Since Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., goaded critics in a February telephone town hall to take him on in a primary, an environmental activist has taken his advice and declared her candidacy for his Senate seat.
Paula Jean Swearengin, a new politician with ties to Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, said the coal industry has dominated West Virginia politics for too long, and she wants to run to protect the state’s land and people who have been harmed along the way.
“What made me want to run for office was, me being a Democrat, Jim Justice, one of the biggest polluting coal barons in West Virginia, is now my Democratic governor,” she said. “He has a mountaintop removal site 3 miles from my house, putting silica dust in my children’s lungs every day.”
The ugly side of coal mining has laid its hand on Swearengin’s family, she said. She said her stepfather and grandfather were coal miners and, between the two of them, they’ve faced everything from black lung disease to unemployment and relocation when coal mining jobs began to wane.
Swearengin said state leaders don’t bear the pain of coal’s demise — from tainted waters to expensive health care, coupled with lapses in coverage, or lack of employment opportunities outside of the mines — although they enjoy its benefits, between scoring political points by backing it to profiting financially off the industry.
She said she wants to diversify the state’s economic infrastructure, with a tilt toward small business, industry and renewable resources.
“We’ve lived long enough to understand we’re a singular industry-based economy,” she said. “I think it’s time to invest and expand our infrastructure with bringing in more manufacturing jobs and industry in West Virginia, investing in small business, be more welcoming to small business, focus on cash crops and build a sustainable-energy economy.
“We can grow aerospace, automotive, biotech, renewable-energy industries. We can have windmills and solar panels, and we can manufacture them in West Virginia, and we’re not hearing any of that from our leadership. It’s ‘jobs, jobs, jobs,’ but we don’t have them, and we’re paying a heavy price for the jobs we have now, and people are going hungry.”
As the presidency of Barack Obama slips further into the past and President Donald Trump has signed an executive order in March rolling back some of the former president’s environmental regulations, the so-called “war on coal” still rears its head in derogatory news releases and campaign rhetoric.
Swearengin writes off that narrative.
“There’s been a lot of propaganda. They’ve been very divisive, trying to convince people that the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine in West Virginia,” she said. “It’s been proven we can evolve into a renewable-energy industry, but our leadership hasn’t even been saying that. They’ve been holding onto the propaganda and saying [coal] is all we have.”
Much of Swearengin’s platform runs parallel to Sanders’ during his underdog and, ultimately, unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Swearengin has the support of two key groups run by former Sanders staffers and is the subject of a video depicting an emotional conversation between her and the senator.
The two political action committees, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, are backing Swearengin’s run, helping her and other progressive candidates raise funds via small donations from individual backers around the nation, most donating $20 or less.
Along with the indirect ties, Swearengin met Sanders at a campaign event in West Virginia that was captured on the video. She said Sanders heard her out on the issues she’s campaigning on. She said she did not know the interaction was being recorded, and the dialogue ends with a hug.
Sanders, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, trounced his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, by nearly 16 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s 2016 primary.
Although she’s new to politics, Swearengin said she’s not intimidated by some of the more seasoned campaigners already in the running, namely Manchin and Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., or those who might announce, such as Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
“Having suffered through my family like I have, I’ve seen children in Appalachia deal with cancer,” she said. “PTSD is no stranger to people in the coalfields because of the suffering we’ve had to endure. There’s nothing they could put me through that I haven’t been through already.”