“It’s About Giving People Real Economic Freedom”
Cathy Kunkel is an energy analyst, environmental and community activist, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America running for Congress in West Virginia’s second district. She explains her history of organizing and argues that “red-state” voters will get on board with an agenda that includes Medicare for All and a just transition for fossil fuel workers.
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
We’re quickly moving into election season, and miracle of miracles, many candidates are actually good. The rise of the Democratic Socialists of America in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s first campaign has already led to socialist electoral victories around the country, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York to the six socialist city council members in Chicago.
This election cycle, more democratic socialists are running, like House candidate Heidi Sloan in Texas (who we recently interviewed). Another such candidate: Cathy Kunkel, who’s running for Congress in West Virginia’s second district.
Kunkel is an energy analyst and activist in West Virginia. She’s also a contributor to Jacobin, whose half-dozen articles on West Virginia and Puerto Rico you can read here. In an interview with Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht for our podcast The Vast Majority, Kunkel talks about how she came to West Virginia, her work in the state as well as in Puerto Rico, and why her political vision can succeed in a “red state” like West Virginia.
You can listen to the episode here, and subscribe to all of our podcasts at Jacobin Radio here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your personal history: what were you doing before coming to West Virginia? And how did you end up going there?
I’m a West Virginian by choice. I grew up in Maryland, outside of Baltimore, and I came to West Virginia in 2010 from California, where I had been in a PhD program in energy policy. I was a couple years into it and realized that it was really not for me — academia was not where I wanted to spend my life. I had this idea that to really understand the coal economy, it would be a much better idea to be in the actual coal economy, which is in West Virginia.
I started working in Southern West Virginia on a project related to economic diversification and community wind [power], which ended up not working out as a project. But I stayed around in West Virginia. I got involved in working on energy efficiency issues and fighting our state’s electric utility monopolies, as both were trying to essentially get corporate bailouts on the backs of West Virginia rate payers. We fought those proposals at the Public Service Commission and won on one of them. For the last nine years, I’ve been an energy analyst and an expert in public utility cases.
I’ve worked in West Virginia and also in Puerto Rico. And I’ve also been politically active here in Charleston, West Virginia, where I live. Our community’s drinking water was contaminated by a chemical spill back in 2014, and I was very active in a community organization that formed after that, fighting with [utility company] West Virginia American Water and trying to get improvements to our water system. Then also with a group called Rise Up West Virginia that has worked on Medicare for All and education issues in West Virginia and helped elect a couple of progressive members of our state legislature last year.
What has kept you in West Virginia?
I love the state. It’s beautiful. The people here have been very welcoming. I really like the culture here, and I’ve just kept finding things to do. So I’ve stayed.
You said you’re an energy analyst. What does your work look like?
It involves analyzing the economics and finances of either individual projects or proposals by utilities. So for example, [energy companies] were playing this sort of shell game, trying to transfer coal plants between corporate affiliates in a way that would be beneficial to the corporate parent and not beneficial to the customers. [My work was] analyzing the economics of that, writing a testimonial, projecting the future: how much energy is this coal bank going to generate and what do we think it’s going to be worth and what impact is that going to have on the rates — that kind of thing.
When the average Jacobin reader hears “West Virginia” at this point, I think their mind probably goes to the teachers’ strikes of last year. You wrote two articles about the strike for us and were involved in strike support. Talk about that involvement as well as how the strike has changed politics in the state since then.
I don’t think any of us anticipated early on that this would go to a major strike, and we obviously did not anticipate that it would spark a national strike wave. That’s been amazing to see. The strike grew out of a frustration with the public employee health insurance plan, which still has not been resolved, even though teachers did get a raise. But the underlying problem of cuts to the health insurance plan has not been resolved.
It was really some rank and file teachers who led the charge in terms of building this Facebook group and sharing stories and creating this place where people could see that their personal struggles with their health care were not just their personal struggles — it was actually a universally shared struggle.
Once it became obvious that there was going to be a strike, I was involved locally in helping to organize churches to help with meals for kids during the strike. I also helped set up a strike fund — a group of us saw the need for it and were asked by teachers to do it. We thought we were going to raise maybe $20,000 or $30,000; we ended up raising over $330,000 and were able to provide direct support to close to a thousand teachers and school service personnel.
Did the strike change things in West Virginia?
Yes, and it’s worth noting that there was another strike this year. Against the wishes of the vast majority of teachers and service personnel and the general public, the legislature went back into session in the summer when the teachers could not strike and passed a bill to authorize charter schools in West Virginia. So now the fight is moving to the county board of education level, because it’s the county that will ultimately decide whether or not to allow charters in their county. So the issues that led to these strikes have not been resolved.
The organizing is ongoing, and we also have seen teachers stepping up and running for office. In my congressional district, there’s already at least two teachers who are running for office for the first time for state legislative seats. So I think [the strike has] really has woken up a lot of people, and it’s creating lasting change.
One of the issues that you have on your website is about Medicare for All. You also address the opioid crisis, which we know is very severe in West Virginia. Can you talk about both, especially in the West Virginia context?
I’ve heard so many horror stories of people in West Virginia not being able to access care or not being able to afford the care that they need. And it just makes sense to have a system that is not solely based on profit, where people don’t have to jump through a million hoops to get coverage. And where the federal government could negotiate prescription drug prices like Veterans Affairs already does. So many West Virginians struggle with prescription drug prices.
In terms of the connection to the opioid epidemic, we see so many uninsured people putting a strain on our hospitals. People being able to get the care they need before they get to the stage of being in the emergency room just seems common sense.
West Virginia is talked about as a “red state.” Does that argument for Medicare for All resonate with people there?
Yes. Part of this campaign is getting the idea out there and having those conversations with people. It’s a little early to say how that’s resonating, since we just launched the campaign. But another argument for Medicare for all in West Virginia is that people — teachers, public employees — would not have to fight every year about the public employee health plan if everyone was just simply included in a strong, improved Medicare for All program.
There are a lot of challenges that West Virginia faces that could be resolved by moving to a universal health care system. Those are definitely the arguments I’m going to keep making through the campaign.
You talk on your website about a Green New Deal. Obviously this is important to you as somebody who’s dedicated your life to energy policy. And it’s also very important for the state of West Virginia, which has historically been home to large numbers of coal miners. Talk about a GND and how you would talk to West Virginians in particular about this — I assume that the question of a just transition and providing for people who are involved in extractive industries with green, well-paying jobs for those currently working in extraction is a central piece of talking about climate change in West Virginia.
I haven’t been explicitly talking about the Green New Deal, in part because no one really knows what that is yet — it hasn’t been defined at the national level. But it is very central to my campaign to recognize the challenge of climate change and figure out how we can respond to that nationally, in a way that doesn’t leave behind places like West Virginia. Because frankly, what we’ve seen in the last decade as the coal industry has declined is communities and workers getting hurt in West Virginia.
These companies have gone bankrupt, they’ve abandoned their pension and health care liabilities, and the federal government has had to step in and to preserve some of those pensions, but it hasn’t preserved all of them. So the first step is to make sure that as our country’s economy shifts away from coal and natural gas, we do have a real commitment to places like West Virginia and making sure that there is federal investment coming in for other industries, including safe drinking water and environmental reclamation.
If we put people to work, putting back everything that’s been torn apart by the coal industry, that’s a tremendous amount of work. Rural broadband, transportation — there’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure needed here.
At the same time, you need to make a very firm commitment that people are not going to lose their pensions, people are not going to lose their health care benefits, people are not going to lose wages as a result of this transition. People in West Virginia are very rightly skeptical about losing their jobs. And the way that the decline of the coal industry has gone so far, it’s been completely unmanaged, and a lot of people have been hurt by it.
Can you talk about the decline of the coal industry in the state and its relationship to West Virginia’s political shifts in recent years? You wrote a great article in Jacobin called “Losing West Virginia” that is about the decline of the Democratic Party in the state.
West Virginia has basically always been a state whose economy has been based on extractive industries, whether that was timber, coal, or natural gas. The dominant political party in the state, people may be surprised to remember, has been the Democratic Party. For most of the last century, from the early 1930s until 2014, the Democratic Party had control over the state legislature. But because of the dominance of the coal industry, it was a particular type of Democrat. You had to be supporter of the coal industry in order to be a powerful Democratic politician in West Virginia.
So as the industry and unions declined, the Republican Party saw an opening, particularly during the Obama administration, to say, “the Democratic Party’s strategy is not actually working anymore, because the economy’s going down here and the Democrats aren’t doing anything about it.”
The Democrats couldn’t do anything about it because they were so tied to the coal industry — they didn’t have another solution to offer people. So the Republicans cynically and opportunistically took up this “war on coal” narrative to very great effect and basically blamed president Obama for the collapse of the coal industry starting in 2010 or so. Even though I think any serious analyst would agree that it was the rise of natural gas and not environmental regulations that really killed off the coal industry here. It’s not dead, but really weakened.
The Democratic Party has gone from being the dominant player in the state for eighty years to now being the minority party in both legislatures. We don’t have the governorship anymore. And one of our five members of Congress is a Democrat, and that’s Joe Manchin.
You also wrote that the Democrats’ failure to develop an economic vision that would benefit West Virginia workers is central to the story. Can you talk about what that vision is and what it would look like in West Virginia specifically?
Yeah, it’s a lot of the things that we’re trying to advance in this campaign. It’s federal investment in the state, in building infrastructure and putting people to work doing that. It’s strengthening our education system, which is the biggest employer in many of our rural counties. Strengthening our schools and giving our teachers a salary that is on par with surrounding states, so they’re not fleeing the state — this is a really important part of economic development in some of these rural counties. It’s also about making it easy for people to start small businesses in agriculture, tourism, and other industries that allow people to keep some of the wealth in West Virginia, instead of this extractive model that we’ve had for so long that has prioritized out-of-state corporations instead of a more bottom-up approach to developing and keeping wealth in the state.
West Virginia is seen now as a red state. You mentioned that historically, that has not been the case. But many liberals would write the state off as hopelessly reactionary. And according to them, if there is a chance for Democrats to win in the state, it would be by being a Joe Manchin type: centrist, pro-corporate, pro-extractive capital.
But in 2016, Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in the primary throughout the entire state of West Virginia. So it seems like there is hunger within the state, and certainly there are material conditions within the state, that could lead people to actually be interested in an alternative, a left-wing economic vision. That could be a more promising avenue than what the Democratic Party has been doing, which has been a total failure.
Yeah, and you saw that in the school employee strikes, too, where school employees were flooding our state capitol and chanting about taxing our gas. Raising the severance tax on natural gas to fund public education, that’s something very contrary to what both political parties in this state have done, which is essentially cater to the interests of out-of-state companies. You also saw this to some degree last year with Richard Ojeda’s campaign in southern West Virginia for congress. He ran a very populist campaign, very much talking about the need to raise the severance tax, that these companies have come in and stolen wealth from the state for over a century.
He didn’t win his race, but I believe nationally, of any congressional district, he had the greatest change from how much Hillary Clinton, what percentage of the votes she got versus what percentage of the vote he got. It was the largest increase, in extremely red districts.
You have also written about Puerto Rico, for Jacobin and elsewhere. How did you get involved in paying attention to and writing about Puerto Rico and what are the issues that are at stake there? And if you were to win your race, what would you want to do in the House of Representatives about the situation in Puerto Rico?
I actually got into Puerto Rico because of the energy policy work. I got connected to an environmental group in Puerto Rico that was looking for assistance in evaluating the Puerto Rico electric power authority’s long-term plan. The Puerto Rico electric power authority is heavily oil-fired. Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean — you’d think they could do something with renewables. But they were at about 2 percent renewable energy. So I got involved through that route, and especially after Hurricane Maria became more and more involved.
The electrical system in Puerto Rico is sort of a bellwether for the whole place. The issues surrounding the electrical system, which is publicly owned, are very similar to issues around a lot of other government agencies in Puerto Rico: corruption, out-of-state or off-island financial interests that are essentially coming in and running the place in the interest of bondholders instead of in the interest of the people of Puerto Rico. There’s tremendous pressure to cut pensions and health care benefits on the workers at the power authority, who are already fleeing the island for better salaries on the mainland.
Obviously Puerto Rico does not have voting representation in Congress, and there’s not a large Puerto Rican population in my district by any means. But if I were in Congress, I would certainly be committed to listening to the people of Puerto Rico and to making sure that we do actually treat them fairly in terms of federal disaster aid, which has not at all been the case recently.
We’ve been talking about your vision on the environment and environmental devastation, and your generally bold, left-wing platform. You’re a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. We have heard from pundits the various reasons why that kind of agenda will only work in, say, an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez deep-blue district in the Bronx and Queens, or in Bernie Sanders’s strangely rural-but-liberal state of Vermont.
You are putting forward this agenda in West Virginia, in what people have come to think of as a very red state, a state that went for Donald Trump in 2016. How would you respond to people who would say that your agenda isn’t one that will play in Peoria — or in your case, won’t play in the state of West Virginia?
Fundamentally, my platform that’s about economic freedom. We’re not free if we have to stay in a job because of health care, or if we have to work three jobs to make ends meet, or if we’re letting our kids come out of school so burdened down with debt that they can’t become teachers or social workers or stay in a rural community. A lot of this platform is about affordable health care, free public education, supporting workers’ rights, raising the minimum wage.
These are real bread-and-butter issues that would make a huge difference in many people’s lives in West Virginia. It’s about giving people real economic freedom. We talk a lot about freedom, but in terms of the choices that we’re actually constrained by in our daily lives, a lot of us are not really free to have the lives and careers that we want. That’s why I think that this could appeal to folks in West Virginia.