Progressive Network/Progressive Gains
At a time when most states were coat-tailing Ronald Reagan, electing one right-wing candidate after another, progressives made striking gains in West Virginia. In 1980, the year of the conservative landslide, most of the conservative leadership of the West Virginia State Senate was ousted from power by an informal progressive coalition of labor and consumer groups. In 1982 this same network nailed down the Senate majority and two of the state's four congressional seats.
A month after the 1982 Democratic primary, Charleston Gazette editor Don Marsh wrote of the strong progressive showing: "My theory is that a new constituency has been formed. The change has been made at the expense of the old political organizations that once dominated elections." Marsh speculated that the "new constituency" consisted of an "informal coalition" of which "the union organizations are major parts — the AFL-CIO, the United Mine Workers, and the West Virginia Education Association. . . . There are other groups in the coalition: the Council of Senior West Virginians, West Virginia Citizen Action Group, conservationists, and a number of others."
In its broadest form, the progressive agenda is extensive; it includes issues like workplace health and safety, utility rate reform, equitable taxation, pro-choice and other issues specifically affecting women, environmental and consumer protection, restrictions on nuclear power, and collective bargaining. As the coalition worked together to unseat legislators who opposed their positions on these issues and replace them with more favorable people, representatives of each group did so in the belief that a more progressive legislature would inevitably benefit its members. In other words, they realized that they agreed more often than they disagreed.
As Marsh wrote, "The coalition is not compact. All members do not share equal priorities. I think it would be accurate to say, for example, that the education group's primary goal is collective bargaining for teachers. The 'free choice' group's main priority is stopping restrictions on abortions. The mine workers have another interest, and so on." Given the fact that each group is unlikely to endorse the entire agenda of each other group, progressive cooperation has been — and must be — based on an agreement to disagree.
Because of their successes, progressive groups in West Virginia today are faced with a different set of questions. Achieving a degree of political power is one process, but keeping it, expanding it, and operating within it pose new problems.
Can cooperation last? Is this a temporary swing of the pendulum or an actual change in the nature of elections? How does all this relate to the Democratic Party? Does electoral success translate into legislative success? These questions face progressives in more states than West Virginia.
With the elections only a few months away, the political atmosphere in West Virginia is volatile. The state leads the nation in unemployment. The coal and steel industries are severely depressed. Federal funds, upon which West Virginia depended more than most states, have been severely cut back, with ripple effects far beyond losses to specific programs.
The business community is conducting a highly visible "bad business climate" campaign, designed to convince people that more West Virginia businesses will close if voters go along with progressive candidates. West Virginia's state employees are the lowest paid in the nation. The state is under court orders to improve the school and prison systems. The entire state is undergoing a property tax reappraisal. Although most people blame the Reagan administration for the majority of the problems, there is also widespread feeling that the Democratic Rockefeller administration in West Virginia has either done little to alleviate them or else has actually contributed to them.
In other words, what is happening now in West Virginia is this: Everybody is playing with a deck full of wild cards. Although it appears that progressive groups are holding a winning hand, much is in flux, much is uncertain. This seems to be no time to be complacent.
1979 to 1983: What Happened
The night of the 1980 primary election stands out in the minds of coalition members as "the night we started believing in ourselves." Several hundred people passed through the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) conference room, cheering and hugging each other as, race by race, it became obvious the progressive network had defeated some of the most powerful people in the state legislature, including the president of the Senate, the Senate majority whip, and the chairperson of the Senate Finance Committee.
Senior citizen activists and environmentalists slapped hands with AFL-CIO members. The lobbyists for the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the United Mine Workers congratulated each other. "It was an incredible celebration," recalls Cecile Gill of WVEA. "I was personally in a state of shock. We had worked so hard, and we wanted to believe it was possible to beat the power structure. Everything we were hearing had been telling us, 'It's going to work.' But I wasn't a believer until I saw those numbers going up on the chalkboard."
"It was so improbable it would happen," says NOW lobbyist Bonnie Brown, "and it happened. And then you just think, well, now we can do anything."
Not only had they defeated the politicians most resistant to progressive concerns, but they had made a collective effort to find and back acceptable candidates. Bob Wise, now a member of Congress from the third district of West Virginia, was one of those candidates. Working through the progressive network, he defeated the incumbent president of the State Senate in his first try for public office. Wise describes that election evening as a "possible turning point in West Virginia politics."
He and other candidates won with little or no help from the established Democratic machine. They won through hard work and intelligent use of sophisticated grassroots electoral strategies, including door-to-door canvassing, phone banking, and second-round follow-ups. They researched historic voter patterns to find those groups most likely to vote, and targeted those groups where efforts were most likely to pay off. The campaigns were based on issues rather than strict party appeal and involved a lot of direct person-to-person contact on the part of the candidates and hundreds of campaign workers.
Some of the victories and winning candidates were solid, and some were more shaky that year. In northern West Virginia, young progressive schoolteacher Jean Chace won a state legislature seat by defeating a powerful veteran by only two votes. In southern West Virginia, the Senate Finance Committee chair was unseated by a candidate whose progressive credentials were questionable, but who is nonetheless considered an improvement.
The fact that these kinds of campaigns succeeded at all is quite a departure from tradition in West Virginia. In most counties, Democratic candidates had been elected, with rare exceptions, only with the blessing and support of one of the machine factions of the Democratic Party. The emergence of the progressive network in effect started a new ball game. The progressive network is oriented toward issues and political philosophy, rather than party affiliation. They are willing to go after "sorry Democrats" and also to support liberal Republicans when appropriate. This rejection of straight Democratic ticket voting has made their activities quite a threat to the conservative old-line Democratic machine politicians.
As is true in much of the South, the Democratic Party in West Virginia is fairly schizophrenic. The state was formed in 1863, when the western counties of Virginia decided to side with the North in the Civil War. Liberal and conservative Southern-style Democrats have been fighting among themselves ever since. Many of the major philosophical and legislative battles within state government regularly take place among Democrats, and the real electoral contest often occurs in the Democratic primary. There is often a big difference between Democrats and the Democratic Party as an organization. Conservative Democrats have controlled West Virginia politics since 1932 (with the exception of two instances in which they aligned themselves with the Republicans to prevent the liberal Democrats from achieving power). Because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, many Republicans simply register as Democrats.
In terms of issues and philosophy, there is no true two-party system in West Virginia. Recognizing this fact, the people in the progressive network, which represents a substantial proportion of the electorate, went their own way in 1980, independent of the governor and traditional Democratic Party mechanisms, in large part because the Democratic Party was controlled by supporters of the very people they wanted to defeat. Indeed, some of the dominant factions, on a state and a county level, were known to be tied in to the big banks and out-of-state interests who have a vested interest in seeing that significant progressive change does not occur.
The State Senate in the late 1970s was a prime example of conservative Democratic control. The celebration at the WVEA on primary night was doubly sweet to people who remembered how depressing the legislative outlook had appeared just one year before to lobbyists for labor, church, senior citizens, women, the environment, and other progressive interests. All were discouraged and angered by what senior citizen lobbyist Bea Burgess called the "arrogance and total lack of concern displayed by the Senate leadership for our issues."
"They just thumbed their noses at us," Burgess recalls. The Coalition on Legislation for the Elderly (COLE) had tried to get a small monthly increase for elderly and disabled Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients: the House of Delegates passed the bill, 98 to 2, but the powerful Senate Rules Committee prevented the popular bill from even coming up for a vote. "We decided right then, that somehow, something had to be done to make sure those people didn't come back," remembers Bea Burgess.
Almost every progressive group had a similar complaint. When WVEA lobbyist Steve Haid went to see Senate President Bill Brotherton about a collective bargaining bill, "Brotherton told us flatly that 'as long as I sit in this chair, there will be no collective bargaining bill passed in West Virginia,' and so we thought to ourselves, 'Okay, buddy, if you're that inflexible, we'll see what we can do about taking that chair out from under you.'"
"Those guys felt safe in thumbing their noses because they knew that no one organization had enough power to get them out of office," said Mike Harmon of COLE. Typically, an individual organization just did what it could for the most acceptable candidates served up by the Democratic Party. There was some recruitment of candidates going on within a few labor organizations, but no real effort had been made to find candidates acceptable to a broad range of political groups. "In other words," recalls Harmon, "we were all beating our heads against the wall independently."
Two months after the 1979 session, that situation began to change. In May a meeting of people who wanted to explore the possibilities of pooling efforts to improve the atmosphere at the legislature quietly convened in a Charleston church. Despite apprehensions about getting involved with other groups and worries that "it might not work," more than 40 people showed up — staff people and members of at least 15 different organizations. Organized labor, teachers, nurses, consumers, church groups, the handicapped, environmentalists, senior citizens, public employees, women's organizations, higher education, and fair tax groups were all represented.
Within two hours, the group identified some common concerns and targeted eight senators who were on everybody's hit list. "When people started to realize how much collective resources were represented at that table," recalls Harmon, "they really got excited. You could just see the smiles spreading around the table. They thought, 'Hey, this just might work.'"
The group continued to meet all summer. It never did have an official structure or name, although it acquired several nicknames, including the Elk River Improvement League and "Orkin" (as in "stamping out pests"). Throughout the four months that Orkin met, relatively few people outside the groups attending the meetings were aware that it existed.
The groups found in each other the kind of recognition and support for issues that the Democratic Party had failed to provide. Although its existence was brief, Orkin accomplished several important things. First, the participants agreed that it is not only a good idea to work cooperatively on elections, but it is also possible. Second, they agreed that it isn't enough to knock out troublesome politicians if you aren't replacing them with people who are going to be more responsive.
Orkin also provided a forum in which people could get to know each other and each other's organizations. "The importance of that shouldn't be overlooked," recalls Cecile Gill, "because before then, we at WVEA, for instance, just didn't know a lot of the people who were involved in the labor movement. We just really had not had that much contact with them. When we started talking with them, we found that we really were a whole lot alike." People in the larger labor groups also realized that smaller organizations like COLE, Citizen Action Group, and NOW could reach different constituencies and could provide expertise and research related to issues of common concern.
The successes put progressive legislators in control of the Senate leadership. That was not enough, however, to translate progressive concerns into public policy change in 1981. The conservative Democrats still controlled a majority of the Senate and could block almost anything the leadership proposed. "All that work, and we were still not where we needed to be," remembers Cecile Gill.
But 1980 had convinced progressives that they were headed in the right direction. "In the years immediately following the election," commented Bonnie Brown, "NOW and other organizations placed a lot more emphasis on political activism. It's become a part of what has to be done. We know that if we don't run our own candidates, if we don't put our own people in there, we're making a big mistake."
Accordingly, groups began to put much more effort into finding candidates who would be more than the lesser of two evils. The United Labor Committee, an informal statewide labor network, began to meet regularly to discuss elections and compare notes. Candidates and organization staff attended sophisticated workshops organized by national progressive groups. CitPAC, a door-to-door canvass for progressive candidates, was put together in time for the 1982 general election.
The 1982 election nailed down a majority progressive vote in the State Senate and sent Bob Wise to the U.S. Congress. One of the leading Democratic conservatives who went down to defeat told a radio reporter on election night that, if the teachers and mine workers could defeat him, "they can defeat anybody in West Virginia."
This time, more members of the various organizations ran and won. Sondra Lucht, a former state NOW president, was elected to the State Senate, while Bonnie Brown, former NOW lobbyist, was elected to the House of Delegates. John Chernenko, a solidly progressive union leader from the northern panhandle, defeated one of the mainstays of the big business community. In all, 23 of the 25 candidates endorsed by CitPAC were elected, not so much because of the influence of the fledgling CitPAC, but because the candidates were, for the most part, supported by the progressive network.
In 1983 electoral victories translated into some major legislative successes. The 1983 legislative session passed what has been called the most far-reaching utility rate reform legislation in the country. It also passed a progressive tax package that concentrated income tax increases in the upper brackets, which had benefited from federal tax cuts. A hospital cost containment bill passed at the last minute.
"The electoral victories in '80 and '82 made it possible to get the utility bill through in '83," says David Grubb, director of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, which organized the utility campaign (see box on page 65). "The legislators saw what had happened in the elections, they saw the same groups were supporting utility rate reform, and they were hearing from their constituents. So they were willing to listen and do something, despite incredible opposition from the companies."
Although the 1983 session was considered a good one from the progressive point of view, there were several areas where little or no success was achieved. Issues like collective bargaining and state employees' pay raises couldn't even get out of committee. Equitable distribution of property, a top women's priority, was stymied at the last minute. Environmentalists basically held the line where they could, and labor split over an important workplace safety issue.
Under these circumstances, some network participants were more disappointed than others in at least some aspects of the session. If they continue to see no progress on their issues, their enthusiasm for networking might diminish.
In the meantime, the network is constantly expanding. Thousands of people participated in the utility campaign, again coordinated through a coalition of progressive groups. Statewide hearings, call-in and write-in campaigns, and activities at the legislature exposed many of these people to the political process for the first time.
Issue-oriented campaigns are bringing "a lot of individuals into the political process who otherwise were not involved," observes Robert Nelson, part of the progressive State Senate leadership. "They don't like politics and politicians, but they like a particular issue, and they're willing to go out and work for that issue. And in the process, they rub elbows with people in other interest groups and learn about other issues." Once involved, many of them have stayed involved.
As Gazette editor Marsh wrote in his "new constituency" column, "What is happening, I think, is that the various groups are able to accommodate each other's goals and to feel that they are all together in working toward a better society, without having to supply a precise list of goals."
This agreement to disagree has been the operating principle since 1980, replacing the assumption that groups which disagreed on some issues couldn't work together on others. As Mike Burdiss, West Virginia director of the UMW's Coal Miners Political Action Committee says, "There's been an attitude of 'Let's sit down and go over the issues, determine the ones that we disagree on, set them aside, and then do something about the issues that we do agree on.'"
"What this means," Marsh wrote, "is candidates who are identified as sharing the coalition's philosophy are in good shape." In a state where it has always been more important to have machine support than constructive positions on the issues, this is a drastic shift — not only in the way candidates approach voters, but also in the way the voters make their decisions.
Critics of a movement can supply some very useful questions. Sam MacCorkle, longtime Kanawha County Democratic faction chief, is a thoughtful critic. A lawyer and Democratic Party loyalist, he is well known for his attention to the mechanical details of the electoral process and for his efforts to reduce corruption in county elections by decentralizing them.
MacCorkle notes that the progressive network does not especially concern itself with the mechanics of election day, perhaps assuming that election fraud is no longer a serious problem (see box on page 66). He predicts, however, that old practices will take new forms. "I'll bet you people have been to a dozen courses on image building," he commented, "but you probably couldn't even find one on the mechanics of how an election is set up — how to find good precinct workers, and how computers can be tampered with. And you can't ignore that. You people can do all the image-building you want, and you can go to every door in the county with all of your issues. But you could still lose the election, because some s.o.b. went down to the courthouse on election night and monkeyed with the computer."
MacCorkle also warns that many time-honored institutional party-politics practices which are more or less ignored by progressives are being fully utilized by the Republicans and conservative Democrats, in ways which the "new constituency" may not be able at this point to counteract. In the 1983 Charleston mayor's race, a coalition of conservative Democrats helped the Republicans develop strength in the housing projects, thereby putting the Republicans back in power in Charleston and providing a base from which to work on the 1984 statewide elections.
MacCorkle worries that history is in the process of repeating itself. An examination of West Virginia political history does show that whenever progressive political elements become powerful, one of two things happens: (1) the conservative Democrats bolt from the Democratic Party and team up with the Republicans to defeat the progressives, and/or (2) the local or state machine politicians somehow rig or steal the election.* Looking at history, MacCorkle does not approve of the "new constituency," because he feels it splinters the Democratic Party and paves the way for the Republicans to get in.
MacCorkle further believes that the progressive network cannot last because "there's no institution, no umbrella organization to help resolve
disputes." Commenting that "once you're in, you've got to operate," he predicts that it will be nearly impossible to operate when people and organizations inevitably clash over issues and priorities. Then the coalition will fall apart, he warns. Individual issues will take precedence over the cooperation, and that will be the end of it. His basic point has to do with the fact that the new progressive network can disappear in the face of disagreements, while the Democratic Party does not, because it is an institution.
The criticisms and questions MacCorkle raises are particularly hard to answer because there are so many wild cards in West Virginia at this point. The 1983 legislature passed a postcard voter registration bill, and several organizations are actively signing voters up. The legislature also passed a civil service bill allowing state employees to participate in political campaign. Accompanying this development is the appearance and rapid growth of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a force which puts a new wrinkle on state employees in politics. (State employees, who still don't have collective bargaining rights, have not previously been unionized.)
Future progress depends on the answers to other questions. Can the degree of cooperation that has been built up at the upper levels of organizations truly be filtered down through the counties and ranks? Can election techniques successful in urban areas be adapted to rural areas? What about candidates who have strong support from part of the network, but are opposed by others?
There are many positive signs. During the past year, teachers worked for mine safety issues and miners for teacher pay raises. Representatives of a variety of progressive groups helped lobby for pro-choice positions on abortion. Environmentalists worked with many organizations on hazardous waste and other issues. The very looseness of the network, justifiably named as a weakness, is also a proven strength in the latitude it gives people and organizations to decide whether to join in on particular issues or campaigns.
Still, the element of surprise is gone. The network has lost that advantage. Its efforts caught the conservatives off guard in 1982; this will not be true in 1984. The progressive network is recognized as a formidable political force, and the Republicans and conservative Democrats are planning their strategies accordingly.
Looking toward the future, the progressive network is counting on continued agreement to disagree, but above all on the fact that voters are becoming increasingly knowledgeable and independent. Since the anti-strip-
-mine and black lung movements of the early '70s, citizen awareness of and involvement in political issues has grown steadily. "This is our best insurance," comments Perry Bryant, who helped organize CitPAC. "We see this as we go door-to-door. And unless the Democratic Party is able to adjust and at least include our concerns, then progressives will have to continue to appeal to voters on the basis of concerns, philosophy, and issues first, and party affiliation second."
"What they're doing, in effect, is trying to start a new party," Sam MacCorkle speculates. It would probably be more accurate to say that, for the most part, the progressive coalition has stopped thinking in terms of parties. Almost all of the people in the network would prefer to work through the Democratic Party, but they simply have not been able to get the Democratic Party, as an organization, to respond to their concerns.
Working through the Democratic Party in West Virginia may not be possible, simply because, by Harry Truman's definition, there are so many Republicans in the Democratic Party. Truman observed that the Democratic Party is in favor of helping people who need help, and the Republican Party is in favor of helping people who don't need help. Judging by this simple but useful yardstick, it may be very difficult for the West Virginia Democratic Party, as an organization, to pursue a progressive agenda, even though the times demand a strong political voice for people who do need help.
Given the need for such a voice, can the Democratic Party and the new constituency agree to disagree? Bob Wise, who in many ways symbolizes the success of the past four years' efforts, puts it very plainly. "I'm not afraid of the way we're moving," he says, "because I think it's healthy. And I think that if the Democratic Party meets that challenge, rather than retreats from it, it's going to mean a stronger Democratic Party. I've got faith that institutions can rise to changes and grow from them, just like people can. But the Democratic Party is going to have to be willing to recognize where people's interests, needs, and wants are, such as utility rate reform, and say that we're willing to take that battle on, as Democrats. Not as individuals, but as Democrats. If they're not willing to do it, then people aren't going to have much respect for the Democratic Party, nor, quite frankly, should they. If the Democratic Party isn't going to meet what people's needs are, then they shouldn't win. The same is true for the Republican Party."
If the historical pattern can be broken, 1984 may be the test year. Conservative Democrats (and Governor Rockefeller) are already lining up with Republicans to oppose the gubernatorial candidacy of Senate president Warrren McGraw, who has the support of the entire progressive network. Other progressive candidates are similarly targeted. A classic confrontation is shaping up.
* In 1896 the Republicans came to power in West Virginia for the first time, through the open collaboration of the conservative "Bourbon" Democrats, who were threatened by the presidential candidacy of William Jennings Bryan. In 1940, four years after the Southern coalfields were unionized, Democratic Senator Matthew Neely teamed up with the coal miners to take control of the governor's mansion and purge the Bourbon Democrats. When Neely ran for his old Senate seat in 1942, the Bourbons retaliated by combining forces with the Republicans to beat him. In the 1950s Democratic Governor William Marland tried to push a progressive program through the West Virginia Legislature, financed by a proposed severance tax on coal. After beating back the program and the tax, the conservative Democrats crossed party lines in 1956 to help elect a Republican governor. The same thing happened in 1968 when the conservative Democrats helped defeat the AFL-CIO candidate for governor.