She’s a 43-year-old single mom. She’s a Wyoming County native. She’s a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Joe Manchin.
Paula Jean Swearengin is a long shot. She knows that.
But she believes West Virginia deserves better. And she believes she’s got what it takes to turn things around.
“If we elect the right people, there’s a possibility of change,” she says.
While Manchin is more moderate in his politics, Swearengin considers herself more progressive.
“I hate the dividing labels — conservative, liberal. I identify as a progressive because I want progress.”
• • •
Born in Mullens, Swearengin is the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners.
Before her run for office, she was an accounting clerk for a small business.
“I’m a single, poor, coal miner’s daughter just trying to live day to day.”
But as Swearengin raised her four sons, she saw the opportunities dwindling. She saw companies taking advantage of the state’s people. She saw family members die from occupational and environmental hazards.
“I felt like we had to do something to bring change to our state, to bring the power back to our state. If we don’t, our children aren’t going to have anything here.”
First, she started advocating for clean air, clean water and more jobs. She started lobbying and attending rallies. She’s spoken all over the country, even at the United Nations, trying to bring change to West Virginia.
She decided she wanted to run for office — to fight from the nation’s capital — where she believes politicians have been bought out for far too long.
“When you see who is funding somebody as a candidate, if Big Pharma is funding their campaign, more than likely, that’s who they’re going to serve.”
She pointed a finger at Manchin, as well as two of the Republican candidates running for the U.S. Senate seat — Evan Jenkins, currently a U.S. representative, and Patrick Morrisey, currently West Virginia Attorney General.
“They’re funded by Big Pharma and industry. We deserve clean water, clean air, and for sewage to quit running through our creeks. We have the right to the American Dream and a living wage. But none of that will happen when they’re only serving the wealthiest in the country and state. The working class deserves working class representation.”
She says her campaign has been funded solely by individuals. Her campaign account has a balance of roughly $300,000, and the average donation has been $15.
“The people have funded my campaign. It’s funded by individuals. When I go to D.C., I owe nobody but the people.”
• • •
Swearengin was a firm supporter of one of the 2016 presidential frontrunners — Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, too, ran an individual-funded campaign, turning down Super PAC funding and corporate donations. He used social media to help bolster his platform, and became a favorite of millennial voters. The Washington Post reported Sanders won more votes among voters under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined.
Sanders landed 124,700 votes in West Virginia during the 2016 primary election, or 51.4 percent of the Democratic vote. He won every county in the state.
With a similar platform as Sanders, Swearengin is hoping to garner that same enthusiasm among the state’s Democrats.
“I really admire Bernie Sanders. He actually cares. How many people are going to come from Vermont to McDowell County just to hear what the problems are? A lot of my platform does align with that. He wants to bring progress not only in this state, but this country.”
Swearengin says West Virginia’s main issues are as follows:
• Opioid epidemic — She says Big Pharma has influenced politicians for too long. She believes medication-assisted treatment (MAT) has a role to play in addressing the epidemic, and more long-term treatment centers are needed.
“I want to see long-term recovery in every part of West Virginia... We also have to make sure to work on prevention.”
• Economy and jobs — She says the Mountain State needs to diversify its economy to survive, with renewable resources and tourism. The gas industry needs to pay its fair share, too.
“I know what it’s like when a family member gets laid off after having a somewhat comfortable life,” Swearengin says. “There’s a clear difference between being a friend of the coal industry versus being a friend of coal miners.”
She says too many candidates have campaigned on “bringing back coal jobs,” but she says, “That’s the biggest lie anybody could tell.”
• Health care — She believes Medicare should be available for everyone.
“I think we’re behind other countries. We’re not distributing wealth effectively. If you have a healthy, happy workforce, it’s the economic thing to do.”
She says providing Medicare for everyone would help small businesses struggling to pay high premiums for employees.
“West Virginia is one of the sickest and poorest states in the nation. It would help us greatly with universal health care.”
She also believes fully legalizing cannabis would be beneficial, not only financially and medically, but in terms of the opioid epidemic, too. Studies have shown a decline in opioid addiction in states that have fully legalized marijuana.
• Environment — She says she’s tired of seeing the environment polluted by industry, only for West Virginians to be left suffering.
“I worry about my children getting cancer in the southern coalfields,” she says. “You see a lot of women in West Virginia on the ballot. I think there’s an awakening because of the corruption. As Appalachian women, you don’t mess with our young.”
She would also like to see hemp grown on mountaintop removal sites, to “transform the barren wastelands” into profit for the state.
• • •
Swearengin says for years, politicians have been “financially invested in our demise.”
“It’s going to take people with a vision for this state — a vision that isn’t from their funders’ pockets.”
She’s asking West Virginians to make their voices heard May 8 at the ballot.
“I would love to have their vote. This was not my dream. I did not want to go down this path.”
But after seeing years of political corruption and the devastation it’s caused West Virginia, Swearengin says, “I want to be a vessel and a voice for this state.”
For more information, visit paulajean2018.com.
— Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren