A socialist campaign to shake up West Virginia

September 10, 2018

Elliott Pritt is a socialist candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates, running for a seat from Fayette County, on the ticket of the Mountain Party, the West Virginia affiliate of the Green Party. He talked to Tyler Barton about why he’s running, some of the obstacles he’s faced and how he hopes to advance the socialist cause with his campaign.

WHAT INSPIRED you to take the step to run for office as an open revolutionary socialist?

I WAS raised in a very conservative household. It was church three days a week, and my dad was really active in our local county Republican Party. He was good friends with Tom Fast, one of the Republican incumbents I am running against now, and I remember going door-to-door as a kid for Tom’s campaigns.

My dad passed away two years ago from a rare form of bone cancer. During the last six months, while he was dying, the opioid pills they were giving him made him so sick that he couldn’t keep food down.

At the same time while my dad was going through this, there was a debate on the floor of the West Virginia legislature about cannabis legalization. Tom Fast, who knew what my dad was going through, had spoken out against cannabis several times, citing biblical scriptures and religious, right-wing ideology.

Elliott Pritt builds support for his campaign
Elliott Pritt builds support for his campaign (Elliott Pritt for WV House District 32)

I tried to contact Tom numerous times through his legislative office and the law firm where he works, and he just ignored me. I said, “Tom, religious stuff aside, you and my dad have been very good friends for decades. I know that my dad is going to die even if this legislation is passed, because it’s too late, but this could help someone else like him.”

Well, I never heard back from Tom. He ignored me and went on to vote against the legalization of medical cannabis. About six months later, I announced that I was running for office.

As far as being a socialist, I always tell people that military service made me a leftist. I served for seven years in the Air Force, and I was stationed overseas for three-and-a-half years. I saw too much to believe that capitalism can ever be a just and sustainable economic system.

A lot of people approach their past military service in one of two ways. Obviously, some people double down on their patriotism to find meaning in what they have done. Others, like me, realize that it was all really in the interests of America’s ruling class, and they move on to find more meaningful ways to contribute.

WHAT ARE the main issues that you are highlighting in your campaign?

CANNABIS IS a big issue for me personally because of everything that happened with my dad.

Of course, I’m always talking about the expansion of working class power and the rights of any and all workers to unionize, regardless of industry or job description.

Environmental justice is also a big deal for me. In the district where I live and grew up, we are dealing with two known and very severe incidents of pollution and resulting cancer clusters.

We have frack waste injection wells that are leaking into our local water supply. In another area of my county, in the town of Minden, we have polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned by the EPA in the 1970s because they are known to be strong carcinogens.

The cancer mortality rate in Minden has been more than 12 times higher than the national average. It has made international news, and yet our local politicians have been completely silent. They refuse to even mention it. That is very telling about where their priorities and their loyalties lie.

Out of seven people running for three seats — three Republicans, three Democrats and me for the Mountain Party — I am the only one who has even taken a public stance on the suffering that poor people in my district are going through, simply because they don’t have the political power to tell corporations, “No, you can’t dump this here.”

Ultimately, for me, the disease is capitalism. The symptoms are resource exploitation, the dumping of pollution on poor communities and so on, but the disease is capitalism. We need to uproot the disease, instead of only going after these individual symptoms.

WHAT HAS been the impact of the West Virginia teacher strike on elections?

THE POPULARITY of the strike is being used by the unions to rally voters for the Democrats in November.

It’s important to note that the union officials didn’t even lead the strike. You could see the union representatives on social media at the time, telling people, “Please, let us handle this! There is no need to show up in Charleston!” When that didn’t work, they told the teachers to go home after just a couple days.

And now look: These same union officials who were forced into a corner by a wildcat strike are using that strike as a motivational tool to get voters to the polls for Democrats.

The Democrats controlled the state for 86 years straight. There was never legislation passed that would make it legal to strike. There was never any kind of fix for PEIA [the Public Employees Insurance Agency, whose underfunding was a major issue in the teachers’ strike]. The Democrats promised to fix it when teachers struck in 1990. Here we are almost 30 years later, and the Democrats have never done anything about it.

Now the union officials are pushing their members to vote for these same candidates who have no new ideas.

AS A revolutionary socialist, what do you see as the role of electoral campaigns in working toward what Karl Marx called the “self-emancipation of the working class?”

FOR ME, an electoral campaign is a high-profile way to educate. People tend to follow politics more the closer an election gets.

Can we use the current electoral system to bring about transformative social change for the working class? No, not in this system. That’s unworkable.

If we actually had democracy, everybody would be able to just vote automatically. If somebody lives here and our political decisions impact their daily lives, they should be able to vote, regardless of whether or not they are a citizen, let alone if they are registered to vote. At the same time, the elections can be used to educate and to advance the broader cause.

WHAT WAS the process like to get on the ballot?

INITIALLY, I was running as an independent socialist. It was incredibly difficult. I ended up getting about 800 signatures on the petition for ballot access. That was more than the number I needed, but it took about six months since I work 40 hours a week and didn’t have the volunteer infrastructure in place yet.

When I sent the signatures off to the Secretary of State, they invalidated over half of them for a million different reasons. Each signature had to be from a person who had voted in the last election. If they had moved within the district, but hadn’t updated their address, the signature was invalid. Even if the signature just “looked different” from the one they supplied on their registration, it was invalidated.

It was terrible. It opened my eyes to the real extent of the rigging against candidates outside the major parties.

After the petition was invalidated, I was approached by the West Virginia Mountain Party, which is affiliated with the national Green Party. Rusty Williams, who is currently the vice chair of the Mountain Party, contacted me and said, “I’ve seen what happened with your petition, and we need good candidates.”

I drove to Charleston to meet with them, and I told them that I would run on their ticket as long as they were okay with me being an open socialist. They said, “No problem, we are cool with it.”

HOW IS your campaign being organized on the ground?

WE’VE ORGANIZED the district into four grids. Each area has volunteers in charge of leafleting parking lots and distributing yard signs. September should be a very busy month with local festivals.

I’ve only taken individual donations, and I’ve raised about $1,000 so far this quarter. For a third party candidate running for the West Virginia state legislature, that’s pretty good.

Ultimately, I’m trying to do something different here. I’m running to win, but the goal of this campaign is not the same as conventional politics. This isn’t about me being elected — this is about educating people. It’s about helping people find their voice and their political power. A lot of that is education about the failures of the current system and about the power of the working class to change it.

I wear the socialist label proudly. When people use it like a pejorative, I just turn the conversation around by saying, “Thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about how proud I am for believing in the power of the average person and in the empowerment of the working class.”

Bernie Sanders occasionally talks about socialism and Eugene Debs, but he certainly isn’t talking about socialism like Eugene Debs. I’m not talking about just making capitalism more equitable. I’m talking about the abolition of capitalism.

YOU CHOSE not to run as a Democrat. Why not?

THE DEMOCRATIC Party in Fayette County really tried to woo me before the primary filing deadline. They took me out to a bona fide steak dinner, I kid you not! They were like: “You don’t need to do this as a third party. Just come over to our ballot line. We need young people who are involved in politics and have new ideas.”

Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that these people were really just interested in keeping their eyes on me, controlling the narrative and maintaining their power. Then, once I lost in the primary, they would kick me to the curb and do whatever the hell they want.

Do I think we should employ every strategy possible? Yes. However, should we anticipate the Democratic Party will ever actually change fundamentally? Absolutely not.

We need to understand that the Democratic Party is a capitalist party that drops bombs all around the world, that supports putting millions of people in prisons, that takes just as much money from extractive industries as the Republicans do. Those are fundamental for a capitalist party, and they can’t be changed by winning a debate or a primary election.

There is the old adage: “All politics is local.” The Democratic Party is different at the national level than it is at the local level, and each local Democratic Party is different in certain ways than the others. The West Virginia Democratic Party has a very poor track record of positive change in this state.

Ultimately, I felt like I would draw more attention and be more disruptive to the political status quo here by doing what I’m doing.

If socialists in California want to run somebody in the Democratic Party because it would make the most sense there, then that should be up to them.

That said, it’s important to be extremely careful, no matter where you are. It’s easy to start out running in the Democratic Party with all of these lofty goals and then get sucked into the party machine. Instead of co-opting the party, the party co-opts you. I think that is way more likely for socialists who run on the Democratic Party ticket than running with a minor party.

Ultimately, running in this electoral system, regardless of the ballot line you run on, is never going to change the system. Do you think that if I won and got sent to Charleston, any legislation I proposed would even make it to the floor for a vote? It would not.

No matter what strategy you pursue, it needs to be clear that the whole purpose is to radicalize the electorate.

WHAT DO you want socialists around the country to understand about West Virginia?

I WANT to talk about the word “desperation.” People in this state have been stepped on, extracted from, taken advantage of and sold out by the Democrats for a century and a half, and they’re just tired of it. West Virginians urgently need a radical alternative.

You can’t tell me that West Virginia is in the state it’s in today because of the Republicans. I’m throwing up the bullshit flag!

The Democrats had total control of the state for 86 years, and what did it get us? That’s why you see the rise of Trumpism here. Donald Trump got the highest support in West Virginia out of any state in the entire nation.

Trump might be a racist hatemonger, but he visits West Virginia all the time. Where are the Democrats? They have nothing to offer but to attack Trump, which actually shores up his own support because it looks like he is under attack by an opposition that has nothing to offer.

Finally, I want to give a shout out to the rich history and traditions of revolutionary socialism in West Virginia. Mother Jones was imprisoned here, and so was Eugene Debs. When he was arrested for his speech against the First World War, he was actually incarcerated in Moundsville, West Virginia.

We have the Battle of Blair Mountain, the murder of Sid Hatfield on the courthouse steps in McDowell County. We have had camps of union miners being machine gunned down from passing trains, with their wives and children. Socialism has a long history here, and it has a future here, too!

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