Zach Shrewsbury Is Wrapping Up His Senate Primary Campaign Strong— And Ready To Take On Jim Justice

This coming Tuesday is primary day in West Virginia. Blue America only found one candidate to endorse this year— and we endorsed him with great enthusiasm: Zach Shrewsbury, who’s running for the Senate seat Joe Manchin is leaving and a Republican version of Manchin is running for, Gov. Jim Justice, a former Democrat who Trump flipped right after he was elected… as a Democrat. Manchin and Justice are unfathomably rich coal barons. Zach is neither rich nor a coal baron. “Our state doesn’t need more out-of-touch politicians who refuse to recognize their privilege,” he told me this morning. “We need people who live and work like the rest of us. This is why our campaign fights. This is why we talk about the class struggle. Because for so many people, the struggle is their entire existence. The struggle is real.”

Zach’s campaign is going strong. He put nearly 40,000 miles on his battered Chrysler 300 and personally visited almost every one of West Virginia’s 55 counties. He has 9,533 grassroots donors and a poll from last month has him leading his primary opponent, handpicked Manchin career politician Glenn Elliott, by eight points. His campaign is closing strong with phone-banking, canvassing, radio, texting and this ad running on social media sites and TV:

If you’d like to help him keep his get out the vote operation humming, please consider contributing what you can here.

Yesterday, the New Yorker ran an inspiring feature on Zach by Dan Kaufman asking if a progressive campaign can break the coal industry’s hold on West Virginia politics?

Shrewsbury is a 32 year old full-time community organizer and he never expected to run for office. “His burly frame,” wrote Kaufman, “is covered in tattoos, including a spear and trident on his forearm, marking his stint in the Marines, and a quote from Eugene Debs on his rib cage. (‘Thank God you look the way you do,’ a Democratic National Committee consultant told him at one campaign event. ‘I’m fucking sick of these haircuts and suits.’) Shrewsbury first got involved in West Virginia politics on the 2020 Senate campaign of Paula Jean Swearengin, a progressive activist from a coal-mining family, who ran against West Virginia’s Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito. Swearengin lost badly, but Shrewsbury, who was Swearengin’s field director for southern West Virginia, took inspiration. ‘It’s about more than just winning a damn election,’ he told me. ‘West Virginia is in a state of desperation. We’re a good example of what happens when your representation won’t advocate for you.’”

Manchin was the last holdout of a once formidable state Democratic Party machine that, for seven decades, had kept West Virginia solidly blue. In 1996, Bill Clinton won the state by fifteen points; the Republican Party has won every Presidential contest in West Virginia since— a political transformation that coincided with the collapse of the state’s coal-mining industry. In the nineteen-forties, there were a hundred and thirty thousand coal miners in West Virginia; today, there are fewer than ten thousand. “People blamed the party that they felt did that,” Cecil Roberts, a native West Virginian and the president of the United Mine Workers of America, told me. “Those jobs pay anywhere from eighty to a hundred thousand dollars a year.”

The Democratic Party’s push to curb carbon emissions has been portrayed as a direct threat to West Virginia’s economy. But two decades of conservative policies have only exacerbated the state’s woes. West Virginia was one of just two states to experience a net loss of jobs between 2009 and the start of the pandemic. Anti-labor policies, such as a so-called right-to-work law, have helped keep average wages among the lowest of any state in the U.S. For decades, many communities in the southern coalfields have been forced to drink bottled water because the local supply has been polluted by mining. West Virginia currently has the second-highest child-poverty rate in the nation and places four times as many children in foster care per capita as the country as a whole. Its rate of opioid deaths is the highest in the nation.

Manchin has been an outsized fixture in West Virginia politics since 2004, when he won the first of two terms as governor. Throughout that time, he has made millions of dollars as a founder and major stakeholder of a company that supplies a single power plant with “scrap coal”— a coal-and-clay mixture that is one of the most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet. (As governor, he signed a bill designating scrap coal as an “alternative energy,” so it could be counted toward fulfilling renewable-energy mandates.) For the first two years of Joe Biden’s Presidency, the even split in the Senate meant that Manchin could almost single-handedly shape— or derail— the Administration’s agenda. When Manchin used his power to kill the Build Back Better bill, a three-and-a-half-trillion-dollar potpourri of investments in green-energy and social-welfare programs, he said, “I don’t believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society.” Privately, he complained that recipients of an expanded child-care tax credit, which, during the pandemic, helped cut the U.S. child-poverty rate in half, could spend the money on drugs.

The current governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, who was elected in 2016 as a Democrat but switched parties once in office, is now the leading Republican candidate in the Senate race. Like Manchin, he has amassed a fortune in the coal industry— the license plate of his black Chevrolet Suburban reads “coal 3”— and, as governor, he has pushed for greater public austerity. Justice is heavily favored to win the general election. But Shrewsbury and others see the Democratic primary as a chance to reënergize a progressive movement in West Virginia. “Joe Manchin, as far as anybody in West Virginia knows, is the Democratic Party,” Stewart Acuff, the former national organizing director of the AFL-CIO and a Shrewsbury supporter, told me. “And he has swatted down so many pro-worker, pro-poor-person policies. That’s been very damaging to the Democrats in the state.” Shrewsbury’s campaign, he went on, is an opportunity to show West Virginians another way, “because we cannot grow the Democratic Party here until people believe the Party stands for them.”

Shrewsbury’s agenda centers on bringing renewable-energy jobs, such as solar-panel and windmill manufacturing, to the state, as a well-paying alternative to coal mining. “I have the same pitch for Trump voters that I have for everyone else— I talk about jobs,” he told me. “But you can’t just say ‘Kill coal.’ If you just kill coal in West Virginia, you’re not really moving the meter on saving the world. You’re just fucking over the last decent jobs in the state.” Shrewsbury does little fund-raising and spends most of his time driving vast distances to meet with voters and to participate in community-organizing events— passing out doses of Narcan, delivering winter clothing to the homeless…

The “black rock that burns” has long dominated the politics of West Virginia. As the country industrialized, East Coast tycoons, including J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, began building railroads and other infrastructure to transport coal out of West Virginia’s mountains. Huge swaths of land were bought up by corporations that, with the help of corrupt local judges, often cheated people out of their properties. The West Virginia novelist Denise Giardina, who worked on a multistate project called the Appalachian Land Ownership Study in the late nineteen-seventies, told me, “When you looked at the land books in, say, 1875, you saw list after list of individual farmers as landowners. If you looked at the same land books in 1890, you saw coal company, timber company, railway company.”

By the start of the twentieth century, some eighty per cent of West Virginia’s coal miners lived in company towns where the coal companies owned their homes. Before a miner started working, he was already in debt to the company, which subtracted the cost of picks, shovels, and augers from his pay. Miners were usually not paid in U.S. currency but in company scrip, which could only be redeemed at the company store. The towns had no elected government. Instead, they were run by the superintendent of the mine. Giardina noted the irony of West Virginia’s state motto, “Montani semper liberi” (“Mountaineers are always free”). “When the state was founded, in 1863, it meant something,” she said. “That was before coal. Coal is the thing that enslaved everyone.”

Rising anger enabled the United Mine Workers of America to organize across racial and ethnic lines. Many miners became Socialists, in part owing to the influence of immigrant miners from Southern and Eastern Europe, but also because both political parties in the state were effectively controlled by the coal companies. Periodic strikes were met with violent, sometimes deadly, retaliation.

The most famous of these battles took place in the summer of 1921, after some ten thousand miners began marching to a National Guard camp where more than a hundred union members were being held without charges for their involvement in an ongoing organizing effort. Don Chafin, the sheriff of Logan County, whose salary was paid by the coal companies, set up concrete bunkers, trenches, and machine-gun nests to block the route of the march. Several days of pitched battle erupted on Blair Mountain, which left at least a hundred people dead on both sides. “What you had is basically a First World War battlefield in the middle of the West Virginia hills,” Lloyd Tomlinson, the education coördinator of the Mine Wars Museum, in Matewan, told me.

New Deal labor laws enshrined the right to collectively bargain and to strike, which helped cement a deep and lasting bond between West Virginia and the Democratic Party. Franklin Roosevelt won more than sixty per cent of the state’s vote in 1936. But even in the best of times coal mining was a boom-and-bust industry tied to the health of the wider economy. In the fifties and sixties, wages and benefits grew for union miners, but the fear that jobs could disappear at any moment was often employed as a cudgel by industry bosses. A general lack of public investment throughout the state’s history compounded West Virginia’s economic problems. In Giardina’s land survey, for example, she found that a subsidiary of the Norfolk and Southern Railway owned a third of McDowell County. “In 1979, they were paying enough property tax to buy only a few school buses,” she told me.

The coal industry’s current relationship with labor in West Virginia was shaped, in large part, by Don Blankenship, the former CEO of the Massey mining company, who ran a failed Senate campaign as a Republican in 2018. (“I am Trumpier than Trump,” he said at the time.) In 1984, the company refused to sign a collective-bargaining agreement with the union, setting off a violent fifteen-month strike. Blankenship, who was then a senior manager, led the company’s response. Massey bused in strikebreakers; guards patrolled the mine with guns and attack dogs. The company ultimately prevailed, and the power of the UMWA waned dramatically as non-union mines proliferated. “Unions, communities, people— everybody’s gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society,” Blankenship said in a 1986 documentary about the strike. “And that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive.”

There are now fewer than three thousand unionized miners in West Virginia. Besides bringing benefits and higher wages for mine workers, the union helped to forge social cohesion and influence policy in mining communities. According to Lou Martin, a professor who teaches West Virginia history at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, the diminishment of the UMWA is the single greatest culprit in turning coal country into a Republican stronghold. “Now you have the people once again most closely connected to the industry running the state,” he said. “I say ‘once again’ because, before the union, it was either the coal barons or their lawyers that held office.”

…Shrewsbury finished high school in West Virginia’s Monroe County, in coal country. After a semester at a small public university, he dropped out, because he couldn’t afford the tuition, and joined the Marines. His first posting was at Guantánamo Bay, where he ran radio communications and patrolled the fence line. One day, he discovered a copy of The Communist Manifesto on a shelf in the library. “I’m not even sure it was supposed to be there,” he said. At the time, Occupy Wall Street had set up its encampment in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. “I see people are protesting the élite—the rich,” he said. “I took a hard turn left and went from being a Republican straight to socialism. I skipped Democrat. Fun times when you do that and you’re in a five-year contract with the Marines.” I asked how much time he had left at that point. “Four and a half years,” he said.

His tour took him to Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea, where he helped train local militaries. “I saw how other people were living, how there’s really no difference in all of us across the world, from Malaysia to West Virginia,” he said. “People are experiencing poverty across the board.”

…The effects of burning coal have been irrefutably calamitous. Coal-fired power plants produce a fifth of all global greenhouse-gas emissions, more than any other single source. But in West Virginia the impacts of its extraction are borne most acutely by the state’s poorer citizens. Studies show a higher risk of cancer, birth defects, and heart disease among people who live near mining operations. Today, those risks have contributed to an average life expectancy in McDowell County, once the top coal-producing county in the nation, of sixty-six years, among the lowest in the United States— and lower than that of Honduras and the Philippines. “That happened under Democrats and Republicans,” Shrewsbury said. “It shows how our politicians have not fought for West Virginia.”

At one point, we pulled over at a homemade memorial for twenty-nine miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, in 2010. A powerful explosion, caused by an excess of methane gas, had buried the men. Massey, the company operating the mine, was cited for hundreds of safety violations, and Blankenship, the company’s CEO, spent a year in federal prison for conspiring to violate mine-safety standards. At the memorial site, twenty-nine black hard hats hung on red crosses that emerged from the snow.

In January, Shrewsbury happened to be in the office of the West Virginia secretary of state, amending some of his campaign filings, when Blankenship arrived to file his own paperwork for another Senate bid. This time, though, he’s running as a Democrat. Shrewsbury told me that he contemplated cursing at him but resisted. Instead, he thought, “Now I get to run against two coal barons.”

The other coal baron is Jim Justice, who is one of the richest men in the state. Justice’s appeal is built around his reputation as a successful businessman and a certain down-home, right-wing populist persona. He is six and a half feet tall and weighs more than three hundred pounds. 

…From the start, Justice’s governorship has been marked by allegations of corruption and negligence. In 2017, he held his inauguration party at the Greenbrier, an eleven-thousand-acre resort in the Allegheny Mountains, which he had bought out of bankruptcy a decade earlier. The celebration was attended by some four thousand people and featured a performance by Lionel Richie, who crooned “Easy” while Justice and his wife slow-danced. According to a joint investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, more than a million dollars of the inaugural fund— much of which came from statehouse lobbyists— went to Justice’s Greenbrier Hotel Corporation. (Justice called the report “garbage.”) In the fall of 2022, he transferred twenty-eight million dollars of covid-relief money to a discretionary account of the governor’s office; a state-Senate investigation later revealed that nearly ten million dollars of the money went toward construction of a new baseball stadium at Marshall University, Justice’s alma mater. (Justice has denied misusing funds.) Meanwhile, for five consecutive years, Justice kept state spending at the same level as the year before— which, adjusted for inflation, amounted to steep cuts— intensifying shortages of corrections officers, child-service workers, and teachers.

Justice’s Senate campaign is occurring alongside an ongoing collapse of his personal fortune— the result of mounting liabilities that have been compounded by the cratering price of coal. Last year, a Virginia bank announced that it intended to collect three hundred million dollars in defaulted loans that had been personally guaranteed by Justice and his family. In February, the bank sought to put the Greenbrier Sporting Club, which is part of the resort, up for auction. (Justice’s companies have gone to court to try to block the sale.) Justice’s flagship coal business was recently forced to satisfy an unpaid debt to a Russian energy firm by turning over one of its helicopters.

The federal government, meanwhile, is currently suing thirteen of Justice’s coal companies for the nonpayment of millions of dollars in fines for more than a hundred health and safety violations. In the past several years, retired miners and the UMWA have filed a lawsuit alleging that Justice’s coal companies let the prescription-drug coverage of their former employees lapse. Pinkey Mullens, who retired from one of Justice’s companies after working as a miner for thirty years, lost his drug coverage on multiple occasions while he was recovering from cancer. “This is so wrong,” Mullens’s wife told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. She said that Justice would “answer for it, somehow, some way. Maybe not in this lifetime. But he will.”

Justice has also attempted to paper over a growing humanitarian crisis in West Virginia’s criminal-justice system. In the past decade, the mortality rate in the state’s jails has been the highest in the country. Last year, private briefings prepared for the governor’s office by the state’s Department of Homeland Security, which oversees prisons and jails, said the system needed more than three hundred million dollars to address overdue maintenance, staffing shortages, and severe overcrowding. At the most troubled facility, Southern Regional Jail, which is in coal country, recent investigations have revealed that inmates were forced to sleep on concrete floors and to drink from toilets. Over the course of fourteen months, at least sixteen inmates died there. Sara Whitaker, the criminal-policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told me, “There is no telling how many people would be alive today if the Justice administration had responded with decisive action, instead of misleadingly assuring the public there was no problem.”

Despite the bad publicity, Justice remains a formidable candidate. Most recent polls have him beating his primary opponent, the U.S. congressman Alex Mooney, by forty points. (Manchin dropped out after polls showed him losing to Justice in a general election.) At a press conference in March, Justice was asked whether his mounting legal and financial problems would affect his ability to serve in the Senate. “I don’t know why we should occupy ourselves with that,” he said. “I would say judge me by my deeds, and that’s all there is to it. Look at West Virginia today. West Virginia is absolutely really, really moving.”

Justice has boosted his popularity with a constant stream of ribbon-cutting events— passing out a thirteen-million-dollar check to a middle school, staging an elaborate ground-breaking ceremony at the site of a new steel-production facility— and an increasing embrace of culture-war issues. In September, 2022, a few months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Justice signed an eight-week abortion ban. This year, he supported an anti-trans bill called the “Women’s Bill of Rights”; a press release promoting the effort praised the governor for “boldly standing with women” by “fortifying into West Virginia law words like ‘female,’ ‘woman,’ and ‘mother.’ ” (The bill failed to advance out of the state Senate.) He has also received unflagging support from Donald Trump, who, in an endorsement of Justice on Truth Social, wrote, “Big Jim Justice, the Governor of the Great State of West Virginia (I LOVE WEST VIRGINIA!), is BIG in every way, but especially in his wonderful HEART!”

Justice and Trump have both defended the power of coal to revive the West Virginian economy, even as the state’s fiscal crisis continues to deepen. At a ceremony last year, Justice signed four bills promoting coal while flanked by the logo of Friends of Coal, an advocacy group whose name is on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and license plates throughout West Virginia. In 2016, Trump wore a “Friends of Coal” hard hat at a rally in Charleston that drew ten thousand people. “I’m going to put the miners back to work,” he promised.The following year, he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. In fact, coal jobs declined by twenty-five per cent during Trump’s Presidency.

The near-total absence of well-paying jobs in southern West Virginia has made it fertile territory for nurturing a politics of resentment. But the electorate there has also grown more disaffected. In 2016, when Trump won three-quarters of the vote in McDowell County, the result became an emblem of the appeal of his right-wing populism in deindustrialized America. But Martin, the historian at Chatham University, pointed out that two-thirds of registered voters didn’t vote at all. “Nobody came in first,” Martin said. “Because so many people had become disillusioned with using votes as a way to improve life in McDowell County.”

…Shrewsbury has reason to be hopeful that Democrats in the state will opt for a more progressive platform. Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton in West Virginia’s 2016 Democratic primary. Two years later, twenty thousand West Virginia teachers walked out in a wildcat strike, protesting cuts to their health insurance. The strike, which inspired similar walkouts in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, helped spark an insurgent campaign for U.S. Congress from Richard Ojeda, a Democratic state senator and U.S. Army veteran who had highlighted the teachers’ plight. Ojeda, who lost his general election by twelve points, isn’t endorsing anyone in the primary, but he admires Shrewsbury. “Zach is exactly what West Virginia needs,” he told me. “He’s a veteran. He has a great plan for helping people. But it’s West Virginia. And in West Virginia, many folks think Donald Trump is the second coming of Christ.”

I reached Shrewsbury by phone recently; he was on the road. Since announcing his candidacy, he has logged more than thirty thousand miles in his Chrysler and intends to campaign in each of the state’s fifty-five counties. If he wins the primary, he plans to hold a general-election kickoff rally where his campaign began— this time to honor the five hundred miners who were arrested after the Battle of Blair Mountain and tried at the courthouse in Charles Town. “Coal mining is the culture of West Virginia,” he told me. “But, this election, West Virginians will have a choice between the workingman and the company store.” 

Please consider contributing to Zach’s campaign here. If he wins, it will be good for West Virginia, good for organized labor and good for America.


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