Democrat Joe Manchin has represented West Virginia in the U.S. Senate for seven years. Manchin calls himself “pro-life,” voted to confirm all but four of President Donald Trump’s administration appointees, and recently praised Trump for overturning some of Barack Obama’s environmental regulations. Indeed, after serving as governor of West Virginia for five years, he rose to national prominence with a television ad showing him firing bullets into a copy of the House’s 2009 cap and trade bill.
His conservative positions are part of the political triangulation some Democrats say is necessary to win seats in red states. In the case of West Virginia, the formula is a strain of social conservatism mixed with deference to Big Coal, the dominant industry in the state. Both Republicans and Democrats use this template to varying degrees, and it has stoked the ire of grassroots activists who say that Manchin is part of a corrupt political class that props up coal barons at the expense of voters.
Now one of those activists seeks to unseat him. Paula Swearengin, 42, is an accounting clerk and single mother of four from Coal City, West Virginia. On May 9, she announced that she would challenge Manchin in the Democratic primary. She is a newcomer to politics and an early beneficiary of Brand New Congress, a political action committee founded by former members of Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign.
Swearengin herself recently appeared in a March televised town hall with Sanders and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, where she appealed to Sanders for help with the state’s environmental woes. That’s a concern partially informed by her own family’s experiences: Her grandfather died of black lung, and her uncles all suffer from the same condition. Here, she talks to the New Republic about her campaign, and explains what motivates her long-shot bid to replace Manchin. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How does your background inform your policy positions as a candidate?
I was born here in West Virginia, though I spent a little time in North Carolina when my step-dad got laid off from the coal mines. I’m really not a politician: I don’t have a political background, though I’ve been an activist fighting for my community for years. So I had to learn a lot about my government. The reason that I decided to get into politics is because I have begged, pleaded, and cried for years for our government to listen to us and they haven’t. I think they’re corrupt. It’s time for West Virginia to rise up because the economic structure that we have now is detrimental to our health, our heritage, and the environment. We don’t have a Plan B when coal is gone except for service jobs and possibly fracking. We deserve a diverse and clean economic infrastructure for our future.
Joe Manchin has had a long career in West Virginia politics. He’s been in the Senate since 2010. Why did you decide to run against him now?
What’s happening in West Virginia is that, whether they’re Democratic or Republican, they serve their pocketbooks and industry, but they don’t serve the communities here. I’ve been begging him for a lot of years to listen to us, to talk to us. I think that he’s been a politician for so long that he’s out of touch with our struggles. It’s time for an awakening for West Virginia. It’s time for us to fight back.
Was there a particular vote or policy that tipped you over the edge?
The last time I talked to Joe Manchin was at a town hall meeting in Charleston. I told him we all deserve clean and safe jobs, and he said, “We have to agree to disagree.” He pointed at the coal miners in the crowd and tried to pit them against me. But my family is connected to coal. There’s hardly anybody in West Virginia that doesn’t have a connection to the coal industry. So we’ve been divided. We don’t have the jobs like we used to have, and we don’t have the clean water that we deserve, so we fight each other to put food on our table. And I think that’s unacceptable. We’re family, neighbors, and friends, and we shouldn’t have to bid against each other for basic human rights.
We hear a lot that only conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin can win elections in a state like West Virginia. How do you respond to that?
I disagree. I wholeheartedly disagree. Bernie won the primaries here because Bernie was offering solutions. Donald Trump won the election here because he was offering jobs. West Virginia is ready for change, and ready for solutions, and ready to build a good economic infrastructure. The only reason that we’ve held onto an economy based on a single industry is that’s all that’s been offered to us. For men in their 60s, that’s all they’re going to know. They’re going to know black lung and cancer like my family did. But I think our children are ready. They deserve health care and education and jobs. Appalachians are strong, we’re proud, we’ve always been united. Our ancestors fought labor struggles and won.
You support Medicare for All. Can you explain to me why that is?
We live in one of the sickest and poorest states in the nation even though this nation was built on the backs of coal miners. We have higher rates of cancer here, higher rates of asthma. We do have black lung. And the next generation of miners, since the union’s been busted, they have no promise of health care. Healthier people are going to build a healthier workforce. We’ve powered this nation with our blood, sweat, and tears, and we do deserve health care. Health care is also going to combat the opiate abuse here.
Some commentators have raised concerns that a populist position on economics could come at the expense of issues like abortion and LGBT rights. What is your position on those social issues? And do you think that being pro-choice or pro-LGBT rights is a non-starter in a state like West Virginia?
We need to think outside the box on abortion. If they banned abortions tomorrow, there are still people who are going to have abortions. You cannot be pro-life if you don’t think about people after birth too, and about sick people. If you build up the workforce, you give women access to health care so they can have adequate birth control. You can give them better, livable wages so they don’t have to worry about bringing a child into this world and not being able to take care of them. And you increase the educational opportunities here.
And I honestly don’t even understand the argument against LGBT rights. We have real issues to worry about and I think worrying about somebody’s sexuality is just ridiculous.
You mentioned that West Virginia doesn’t seem to have a Plan B for the end of coal. I know that service jobs have cropped as an alternative to coal jobs, but so far they have been insufficient. Do you support raising the minimum wage to $15?
Absolutely. We deserve a livable wage. And we’ve seen trillions of dollars go out of this state for industry. I think it’s time to put that trillions of dollars back in our infrastructure. We also need to bring back manufacturing and industry to this state. It’s been feast or famine for us, so we need to invest in small businesses, focus on new cash crops, and build a sustainable energy economy And I want to throw hemp farming in there too.
In April, Politico reported that Joe Manchin will probably have $2.17 million in cash on hand for his reelection bid. That’s a steep obstacle for primary challengers. What are your strategies for overcoming that obstacle?
What I love about this campaign the most is that we’re working on small donations. There’s more power in the people than in the government. We can start funding each other and get all this corporate money out of the Democratic National Committee and out of the Republican Party.
What’s the local reaction been to your decision to challenge Manchin?
I’ve heard nothing but positive, nothing but positive. Because Democrat or Republican, nobody seems to like Joe Manchin.
Do you intend for your campaign to send a message to the Democratic Party?
Oh yes. I don’t care if the DNC backs me or not. This is a people-funded campaign. The DNC has failed us in many ways here in West Virginia. They failed us when they nominated one of the biggest-polluting coal barons in West Virginia: Governor Jim Justice, who mines three miles from my house and puts silica dust in my children’s lungs. That’s a failure of the Democratic Party. I hope we rise up and realize that, Democratic or Republican, we all have the same set of values. We all want clean water for our children, clean air for them to breathe, and to not worry about our families getting buried miles deep in a coal mine and suffocating to death. We also want a clean and stable economic infrastructure so West Virginia can live. We have given so much to this nation. It’s past time that we invest in ourselves.