Zach Shrewsbury Says His Senate Campaign in West Virginia is Bigger Than Party Politics: ‘This Is About the Class Struggle’

The grassroots organizer and former Marine vies for a seat in the U.S. Senate against a Manchin-backed candidate and an ex-coal excecutive in the state’s Democratic primary in May

Steve Early May 2, 2024

When Barn Raiser first reached Zach Shrewsbury to interview the former Marine about his U.S. Senate campaign in West Virginia, he was trying to navigate the mountain roads of his home state amid a severe weather advisory. There was high water throughout Kanawha River Valley, due to creeks and streams over-flowing. Near Charleston, the state capital, even the interstate highway was flooded. Our Zoom meeting had to be postponed, but Shrewsbury plowed ahead in his pick-up truck, dodging downed trees, in his quest to visit all 55 of the state’s counties before the Democratic primary election on May 14.

Shrewsbury, 33, was born in Ripley, West Virginia, and raised on a farm in rural Monroe County. His grandfather was a union coal miner, but he grew up in a Republican family, a reflection of the state’s shift from blue to red over the past half century. After dropping out of college, he spent five years in the military, stationed in Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He returned from overseas determined to serve his country in a different way. Through Common Defense, a progressive veterans’ group, Shrewsbury was introduced to political organizing, More recently, he has worked on environmental justice campaigns in Appalachian communities that have long been plagued by poverty and pollution.

Before taking the plunge into electoral politics, Shrewsbury organized rallies, town hall meetings and door-knocking campaigns with a wide range of allies. Among them is former AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff. Acuff and Shrewsbury bonded over their shared belief that West Virginia needs more federal investment in infrastructure, environmental clean-ups and renewable energy projects that would create good union jobs and tax credits for low-income families with children.

Last October, Acuff joined the crowd in front of the historic Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, where Shrewsbury held the first of six campaign kickoff events around the state. In a fiery speech at the infamous site where state authorities executed abolitionist John Brown more than a hundred years ago, Shrewsbury denounced unchecked corporate power, which he believes is responsible for many of his state’s social and economic ills. “As John Brown said, ‘…What we need is action,’” said Shrewsbury. The next morning, he joined pickets at a General Motors plant in Martinsburg.

To win the Democratic nomination for Sen. Joe Manchin’s old seat, Shrewsbury must edge out his main primary opponent, Wheeling mayor Glenn Elliott, as well as ex-coal executive Don Blankenship. Elliott, a former Senate staffer and corporate lawyer, was endorsed by Manchin in late April. Blankenship, who has previously run for Senate as a Republican and third-party candidate, is considered one of Appalachia’s wealthiest men and once described himself as “Trumpier than Trump.”

From the start, Shrewsbury has distinguished himself as a candidate with bona fide rural and working class roots. A clear example: when Elliott filed his paperwork to run for office, he did so at the Secretary of State’s office at the state capitol in Charleston. Shrewsbury, meanwhile, filed his at the Secretary of State’s satellite office in rural Martinsburg.

Last year, you announced your candidacy as a primary challenge to a guy named Joe Manchin who had not yet decided not to run for reelection. That was a pretty brave thing to do. What was it about Joe’s record, locally or nationally, that inspired you to take him on when he was still thinking of becoming a three-term senator?

I mean, gosh, we have worked since 2021 to try to get Sen. Manchin to do the right thing on different legislation. We’ve tried different tactics. I met with the man multiple times over Zoom. I met with his staff, and it never went the direction it should have. And then ultimately, when he voted against the Child Tax Credit, that really threw me into running for office. I wanted to do something about it. So, we started planning and it seemed like a moment where we could primary him. He was at a moment of weakness. He was no longer as popular as he thought he was. So that was our moment. And then, sure enough, a month after we announced my candidacy, he retired.

What was it about the Child Tax Credit program that would have helped lots of people in your state that he didn’t like?

He claimed people were going to use it to buy drugs. That’s insane. I’ve met all kinds of people that have used the Child Tax Credit. They’re feeding their families, paying bills with it. How out of touch can you be to say something like that? So many people need it. But that comes from a lot of our D.C. politicians who are out of touch with the working class.

Zach Shrewsbury completes his filing with the Secretary of State’s Office in Martinsburg, West Virginia, for U.S. Senate in January. (Zach Shrewsbury Campaign)

So now, one of your rivals in the May 14 primary is Don Blankenship, who has coal industry ties like Manchin. Blankenship is a disgraced former coal operator. He went to federal prison for mine safety violations in one of the most famous recent West Virginia mine disasters that in 2010 killed 29 coal miners working for Massey Energy. What is he doing in the race?

I think he just wants to remain relevant. That’s all. I have nothing positive to say about Don Blankenship. I think he entered this race just to hear his name in the media, maybe raise money. But I don’t see him making it far at all.  

Your hope is to be able to have a showdown in November with another coal industry guy, current governor Jim Justice, who in 2015 switched from being a Republican to a Democrat. Now he’s back with the Republicans as a major Trump booster. His companies have been sued by the Department of Justice for $7.6 million in unpaid penalties, fees and interest arising from past mining or environmental safety violations. What else about his record as governor and businessman should be an incentive for people not to send him to the Senate?

A long list. He’s proven not to pay his workers. He doesn’t pay his taxes. He has properties being repossessed.

All in all, I mean, he’s just your regular coal baron-style politician in West Virginia. He blatantly does not care about what happens to working people, and only cares about what enriches his own pockets. Jim Justice is popular here because he comes off as a folksy, grandfather figure. When you get in front of him, he’ll joke with you and laugh with you. He’s personable and it works for him. But in order to beat him, you have to combat the company store with the working man. You can’t do it with another company person.

As much as Jim just puts on the folksy act, I’m also my own genuine self in this race as well. And I’ve been across the state talking to everybody. And Governor Justice has not done that.

Zach Shrewsbury with supporters at his campaign kickoff event in October in front of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, West Virginia, the infamous site where state authorities executed abolitionist John Brown more than a hundred years ago. (Tyler Simmons, Maverick Media)

One of the issues that you’ve been hammering away at is the legacy of the coal industry and other extractive industries in West Virginia, as well as the problem of “forever chemicals” from oil and gas drilling that end up contaminating local water systems and private wells. You’ve pointed out that West Virginians pay some of the highest average water bills in the country, about $91 per month, while the privately owned West Virginia American Water Company just sought a big rate increase. Yet, many people still can’t get clean water. How do we fix that picture?

We have to get the right people elected to stop these corporations from continuing to price gouge us to death in West Virginia. I mean, our electric bills are crazy, our water bills are crazy. A lot of West Virginia doesn’t even drink their tap water. That’s what’s insane. Growing up, I didn’t drink the tap water because you couldn’t trust it. You know, it’s 2024 now. How long does that continue here? You have to get the right person in office who can hold corporations accountable and put their feet to the fire. You have to get legislation passed and you have to try to do a public awareness campaign to get corporations to bend to the people. Not for us to always bend to them.

One of the things you’ve been talking about in your campaign is renewable energy investments and better federal funding for toxic cleanup efforts. How is that message resonating across the state? What about in the many places that need that kind of help as a result of years of coal mining?

It’s been well received, honestly. I’ve been in front of miners. I’ve been in front of the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America). I’ve been across, the coal fields here in West Virginia, talking about renewable energy. I’m a very big proponent of a justified transition. What does that mean?

It means that I want the manufacturing jobs in West Virginia to build solar panels here. We can do it. We don’t have to buy them from China. And to all the miners, give them the same pay, same benefits, and the UMWA can still be their union, that way you can still have a unionized workforce ready to go. And, train them for free, ‘cause that’s what they deserve. And, get them into these new manufacturing jobs if they want them. That’s where you start.

In West Virginia, we powered the nation with coal. We can do it again with solar. It’s possible. We just need the right person to get the ball rolling. I’m that person. Now, I’ve been to 50 towns across the coalfields talking about this, and it’s gone very well. I’ve had more people reach back out to me. They want solar panels on buildings, on their streetlights. They want to cut down their power bills.

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Let’s switch to another campaigner who came to your state in 2016: Bernie Sanders. A lot of people thought he wasn’t going do very well in the primary, yet he ended up doing much better than the eventual winner of the nomination, Hillary Clinton. There was a lot of surprise that he attracted so many working-class voters, including people who in the 2016 general election ended up switching to Trump. What was it about Bernie’s appeal, particularly in southern West Virginia?

Bernie paid attention. Bernie listened to West Virginians. I’ve been saying this for a while: West Virginia is not a Republican-controlled state. It’s a Trump-controlled state. Why is that? Well, in 2016, like you said, Bernie Sanders outpolled Trump in West Virginia. He could have beaten him. He could’ve taken West Virginia blue if he was nominated. But he wasn’t.

So, Trump, the con man that he is, came to West Virginia and fear mongered. Fear and hope are similar emotions. For us West Virginians, we just want to be heard. And to everyone here, Trump seemed like he was listening to us. So, they went with Trump.

Like Bernie Sanders, I’m very much a left-wing populist, let’s be honest. I’m bringing a message of hope, but I’m also angry because the system needs to change. I’m here to fight for West Virginians. That’s how I win moving forward. I very much have a Bernie Sanders-inspired message—maybe a little more aggressive than Bernie Sanders.

I’m on the ground here. I’m listening to people. And that’s what resonates. Bernie did well because he was his genuine self. He’s always been consistent about what he’s said. I’ve talked to a lot of Trump supporters about it. Some people didn’t like Bernie, but they respected him because he was always genuine and upfront about things.

Well, one of the things that might have helped, is that Bernie comes from a rural state, one different than West Virginia, but one with a lot of surviving family farms and a long history of agriculture. Is there any part of your program that’s focusing on West Virginians who are still involved in agriculture or would like to see agriculture, sustainable agriculture expanded in the state?

Yes, absolutely. I just had a meeting yesterday with people who were doing agroforestry. I’m very much into community farms. I think towns could have community areas where you can grow food, where people can come in, and if they need some vegetables or fruit, they can get them. I’m very big on communities trying sustain themselves across the board nationwide.

Zach Shrewsbury hands out buttons at a local campaign event earlier this year. (Deb McCarthy, Zach Shrewsbury Campaign)

I grew up on a farm myself, and I understand that we need to support small farmers. If each community has their own community-oriented farm, that makes them more sustainable. Just like solar for me, you know. If the power goes out, for instance, and you can’t cook anything, you still have access to the community farm, you can still go to the store.

Sounds like a good way to reduce dependance on the modern day equivalent of the company store.

Absolutely

Bernie, as a result of the crisis in Gaza, has been very outspoken about the United States not sending more weapons to Israel, and diverting more of the billions that are spent on the military budget back home to meet unmet social and economic needs. You’ve issued a very strong statement expressing concern about human rights violations and the cost of this latest war in the Middle East. Has that been a tough issue to talk about on the campaign trail?

Not so far. Look, I don’t do political pandering very well. I’m very upfront about my views and I state what I think when people ask me. I’m very direct. When they ask, “What’s your view on Israel?” I say, “I’m pro ceasefire.” What’s happening to the people in Gaza is a genocide.

Just the other day I was confronted with a similar question. I said, this might not be the popular opinion of the room, but it is what it is. It is my genuine belief. And I’m not backing down from that. I’m not going to pander for votes if it’s not something I believe in. And ultimately, I think I’ve gained more support by being honest, rather than trying to play a game with people. So yeah, I haven’t had a lot of pushback, but this is the primary. So we’ll see in the general election, how much pushback we might get. Like I said, I’m not going to bend.

West Virginia, sadly, has one of the highest overdose death rates in the country. Addiction and treatment programs that provide housing for people in recovery are big issues. I know you’ve been stressing them. What kind of proposals do you think West Virginians need to address those situations?

It needs to be a multi-pronged approach. We need to get more federal funding to recovery centers, and not just rely on prisons, like we like to do here in America.

We treat people who are addicted like they’re not people. And that’s wrong. And once they get out of jail, then what? Now they have a record. Now they can’t find a job in a state where there’s not a lot of jobs to begin with. What good is that doing?

I’m very big on taking a compassionate approach to it. I think we need to invest in recovery programs and public awareness campaigns. Lots of organizers are already on the ground doing harm reduction. It has a big stigma in some areas, but it’s keeping people alive. Narcan helps someone survive an overdose. But there’s still a stigma around it. You’re literally just saving a life with it. Simple policies like that, could easily be pushed with federal money coming into a state.

You’ve been a big supporter of Medicare For All and a vocal critic of efforts to privatize veteran health care, which threatens the long term viability of the public hospital systems run by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). West Virginia has several VA medical centers. Has the issue of veterans’ healthcare come up in any of your meetings with voters who have served in the military, or questions about how we can best achieve broader coverage for everyone in this country?

The question of universal healthcare does come up quite a lot.

I do not agree with the private health insurance system that we have now. It is predatory. It costs people money that they don’t have. Universal health care is fundable, it is doable. There’s a lot of waste in the Department of Defense budget—you can cut a portion of that out and easily fund healthcare across America.

But you have to elect the right people who won’t be bought out by corporations into office to get this done.

That brings us to the issue of campaign finance and reform. In a recent email blast from your campaign, you mentioned that your opponents are either self-funded or backed by corporate super PACs where they get big campaign contributions from other wealthy individuals with mansions or boats or fancy cars. Joe Manchin, for instance, has his own yacht in a marina in D.C. You’re relying on small donors. Why? How are you meeting the challenge of building a small donor base?

My donors are all grassroots, just regular people That’s how you show that people want change. There’s other candidates being funded by corporations or super PACs, or they have rich friends or they can loan themselves a ton of money ‘cause they’re so independently wealthy.

We’re taking the fight directly to all these candidates backed by corporate donors. We have an email program, texting program, digital ads going out. You name it, we’re doing it. And we have a ton of support on the ground. That’s how you fight back.

One of the problems that many regular people face in the retail and food industries is that they rely on tips for a portion of their earned income. You’ve been highlighting the fact that in your state, employers are allowed to pay tip workers only $2.62 an hour as part of a dual wage system where tips are supposed to compensate in part for wages. But that often doesn’t pan out. How does this resonate among West Virginians?

It resonates across the board, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. The tipping system is archaic. It’s ridiculous. People need a living wage. It’s not about profit. It’s about people. That’s what it’s about, being pro-working class, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat.

Just a few years ago, when Red for Ed was sweeping a number of red states, West Virginia teachers were leading the charge with a big statewide strike. What’s the state of public schools today and the teachers union?

My platform calls for making teachers unions stronger. We need to back our teachers better. We need to pay them more. We need to decrease classroom sizes, for one. Teachers should not be buying school supplies out of their own budgets. We shouldn’t be asking parents for that, either.

Across the board we need to really look at our public education system and fund it, but also look at different ways to support teachers and listen to our teachers, not just listen to administrators. That’s a big part of my campaign. I’m speaking directly with working people and asking, what do you need to succeed? I’m not going to their boss. I’m going to the person.

West Virginia has a rich labor union history. In this race, it’s the company’s store versus the working man. At this point, I’m the working man. You want to fight against a company store, you can’t choose another company person for this. It’s bigger than party here—this is about the class struggle. And it’s time we take back our state. It’s time we secure it against the rich and the coal barons and put a working person there.

Steve Early

Steve Early has been writing about politics or labor in Vermont since he was an undergraduate at Middlebury College more than fifty years ago. He is a former international union representative for the Communications Workers of America and was involved in organizing, bargaining, and political action by CWA members and other workers throughout New England. He co-founded “Labor for Bernie” and was active in both Sanders for President campaigns. Since moving to the Bay Area, he authored four books, including Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press) about his new hometown, Richmond, California. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

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