When U.S. Senator Joe Manchin challenged West Virginia activists to vote him out of office, he probably figured no one would step up. Instead, Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist and single mother of four, is now gunning for his seat in 2018.
Manchin reportedly dared activists during a February conference call after they complained about his pro-corporate voting record. Rather than heed their concerns, he said they should find someone to unseat him. Three months later, Swearengin, a 42-year-old West Virginia native, announced her candidacy.
“My path to primary Joe Manchin is to fight back,” she told The Intercept. “Fight back for my community. Fight back for my neighbors, my family, my friends.”
In West Virginia, the economy largely revolves around the coal industry, and Paula Jean Swearengin comes from a family of coal miners. Her grandfather died from black lung disease.
Brand New Congress, a political organization set up by former staffers of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, has endorsed Swearengin. On the BNC website, the activist writes:
“In West Virginia, we are seeing the world move past us. We are watching an energy revolution from the sidelines. What is the response from our leadership? They work to protect corporate profits and leave miners in the lurch fighting for basics like health care. It’s time we replace them. The natural hospitality and strength of our community bonds are being strained. We are watching pill mills take the place of steel mills. We are watching opioids and lack of opportunity destroy our communities.”
Drug overdose deaths are such a major public health problem in West Virginia that a state burial program keeps running out of money, according to the Washington Post.
Add life-threatening pollution caused by the coal industry, as well as troubling economic disparities, and West Virginia faces serious issues. Paula Jean Swearengin’s platform pushes for free college tuition, universal health care, and investment in infrastructure.
Swearengin, who’s running as a Democrat, is the very definition of an underdog. She won’t get backing from the Democratic National Committee or any Democrat connected to Manchin. In fact, the political establishment, which does not take kindly to “outsiders,” will try to crush her.
The activist, though, appears undaunted.
“What’s happening in West Virginia is that, whether they’re Democratic or Republican, they serve their pocketbooks and industry,” Swearengin told the New Republic, “but they don’t serve the communities here.”
She added, “I’ve been begging [Manchin] for a lot of years to listen to us, to talk to us. I think that he’s been a politician for so long that he’s out of touch with our struggles. It’s time for an awakening for West Virginia. It’s time for us to fight back.”
Swearengin’s bold run for the U.S. Senate will be one to watch.