There is a revolt brewing in West Virginia politics. Last Friday Lissa Lucas, an author and celebrated backyard chicken farmer from Cairo, in the northwestern part of the state, brought the fight to the floor of the state capitol. The House of Delegates Judiciary Committee was hearing comments on House Bill 4268, legislation that would enable oil and gas companies to drill on private property as long as three-quarters of the mineral rights owners okayed the operation. The bill, which critics like Lucas have called an effort by “our government…to allow corporations to steal our property and trespass on it without our permission,” also grants the oil and gas industry a number of other measures its lobbyists have long sought from the legislature.
“I’d…like to point out that the people who are going to be speaking in favor of this bill are all going to be paid by the industry, and the people who are going to be voting on this bill are also often paid by the industry,” Lucas said from the podium on the house floor last Friday. “I have to keep it short simply because the public only gets a minute 45 [seconds] while lobbyists can throw a gala at the Marriott with whiskey and wine and talk for hours to the delegates.”
Lucas then listed the publicly-available oil and gas-related campaign contributions for Representative Charlotte Lane and Judiciary Committee Chair John Shott: “First Energy, $2,000, Appalachian Power, $2,000, Steptoe & Johnson – that’s a gas and oil law firm – $2,000, Consol Energy, $1,000, EQT, $1,000, and I could go on…” As Lucas began to list campaign contributions to Jason Harshbarger, a Republican delegate, Shott interrupted her and asked that “no personal comments be made.” She attempted to finish her remarks, as a pair of security guards approached the podium and explained that she could not continue talking. “Drag me out, then,” said Lucas. As the men hauled her from the chamber, she cried “Montani Semper Liberi!” – Mountaineers are always free.
The episode is all the more significant because Lissa Lucas is running for West Virginia House of Delegate’s in the state’s seventh district, which is currently held by Harshbarger, and lists property rights and getting money out of politics as two pillars of her campaign. While national pundits continuously play on the state’s historic shift from blue to red, the populist call of the Bernie Sanders’ movement – that concerned citizens can and should get more involved in politics – has struck a major nerve. The goal for many of West Virginia’s progressives is not even beating Republicans like Harshbarger; it is to reform a Democratic Party they see as corrupt and out-of-touch.
“I remember knowing for a long time that the underlying problem to everything is how money in politics is used to manipulate people,” said Selena Vickers, a West Virginia educator and social worker who is running for the West Virginia House of Delegates in District 32. “Lissa is a friend of mine,” she added. “We are both committed to fixing the [Democratic National Committee], which we know is broken.”
Vickers says she was electrified by the Bernie Sanders movement, and spent much of 2016 organizing for his campaign. “Bernie invited me to a revolution, and I showed up,” said Vickers, in a video she made about the experience. She provided a list of some 31 progressive democrats running for congress at the state or national level this year in West Virginia, including Richard Ojeda, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Kendra Fershee, a law professor, Sammi Brown, a former AFL-CIO field organizer, James Cameron Elam an openly gay candidate running for House of Delegates and Paula Jean Swearengin, a passionate West Virginia social justice and environmental organizer who is running to unseat the state’s powerful, and notoriously unreliable Democratic senator, Joe Manchin. “We’ve ended up with politicians like Joe Manchin in West Virginia because we’ve been told that’s the best Democrat we can have, and we vote for them out of fear,” says Chris Pennington, a father of three from Oak Hill, West Virginia, who also campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and is presently running for the state’s Democratic Executive Committee. “People here in West Virginia just didn’t have the inspiration to run before,” says Pennington. “Now a lot of them do.”
House Bill 4268 is expected to pass in both West Virginia’s House of Delegates and Senate, and be signed into law by the Republican governor, Jim Justice. The bill would take effect this July. Lucas plans to keep calling out legislators on their campaign finances till Election Day. “I won’t be taking money from SuperPACs,” reads a flier promoting her campaign. “I don’t care if I offend the people who are working for those interests by telling them” and “I’m not abandoning my neighbors just so you can line your pockets.”