Danielle Walker is the only Black woman in West Virginia’s Legislature. She is a Democrat.
She has participated in three of the affirmative action caucuses recently established by the Democratic Party — the women’s caucus, the Black caucus and the LGBTQ caucus.
And Walker is concerned about whether those groups are truly being heard by the state party’s leadership.
“Words without works are a waste. No one is a waste in this party. There’s no mountaineer that is a waste also,” Walker, D-Monongalia, said last week.
Differences within West Virginia’s Democratic Party have been pronounced since a raucous, livestreamed June 3 meeting to adopt an affirmative action plan. Members of the new affirmative action committee concluded they were being cut out while, up against a deadline, the party adopted a boilerplate plan to send to the national party.
Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore has said that was just a draft to comply with the deadline and that there would be opportunities to participate in changing it. She said the affirmative action committee has meetings scheduled June 21 and 22, and she will offer any support that is needed.
But since then, the situation hasn’t calmed. Instead, it’s starting to boil.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, met with Biafore last Monday and asked her to apologize about actions at the meeting. Her public statements have not included acknowledgements of regret.
In public comments to MetroNews last week, Biafore said she wants to move forward.
“This is a time when Democrats need to come together and start looking at candidates and start looking at positive things to make this party better. We think the things we’ve been doing work towards that,” she said Thursday. “I’m excited that we have an affirmative action committee and that we’re working together.”
Biafore received a letter of support from her peers in the Association of State Democratic Committees, praising her efforts toward diversity. “We support and applaud the ongoing efforts under the leadership of Chair Biafore.”
Yet among West Virginia Democrats, discussion has ramped up over whether the party’s inclusion efforts have been adequate and what role Biafore has played.
On Friday, Biafore participated in a lengthy meeting with Baldwin, Skaff and members of the affirmative action committees, participants said. Some of those who participated said they asked for a clear apology and concluded that they would not receive one. So, some requested Biafore resign.
On Saturday, one local Democratic executive committee, the one in Wood County, sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee to express no confidence in Biafore and publicly calling for her resignation. “We cannot promote our values externally if we are unwilling to model them internally,” the local committee wrote.
On Sunday morning, the co-chairman of the Democratic Party’s affirmative action committee, Hollis Lewis, published an opinion piece in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, saying it’s not enough to just have a seat at the table. It only matters if you’re heard, he wrote. “We find ourselves where we are at tables with no one listening,” he wrote.
And Biafore is subject to a credential hearing at midday Tuesday before the Democratic National Committee over the circumstances of her election to the position in 2020. She first became party chair in 2015 after serving as vice chairwoman since 2004.
Two state legislators, Democrats Mike Pushkin and Kayla Young of Kanawha County, have made public statements calling for a change atop the state party.
The Democratic Party in West Virginia is in the middle of a difficult, messy and sometimes public conversation about its future, its leadership and who will have say-so.
Walker said Biafore reached out to her last week. But Walker has been tending to her son, who is in the hospital with a serious illness.
“At that point, I was full of emotions and it was a priority for me to take care of my child. I texted her because I am a person of respect. I told her we were in the hospital. She sent her warm thoughts and said as soon as I get a moment she would love to have a conversation with me. It’s a step and a start,” Walker said.
Walker says she will continue to take part in affirmative action caucus meetings, and she hopes the effort will make a difference.
“Change in how we organize, strategize and mobilize. Change. Change is never easy. Change can bring on a multitude of different layers. It doesn’t come with a handbook, but what it can come with is clear, concise, consistent communication, a lot of patience from listening, respect and acknowledgement.
She alluded to hopes of actually changing the plan that the state party sent on to the national party.
“I am a Democrat. My family’s legacy are Democrats. I will continue to stand, but I will not be hushed. And I will support those to elevate the voices of the multiple caucuses in the affirmative action caucus. We say that we can make the edits. I can’t wait for those different caucuses to collaborate and get a new edited plan in place,” she said.
Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph, also wants to continue the work of the caucuses. Thompson is a co-chair of the LGBTQ caucus and was frustrated that he couldn’t meaningfully take part in the June 3 executive committee meeting. Once he finally got on the call, the delegate said, he was muted.
In the days after, Thompson said he spoke with Biafore.
“I’ve told her I still have respect for her. I still like her. I just disagree completely with how the meeting was handled and the fact that the affirmative action caucus had no input in the affirmative action plan,” Thompson said last week.
He acknowledged that he doesn’t know what’s to come with the party, but also alluded to the possibility of change.
“Many of us have definite opinions about what needs to happen,” Thompson said. “I think it’s been very quiet, but I think we’re probably going to see some changes within the party.”
Thompson said he wants to continue working with the affirmative action committee and its caucuses, hoping that work actually goes somewhere.
“I’m sure we’re going to be discussing putting our stamp on the affirmative action plan, working on our own bylaws and my concern is we’re going to be working on that stuff. But the plan that was passed out of committee, it was just a generic proposal put together by people who weren’t involved with the4 affirm action caucus,” he said. “Is the DNC going to receive ours and accept it fully?
“I’m hoping we will still be able to address the various minority groups in the affirm action caucus and put our own stamps and beliefs into that plan at that day.”
Delegate Sean Hornbuckle said although much of the public conversation has focused on Biafore’s role, more attention needs to be paid to a meaningful role for underrepresented groups in the party. Hornbuckle noted that he was not taking a position on whether Biafore should stay or go.
“It would be a dog and pony show if we just put this on Belinda,” said Hornbuckle, D-Cabell. “I’m not advocating for her removal or for her to stay. It would just be awfully shortsighted of us and disingenuous to have her be the fall guy and go about our business because you’re not fixing anything.”
But he said this entire debate should underscore the societal changes necessary to assure meaningful participation by minorities and citizens who have not had say-so.
“It warrants much more for people to talk about and debate. We have to start making actual action on these items. Let’s not just look at politics. Let’s look at other arenas within our state where, let’s be blunt, people who look like me don’t have a seat at the table,” Hornbuckle said.
One path for that is allowing the affirmative action committee and its caucuses to have real voice, he said.
“Let it operate and let it do its thing. Looking, just at affirmative action, but there’s going to be maybe policies that are born of that affects the way our leadership looks in the party.”
Kayla Young, a first-term delegate from Charleston, put out a statement Friday saying Democrats need assurance that there is a plan and resolution, “rather than the further silencing of voices of those who want to participate in our democracy.”
She continued, “Everyone deserves to participate, and a fractured party creates more problems, rather than solving them. To move forward as a united effort, we need change in our leadership.”
Tina Russell, a former and future candidate for House of Delegates, agrees.
“All of us feel like we have concerns and we feel like we need to start thinking about new leadership at the top,” said Russell, a Mercer County resident. “We need to start talking about new leadership.”
Russell is on the Black caucus of the affirmative action committee and also serves on the state Democratic Executive Committee. She is also the chairwoman of the West Virginia Working Families Party, a progressive political group.
She said recent issues have brought simmering issues in the party to light. Democrats, long the dominant party in West Virginia, lost all of the elected state-level executive branch offices last year and now have deep minority status in both chambers of the Legislature.
“We really look a shellacking in this last election. Even though we have issues with how this issue was handled, there were problems before this meeting. We just feel like that conversation needs to start happening,” she said, referring to a party leadership change.
Despite all the frustration, Russell said the work must continue on the affirmative action committees.
“I think it’ll bear more fruit than doing nothing. We have to continue the committees and continue the caucuses. If not we slip into the same thing as before with all these people of color having no say-so on these committees,” she said.
“We’re going to hold them to account. We’re going to come up with plans and policies. We’re going to submit those things to the state committee and expect them to vote on it. We’re not going to just let them hand something that will affect us and walk away.”
Airing the differences out in public is messy, Russell agreed, but necessary.
“It’s out in the open now. The problems are laid bare for everyone to see,” she said. “To me, it’s not optional any more. It’s a moral imperative to get it done. So we’re going to get it done.”
Democrat Kim Felix, also of Mercer County, was one of those who participated in Friday’s call with Biafore. She said the meeting was meant to reach a consensus about the recent turmoil and figure out a way to rectify it. But she said participants and Biafore never got on the same page.
“Unfortunately, the meeting really couldn’t progress or accomplish what it was set out to do,” Felix said. “The affirmative action committee as well as other individuals were disappointed by her inability to recognize and apologize. I think this whole thing would have gone away a long time ago if she had just made an effort to apologize.”
So, Felix said, some have started asking for Biafore to resign or to be removed.
She said it didn’t have to come to that.
“I don’t think it’s immovable. I think that unfortunately she’s not taken advantage of the opportunity brought before her to be a peaceful and amicable process. The goal isn’t to embarrass Belinda. It isn’t our goal to antagonize her. It is our goal to move the party forward as best we can.
“We want to be doing that in the most respectful way possible, by calling for her resignation and by giving her the opportunity to resign. It could be an exit you’re proud of. She remains adamant that’s not what she wants to do.”
Felix is participating on the Black caucus, and also intends to work with the Latin caucus, which is one of three that haven’t had a chance to meet yet. She wants to keep pushing forward, not only with the caucuses but on voting rights issues such as Congress’s “For the People Act,” along with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
“This can’t go on unaddressed. We can’t just keep doing business as usual because that’s not what’s going on here,” Felix said. “I think this is a really fortuitous opportunity for the Democratic Party as well as the state party to make some sweeping changes that brings the dissenting voice and the voices of those who have been silenced back into the fold.
“I would hope the leadership would take the opportunity to not only correct those actions by the chairwoman but to also signal to those of color that they’re appreciative of the support and they are earnestly looking to move the party forward.”