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In elections, we are facing setbacks locally and more broadly. A bold new experiment in West Virginia offers lessons for long-term success.
There’s a buzz right now in America’s heartland. It’s the sound of dozens of electoral experiments getting off the ground this spring. Organizers are dusting off the wounds and exhaustion of 2020 and beginning to rev their engines for the next two years.
The road ahead is not a clear one. Anyone who tracked the down ballot election results this fall knows our state houses are falling to more and more corporate control. Those same state legislatures are in the middle of redistricting, which means more and more gerrymandering. Meanwhile, national corporate media — not to mention our growing information silos — continue to drive polarization.
This is why organizing in rural and small towns remains essential right now. It’s also why those of us working in places like this have spent the last several months on the phone with each other, trying to figure out what the hell to do against growing odds.
Here in West Virginia — where we are building a movement-based electoral institution — we don’t go a day without getting phone calls. We’ve talked to organizers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Montana, Indiana, Washington, North Carolina and Georgia in just the last week.
All of these organizers know that despite some movement candidates winning at the top of the ticket last November, those victories are fragile and don’t paint the full picture of the terrain. We are losing locally and broadly. And when we look around, it’s clear that one reason is we have no bench — no roster of well-practiced players to pull into the game.
One organizer in Georgia said to me two weeks ago: “OK, here’s the deal. We’ve got seven seats here. All but one of our districts are gerrymandered. And there’s no one to run. The people we can convince to put their names on the ballot, well, they don’t even know where to start.”
I know how that feels. Similar roadblocks are everywhere, especially in rural and small town places that have long been abandoned by philanthropy, party leadership and national organizations.
Still, we have hope — and perspective.
It was three years ago, when a group of us organizers created WV Can’t Wait. In the last cycle, we recruited and trained 101 candidates, all of whom ran together under a shared banner. Eleven are now office holders — from state house to city council, from board of education to prosecutor. What’s more, hundreds of West Virginians who had never run, volunteered for a campaign, done a financial report or knocked on a door before, now have. We created the largest electoral infrastructure our state has seen in decades, in one big sweep.
And yet, if I’ve learned anything from reflecting on these last few years, it’s this: There’s no easy way forward. Or rather, the work ahead of us is generational. The political landscape we’re staring down is, in part, the result of a 40-year strategy, executed by our opponents, to concentrate wealth and to use the old tools of racism and cultural-elitism to disarm us in mounting a collective defense.
All of this is to say: The way we get out of this mess is by mounting a 40-year strategy of our own. It’s by running ambitious, bold, local experiments.
It won’t be easy. It requires steadfastness, flexibility, saying no to old strategies and patience — not to mention a plan.
The good news is none of this requires starting from scratch. And this season is the perfect one for swapping lessons. Here’s what we’ve learned in West Virginia about recruiting, training and assisting rural and small town movement candidates over the last three years. Here’s what we learned about how we can start to build a bench.
1. Build recruitment into everything you do
Nearly every one of the candidates who ran as a part of WV Can’t Wait in 2020 was recruited through a one-on-one conversation with our gubernatorial candidate, Stephen Smith, or another organizer on our team. Some of the folks we recruited were incumbents or had already announced — far more had never been asked to run before and the vast majority of them were first-timers.
Importantly, nearly all were community leaders in some way: Tess Jackson was a teacher, active in the widely publicized 2018 strike, and ran for State House; Danielle Stewart helped lead the fight for a non-discrimination ordinance in Beckley, and ran for mayor; Rosemary Ketchum, known for her volunteerism and attention to folks on the margins, ran for City Council.
These one-on-one meetings, where we recruited candidates, were built into our team’s schedule every single day: before town halls and after, on car rides to the next location, on Saturday mornings when we couldn’t find another time. We knew not every one-on-one would result in recruiting a good candidate, so volume mattered.
What’s more, we made our recruitment of candidates public. We asked folks at town halls to nominate others. We created a contact form where people could sign up. We invited folks to get in touch in press interviews. Recruiting was a constant.
2. Frame the conversation
Over time, we learned a few key ingredients that made these recruitment meetings successful, beyond the typical components of a one-on-one. First of all, Stephen (who did the vast majority of these meetings) used them to teach our movement strategy and our plan to win. Sometimes he’d ask: “Can I tell you how I think we’re gonna pull this off?” (By “this” he meant taking on the wealthy Good Old Boys of both parties and getting movement candidates into office). It was a chance to meet people’s healthy and totally reasonable skepticism. He’d teach the structure of WV Can’t Wait in broad strokes. He’d talk about the value of a slate — how we have more power if we run together because we can back each other. He’d say, “Not everyone is going to win. But the more of us that run, the more of a chance we’ve all got.” And then he’d caution folks, “Also, if you’re going to run, run twice. You’ll have a much better chance in a second race. You’ll know what to expect, and the earlier organizing you did will build on itself.”
We’d use these meetings to get explicit about what we could offer too: training, invitations to speak at WV Can’t Wait Town Halls, coordination on field. Running for office is daunting — we used these conversations to show folks they wouldn’t have to go it alone. (Learning from what did and didn’t work in terms of resourcing candidates over the last three years, we now have this draft of what we’re looking to offer candidates in the 2022 cycle.)
3. Ask candidates to commit to a set of principles before they’re in office, and hold candidates accountable to them
We never committed to a candidate in a one-on-one meeting. For candidates to be accountable to the movement, they needed to make a set of commitments before we’d back them.
Every candidate on our slate signed onto a WV Can’t Wait Pledge, promising to refuse corporate cash, never cross a picket line, never hide from a debate and never punch down (or blame someone who is bearing too much for what they carry). More than half of our slate also signed onto the WV Can’t Wait Platform, called the New Deal for West Virginia.
Once candidates made these commitments, they then had access to the many benefits of the movement: help hosting fundraisers, a volunteer pool, candidate training and so on. And candidates were also held accountable. Four times in two years our base raised questions as to whether or not a candidate had broken a pledge or platform commitment. Each time, a movement leader reached out to that candidate, offered a conversation and talked through the issue. Three of the four times we were able to clarify that the commitment had not been broken. A fourth time, we did in fact remove a candidate from the slate. These accountability processes were held relationally, person to person.
Asking candidates to sign onto a pledge and platform promoted our expectations for candidates and encouraged candidates to be bold. It works. Voters were attracted to our slate precisely because our candidates had a real agenda.
4. Teach the limitations of what a candidate can do and where change comes from
The foundations of WV Can’t Wait were pieced together in mass strategy meetings, a full year before we went public. At one of those early strategy meetings, we cued up video ads of prominent politicians, some of whom we were more sympathetic to, and others whom we liked less. Uniformly, these ads told a version of this story: things are bad, elect me, I’ll fix it, they’ll be better. No wonder we’re cynical about electoral politics!
As folks who had done community change work for decades between us, what grated on us most about these ads was how untrue they were. They pretended that one guy (and it was often a guy) could fix all the problems we faced. But never in American history has that happened, and certainly not in West Virginia. Politicians didn’t lead our Mine Wars, politicians didn’t lead our teachers strikes. Working people did, movements did.
We left that meeting deciding that we would teach — in town halls, press interviews, our volunteer trainings, wherever possible — how change actually happens. This became a fixture of our story and our actions.
When Stephen was asked in an interview about our education plan — “Do you really think you can make this happen if you’re in office?” — he didn’t point to himself as a savior. He would teach: “This is the biggest lie in politics, that any one politician is going to save us. The only way we’ll get the kind of government we deserve is if we come together and take it. That means we need 1,000 leaders, not one. If we’re going to pass this education plan that was written by our state’s educators, we need you.”
To be clear, this takes a while to stick. Our mainstream cultural institutions — especially the press — have a hard time telling stories of candidates (or any figure head) where that person is a part of something bigger than themselves. Pushing our true story meant we had to practice strict narrative discipline.
But it was worth it: It built trust amongst our base because more trust is available when you say things that are true. It placed responsibility — for wins, setbacks, conflicts, simply doing the work — in all of our hands. This in turn meant that our leadership roles and decisions had real weight, and it answered unlikely voters’ well-earned skepticism. When folks asked, “How do I know this guy isn’t full of crap like everybody else?” we had an honest answer. All in all, it helped us create and build commitment to something that could outlast one election cycle: an institution.
5. Make the movement the brand
To reinforce the story (and reality) that it will take all of us to win a people’s government, we named our structures after the movement, instead of our candidates. Instead of our county teams incorporating a candidate’s last name — like Summers County for Smith or Cabell County for Smith — they were called Summers County Can’t Wait and Cabell County Can’t Wait. Our constituency teams were the same. They weren’t Seniors for Smith, but rather Seniors Can’t Wait or Farmers Can’t Wait or Ex-offenders Can’t Wait.
We did this across the board. Our website was wvcantwait.com, our Facebook page was called WV Can’t Wait, and on Twitter and Instagram our handle was @wvcantwait. Now that our first cycle is over, the brand of the movement remains. It’s a through line for our current slate of candidates and field teams, as well as the next ones we’ll build.
6. Don’t make candidates bosses
I’ve never worked on a traditional political campaign; I have only seen them from around the edges. And as far as I can tell, it’s typical for traditional candidates to go around, haphazardly directing the show between public appearances.
In our structure, WV Can’t Wait staff and funds were housed inside of our gubernatorial campaign for the first three years. This might suggest that our top-of-ticket candidate did just that: acted as director. But in fact, he didn’t, in part because he wouldn’t have wanted to, and in part because we wouldn’t have let him.
To be clear, Stephen was deeply integral to our strategy development. But decisions about our direction were made by lots of people and in lots of places: between me and a staff person, by staff as a whole, or by a volunteer body like our policy team or convention delegates. And often, these decisions — especially the most consequential ones — were made with heavy consultation (think: dozens of one-on-ones). Through all of it, never did Stephen act as a lone decision-maker.
What’s more, he had no role in managing staff. As campaign manager, I created a rule with him that he wouldn’t talk to staff directly about their work, apart from specific instances we agreed to. This was a request from me for three reasons: First, I didn’t want to send mixed signals to staff by setting them up with two pseudo-managers. Second, I’d been in lots of working relationships where I’d shared leadership with men, often where they would disrupt the work a team was doing by dropping in a big idea or question and then ducking out, leaving a mess to clean up. I didn’t want to repeat that scenario. Third, it was a style choice. Stephen is full of ideas, constantly generating them. It’s an incredible skill and asset to our work. I like to pare things down, often rooting for focus — which is also an asset. I worried it would overwhelm staff to be in the position of constantly triaging ideas that Stephen, this high-ranking person, had suggested, as opposed to chipping away at the many tasks already on their plates.
We also made a choice for our candidate to defer to staff when volunteers had a question or needed direction related to work that a staff member was holding. In many cases, staff knew more about a need or a strategy choice than our candidate did. If a field team had questions about whether they should canvass a certain neighborhood, for instance, Stephen would tell that team to ask our field director, not him: “Sarah is in charge of that.” This meant staff wasn’t undermined by our candidate’s actions. And if we found our communications getting jumbled up in mixed messages between our candidate and staff, staff would be the ones to correct and lead.
Three years later, we lost the governor’s race — but we won the infrastructure. We have 11 candidates in office. We have a platform we call The New Deal for West Virginia that belongs to the thousands of people who helped write it. We have experienced staff. And strong county teams sprinkled across the state.
Plus, we’re growing.
Last month, we launched our field program for our three city council candidates in Morgantown. Last week, we made a starter-list of folks we want to have one-on-ones with, to organize slates in their towns for 2022. And more than two dozen candidates have already asked to join our ranks this next cycle, before our recruitment program has even launched.
Some of these folks will win. Some won’t win now, but will win next time. Others won’t make it through at all. We’re okay with that. The thing that guides us — as volunteers, candidates and staff — is whether what we’re doing this election cycle strengthens our movement and gets us closer to winning more victories next cycle.
It’s not an easy orientation to hold. Because folks (including us organizers!) are so used to the traditional model of electoral campaigns where the election is the final measure of our success, and all of our hope is imbued in it (or where the candidate is our hero, and all of hope is imbued in them). It’s a daily practice to build an orientation that is contrary to this one — a movement culture that teaches that an election is a benchmark of our strength, and that our hope belongs to each other. Creating this culture starts with how we position our candidates.
I don’t mean to suggest that winning elections doesn’t matter. It does. Winning elections gives us the power to govern. It also builds the legitimacy of our institutions (whereas losing can detract from that).
But if we want to be able to win in the next election and the next one after that — and if we want to be able to withstand the losses in between the victories and learn from them — then the strength of our institutions matters just as much as any one victory. In fact, if we want to build a bench, it matters much, much more.
Katey Lauer is the co-chair of West Virginia Can’t Wait and a Core Trainer with Training for Change. She lives in Fayette County, WV.