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Progressive group launches as WV Democrats shape up campaigns

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
Ryan Frankenberry, director of the newly launched West Virginia Working Families Party, holds his 2-year-old daughter, Julia, as he speaks during an event launching the party outside the Culture Center Saturday.
CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
Andrew Cockburn, of Morgantown, of Mountaineers for Progress, speaks during the first gathering of the West Virginia Working Families Party outside the Capitol next to the Culture Center Saturday.
CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail
Tina Russell, of Glenwood, speaks during the launch of the West Virginia Working Families Party Saturday.

With a midterm election season creeping in, state Democrats are working to get their campaigns up and running to combat West Virginia’s recent conservative tilt.

From separate corners of the Capitol campus Saturday, a group designed to support progressive candidates who will champion policies catered to working families launched, before another group rallied and marched to commemorate Women’s Equality Day, which marks the passing of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted women the right to vote.

In a garden outside the West Virginia Culture Center, Ryan Frankenberry announced the launch of the West Virginia Working Families Party, a branch of the national organization. It’s not a party in the Democratic/Republican sense of the word and will not host any ballot candidates.

Rather, it will support and endorse candidates who the party feels will advocate policies that will help working families. Some pieces of the platform include free college tuition, a $15 per hour minimum wage, and middle-class tax cuts.

Andy Cockburn, past president of Mountaineers for Progress and state co-chair for the party, explained the group’s goals before the event.

“We’re going to be supporting progressive candidates from other parties,” he said. “We’re not just interested in making a statement and showing off how pure we are. We want to win some elections. Realistically, we’re going to be supporting progressive Democrats across the state.”

Speaking in a semi-circle of roughly 85 onlookers, Frankenberry, the state chair, shared similar ideas.

“We are the Working Families Party,” he said. “We’re going to build an economy that works for us, and a Democracy in which every voice matters, and this is how we’re going to do it. We’re going to recruit, we’re going to train, and we’re going to elect leaders who share our values to local and state office.”

Just after the party launch wrapped up, activists rallied on the Capitol steps to commemorate women earning the right to vote in 1920, and firing up prospects of more women winning seats in elected office.

The two events together became something of a who’s-who in Democratic politics, featuring both seasoned officeholders, newcomers and potential candidates. Several of those political hopefuls offered ideas echoic of the Working Families Party’s platform.

At the women’s rally, U.S. Senate candidate Paula Jean Swearengin, who will face incumbent Joe Manchin in the Democratic primary, pledged to fight for universal health care, tuition-free college, a livable minimum wage, and others.

Citing famed labor organizer Mother Jones and work she did in West Virginia, Swearengin said she will fight for clean water, which she said has been harmed for years by the coal industry.

“West Virginia is one of the poorest and sickest states in the nation, and in some areas in Appalachia, people live in impoverished conditions comparable to a third-world country,” she said. “After Mother Jones made history by fighting with the workers in those areas, today the creeks run orange, the roads are barely accessible, and people still live in unimaginable conditions.”

State Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, who is also mounting a run for a congressional seat expected to be vacated by Evan Jenkins when he runs for U.S. Senate, attended both events.

He said though he hasn’t received support yet from the Working Families Party, he’s in favor of a lot of their ideas.

“They haven’t endorsed me or anything like that, but I will tell you their values and their thoughts are exactly what I would like to see pushed forward in our state,” he said.

Specifically, Ojeda said he could get behind an idea like mandating a $15 per hour minimum wage.

“I don’t have an issue with that. I would love to see something like that,” he said.

Another congressional hopeful in the first district, Ralph Baxter, former CEO of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe law firm, offered support of some of the ideology as well.

Though Baxter said at this point he is “seriously considering” running against David McKinley in the first district and has neither finalized nor announced his candidacy, he offered a hypothetical framework for his platform.

“If I do run, the most fundamental motivation for my efforts, in fact, the motivation for even considering it, is the need for us to develop high paying jobs for the people of West Virginia,” he said. “I think that our district deserves better representation, it deserves someone who will vote consistently in the best interests of the district. I think the district deserves someone who can forcefully advocate for the people to Congress. I think it needs someone who will deliver common sense in a situation that seems ever further from anything resembling common sense in Washington.”

Running for state Senate, two progressive candidates offered their early glimpses of the campaign as well.

Jeff Martin is running for a seat in the fourth district, which was recently vacated by Mike Hall to serve as Gov. Jim Justice’s chief of staff. Martin said presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders gained so much traction in West Virginia because they focused so intensely on middle class families.

With his Senate run, he’s hoping to do the same.

“Working Family Party has been pushing middle class and working families in West Virginia, he said. “As a union supporter … focusing on working families is going to be the way forward for economic growth and diversification, so I wanted to come here and hear the platform, see what they’re doing, and seeing what Ryan [Frankenberry] has planned for the future.”

Over at the women’s rally, speaking after Swearengin and before a woman playing the role of Susan B. Anthony, Carey Jo Grace, an organizer with Our Children, Our Future, said she plans to run against state Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha.

“I think we need more people in the Senate who are going to stand up for women, stand up for working class families, stand up for LGBTQ, stand up for black lives, and that the conservative nature of our Legislature does not work for the regular, everyday working families of West Virginia,” she said.

When asked about the recent mobilization and concurrent Democratic electioneering events, Grace said Democrats became complacent during Barack Obama’s administration and lost sight of the parties original aims. She said Saturday’s events are an indication that progressives are trying to reshape the party from the inside out.

“There’s a big feeling within the Democratic party that the Democrats no longer stand for the working guy, and I think there’s a lot of people around that, rather than breaking off and trying to compete with the big parties, let’s change the Democratic party from the inside and make the party what we want it to be.”

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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