A coal miner’s daughter’s populist progressive campaign in the heart of ‘Trump Country’
Insight into Paula Jean Swearengin’s run for Senate as part of a growing grassroots movement to give West Virginians ‘a fighting chance’
Progressive populist, Appalachian activist and coal miner’s daughter Paula Jean Swearengin, who has made a name for herself and her home in recent years, most recently culminating in a prominent feature in Knock Down the House, announced earlier this week her plans to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Shelly Moore Capito in the upcoming 2020 election.
“West Virginia is one of the poorest, sickest states in the nation, and there’s no one better to represent this state than a coal miner’s daughter,” Swearengin said. “I know what it’s like to bounce a paycheck; I know what it’s like to live without health insurance; I know what it’s like to be a single mother today; I know what it’s like to bury most my family members to black lung and cancer; I know what it’s like to live in poverty and have to beg for clean water. I know all our issues in West Virginia, because I’ve lived ’em since birth. Someone who doesn’t know our struggles cannot represent our people.”
Despite living in the heartland of what most political analysts, corporate media pundits and other ‘experts’ in Washington D.C. tend to refer to as ‘Trump Country,’ Swearengin is running an unapologetically progressive, populist campaign which she believes has the power to overcome ideological and partisan divisions by placing those most impacted by issues in the state at the forefront of solving such issues.
“If all these experts in Washington D.C. knew any better than the people of West Virginia, the people of our state wouldn’t be in the position we’re in now,” Swearengin said. “It’s a shame we have people like Shelly Moore Capito more worried about corporate welfare than the welfare of the people in our state and across the country. If people have educational opportunities, access to adequate healthcare, clean water and opportunities to grow, then our country grows. Not only is it moral, but it also makes economic sense.”
While there have been many significant progressive victories by freshmen representatives against the old guard in the U.S. House in recent election cycles, most notably of New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over former vice chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, ‘King of Queens’ Joe Crowley, incumbents in the Senate have been more successful in maintaining cultural and political status quos and traditional power structures, Swearengin said.
“I think it is vitally important we get some more progressive voices in the Senate,” she said. “And we all know Shelly Moore Capito’s history. We need someone who will vote with the people, not with corporate donors.”
Capito, who is the daughter of three-term West Virginia governor Arch Alfred Moore Jr., has a thorough history of votes in D.C. according to the desires of lobbyists and industries as opposed to fighting for the needs of poor and working-class West Virginians, Swearengin said.
“[Capito] sides with corporations […] and her votes reflect that,” she said. “She doesn’t talk about women’s rights; she isn’t standing up for our health care; she even sided with Kavanaugh. As a woman, I can’t believe she did that.”
According to a recent report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail which cites polling from the Morning Consult, Capito’s approval rating has been on a steady downward trend for the past two and a half years. Capito’s most recent ratings show approval from about 46% of past voters, while around 32% said they disapprove.
Swearengin said the Senate seat up for grabs could be crucial for the prospect of a true progressive holding notoriously right wing, blue dog Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia accountable for his votes and intentions in Washington D.C. as well.
Unlike the vast majority of traditional and modern political campaigns, Swearengin’s will not shy away from holding political leaders and those in power on both sides of the aisle accountable for their actions, she said, specifically regarding a lack of consideration for poor and working-class constituents.
“We have to hold the Democratic Party accountable to being a party that serves poor people, the working class and everybody,” Swearengin said. “It’s past time we have a leader in the Senate who actually represents West Virginians for a change. We don’t even have visionaries for our future. Our incumbents are only visionaries for their own pocketbooks, and that has to change.”
In May of last year, Swearengin, as a relatively unknown activist, challenged Manchin, a career politician, in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat Manchin currently holds. In that race, Swearengin touted campaign slogans such as “The Redneck Revolution” and garnered around 30% of the Democratic primary vote — 48,805 votes — despite receiving substantially less coverage in local and national media than was awarded to Manchin and State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who participated in the race as a Republican. In the 2018 primaries, Swearengin’s underdog, grassroots campaign received more votes than Morrisey, the winner of the Republican primary, who received around 47,240 votes. Manchin went on to defeat Morrisey by about 3% in the general.
Swearengin’s bid for the Senate seat to represent West Virginia is part of a much larger grassroots movement — both in the U.S. and W.V. — shifting the country’s and the state’s political scenes and Overton windows away from normalized rampant corruption and corporatism and toward progressive populism and genuine working-class representation.
At the core of that movement is the unification of regular people across the country and the state standing up to combat the corrupting influence of big money infecting every aspect of every prominent issue in American politics, Swearengin said.
“This is not just my vision,” she said. “I’ve signed the West Virginia Can’t Wait pledge, and a lot of candidates across the state have the same vision. We want to bring morals and values back to politics and get the Democratic Party back to serving the people.”
Last week, Swearengin added her signature to a list of nearly 50 names of candidates for various offices across the state who have signed the populist pledge being circulated by the W.V. Can’t Wait movement, headed by gubernatorial candidate and former anti-poverty organizer Stephen Smith.
The pledge includes a list of five promises to be made by those running for office or currently holding political offices in the state, including one which reads, “We won’t take Corporate Cash — we promise to run a people-funded campaign and not to take a penny from Big Pharma, Out of State Corporations, Out of State Land Companies, or Corporate PACs.”
The remaining promises in the pledge include always standing with working people, remaining grounded in day-to-day struggles of regular citizens, never hiding from a debate, hosting at least one public meeting for face-to-face conversations with constituents each month and ultimately: “We won’t blame people who are struggling for their pain — we promise to remember that our fight is with the Good Old Boys and not with each other.”
This particular promise is one which seems to hit home with Swearengin and countless other struggling Americans and West Virginians, transcending traditional partisan, ideological and cultural divisions.
“Despite partisan politics, West Virginians are known for uniting and sticking together and taking care of each other, and we have more than proven that’s not going to end with this generation,” Swearengin said. “I’m more than excited to be a part of this growing movement of regular people stepping up, getting more involved in politics and running for office. We actually have a fighting chance in West Virginia again.”
Despite such a promising populist, progressive wave steadily gaining significant momentum and various victories throughout the country and her home state, situations for the vast majority of Americans and West Virginians are still urgent matters of life and death, Swearengin said, further exacerbating the need for immediate and substantial changes in politics and power structures throughout the country.
“We have people living in impoverished conditions comparable to third-world countries. People are going hungry and dying because they can’t afford food or healthcare,” she said. “People are suffering because the cost of living is rising, and they can’t afford to live. We don’t even have access to fresh food across our state.”
As throughout her last campaign and the following months, Swearengin has vowed to run a campaign which puts at its forefront the issues most impacting the U.S.’s and West Virginia’s most disenfranchised and politically abandoned citizens.
She said her campaign will again focus on progressive, populist policy positions supported by a majority of U.S. and West Virginia citizens and pushed by groups like Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, both of which Swearengin has previously been affiliated with.
Swearengin’s campaign touts unapologetic, passionate and lionhearted support for popularly supported (in issue-based opinion polls) policy positions which are considered moderate in many of the world’s most developed and flourishing nations with the highest qualities of life for all citizens.
Some of these popularly-supported policy positions include: fighting for Medicare for All; legalizing marijuana for recreational use; ending the corrupting influence of big money in politics, wealthy tax dodging and corporate loopholes, costly forever wars and homelessness; implementing tuition free public colleges and trade schools, a $15 minimum wage tied to inflation, substantial criminal justice and police reform, sensible and comprehensive immigration reform and automatic voter registration; defending and expanding social security; standing up for women’s rights; and rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure.
“West Virginia has laid the platform for cultural genocide, but it’s time for us to be leaders,” Swearengin said. “We can afford corporate welfare; we can afford wars of choice; we can afford tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry. But we have never seen any wealth given back to our communities.”
In addition to being fueled by her moral principles and compassionate convictions, Swearengin’s recent rise to prominence along with her home state in American political culture is a personal matter for herself and those closest to her heart.
“I am sick of wars of choice. I used to see men go to war for corporations; now the corporations are at war against us too,” she said. “My dad was a veteran; My grandpa was a veteran; I come from a long line of veterans too. Now I’m a mother of four young men, and my biggest fear is for them to go to war for this country for no good reason.”
Like many Americans and West Virginians, the soul-crushing realities of genuine systemic poverty and all its impacts and implications are far-reaching, ever-present and firmly rooted in the Swearengin family tree.
“I come from poverty, and I’m poor now. I come from a long line of coal miners. We need the people who know and have experienced our struggles to be in charge of our struggles,” Swearengin said. “This is a revolutionary moment, and I wish some of my mentors were alive to see it. They fought all their lives, and they fought to the death… I wish my mentors were still alive to see what’s happening; it’s what we’ve wanted to see in this state for so long. I can’t tell you how incredibly proud of my state I am right now…”
Douglas Harding can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.