Way back before the beginning of time, in early 2015, West Virginia began to talk about the Governor’s race. Earl Ray Tomblin was finishing up and the seat would be open. After a resounding defeat in the 2014 mid-terms, under former Party Chairman Larry Puccio, that saw Republicans capture both houses of the Legislature, Democrats needed a new message, new messengers, and a strong candidate to defend the Governor’s Mansion against Bill Cole.
Former Senate President Jeff Kessler came out first, declaring himself a candidate and announcing a progressive vision focused on helping working people earn better wages to improve their lives. Within days though, Joe Manchin’s newly-picked party chair went on Hoppy Kercheval’s radio program to announce that there would be “other good candidates” in the race. As the Party Vice Chair at the time, I thought the move was pretty unfair to Kessler, but we were all much younger then.
Next thing West Virginia knew, the Manchin rumors began to swirl. Barely two years into his Senate term, Joe Manchin wouldn’t say if he would finish the term he’d won or come back home and run for governor again. Was he the “other good candidate” his Party Chair teased on Hoppy? Democrats were frozen. With a Manchin candidacy a possibility, influential Democrats and donors had to wait and see, making it more difficult for Kessler’s candidacy to build momentum and raise money during 2015.
It turned out to be a bluff of course. What Manchin wanted to do was not run for governor himself, but simply to make sure the Party’s candidate would be “his guy.” The uncertainty over a potential Manchin run ended as soon as he had his recruit in place, Jim Justice, to be managed by none other than Manchin’s long-time consigliere, Puccio. Manchin said the Justice campaign was like a “dream come true” for West Virginia, while making no comments at all about Kessler, who questioned from day one if Justice was even a Democrat.
Stalwart Democrat Booth Goodwin also entered the primary but Manchin’s endorsement turned the party into a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Justice campaign. The thought of Jim’s billions being turned into ammunition for Democratic campaigns was just too much for many professional politicians to turn down, and the party apparatus, controlled entirely by the Manchinites, fell in line. Every ounce of party resources was devoted to the top-line race and neither billions, nor millions, nor really even all that many thousands materialized for the down ballot candidates.
The result for the West Virginia Democratic Party? Unprecedented catastrophe. Amidst much bold talk of gaining ground in the House and re-taking the State Senate, Democrats lost seats. The celebrated win in the top-line race turned to ashes in a few short months when exactly as Kessler had hinted, Jim Justice turned out to be a Republican. The Board of Public Works went almost entirely to Republicans.
Since then West Virginia has endured a steady drumbeat of Republican giveaways to its wealthy donor class. Working families have lost prevailing wage protections, union power, and their voice in Charleston. What might have happened if Manchin had not recruited Justice and pushed him on the party, no one knows; but the Justice win made for the worst of all worlds. Coal baron Justice, and his fellow owners in the extraction industries run the state for their own benefit. Not only did the Democratic Party lose the power of the office it had won in the election, it lost its credibility as an organization dedicated to fighting for the little guy.
So here we are again. Twenty months out from the governor’s race, the Democrats have managed to attract a young, optimistic, organized leader prepared to take the state in a new direction. The Stephen Smith campaign that refuses corporate money has been building a movement from the ground up. It recently barnstormed the state for family-oriented, pot-luck meetings in homes in every part of West Virginia. The tour was so successful it raised over $100,000, much of it in small donations, to fund an ambitious set of events including one in every single West Virginia county.
What’s that sound you hear? Yep, it’s Joe Manchin rushing to Hoppy Kercheval’s microphone. Regular as clockwork he’s “not denying” that he might run for governor. The whole thing worked out so well last time, why not try it again? There’s not much chance of Manchin actually running of course. The unexpectedly close three-point win against Patrick Morrisey earned him a six-year term and laying that on the table to run against a billionaire (that he backed) would be contrary to most any politicians’ survival instincts--and no one ever says Manchin doesn’t have those.
Manchin probably won’t run for governor in 2020. More likely, what he wants is to hold off any kind of organic, pro-labor, grassroots movement within the West Virginia Democratic Party and make sure his “own guy” is in the race. Puccio, who went from Manchin’s party chair, to leader of Manchin’s Country Roads PAC, to chairman of the Justice campaign, might be looking for a new campaign to run. Who will that candidate be? We can expect a re-run of 2016 — another top-down type who stands for entrenched corporate interests instead of standing up for hardworking people. Can they find someone as cartoonish as Jim Justice? I guess we’ll see.
The legal term for what’s happened to the West Virginia Democrats is “mortmain.” Mortmain refers to the perpetual, inalienable ownership of something. The literal translation is “dead hand.” The West Virginia Democratic Party is controlled by its past, which is why it is dying. Despite a massive blue wave leading to nearly 40 new Democrats in Congress last fall, not one of West Virginia’s three districts turned blue. The party was so busy keeping Manchin on top it never even glanced down the ballot at its future.
It’s time to learn the lesson. Our state deserves a Democratic party that stands on the side of working families and seniors every time. The West Virginia Democrats need new ideas, new voices, and new leadership. It needs more Amy Shuler Goodwin, more Sammi Brown, more Bill Ihlenfeld, more Sean Hornbuckle and more Stephen Smith, more bottom-up leadership — and less of the old leadership’s dead hands on every race and every decision. The time has come for new voices and new leaders.
Christopher J. Regan is the former Vice-Chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party and an attorney with the law firm of Bordas & Bordas, PLLC.