Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate hope to succeed Manchin

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Listen to the full interviews with the three Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate on the Mountain State Views podcast, available on most major podcast platforms.

CHARLESTON — National groups that monitor congressional elections have listed the U.S. Senate seat on West Virginia’s ballot this year as either safe Republican or solid Republican, but two Democratic candidates are running to keep the seat blue while a third has his own reasons for running.

Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott, Princeton-based community organizer Zachary Shrewsbury, and former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship are seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin since 2010 and previously held by the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd from 1959 until his death in the summer of 2010.

Manchin, D-W.Va, announced his retirement last year from the U.S. Senate effective at the end of 2024 after winning a special election for Byrd’s seat in 2010 and winning two six-year terms in 2012 and 2018.

Manchin’s U.S. Senate seat is the last elected statewide office in West Virginia still in the Democratic Party’s hands as the state has shifted to a solid red state. The winner of the May primary will face either popular two-term Republican Gov. Jim Justice or U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., now in his fifth two-year term in the House of Representatives.

Elliott is in his second term as mayor of Wheeling, first elected in 2016 and again in 2020. After working as a former legislative assistant for Byrd and for a large law firm, Elliott returned to Wheeling in 2009. He started his own law practice and became active in economic development and downtown Wheeling revitalization projects, as well as real estate and commercial/residential property management.

Elliott believes he has what it takes to appeal to a wide variety of Democratic primary voters, including conservative Democrats to progressives. Working at the city-level Elliott said he is used to bringing different parties and opposing sides together to do what is best. He thinks the Senate is the key to returning bipartisanship to D.C.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat, sort of raised in the Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy mold. But I still see an important role for two parties,” Elliott said. “I see a role for compromise, but it has to be meaningful compromise. It can’t just be giving up on one side; giving up 90% to get 10% back. You have to have some meeting in the middle. And I think I’m the right person to do that.”

When it comes to the middle class, Elliott sees multiple factors that are working to put pressure on those trying to work and raise a family, such as lack of access to available and affordable childcare; unpredictability when it comes to retirement and healthcare.

“If you have a couple kids, it’s usually two people working and childcare becomes an issue,” Elliott said. “So, the middle-class families are always being squeezed. I think we have to look at childcare solutions. I think we have to look, importantly, to make sure that middle class people can have dignified retirements by protecting Social Security and Medicare.”

Elliott wants to look at the tax code to close loopholes allowing those earning millions and billions to skirt their tax obligations versus middle class taxpayers who are paying more than their fair share. He also wants to ensure the union members that make up much of West Virginia’s middle class do not lose any more of their rights.

With the U.S. Supreme Court striking down Roe vs. Wade and sending the question over abortion to the states, Elliott wants to see federal protections for abortion access passed by Congress.

“There is a backlash now talking to women – not just Democratic women but talking to independent and conservative women – who on a personal level may be sort of uncomfortable with this issue. But the fact that women in all sorts of situations for whatever reason may not be in a position to have a child or being forced now either to have a child or leave the state, is something that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.”

When he worked for Byrd in the late 1990s, Elliott was witness to Republicans and Democrats coming together to pass a balanced budget. Now, Congress is lucky to keep the government funded a few months at a time. Elliott believes Congress needs to return to passing a budget through regular order. He also supports the recent return of earmarks.

“If you don’t have earmarks, you’re letting staffers and bureaucrats and D.C. agencies pick and choose which federal projects are going to be funded,” Elliott said. “I’d much rather have my senator or my Congress person having some say in where those fundings go.”

Shrewsbury lives in Princeton in Mercer County and is a Monroe County native. Shrewsbury enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, spending half of five years on an anti-terrorism security team and the other half in the infantry, receiving an honorable discharge as a sergeant.

Hailing from a coal mining family, Shrewsbury returned home to Southern West Virginia to care for his grandmother. Seeing the continuing poverty and lack of economic opportunities in the southern part of the state, Shrewsbury decided to get involved, volunteering in his community to help feed those in need, deliver water, or help with home repairs.

Shrewsbury’s advocacy for the poor soon turned into political advocacy, encouraging Manchin and other members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation to support bills to strengthen unions, make changes to elections on a national scale, and support President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar Build Back Better plan (which became the scaled-down Inflation Reduction Act).

“When I got back, I didn’t like what I saw in my state,” Shrewsbury said. “I saw a lot of suffering, a lot of poverty, so I wanted to do something about it. I immediately started getting involved in politics, doing some community organizing.”

After dealing directly with politicians on advocacy issues, including Manchin, Shrewsbury decided he could do a better job representing the interests of West Virginia’s working men and women and the poor.

“I met with different politicians in D.C. and Charleston,” Shrewsbury said. “And it all came down to no matter how much we met with them, they never actually did anything we asked them or would beg them or plead with them to do. So, I threw my hat in the ring.”

Shrewsbury wants to focus on the federal level of finding a more compassionate approach to the opioid and illegal drug crisis in the state and nation, including ending heavy-handed sentences for non-violent drug possession, encouraging recovery over incarceration, and greater access to harm reduction for those in the throes of addiction.

“I come to a very compassionate approach … I think we encourage recovery and help keep people alive in this process; don’t just look at people with disdain because someone’s an addiction,” Shrewsbury said. “I’m very big on Narcan and training to keep people alive and get people into recovery … Throwing people in jail and feeding the prison complex is not a solution.”

While West Virginia has benefited from the 2010 Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid, Shrewsbury wants to go a step further and work towards a universal healthcare system modeled after the care military veterans receive from the VA.

“I don’t see the private health insurance that we have nowadays as doing anything good for anybody,” Shrewsbury said. “(The VA) has done very, very well for me. I think we could easily have a system just like that across the board through taxes … you can take a lot of that and funnel into a universal healthcare.”

Shrewsbury sees an opportunity for the southern coalfields to play a role in the nation’s energy future by both re-tooling to manufacture solar panels and also using abandoned mine lands for solar energy projects, utilizing existing tax credits and incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act and other federal legislation.

“We can build solar panels here,” Shrewsbury said. “It’s going to take a while to do that, but we get to make sure that our miners are protected … make sure they have the same wages, the same benefits, get them free training, and get them the jobs they want. That way you’re allowing that transition to take place. And West Virginia can lead in a future industry. That’s one of my biggest components here for West Virginia.”

Blankenship was the chairman and CEO of Massey Energy (acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011) from 2000 to 2010. Blankenship stepped down from company leadership in 2010 following the Upper Big Branch mine disaster after an explosion at a Massey mine in Raleigh County killed 29 miners.

Blankenship, long active in Republican Party politics in West Virginia as a behind-the-scenes donor and bundler, was later convicted in 2016 of a misdemeanor for violating federal mine safety standards and spent one year in federal prison. But in 2018, Blankenship was one of six Republicans in the 2018 primary to challenge Manchin, coming in third to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Blankenship later tried to get on the 2018 general election ballot as a Constitution Party candidate for U.S. Senate, he was removed from the ballot for running afoul of the state’s “Sore Loser” law by the State Election Commission. The state Supreme Court denied an appeal by Blankenship of that decision.

Since then, Blankenship has sued multiple media outlets and even Donald Trump Jr. for defaming him by mistakenly calling him a felon, though the federal courts dismissed those cases with the U.S. Supreme Court declining to overturn the lower court rulings. He attributes his defamation to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who didn’t want Blankenship to secure the 2018 nomination for U.S. Senate.

“I don’t believe I was defamed, the United States federal courts agreed that I was defamed,” Blankenship said. “The issue is not whether or not I was defamed or whether or not it was the being defamed (that) sabotaged an election. The issue is that the Supreme Court and the judiciary says that that is okay, and it can’t be okay.

“It’s a weapon that’s being used on the American people to destroy democracy,” Blankenship continued. “They knew the truth. They simply lied about it at the request of Mitch McConnell. When the press will call someone a convicted felon that they know is not at the request of the government, you’re in Russia land or propaganda area.”

So, when Blankenship showed up at the Secretary of State’s Office in January to file for the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, he took politicos and media by surprise, and earned a rebuke from the state Democratic Party. But Blankenship said his candidacy transcends political parties.

“I did the switch simply to send a signal that this is not about political parties,” Blankenship said. “Both political parties are corrupt. Neither one of them are taking care of the issues that we all know need to be addressed. So, part of switching parties was just to simply send that message.

“I also think that two parties and competition are good and the Democratic party has become irrelevant since I began to campaign for Republicans in 2004,” Blankenship continued. “That irrelevancy is an issue because the Republicans are free to do as they wish, as opposed to address the issues.”

Blankenship wants to tackle the issue of the U.S. southern border with Mexico and implement a strict immigration policy that stems the flow of undocumented migrants and also limits the transportation of illegal drugs across the border, such as fentanyl.

“There’s no logic to illegal immigration,” Blankenship said. “I mean, how can you say that something that is illegal shouldn’t have be addressed? There’s no disagreement, I would hope, on illegal drugs coming in the country. And the fact that we lost between 112,000 and 113,000 Americans last year.”

Blankenship would also like to see the U.S pull back from foreign interventions, whether that be propping up Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing sector at the expense of American manufacturing jobs or continuing to arm and fund Ukraine as it pushes back an invasion of its country by Russia. Biden just announced a $6.6 billion deal for a Taiwan company to expand its semiconductor operation in the U.S.

“We should be building those with American companies and people who are American … and people who do not have direct access to China,” Blankenship said. “The problem is that whatever goes to Taiwan probably goes to China, and we’re selling our most sophisticated weapons to Taiwan and becoming totally dependent on Taiwan.

“Our focus needs to be far more on America than it is on Ukraine or on what’s going on in Palestine,” Blankenship continued. “I’m more interested in saving American lives than I am killing Russians … I’m very much opposed to continuing to try to police the world. We don’t have anything in our Constitution that allows the American government to police the world.”…Read more by

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