West Virginia’s One Progressive Party

(AP Photo/Vicki)

Protesters hold signs in front of the Monongalia County Courthouse in Morgantown, West Virginia, on May 18, 2011, as then-Mountain Party gubernatorial candidate Bob Henry Baber speaks.

I’m the daughter of a coal miner. My father died of black lung. It’s a horrible way to suffocate to death,” Charlotte Pritt says. She got her start in Democratic politics as a hard-charging state senator in the early 1990s, fighting nursing home closures and arguing against Governor Gaston Caperton’s gas tax. “I’m opposed to the taxes on the poor. That’s the only thing these yo-yos can come up with.” But in 2012, Pritt jumped ship and joined the Mountain Party, a motley environmentalist outfit that has affiliated with the national Green Party.

The Mountain Party is a tiny outfit: It has just 1,922 registered voters and three elected officials, all in nonpartisan offices. Still, the party has punched above its weight, frequently garnering respectable vote totals as it laps up left-wing voters dissatisfied with West Virginia’s Democratic Party, likely the most conservative of state Democratic parties, and surely the most pro-coal. Earlier this month, West Virginia’s Democratic governor, Jim Justice, became a Republican in a ceremony with President Donald Trump.

There is space to the left of the Democrats, but exactly how much—and how many Mountaineers want to fill it—remains to be seen. Joe Manchin, the state’s Democratic senator, is typically ranked as the second-most conservative Democrat in Washington, trailing only North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp. With union membership reduced to a fraction of its postwar strength and a fast-growing Republican tilt in presidential elections—Bill Clinton won the state by 15 percent in 1996, Trump took it by 42 percent just 20 years later—is there still a way for progressive and liberal politics to be relevant?

Within Mountain Party circles, Pritt’s story is not atypical. She was hit hard by the effects of coal mining and the exploitation of workers at a young age, when her father was a mine safety officer with a United Mine Workers local that has seen its membership dwindle to just 56 today.

The plight of miners is one reason why Pritt puts a great deal of her energy into campaigning for medical marijuana legalization, an effort that culminated with the April signing of legislation that permits the use of the drug for chronically ill patients. “People like my father go into the mines, take dangerous jobs, because they want a better life for their family, so they sacrifice themselves,” she says, words becoming choked. “To free West Virginia [from restrictive marijuana laws] is paying back the debt of my father and every miner, factory work, boiler-maker, a hard job, a union job, a job in the mines, so that their children could live. So comprehensive cannabis, and getting that legislation passed, is a way of paying forward the gratitude to all those men and women who worked themselves to death, literally.”

Bob Henry Baber, the mayor of Richwood (population 2,051) is another Mountain Party leader. Baber—a poet when not focused on his duties as mayor—is struggling to keep Richwood’s acclaimed public schools in the town after a flood wiped out their facilities, and the county school board sought to use FEMA funds originally bound for Richwood to relocate the schools a half-hour drive away, over curving mountain roads.

“The mantra of our country—which is the rich get richer and stronger, and the poor can go to wherever—has been unfolding here in Nicholas County,” Baber says. Baber was first elected to the nonpartisan post of mayor in 2004, an experience that ended with him being “run out of town on a rail.” He regained his post by a single vote last spring, beating nine others for the job. Since his re-election, personal beefs and political quarrels have largely been put aside, he said, with longtime rivals coming together to fight flood damage as “flood-brothers and flood-sisters.”

Although his efforts have focused on keeping Richwood’s students in the town (the battle over the schools now looks set to go to the state’s supreme court), Baber has also worked on other redevelopment programs following floods last year. The town recently completed Helios Park, complete with environmentally friendly permeable cement, solar panels, and plant life.

Baber sees such projects, in the context of West Virginia, as the result of distinctly green perspectives. “If Richwood is an indication of what an elected Mountain Party official can do, then West Virginia needs a lot more elected Mountain Party officials,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Jesse Johnson, the party’s chairman, agrees. The arena in which Johnson particularly hopes the party can make gains is the state legislature, both through elections and defections of sitting members dissatisfied with the Democratic and Republican establishments. Johnson declines to list names of potential defectors or target seats, but notes areas of past support for the party have come in the state’s cities and areas particularly hard-hit by the after-effects of coal mining. The 2018 elections, Johnson believes, will see a Mountain Party member elected to the state’s House of Delegates.

L. Christopher Plein, a professor of public administration at West Virginia University, says the idea of the Mountain Party gaining legislative seats is plausible. “I don’t think it’s a pipe dream per se. The Mountain Party would probably be best positioned to run candidates for multi-member districts for the House of Delegates,” he says.

Though it’s a low bar to cross, the Mountain Party can claim to be one of the nation’s most electorally potent Green movements. Pritt’s showing in the 2016 gubernatorial election—6 percent of the vote—was the party’s best so far, and the party’s candidates’ vote shares have typically beaten 2 percent.

By most metrics, these electoral performances appear anything but strong, but relative to Green Party performances nationally, they are remarkable. For a time, Maine’s Green Independent Party gave the Mountain Party a run for its money. From 1994 to 2006, Maine’s Greens won between 6 percent and 10 percent of the vote in each gubernatorial election. Then, starting in 2010, they stopped putting forward candidates for governor. That lapse has led to the Mountain Party becoming the king of state Green branches.

But even before then, the Mountain Party—running in conservative West Virginia, a state that lacks Maine’s strong third-party tradition—likely had a harder job of it. Its three elected officials—two conservation district supervisors and Baber—all fill nonpartisan posts. “Improving vote shares doesn’t really matter at the end of the day if you don’t win elections,” Plein says.

Aside from Pritt, the party stood just seven candidates in 2016: one for state attorney general, one for state Senate, and five for the state’s House of Delegates. It also nominated Jill Stein, the national Green Party’s nominee, for president. Of the six legislative candidates, two were in Charleston, the capital, and two in tiny Richwood, which, thanks to Baber, could be called the party’s base. Barbara Daniels, the party’s candidate for the Richwood-based 44th District in the House of Delegates, garnered almost 8 percent of the vote, its best performance. Pritt’s best performances came in Monangalia County, home to Morgantown and West Virginia University; sparsely populated Pocahontas County, on the Virginia line; Charleston’s Kanawha County; and Calhoun County, a center for oil and gas drilling. Both Monangalia and Kanawha are also major coal-production hotspots. If the Mountain Party has growth potential, it’s in these areas: somewhat progressive larger cities and regions struggling with environmental damage.

Pritt is still best known for beating the otherwise unbeaten Manchin in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1996. But Manchin turned the tables: he formed an advocacy group backing Pritt’s Republican opponent, narrowly costing her the election. (“Joe’s just a big baby and he’s never lost before,” she says.) Last year, two decades after her first defeat, Pritt re-emerged onto the front lines of West Virginia politics, standing as the Mountain Party’s gubernatorial candidate. Polls showed her winning as much as 13 percent of the vote, behind Bill Cole, a Republican, and Justice, then a Democrat. In the actual vote tally, however, she got just under 6 percent. Plein believes that in the end, as in most elections, voters selected the less odious option of the two candidates with a chance to win, though Pritt has raised allegations of electoral tampering.

The conservatism of state Democrats is a major boon to the Mountain Party. Party members don’t see much difference between the state’s Democrats and Republicans,

a perception reinforced when both major parties back coal and natural gas to the hilt. When Justice abruptly left the Democratic Party on August 3, that narrative gained further credence, even as the state’s declining Democrats dipped further into the electoral ossuary. (Some Mountain Party leaders, most notably Baber, are more supportive of Justice and other Democrats, who have been able to lend small towns like Richwood assistance from the governor’s office.)

For party members, Manchin and his operatives personify all that’s wrong with the Democrats. “As long as they run the Democratic Party,” says Tom Rhule, the Mountain Party’s communications director, “there’s not much chance that we’ll see West Virginia get out of 19th-century energy systems and come into the 21st century.”

The Mountain Party’s resentment of the media and political establishment in the state is not without cause. Despite Pritt’s prominence and her polling—taking 12 percent to 13 percent in most pre-election surveys, nominally enough to qualify for debates—The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the West Virginia paper of record, mentioned Pritt just 29 times between January 2015 and December 2016, the period before, during, and immediately after the election. Justice and Cole were each referenced 188 times. The pattern was similar for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which mentioned Pritt just six times while Cole was mentioned 97 times and Justice 110 times. Although it is common for minor party candidates to attract little attention, those who consistently breach single digits in polls often draw noticeably more attention, particularly when the minor party candidates are former elected officials and onetime major party statewide nominees like Pritt.

Even so, the party sees hope—and not just electorally. Though its current role in shaping policy in West Virginia is “very, very limited,” according to Plein, the Mountain Party has still been able to make itself felt, particularly as the Democratic Party in the state drifts rightward. Plein notes that Pritt has not been replaced as a leader on the left wing of the state’s Democratic Party, meaning that progressive-minded voters may have to turn elsewhere for representation. Party chairman Johnson sees potential in that bloc.

“We stuck to our guns about issues,” he says. “We’re genuine in fighting for the people, fighting for labor, fighting for women, fighting for families, children, fighting for the environment. We don’t take corporate money or interest into play. We’ve had a consistent, solid message that resonates with the people.”

The re-energizing of the progressive movement nationally has also helped the Mountain Party. Rhule noted that many of the party’s members and supporters worked for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, with many switching their registration to campaign for the Vermont senator, though most returned to the Mountain Party thereafter. (Sanders won every county in West Virginia during the primary, taking just 26,000 fewer votes than Donald Trump’s total in the Republican primary.) That newfound energy could help the party going forward, particularly if West Virginia Democrats do not adopt many of Sanders’s policies in the future—and there has been little evidence they will.

It may be that issues like marijuana decriminalization, with which party leaders are now identified, will resonate with more voters. Whether those issues will appeal enough to push the party over the line in state legislative races, however, remains to be seen. Even as a pressure group raising issues the other parties won’t touch, though, Mountain Party activists see an important role for their organization.

“Third parties are the change makers. Whether they endure or not, or whether they end up warping back into a different identity, is purely a sign of the times,” says Johnson. “I just want to be sure that revolution in this era is between the ears and not in the streets.”

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