Meet Paula Jean Swearengin: The Progressive Who Won West Virginia’s Democratic Senate Primary

West Virginia could soon get a Bernie Sanders supporter—and coal miner’s daughter—in the U.S. Senate.

Ed Rampell January 11, 2018

Paula Jean Swearengin is running to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia and rein in the power of the coal industry in the state. (Youtube/The Young Turks)

Edi­tor’s note: In 2018, Paula Jean Swearen­gin lost to the incum­bent con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­rat Sen. Joe Manchin with 30% of the vote — the most pri­ma­ry votes against an incum­bent U.S. sen­a­tor in West Vir­ginia in 75 years. On June 9, 2020, Swearen­gin beat her two Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nents and will face Repub­li­can Sen. Shelly Moore Capi­to in Novem­ber. The fol­low­ing is a con­ver­sa­tion with the pro­gres­sive chal­lenger from Jan­u­ary 112018.

Our incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, have been coal industry servants. They haven’t been servants for the people and definitely haven’t been friends of coal miners.

On Dec. 27, 2017, self-pro­fessed hill­bil­ly” Paula Jean Swearen­gin flew from her home­town of West Vir­ginia to the posh enclave of Bev­er­ly Hills, Calif., to par­tic­i­pate in a forum of reform-mind­ed women run­ning for Con­gress. But Swearen­gin, who is run­ning in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry for West Vir­ginia Sen­ate against incum­bent Joe Manchin, has more in com­mon with feisty fic­tion­al South­ern union orga­niz­er Nor­ma Rae than with the Clam­petts of Bev­er­ly Hillbillies.”

Unlike the oil rich Clam­petts who struck black gold” on their land, Swearen­gin is crit­i­cal of the ener­gy indus­try, espe­cial­ly coal, which she told the forum’s stand­ing room-only crowd had led to her rel­a­tives’ deaths by way of black lung disease.

I saw my grand­fa­ther suf­fo­cate to death,” thun­dered the 43-year-old sin­gle moth­er of four. I’m not going to wor­ship a black rock.”

The forum, billed as a Near­ly New Year’s Rev­o­lu­tion Par­ty,” was orga­nized by the Jus­tice Democ­rats, a fed­er­al polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee which has endorsed 51 Sen­ate and House can­di­dates, includ­ing Swearen­gin, who all oppose the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s cor­po­rate wing and have pledged not to take dona­tions from cor­po­ra­tions and SuperPACs.

In the May 8 pri­ma­ry, Swearen­gin will go up against Manchin, a con­ser­v­a­tive Demo­c­rat and long­time ally of the coal indus­try who vot­ed for Scott Pruitt, Pres­i­dent Trump’s pick to head the EPA, and sup­port­ed leav­ing the Paris Cli­mate Treaty. Swearen­gin, mean­while, is run­ning on a plat­form of sin­gle-pay­er health­care, a $15 min­i­mum wage, free pub­lic col­lege tuition and an end to frack­ing and moun­tain­top removal.

In this can­did con­ver­sa­tion, Swearen­gin, dis­cuss­es her dark horse can­di­da­cy, her views on a Green New Deal, social­ism, eco­nom­ic jus­tice and much more.

Tell us about your background?

I was born in Mul­lens, West Vir­ginia, and lived in a com­mu­ni­ty called Iro­quois in Appalachia. We faced heavy pol­lu­tion. Our water came from the Sweeney Water­shed, which meant we essen­tial­ly drank acid mine drainage. The water was orange with a blue and pur­ple film. I thought my hair was red or orange, I didn’t know I was a brunette until we moved away and had clean water.

We had a slate dump that con­tin­u­al­ly burned above the com­mu­ni­ty that also caused air pol­lu­tion, like a sul­fur smell. When I was 12, my step­dad got laid off in the coal mines and we moved to Yad­kinville, North Car­oli­na. There, my step­dad worked in a fur­ni­ture fac­to­ry and my moth­er in a nurs­ing home.

My step­dad and my dad had both worked in the coal mines. My grand­fa­ther was a Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca min­er. He worked for 45 years in the coal mines and most of my uncles worked in them too. My grand­fa­ther suf­fo­cat­ed of black lung. My step­dad had black lung, heart dis­ease, and open heart surgery. My dad passed away in 2005. He had black lung and lung can­cer. Most of my uncles have black lung.

How’s your health?

I have diver­ti­c­uli­tis. Most of my fam­i­ly have stom­ach issues because of the water we drank when we were lit­tle. Lots of peo­ple have gas­troin­testi­nal issues in Appalachi­an coal com­mu­ni­ties. When I was lit­tle I had asth­ma. My moth­er would take me and my broth­ers and sis­ters to the doc­tor all the time. When we moved to North Car­oli­na our health did get bet­ter but since I am get­ting old­er my health has declined. 

How do you react to being called a hill­bil­ly”?

It doesn’t both­er me to be called a hill­bil­ly” because I lived in the hills. I grew up in the hills and the moun­tains are my home. We have had the stig­ma where peo­ple said Appalachi­ans don’t have no teeth, no shoes, no brains. But Appalachi­ans are some of the great­est peo­ple in the world.

How did you become an activist?

I start­ed my path in activism after my grand­fa­ther got sick with black lung. I moved to Lester, West Vir­ginia, where they were clos­ing the local school because of fun­ny smells. An eight-year-old neigh­bor named Bethany was diag­nosed with a rare form of bone cancer.

Lat­er, when I found out about moun­tain­top removal, peo­ple were still deal­ing with the same kind of water issues I had grow­ing up. When they blew up the moun­tain­tops they buried many rivers and streams in West Vir­ginia. When they dis­turbed the rocks it cre­at­ed sil­i­ca dust. So now, not only do peo­ple have to wor­ry about sil­i­co­sis in under­ground mines, but sil­i­ca dust is actu­al­ly going into the lungs of our chil­dren. It’s been proven there’s a high rate of birth defects and oth­er health issues.

I got angry and active. Peo­ple labeled me an envi­ron­men­tal activist,” but I saw myself as a social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice activist. I worked with the Ohio Val­ley Envi­ron­men­tal Coali­tion and the Keep­ers of the Moun­tain Foun­da­tion. I spoke to the U.N., I went around the coun­try speak­ing at ral­lies, at col­leges, to any­body who’d hear us, try­ing to get some help for West Vir­ginia, because our rep­re­sen­ta­tives weren’t hear­ing us. Demo­c­rat Jim Jus­tice is one of the biggest pol­lut­ing coal barons and now he’s our governor.

That start­ed my path run­ning for office.

In March 2017, I attend­ed a town hall held by Manchin. I talked about my fam­i­ly dying, the water pol­lu­tion, the air pol­lu­tion, telling him we want­ed clean and safe jobs and I didn’t feel like we should have to kill each oth­er to pros­per here. And Manchin told me We’re gonna agree to disagree.” 

So that says to me that despite the ser­vice our men and women went through in the coal indus­try, to Manchin it didn’t mat­ter whether their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren had clean air or water. Our incum­bents, Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans, have been coal indus­try ser­vants. They haven’t been ser­vants for the peo­ple and def­i­nite­ly haven’t been friends of coal miners.

The rea­son I decid­ed to run for Sen­ate is that most Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans are in bed with indus­try. Manchin’s top donor has been coal; his sec­ond top donor is Mylan Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal [known for the price hike scan­dal of EpiPen, used for emer­gency treat­ment of life-threat­en­ing aller­gic reac­tions] and his daugh­ter [Heather Bresch] is Mylan’s CEO.

Attor­ney Gen­er­al Patrick Mor­ris­sey is on the tick­et for the Sen­ate. He’s been a lob­by­ist for a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny and his wife is still a lobbyist.

The biggest dis­grace about the West Vir­ginia Sen­ate race is Don Blanken­ship, for­mer CEO of Massey Ener­gy. In 2010, 29 min­ers died in his mine due to a methane explo­sion. I’ve been fight­ing Massey Ener­gy for years because they don’t adhere to reg­u­la­tions, not only for min­ers’ safe­ty but for the water and health of the com­mu­ni­ty. Blanken­ship was indict­ed, put in jail and is still on pro­ba­tion. He’s actu­al­ly on the bal­lot now as a Repub­li­can for the Senate.

How do you dif­fer from Sen. Manchin and oth­er estab­lish­ment Democrats?

My cam­paign is peo­ple-fund­ed, I will not take cor­po­rate mon­ey or lob­by­ists’ mon­ey. The aver­age dona­tion I receive is about $14 or $15. So far we have raised almost $200,000, and none of that comes from the coal industry.

Bernie Sanders won the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry in West Vir­ginia. Did you sup­port him?

Absolute­ly. Bernie Sanders is the only politi­cian who actu­al­ly cared about West Vir­ginia. He came up here for a town hall after he lost the pri­ma­ry to high­light the pover­ty here. I actu­al­ly got to sit down and talk with him. I thought, This man real­ly cares.”

I walked up to him and asked him for a few min­utes of his time. I walked to the back of the audi­to­ri­um and to the front with him while he talked to the peo­ple and the media and when we got to the front he made me cry. Because he stopped every­thing, he put his arms out and said, Wait a minute. I promised this woman I’d talk with her.”

Bernie won all of West Virginia’s 55 coun­ties in the pri­ma­ry. Most of the superdel­e­gates — Manchin and the estab­lish­ment Democ­rats — vot­ed against him. I don’t think there’s a lot a sen­a­tor from Ver­mont can do for us unless our incum­bents get out of bed with the cor­po­rate donors. But he heard me. And that’s the first time in all my years I’ve ever seen a sen­a­tor care that much.

That kind of led me to my path to office, too. It made me real­ize that if we don’t try to do some­thing with the polit­i­cal struc­ture here and get rid of the cor­rup­tion, peo­ple are going to con­tin­ue to die.

If West Vir­gini­ans don’t unite, stand up, and work for all of us on a local and fed­er­al lev­el, our chil­dren are not going to have a future here. We’re treat­ed like we’re col­lat­er­al dam­age. Our land, her­itage and health have been destroyed by these companies.

Bernie is a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist. Are you?

I don’t know what kind of label I have. I’m just a West Vir­gin­ian, I’m mad and I’m try­ing to fight back. The social pro­grams Bernie Sanders talks about I total­ly agree with 100%. I stand behind Medicare for All. West Vir­ginia is one of the sick­est, poor­est states in the nation. As much as this state has sac­ri­ficed to pow­er this nation we cer­tain­ly deserve healthcare.

Do you sup­port mov­ing the econ­o­my towards a Green New Deal with wind, solar and oth­er alter­na­tive ener­gy sources?

I have a broad vision. We can mix renew­ables, we can man­u­fac­ture and we can ful­ly legal­ize cannabis. We can have hydropow­er, bio­fu­els, there’s all kinds of invest­ments we need. If we’re going to have a future for our chil­dren it has to be diverse and fair and every­body has to earn a liv­ing wage. If we do not invest in a diverse eco­nom­ic infra­struc­ture then we’ll be stuck with the same destruc­tive pat­terns we’ve had for decades. 

Are you inspired by the so-called Blue Wave” of Demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­toral vic­to­ries in Vir­ginia and Alabama?

I am. But if we’re going to stand up as Democ­rats we need to stand for the demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues behind the par­ty. Our Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty here gets behind incum­bents like Jim Jus­tice and Joe Manchin that don’t stand behind the val­ues of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.

The peo­ple I’ve met through my path in activism, we’re try­ing to bring real peo­ple into a lead­er­ship role because we are real Amer­i­cans and know the true pain of hav­ing to wor­ry about our chil­dren. And there’s no force like a moth­er try­ing to pro­tect her child. That’s what we need in lead­er­ship: women. We’re going to make the right deci­sions for everyone.

You’re very crit­i­cal of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment. Why did you decide to run as a Demo­c­rat instead of as a Third Par­ty or inde­pen­dent candidate?

I want to bring democ­ra­cy back to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Like the min­ers of Blair Moun­tain, Joe Hill and Moth­er Jones. We have fought so many labor strug­gles and won. This nation and state deserve true democracy.

I am a West Vir­gin­ian. We all strug­gle and are going to fight like hell. I believe a new West Vir­ginia is being born. 

Ed Ram­pell is an L.A.-based film historian/​critic, jour­nal­ist and author who wrote Pro­gres­sive Hol­ly­wood, A People’s Film His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States and co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Tele­vi­sion Book. Ram­pell is Co-Orga­niz­er of the 70th Anniver­sary Com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Hol­ly­wood Blacklist.
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