The adage that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” could use some updating. There’s no reason it can’t be farce the whole time. (A week late last month) ended with a Hoppy Kercheval column lamenting that the Democrats have moved too far to the left. Then over the weekend, we find out that the long-time chair of the Democratic Party (lately a senior executive committee member) has been making maximum contributions to Republican Governor Jim Justice.
West Virginia’s Democratic Party moved so far to the right that it nominated and elected an actual Republican in 2016, but for some commentators, even that isn’t enough appeasement. Larry Puccio led the charge for the Democrats’ generational catastrophe in 2016, when the entire resources of the party were marshaled behind Justice from the moment he entered the race. How did tacking right work out?
I had a front row seat that year to see Party Chair Emeritus Puccio bring to heel the once-proud AFL-CIO and its then-president, Kenny Perdue, and make workers back a coal billionaire who had been a registered Republican until about five minutes before Larry began squiring him around. The disasters for organized labor and frankly all wage-earning West Virginians were almost immediate. Maybe someone even more right wing was the answer?
West Virginians were defenseless against the Jim Justice double-cross because the 2016 down-ticket disaster left the Democrats in control of exactly nothing – every egg was in Larry’s fancy Greenbrier basket. Of course Justice, who will tell you how honest and loyal and hardworking he is until your ears fall off, decided he hadn’t meant a word he said during his Puccio-run campaign. He quickly flipped to the Republicans and recently obtained a good result in a federal criminal investigation.
That Larry Puccio stayed on the Democratic Executive Committee for three more years should tell you everything you need to know. The Democratic Party’s ruling clique would rather let Republicans run the party than lose even a bit of their power. The current chair sounded positively apologetic about having to accept Larry’s resignation, and as is standard practice, kept the circumstances from the committee and the state’s Democrats as long as possible. The actual Democrats on the committee have been powerless for more than a decade.
Are we going to do it all again? Given the chance to choose between real Republicans, and Democrats who pretend, in simpering fashion, that they are Republicans too, West Virginia voters have picked the real Republicans for five straight elections, shifting control of every branch of government away from the Democrats. The perpetual unwillingness to stand for something different has crippled the party for an entire decade. Notwithstanding Puccio’s resignation, the same people are still in charge.
There’s only one thing different this election season and that is the campaign of Stephen Smith and the “West Virginia Can’t Wait” brigade. That grassroots movement got a stellar turnout in both candidates and voters for a counter-State-of-the-State. The major applause lines included a laundry list of things Democratic Party bosses have shied away from the past 10 years: refusing corporate donations, a $15 minimum wage, a wealth tax, teacher raises, Medicare for all, a state earned-income tax credit, local business and agriculture protections and non-discrimination. Some 71 candidates have filed so far to back this ambitious agenda with a state-wide movement.
I remember first-hand how the party organization and its Republican-lite theories squashed Democrats who tried to push for some of the individual items in the West Virginia Can’t Wait platform. Jeff Kessler’s future fund earned him nothing but scorn from the well-connected good old boys and their corporation-coddling policies. West Virginia would have billions in reserve by now if it had been adopted, but Kessler couldn’t buck the party alone. The day Kessler announced for governor, Larry had his minions on who-else-but-Hoppy’s show saying hold the phone, and promising that the party would have a “good candidate” – meaning Justice.
The Democratic Party hasn’t lost voters because it “moved left,” even if Hoppy says so every other year. The Democratic Party lost voters because it sold out. It sold out working people, unions, seniors, and children — in exchange for a few campaign contributions and a song. Smith has the right idea — not a savior at the top, but a movement from the bottom — that’s what West Virginia needs. Democrats and Republicans can be persuaded to support an agenda that is fueled by the concerns they have for their own lives, their own families, and their own communities. The wealthy elites in both parties have had their say forever and ever, and where has it gotten West Virginia?
When a grassroots campaign gets more small donors than any campaign ever, we’re getting a chance to learn something. We don’t have to keep doing this to ourselves. It isn’t necessary to repeat the disastrous outcomes West Virginia has suffered. The same old candidates with the same old campaigns have yielded tragedy time and again — millionaires and billionaires and consultants and lobbyists getting richer while the hardworking citizen gets cheated. Enough!
It’s time to stop repeating ourselves. The Smith movement is the first genuinely new idea in West Virginia politics since — as he put it — “since never.” Neither the Puccios nor the Justices, nor the committees or the union bosses — not any of the powers that be or have been — are going to break the cycle. West Virginia has waited for change long enough, and West Virginia can’t wait any more.
Christopher J. Regan is a partner at Bordas & Bordas, PLLC in Wheeling and the former vice-chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party.