For decades, Sen. Joe Manchin has presided over West Virginia’s Democratic Party, crowning candidates and throwing cushy appointments to allies while the state’s jobs, wages, and environment have gradually been ground to dust. But earlier this month, a grassroots slate of over 50 Democrats took control of the West Virginia Democratic Party after winning a majority of seats on the executive committee and ousting party leadership, thus ending Manchin’s de facto control of the state party apparatus.
Now, after a six-year organizing push, every old guard party apparatchik — save for the treasurer — is out of office, replaced with activists from across the Democratic spectrum set on revitalizing the state and forcing renewed support from the national party. The June 18 victories mark the beginning of the end for an era defined by atrophy, nose-diving voter rolls, and just a single Democratic statewide representative: Manchin.
They did it by flipping the script on the Democratic Party. After Manchin and the Democratic National Committee used the bylaws governing unelected superdelegates to throw West Virginia’s 2016 presidential primary for Hillary Clinton — despite the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders won every county in the state — activists used the DNC’s own rules to unseat the base of one of its most powerful members. They sowed the seeds of power by demanding that the party make good on its rules governing gender and racial equity in its staffing as well as those governing free, fair, and timely leadership elections.
Republicans now hold the governor’s office, supermajorities in both houses of the West Virginia Legislature, and every statewide office save for Manchin’s. That’s thanks largely to the inaction of a state party that until recently was composed entirely of Manchin loyalists. There was outgoing state party Chair Belinda Biafore, who survived an attempted ousting over her handling of state party diversity, and former Manchin chief of staff Larry Puccio, who notoriously switched political parties after his departure. The recent upset offers hope that by populating the lower offices with Democrats who are committed to serving the public instead of favor-trading for personal gain, Manchin will no longer be the party’s only candidate who can run statewide and win.
The lack of Democratic support for one of the most impoverished and isolated regions of Appalachia culminated in a Republican takeover that started in the early 2000s and reached its peak with Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. In the general election against Clinton, Trump emerged with nearly 70 percent of the Mountain State vote.
While Democrats treated West Virginia as a lost cause, the state and its party apparatus fell into disrepair at the hands of Manchin, who blamed his party’s statewide failures on progressive trends in the national party rather than his own lack of incentive to help anyone but himself and his allies.
The new slate of West Virginia Democrats is made up of a broad coalition of activists — including moderates — seeking to disrupt Manchin’s power. Unlike the Democratic Party upset in Nevada, which saw the Democratic Socialists of America overthrow a calcified political machine with a vast progressive ground game, West Virginia’s insurgents pulled it off by outmaneuvering a decaying party leadership grown accustomed to uncontested elections — using the DNC’s own bylaws.
“After years of having to fight our own party to get a seat at the table, I look forward to fighting Republicans at the ballot box instead of useless Democrats at committee meetings.”
At the helm of the new executive committee is party Chair Mike Pushkin, a cab driver, musician, and member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. Pushkin is a cautious left-leaning liberal, one who tends to abstain from attacking Manchin head-on. Instead, he’s focused on rebuilding the party through the same bread-and-butter issues he pursued in the House of Delegates: job creation, addressing the opioid crisis, and allying with House libertarians to successfully pass a medical marijuana legalization bill.
In the vice chair position now sits Danielle Walker, a state delegate who appears to be the first person of color to sit on the executive committee in West Virginia history. Walker, an unabashed progressive, is the real triumph of the movement. After receiving Manchin’s endorsement for state delegate, she went on to blast the senator for his repeated attacks on Democratic priorities, like refusing to block the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and his failure to save the Mylan pharmaceutical plant in her district.
“We won every officer seat we ran for,” said Shane Assadzandi, one of the organizers behind the new slate. “And after years of having to fight our own party to get a seat at the table, I look forward to fighting Republicans at the ballot box instead of useless Democrats at committee meetings.”
Some organizers first found each other amid the populist energy that emerged from Sanders’s clean sweep of the state during the 2016 primary, while other, more moderate members of the push joined up to remake a party that didn’t seem set on forwarding any candidates, moderate or otherwise. By enlisting, they realized that they could have an actual voice in the political process instead of serving as just one more set of pawns.
For years prior to this month’s landslide victory, social worker-turned-organizer Selina Vickers battled the state party through the DNC’s adjudicative process, filing national challenges against the party’s violations of both state code and DNC bylaws. The dozen-odd members of party leadership are supposed to be elected by the 100-member executive committee, themselves elected by voters during midterm elections. But up until this year, that body served as a rubber stamp to approve the list of party leaders handed down by the incoming Democratic gubernatorial nominee.
“I started poring over all the rules that dictate this process and thinking about what was really going on here,” Vickers told The Intercept. “What I discovered was that they were electing the chair, the vice chair, and all their officers just months before the state convention in the presidential year without any real competition. … As soon as a new committee is elected during the midterms, it’s also supposed to elect its officers. Instead, they had developed a tactic of waiting to elect the slate dictated by the gubernatorial candidate to prevent grassroots groups from building power, and that’s what happened over and over and over again.”
Vickers began attending DNC meetings and taking notes on how power moved through the highest ranks of the Democratic Party. After years of going to meetings across multiple DNC committees, she submitted her research to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee through what would eventually total nine challenges to the former regime’s operating procedures. These challenges included failure to hold timely elections, failure to announce committee meetings within the required time frame, failure to ensure committee diversity seats, and, critically, failure to make good on provisions stipulating requirements for gender parity in the overwhelmingly male state committee.
“It’s about changing the party we have so that West Virginia has an actual chance. … It doesn’t matter if you’re a progressive or a moderate or an independent, there’s a seat at the table if we can unrig the system.”
In the summer of 2020, the DNC sent Vickers a memorandum acquiescing to a number of the challenges, laying the groundwork for this month’s upset. Between changes to committee elections catalyzing competitive races and newly enforced mandates on gender parity and diversity, organizers were equipped with procedural weapons to take on intransigent leadership.
Gender parity increased competition for executive committee seats, and making good on diversity and youth requirements helped clean out the overwhelmingly homogenous and aging old guard.
In a sardonic twist of fate, the new slate of West Virginia Democrats used the very bylaw code long scorned by progressives for entrenching the DNC’s power over free elections against its creator.
“I don’t love political parties, so I view what we did here as democratic with a small ‘D,’” Vickers said. “For me, it’s about changing the party we have so that West Virginia has an actual chance. You get pissed when you see people living in poverty in coal camps, people breathing in silica, all of this stuff directly related to policymakers in Charleston. It doesn’t matter if you’re a progressive or a moderate or an independent, there’s a seat at the table if we can unrig the system.”
During the upcoming midterm elections, the new slate will focus on winning down-ballot races for offices like city council, county commission, state delegate, and eventually state Senate. Without a roster of candidates building trust, legitimacy, and fundraising networks at the local level, statewide offices remain out of reach. And while organizers will have to contend with Nick Casey, the singular Manchin holdover serving as party treasurer, he’ll be closely watched by the newly electeds dead set on change.
With the prospect of flipping West Virginia blue long off, the tactic of using DNC bylaws against old guard regimes may still prove replicable in other states like Massachusetts that are struggling under the weight of ineffective party leadership. As The Intercept reported in 2020, Massachusetts’s party executives engineered a homophobic smear campaign to spike the candidacy of Alex Morse, a young mayor from Holyoke who attempted to overthrow one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.
Despite the challenges facing West Virginia, Walker is optimistic about Democrats’ odds going forward. “I see Democrats around the state of West Virginia having hope for the first time,” she told The Intercept. “There’s a new beacon of light shining down on the government with people energized and ready to strategize with a return to the democratic process.”
“We are going to build livable jobs, safe jobs, sustainable jobs, sustainable housing, a public education system that will be respected, where educators, personnel, and students will all have a voice,” Walker said. “We don’t just want West Virginians to barely survive. We want them to thrive.”