign.”
Smith said political change is underway in West Virginia, evident in this year’s statewide education work stoppage and protests surrounding the planned Rockwool insulation plant in Jefferson County.
“This is a moment. Every 50 years or so in American history, the nation turns to West Virginia — teachers’ strike, Civil War, mine wars — and this is one of those moments,” he said.
Republicans maintain control of the state Legislature and the governor’s office, although Democrats did pick up seats in both legislative chambers. West Virginia is also one of President Donald Trump’s strongest states.
Smith argued West Virginians, regardless of party, want someone who will fight for their interests.
“By offering a program that actually keeps wealth here and is grounded in the people and values of this place, there is a real opportunity for a different kind of candidate and a different kind of campaign,” he said.
Smith is backing a platform, which he described as an effort to rebuild the economy.
“Our economic strategy has been waiting for the other 49 states to try to woo multinational corporations, and then try it here,” he said. “I’d argue that hasn’t worked for the other 49 states because we’ve got record inequality in America right now, and it’s certainly not working here because we’re last at the dance.”
Smith suggested “universal, free broadband access” and rewriting the tax code to favor small businesses as steps West Virginia could take if he is elected.
“Doing those things requires investment, requires foresight, requires being willing to be first and be bold,” he said. “We’re going to take these ideas to the people of the state, and we’re going to figure out which ones make the most sense for our people.”
The official kickoff for the Smith campaign is set for Jan. 5. Prior to the start, the campaign will host multiple events, beginning Thursday in Parkersburg. Smith said while on the campaign trail, he also wants to recruit individuals interested in moving the state forward.
“One governor isn’t the answer, but if we have a government that looks more like the people and involves more of the people who are closest to our communities, we can get the change we want,” he said. “It’s running a campaign that is not just about one guy.”
Gov. Jim Justice said in October he will likely run for reelection. According to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, five people have filed to run for governor in 2020 — two independent candidates, two Republicans and one person with the Constitution Party.