In the start of a new WestVirginiaVille series called, “Conversations,” we sit down with 2020 West Virginia gubernatorial Democratic candidate Stephen Smith as he winds down a two-year, grass-roots campaign to upend the long reign of what his campaign dubs the “good old boy network” in state governance.
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Text of Stephen Smith WestVirginiaVille.com ‘Conversations’ Interview, June 6, 2020
Scores of cars and people showed up for a Pop-up Pride and Black Lives Matter parade Saturday in Huntington, West Virginia, which made a colorful honking circuit around the city. Several political candidates from all over the state showed up. Among them was West Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith.
After two years of a grassroots campaign called “W.Va. Can’t Wait,” Smith and a cadre of volunteers in the state’s 55 counties near the campaign finish line with Tuesday’s 2020 primary. After the parade, we caught up with Smith for an interview beside the Ohio River in Harris, Riverfront Park,
STEPHEN SMITH: West Virginia is a hard place to live for a lot of people. And we can’t pretend that racism and homophobia don’t exist here. Also, radical love and organizing and bottom-up politics also exists here, as it does everywhere in the country. The people who tell this lie that West Virginia is one thing, that we are this hillbilly stereotype, are people who rely on that narrative, on that false hood, in order to keep things just the way they are.
The real opportunity in America right now is the same opportunity we had 150 years ago. The same opportunity they had in the coalfields 100 years ago, which is that when we unite black and white and immigrant, cities, and rural areas, we’re unstoppable.
And those in power, know that. That’s why they spend so much time and effort trying to pit us against one another. And what this campaign shows is that if we’re willing to do the work, if we’re willing to ask each other: ‘What’s the world you want? What’s the first thing you would do if you were governor?’ And we’re able to build that vision of what actually answers the interests of all the people, rather than allowing those at the top to dictate the terms of the debate—all of a sudden, there’s a vision for a government, a vision for an economy, where each of us gets served, no matter who we are [or] the color of our skin. And we get to see each other for who we are and fight for each other.
One of the things we say often in the campaign is that ‘When we fight each other, we lose. And when we fight for each other, we win. Every time.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: The choice of red bandanas was another somewhat confrontational choice. I mean, the red bandana was a sign of insurrection in West Virginia history. What’s the Crosby Stills and Nash line? ‘Letting my freak flag fly …’ You were letting your rebellion flag fly. You were kind of signaling that way. I mean, was there conversation about the wisdom of that?
STEPHEN SMITH: What we’re trying to pull off in this campaign is something historic, right? We’re trying to win the kind of government that hasn’t existed at the state level, anytime in West Virginia history, and arguably never in American history, if we do it right. And so we have to look at history for examples.
Because if we just look around at the latest political fad or trying to make fancy TV ads, then we will fall into the same traps that have gotten us into this mess. So, we were intentional from the very beginning, from months before we even launched the campaign, that we wanted to be judged by history. And we wanted to look to history for examples. And we could not think of any example more powerful than the example of a multiracial, bottom-up, pro-labor movement in the hills of West Virginia.
And it was a reminder that when we fight these fights, we know that what we’re asking for, what we’re expecting, is that all of our enemies will line up against us. We didn’t think there was any way around it if we were fighting the fight we wanted. And so rather than trying to hide from it, we wanted to honor that history and lean into it.
WESTVIRGNIAVILLE: You’ve got a young, idealistic staff. You’ve created a statewide network of people. This is kind of a weird question, but are they prepared to lose and keep going?
STEPHEN SMITH: The people who aren’t prepared to lose are the people at the top, right? Those of us who have to work for a living, those of us who have suffered through oppression and 157 years of government not belonging to us, we are prepared to lose. We’re always prepared to lose—and to keep fighting.
That’s the difference between movement politics, and traditional politics. Traditional politics is all about one rich guy versus another rich guy, duking it out for who wins the popularity contest and who gets to get more of their friends into office.
For us, this is who gets to eat. It’s who gets better medicine. And that’s what we think politics is. And we’re going to have to continue to fight for food and medicine and fair treatment from police officers, whether we win or lose. And we had to fight for it for the last 40 years. We’ll have to keep fighting it for the next 40 years. And this is one tactic, in one moment.
But absolutely our people are prepared to fight no matter what. Because what’s at stake is whether and how long we get to live. And how free we get to live.
WESTVIRGINIAVILE: As the sun headed for the horizon, we talked about inspirations and icons, I thought he’d mention some towering progressive politician. However, his answer surprised me.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: Can you name three, four or five, either personal mentors or historical figures or people that you admire that have shaped your thinking about community organizing, politics, and social justice?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah. You know who Bayard Rustin is? So, Bayard Rustin was an organizer, he was behind the scenes. Bayard Rustin is the human being most responsible for organizing the March on Washington. Now, history tells the story of Martin Luther King. History always tells the story of the politician, of the person out front, of the orator. And that story deserves to be told. But it gets over-told because it means that politics is something that is for one individual, right? It’s for a grand speaker. It’s not.
Politics works because of the work of organizers behind the scenes. Rustin was the consummate organizer. You don’t get the March on Washington because of a speaker’s list. You get it because of the, you know, the notebooks filled with bus schedules and recruitments and church outreach. That kind of work is actually the work that builds the power that wins the change. And he’s a hero.
I think about our campaign manager Katey, who is doing a lot of that work that Bayard Rustin was doing, right now. And I would argue that work is harder to find. That work is more essential and more irreplaceable than the work of a candidate traveling the state.
I look up to my wife. That one of the things that I wish I had more of—was just fearlessness. Just that straight, pure fearlessness, in the way my wife walks into a courtroom every single day or walks into a virtual hearing now every single day, and stands right next to the person that no one else in society wants to stand next to, as a public defender. You know, her only clients are people who have been charged with a violent crime and can’t afford an attorney. She walks in every single day, and she doesn’t just get by. She doesn’t just survive it. She fights like hell every single day, no matter who’s beside her. And trying to live up to that is a big part of who I am and what I’m trying to do in this moment.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: What’s a political figure that you’ve modeled your style after? You don’t have one?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no. I mean, I almost don’t even buy the question. What we’re doing isn’t a tactic or a strategy or a clever way to win. We actually don’t believe that the politician is the most important ingredient, that what we need are factions. What we need are veterans and seniors and students and social workers and LGBTQ-plus, right?
It’s important to us that the first thing we did in this campaign was go build 55 county volunteer teams and 39 constituency teams. And that we didn’t name any of those volunteer teams after a politician. It’s not ‘Cabell County for Smith.’ It’s ‘Cabell County Can’t Wait.’ It’s ‘Ex-offenders Can’t Wait.’ And the same thing with candidates. We didn’t build all of those to support one guy at the top of the ticket. We went out and recruited other people to run for office, working diligently to make sure that candidates we were recruiting and supporting, looked and represented West Virginia in a more real way.
WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: I asked him about the turmoil, the mess that is politics in West Virginia and America right now. And how it can feel like the state and country have been driven into a ditch, if not over a cliff. There’s a famous line about civil rights: ‘Keep your eye on the prize.’ I asked what does he keep in mind in the face of all that stands in the way of change.
STEPHEN SMITH: Politicians of the day, the leaders of the day, are always put to a test. History always judges them later. And it does not judge kindly the people who stand on the sidelines. It doesn’t judge kindly the people who try to stand in the middle in saying, well, “There’s good people on both sides.’ The people who play the false equivalence. It doesn’t reward the Boss Hogs who come in with force.
It rewards the 17-year-olds, the 19-year-olds, the 21-year-olds, who are out at the very front, at the very edges of what’s possible, trying to name a different kind of world. Doing so with courage and fearlessness. That’s who history remembers, because it’s in these moments of greatest turmoil, that we have the worst of who we are—and the best of who we are.
And I’m listening and trying to be led by this incredible generation of people in their teens and early 20s, who are coming up right now and don’t have the same baggage that your generation had or that my generation has. They see it clear, right? They have no pretenses. They know that the world must be fundamentally different.
And they’re naming it for us if we’re willing to listen
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