In 2017, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin dared a group of local activists to mount a primary challenge against him. “What you ought to do is vote me out,” he told the activists, who were asking him to hold a public town hall for his constituents. “Vote me out! I’m not changing. Find somebody else who can beat me and vote me out.”
Grassroots organizers in the state are taking his advice. West Virginia Can’t Wait, an organization that formed in late 2018 with the stated mission of winning “a people’s government,” is kick-starting the effort to replace Manchin, raising money to oust the conservative Democrat and build a lasting political infrastructure that can take on his statewide machine.
Activists officially launched the website ReplaceJoeManchin.com on Tuesday morning to raise money and encourage West Virginians to nominate people in their communities to run for office. West Virginia Can’t Wait intends to recruit, vet, and support a candidate to run for Manchin’s seat in 2024, as well as running slates of pro-labor candidates who reject corporate cash in key municipal and county elections in 2022. The group will also follow up with potential candidates and offer ongoing training and policy support.
Manchin’s power has only grown since his confrontation with the activists. He wields a pivotal seat in the evenly divided Senate, dominating policy debates in Washington. And activists fear that fawning press attention and waves of outside money threaten to further entrench his political machine.
Katey Lauer, cochair of West Virginia Can’t Wait, told The Nation that they can’t go through “traditional party channels” to take on Manchin or influence his policy decisions, because he’s “only accountable to his donors.” The way to challenge him, she said, is through bottom-up organizing year-round, and by stepping up to meet communities’ needs when the government fails them.
“The only hope to persuade a West Virginia politician is to fight like hell to replace them,” Lauer said. “Manchin’s network of corporate lawyers, financiers, coal and gas executives, lobbyists, and party bosses will not be defeated in one election, or in one race. This is a guy who has weekly check-in calls with Exxon. It took a generation for his machine to rise to power. It may take a generation for us to replace it. The threat we build must be fearless, homegrown, and permanent. We have to start at the root. And we have to start now.”
Though the group’s progressive-populist candidate fell short in the Democratic primary for governor last year, West Virginia Can’t Wait did elect nearly a dozen mostly working-class, first-time candidates to local seats. After winning a few more elections in the spring, they have gotten up to 14 of their candidates elected, and hope to double that number by 2022.
Joe Solomon, who cofounded a drug use harm reduction group in Charleston and works with the Charleston Can’t Wait campaign, was among the activists who confronted Manchin on the 2017 call. Solomon said that West Virginians are frustrated with Manchin’s becoming the bottleneck for abolishing the filibuster, as well as passing a $15 minimum wage and the rest of President Joe Biden’s agenda, but what they really feel the most on the ground is “the absence of moral leadership,” particularly on the opioid epidemic.
“The culture of getting into power in order to stay in power and making every chess-move decision based on the next reelection is a culture of governance that Manchin embodies and that trickles down to most every Democratic seat small and large in the state,” Solomon said.
“Here in Charleston, our Democratic mayor and our Democratic city council recently criminalized harm reduction best practices, making this work a misdemeanor. It’s clear as day that the vote was made in order to secure their seats in the next election. I don’t think there’s anything quite as Manchinesque.”
In February, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed the HIV outbreak in Kanawha County, which includes Charleston, “the most concerning in the United States.” Two months later, the Charleston City Council criminalized volunteer-led harm reduction programs like Solomon’s, prohibiting organizations from providing clean hypodermic needles without certification from the state Bureau for Public Health.
As drug overdoses reach an all-time high in the United States, Naloxone supply issues are also expected to worsen the crisis. The largest generic drug plant in the country, Mylan Pharmaceuticals, was based in Morgantown, and could have manufactured millions of Naloxone doses. Instead, Manchin let the plant shut down, ignoring the workers’ pleas for help. Meanwhile, Manchin’s daughter Heather Bresch, a top executive at Mylan for years, walked away with a $31 million payout as a result of the merger.
“Imagine a senator who rallied all of his resources and connections to reactivate the plant…,” Solomon said. “Imagine a senator who went out every week when he was back in the state, going out under bridges and into parks, connecting with those who are in real pain, giving out naloxone kits with the rest of us. That would be something.”