Salfia, Steele, Murphy: WV Dems can win at the polls with Smith (Opinion)

For the past 20 years, conventional wisdom has held that Democrats in West Virginia need corporate money to win, that they must cater to industry, rather than labor, and that they should pretend to be Republicans to get elected.

What has this adherence to conventional wisdom yielded for the people of West Virginia? Conventional wisdom has weakened the once-mighty Democratic Party.

Democrats used to hold every West Virginia congressional seat. Now we hold only one of five. We used to hold every statewide office. Now we only hold one of six.

Conventional wisdom brought us an anti-labor Legislature that passed right-to-work, gutted the West Virginia Jobs Act, snubbed a black lung pension fund and ended prevailing wage.

And conventional wisdom delivered the Democratic nomination for governor to Jim Justice — a man who spent his whole life dodging taxes, undercutting small businesses and exploiting workers.

By the winter of 2018, we had the wisdom to know that we had had enough of conventional wisdom. Thousands of teachers, bus drivers, aides, cooks and other school service personnel went on strike. Thousands more West Virginians took to the streets in solidarity — organizing feeding programs, child care, phone banks and picket lines.

In 2019, we were forced to do it all over again. We have fought for better pay, better schools and a fix to PEIA — policies that neither party had won for us. And that’s the point.

Democrats and West Virginia workers can win at the polls in 2020 — but only if we reject the conventional wisdom and start acting like the party of labor.

The numbers don’t lie. A generation ago, 65% of West Virginians were registered Democrats. Now it is less than 40%. For any Democrat to win in 2020, they will need to make real headway into two groups of voters who are fed up with the conventional wisdom: Trump supporters and infrequent voters. They will need to do what teachers and school service personnel did in 2018: present a bold vision, fight corporate interests head on and, most importantly, do the work of organizing in communities.

There is only one candidate for governor who is doing all three. Stephen Smith is the only candidate with a bold platform written by working people — and we should know, we helped write some of his platform. It includes a workers bill of rights, collective bargaining for state employees, paid family leave, a West Virginia State Police unit to fight corporate crime and political corruption and a historic investment in education (paid for by an end to corporate tax giveaways).

That bold vision appeals to people across party lines, because it was written by people across party lines. You can read those plans in detail right now at

The Smith campaign also boasts the first unionized staff in West Virginia history, and it’s the only one in the race that’s rejected corporate political action committee and corporate lobbyist money. The campaign takes only money from individuals and unions, and they’ve already doubled the previous record for small-dollar donations in a governor’s race. The campaign has secured 485 donations from West Virginia educators. Every other campaign, combined, has secured only eight.

Smith isn’t alone. He is part of a statewide coalition called West Virginia Can’t Wait, and it is doing the work needed to win a government of, by and for the people. It already has held 169 community meetings statewide and talked to more than 11,000 infrequent voters face-to-face. Like an old-fashioned Democratic campaign, it has invested deeply in down-ballot races. To date, 87 candidates have been trained and recruited to sign the West Virginia Can’t Wait pledge, promising that they’ll never take corporate cash or cross a picket line. Fourteen of those candidates were leaders of the 2018 and 2019 educators strikes.

West Virginia workers know that no single politician or party will save us. We can only save ourselves. That’s why we are proud to support the West Virginia Can’t Wait movement and Stephen Smith for governor. This movement doesn’t belong to any one politician or party. It belongs to us.

Jessica Salfia is an English teacher and member of AFT-W.Va. in Berkeley County.

Terry Steele is a retired coal miner

and member of UWMA Local 1440

in Mingo County.

Joe Murphy is a retired union carpenter, former business representative/organizer for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a former president, of North Central Building and Trades in Clay County.

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