CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Energy policy analyst Cathy Kunkel has become an advocacy leader in recent years, helping create Advocates for a Safe Water System following the 2014 Elk River chemical spill and Rise Up West Virginia in 2017.
Kunkel’s efforts have focused on being a voice for West Virginians. Now, she wants to take that mission to Washington, D.C.
“I really believe we need representatives who are listening to the people of West Virginia. Over the last couple of years, we have seen the people of West Virginia standing up overwhelming in support of public education and against charter schools. We’ve seen people in the Eastern Panhandle standing up against the Rockwool factory,” she said.
Kunkel announced Tuesday her campaign for the Democratic nomination in next year’s 2nd Congressional District contest. U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., currently is in his third term in office.
Kunkel’s experience as an energy policy includes testifying before the Public Service Commission of West Virginia about utility rates and long-term energy planning, as well as analyzing the impact of natural gas development and researching absentee land ownership in the state.
Her work has been cited by federal lawmakers as well as multiple outlets, including The Washington Post and the Associated Press.
“We’ve seen over the last decade the collapse of the coal industry, and all those bankruptcies of coal companies have been really devastating both in terms of pensions and the impact on local workers and governments,” she said. “I think that West Virginia is repeating a lot of those mistakes with the natural gas industry, which also has not delivered on a lot of the benefits that have been promised to the state about a decade ago.”
Kunkel’s advocacy work dates back to the 2014 Elk River chemical spill, in which 300,000 people in nine counties were unable to access safe drinking water after a chemical used for cleaning coal leaked into the local water supply. Kunkel’s work included researching water pollution and challenging water utility West Virginia American Water Company before the state Public Service Commission.
Following the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January 2017, Kunkel co-founded Rise Up West Virginia, a Charleston-based advocacy group whose platform includes improving access to health care and fighting for social justice causes. The organization also endorsed and campaigned for multiple first-time candidates in the 2018 election cycle.
“Through my work as an energy policy analyst and as an advocate for safe water and other issues in the Charleston area, I’m very used to standing up to special interests and advocating for consumers,” Kunkel added. “That’s the thing I want to continue in Congress.”
In regards to her campaign, Kunkel stressed the importance of an ongoing economic transition; she supports the federal government investing in new industries in West Virginia, as well as increasing support for infrastructure and enforcement of anti-monopoly laws.
“We can build on the strengths we have here — in terms of small-scale agriculture and tourism and some of the manufacturing we have — to build up enterprises in other sectors that keep wealth here in the state instead of having the sort of extraction economy that we’ve had for more than a hundred years,” she said.
She also said one of her interests is creating a “Medicare for All” health care system, which she argues will prevent private insurance companies from increasing costs and limiting treatment options.
“I found again and again that health care is an overwhelming issue for so many West Virginians in terms of the difficulties that so many of us have in accessing and affording health care,” she added.
Other portions of Kunkel’s platform include banning for-profit charter schools and forgiving student loan debt.
Kunkel signed the pledge of West Virginia Can’t Wait, a grassroots movement that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith is leading. The pledge states Kunkel’s campaign will support similar candidates for public office and not take donations from corporations.
“I think Stephen Smith has the right idea of building a movement and not just trying to get him elected to governor,” Kunkel said. “I think he recognizes that the problems in West Virginia are very deep, and one person is not going to save the state whether it’s the governor or a member of Congress. What has always brought about lasting change in our country is organized social movements.”
Smith spoke favorably of Kunkel in a statement to MetroNews.
“I cannot imagine a better candidate for office than Cathy Kunkel. She is brilliant, principled and she knows that the fight in West Virginia is not left versus right, but the people versus the Good Old Boys … because she’s been in the trenches of that fight her whole career,” he said.
As for Mooney, he beat Huntington native and former State Department official Talley Sergent in last November’s contest. He told MetroNews he will continue to support the Trump administration and its agenda.
“I look forward to running on my record alongside President Trump to continue serving folks across the Second District,” he said in a statement.
“West Virginians have repeatedly rejected positions that are anti-coal, anti-jobs, anti-gun and don’t respect human life. I look forward to focusing on the pro-Trump agenda of creating jobs in West Virginia and protecting West Virginia traditional values.”