- Stephen Smithco-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait.
- Branko Marceticstaff writer at Jacobin magazine.
As President Biden negotiates the final size and scope of the Build Back Better Act with fellow Democrats, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has emerged as a major hurdle to his agenda. The conservative Democrat and his family would potentially profit from his opposition to the key planks of the bill, including green energy investment and raising corporate taxes to pay for the package. Stephen Smith, co-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait, says Manchin fits into a long history of state lawmakers working for corporate interests. “Senator Manchin and the rest of our congressional delegation has never represented the people of our state,” says Smith, who ran for governor in 2020, placing second in the Democratic primary. “Politics in West Virginia has never been left versus right, red team versus blue team. It’s the people who are suffering and dying and surviving versus the people who are trying to profit off of that pain.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, speaking about this issue of the personal profit of these senators, I want to turn to Stephen Smith with West Virginia Can’t Wait. A lot is made of, well, it’s an ideological difference that Senator Manchin has with people like Senator Sanders, you know, calling Senator Sanders’ dream of an entitlement society and saying he’s opposed to that. But as we started this conversation yesterday on Democracy Now!, he is making millions of dollars personally over opposing, for example, stripping out renewable energy. He started these coal companies in the 1980s in West Virginia. His son has now taken over, and he’s got the money in a blind trust, Manchin himself. His brother is deeply involved, as well. Talk about Senator Manchin’s interests and who exactly he’s representing in West Virginia.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks for this question. Yeah, it’s a secret that the rest of the country is finally catching onto, that we’ve known in West Virginia for decades, which is that Senator Manchin and the rest of our congressional delegation has never represented the people of our state. And that’s what we’re up against. You don’t win higher office in West Virginia because you’re a servant of the people. You win because your daddy was a politician or because you’re rich.
And you look at his donors. You look at his personal wealth off of this. You know, his top donors are the investment firms and corporate lawyers. And there aren’t a lot of investment bankers or corporate lawyers in my neighborhood or most neighborhoods here in West Virginia. But Manchin, Caputo, the rest of our delegation here in West Virginia, they are symptoms of a deeper disease, one that dates back to the founding of West Virginia, where our state has always been owned and operated by large out-of-state institutions, corporations, interests. And that’s who our politicians are beholden to.
And to defeat that, we need our own machine, a machine that replaces greed and corruption with generosity and accountability and a sort of neighbor-to-neighbor spirit that defines the way we experience West Virginia.
AMY GOODMAN: What doesn’t the country know about Joe Manchin that you know in West Virginia?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think it’s important to see things from the point of view of folks on the ground here, that national media gets caught up in the person of Joe Manchin and the psychologizing and the sport of politics. On the ground right now in West Virginia is pain and death everywhere you look. In my hometown, we are home to the nation’s most concerning HIV outbreak. And in response to that, Democratic and Republican politicians came together to criminalize harm reduction, criminalize the people who are fighting against that. We see historic rates of overdose deaths — one every two days in my hometown. We’re losing our neighbors.
Now, in response to that pain and death, most of us here, we look at that, and we try to do everything we can to fight back. Right? That’s what West Virginia Can’t Wait does. It’s what neighbors do. It’s what good neighbors do. What Senator Manchin does, what Senator Caputo do, when they see this pain and death, is they think, “How do I profit off of it?” And that is fundamentally what’s going on here. Politics in West Virginia has never been left versus right, red team versus blue team. It’s the people who are suffering and dying and surviving versus the people who are trying to profit off of that pain.
AMY GOODMAN: I remember when Senator Manchin’s daughter, who is head of the company that makes EpiPen, they increased the cost of EpiPen massively in one fell swoop, what so many people need in this country.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And that’s why we have to be really smart about how we respond. Right? The only way — and history tells us this, not just about Manchin, but, again, the last century and a half of West Virginia history — the only way to persuade an establishment politician is to work like hell to replace them. The only time in Manchin’s career where he’s even moved a little bit are moments when his political life was threatened. And that threat has to be fearless. It has to be permanent. It has to be homegrown.
And that’s what we’re building. West Virginia Can’t Wait, we’ve got 110 pro-labor, no-corporate-cash, working-class candidates we’ve trained, up and down the ballot. We have 18 elected officials in office right now, and we provide them with policy support and legal support, mental health services, personal security, if they need it as they face attacks from white supremacists. We have citizen journalists that we’re sponsoring, so that we’ve got some media that is accountable to the people. We’re organizing slates all across West Virginia of candidates and issues, where we’re building local platforms not just by going door to door, but also meeting with people who don’t have a door to go home to, and sending surveys into local jails and prisons, that we need a government that is accountable to the people and led by the people, who have been excluded. And that only happens conversation by conversation, town by town, county by county.
AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, I joked, you know: Who is the president here? Is it President Joe Biden, or is it President Joe Manchin? But President Biden last night in the town hall said, given that he has to get all 50 senators, every senator is, in a sense, president. And I wanted to go back to Branko for the last question, and that is: Where are the other progressive senators on all of this speaking out?
BRANKO MARCETIC: Well, I mean, you saw, with Sanders, he’s kind of been taking the fight directly to Manchin. He wrote this op-ed in West Virginia, not quite attacking Manchin directly, but, you know, it was clear what he meant. And I think that, really, the Democratic Caucus has to be a lot more aggressive, I mean, right now. We have seen in the past that when it comes to getting progressives on board with certain legislation, the Democratic leadership has been very open to turning on the screws and pressuring them to support it. And so, it would be good to have a little more pressure put on Manchin from the rest of the Democrats.
You know, I mean, unfortunately, the other factor here is that there aren’t that many progressives, in the Senate at least. You know, it’s a very lonely place to be a progressive. So that’s the other half of this equation. I mean, you know, Chuck Schumer has really moved to the left, and you’ve got a few other people, but at the same time it’s very much the same people there who were in power years earlier, when politics was very different, and who are still very much stuck in that older playbook.
AMY GOODMAN: I daresay you could say that —
BRANKO MARCETIC: So, until you replace some of those people —
AMY GOODMAN: — Schumer has very much moved because of the threat of AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps challenging him in the next election for Senate. But we’re going to have to leave it there for now. Branko Marcetic of Jacobin, we’ll link to your piece, “How Kyrsten Sinema Went from Lefty Activist to Proud Neoliberal Democrat.” And Stephen Smith, co-chair of the West Virginia Can’t Wait.
Coming up, “Pfizer’s Power.” Stay with us.