Building People Power in Trump Country: West Virginia Coalitions Fight GOP Health Care Attacks

On Thursday, July 13, more than 100 activists from West Virginia and Ohio met on a bridge between the states to drop a banner that said, Bridge the Healthcare Divide. (Photo courtesy of Gary Zuckett)On Thursday, July 13, more than 100 activists from West Virginia and Ohio met on a bridge between the states to drop a banner that said, “Bridge the Healthcare Divide.” (Photo courtesy of Gary Zuckett)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 56th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Gary Zuckett, executive director of West Virginia Citizen Action Group, which is a community-based grassroots public policy group that has been around since 1974.

Sarah Jaffe: West Virginia is one of the states that is in the crosshairs, both in terms of losing health care coverage if the Republican bill passes, but also because it has one of the senators that is a key target to vote “no.” Tell us a little bit about the organizing you have been doing around the healthcare bill.

Gary Zuckett: One of the things I like to brag about in West Virginia is that we play well together here and we have a really broad coalition of organizations, including Citizen Action, West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare, social workers, the Council of Churches, the AFL-CIO. We have all been working together on sending the message to both of our senators — because that is where the health care bill is right now — that this is not good for West Virginia, it is not good for West Virginians, it would not be good for our economy, and I think the message is starting to get through.

We have seen our Senator Capito — Shelley Moore Capito — is right now holding firm in her opposition to what is currently on the table. I know she is under a lot of pressure from her leadership and from other senators that have this lockstep thing that they have to kill off Obamacare because that is what they promised to do and they all voted for it numerous times, but now that they have control of both houses and have a Republican president in the White House, they feel like this is the time to act. It has been pretty constant since right after the election. We held a rally right outside her office in downtown Charleston that had a couple hundred people show up in the middle of the day.

I think West Virginia was the first state to have civil disobedience, where people actually get arrested at the senators’ offices over this issue. It was just a few weeks ago. There have been several other states where that has gone down. We actually just worked with the Wood County Indivisible group up along the Ohio River and did a joint West Virginia/Ohio action just last week that was called “Bridging the Healthcare Divide.” Our Senator Capito and Ohio’s Senator [Rob] Portman sent a joint letter to Mitch McConnell outlining their concerns about the Senate health care bill. So, we got together with citizen activists from Ohio and we were on the Williamstown, West Virginia, side and we met on the bridge connecting Marietta and Williamstown and dropped a banner saying, “Bridge the Healthcare Divide.” We had a hundred people on the bridge in the rain last Thursday to do that.

Tell us a little bit about how this coalition has come together. You said you had a protest right after the election. Was it pretty quickly that people said, “Health care is going to be our focus here?”

Yes, it was, because to give her credit, Senator Capito has been a big supporter of CHIP, the children’s health insurance program. That has done a lot for West Virginians. So, it was a natural step to bring her along and show her how the Medicaid program in West Virginia, especially the expansion which covered so many of the people — I think it was 174,000 people in West Virginia — almost 10 percent of our population was covered just under the Medicaid expansion. We really have benefited more than most of the rest of the country from the Affordable Care Act. We have been communicating that to her.

It is not just activists; hospital associations have come out against this bill, the AARP, the local health care providers, the head of our state health department has come out against it. So, she is hearing it from all sides. We are really hoping that she becomes a leader instead of a follower and follows in the steps of the senator from Maine who just yesterday said that she can’t vote for this thing.

Was there a particular action that you have done that stands out as something that seemed to be particularly significant to your senator, your member of Congress, or something that seemed particularly significant to you in terms of the coalition coming together?

We did a fun little action several weeks ago in the middle of June. In West Virginia, 51 percent of our kids are covered by either Medicaid or CHIP. We got 10 little kindergarten chairs and put printed faces of smiling kids on five of the chairs and faces of unhappy kids on the other five, showing that those were the five that were going to possibly lose their health care if the Medicaid program was downgraded to a block grant or capped or the Medicaid expansion was rolled back. We set that up on the corner downtown, not too far from [Senator Capito’s] office, but it was across the street from the local ER. Our message to the TV cameras that showed up was, “Hey, we don’t want kids to be using the emergency room as their medical provider anymore. We don’t want to go backwards to when that was happening here in West Virginia.”

West Virginians assemble at the state capitol in late winter, holding a rally for answers on what's in the GOP health care bill. (Photo courtesy of Gary Zuckett)West Virginians assemble at the state capitol in late winter, holding a “rally for answers” on what’s in the GOP health care bill. (Photo courtesy of Gary Zuckett)

West Virginia has gotten a lot of attention since the election as peak Trump country — people tend to assume that there is nobody doing the kind of work that you are doing in West Virginia. Tell us a little bit about the history of your organization and the work that people are doing every day to organize in West Virginia.

Well, our organization was started way back in the day, in the mid-1970s by a young man named David Grubb who was one of Nader’s Raiders. He had gone to Washington, DC, and worked with Ralph Nader when he was a consumer advocate and came back to West Virginia and started Citizen Action Group. He went on to get a law degree and help us as a state senator for one point back in the 1990s. So, our organization does have a long history of encouraging citizens to be active in public policy, and to take public policy that affects their lives seriously and to organize for better policies — policies that are people-centered and not centered on the special interests.

Part of how we do that is by building coalitions. We are really proud of a lot of the coalitions we have helped build over the years. Two of them that are most active right now, one is the West Virginia Environmental Council. It was hatched out of our office. Another is called West Virginians United for Social and Economic Justice. It is a really broad coalition that includes labor and social workers and faith leaders, where we get together once a month and talk about what issues we can work on. We agree to disagree on the ones we can’t.

What do people on the ground that you are working with think about all of this conversation about Appalachia and Trump and whatnot?

Like you said, we are sort of labelled as “Trump Country” now and we have voted for the Republican candidate ever since George Bush II got elected. It is easy to paint in broad strokes like that, but I would also remind folks that in the Democratic primary last year, the state of West Virginia went for Bernie Sanders. So, there is a hunger for a populist message here in West Virginia. Unfortunately, our current president and his false populism appeal to a lot of people.

Of course, we have the coal issue here. “Coal is king.” Or was. Coal is on the ropes right now. There are a lot of unemployed coal miners that are pretty unhappy about the fact that they can’t make their house payments and their car payments. We are losing population as a result. There is an economic downturn here and the local coal industry barons have successfully painted our former president and Hillary Clinton as the bad guys, the devil. “There is a war on coal and it is all Obama’s fault. Hillary was going to continue that war on coal.” And she had that unfortunate out-of-context quote they used, that she was going to “put a lot of coal miners out of business.” They played that over and over again.

We have been painted as a backward regressive state and I think that is unfair. One of the things that we saw after the election was a total insurgency of people coming out of the woodwork wanting to be active. Newly minted activists and people that had been active in their youth and maybe are now retired and decided, “Well, I better get back into this because times are rough,” and pulled together. There are Indivisible groups in most of the counties in West Virginia now. There are women’s huddles from the Women’s March that are still meeting here in West Virginia on a regular basis and talking to each other. We, out of this office, helped organize a sister Women’s March to the one in DC. We had somewhere between 3,000-4,000 people show up at our state capitol, which blew everybody away, including us.

I think there is somewhat of a silver lining through this whole really bad political situation we find ourselves in right now: It is really getting people up off their duffs and on their feet and out in the streets looking for a way to make a difference. I think the challenge of organizations like Citizen Action and other nonprofit groups — not only here, but across the country — is stepping up and engaging these people and getting them started on the road to being citizen activists and working together with people in their own locality on local issues and working together on statewide and federal issues.

I was just on a planning call yesterday for what we are calling “The West Virginia Grassroots Summit.” It is going to be at the end of September. We expect 200-300 people from all over the state, from these Indivisible groups, the women’s huddles, the Bernie groups that are still out there to show up and learn how to organize locally and on statewide and federal issues, and network and build bonds with other groups in other areas. I think this could be the start of something big.

Just thinking about health care as an issue to connect with all of these people, when you are talking about people who worked in the coal mines, health care is very important; people who may be suffering from black lung or other health-related issues caused from working in the coal mines. There are a lot of people who need health care who may not have expected this was what they were going to get if they voted for Trump.

Exactly. Yes, we have run into lots of individuals who voted for our current president and who are now having second thoughts because they have family members who are on the expanded Medicaid program. They have parents or grandparents that are being take care of in nursing homes through Medicaid funds. A lot of these coal companies are going out of business and the bankruptcy process is stripping workers of their health benefits and their pensions, so they don’t have much left besides Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security, which are all under attack under this conservative administration. I think we are primed to make some progress in our 2018 elections here in West Virginia. Hopefully, across the country we can do that, also.

Are there any particular parts of the state that you are looking at thinking about the upcoming elections?

Well, in West Virginia, our 3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins is going to be running for the US Senate seat against our current Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin; he is vacating his 3rd District congressional seat. So that is an open seat. We are hoping to get a good candidate in there and maybe take that back.

The question is: Can we get enough people on the ground and doing the door-knocking, the one-on-one type of civic engagement that we need to do in order to counter the large amounts of out-of-state money that we will expect to be coming in, that we have seen ever since the Citizens United vs. FEC ruling of the Supreme Court that opened the floodgates to this unregulated dark mystery money?

West Virginia is a cheap investment to a billionaire who wants to buy a Congressman. That is part of what unseated our former Democratic Congressman in the 3rd District, Nick Rahall, who had been there for a long, long time. These big, oversize oppositional postcards from these outside organizations coming into people’s mailboxes every week on a regular basis like clockwork all through the campaign — he just didn’t have the resources to fight back against that kind of onslaught. It is going to take a lot of people power to fight back against the big money that is everywhere these days. That is going all the way down to the state house level in most states, and it sure is doing that here in West Virginia.

Looking ahead at the next couple of weeks, which are going to be critical around health care, what is next for West Virginians?

A couple of things. One of the things is that we are focusing more on engaging the faith community because this is a moral issue. Absolutely a moral issue. Who would Jesus cut off of health care? This is not the kind of morality that our nation was based on. This [is] not what we are taught in Sunday school. This is a cold-hearted attempt to roll back health care coverage for people that can’t afford to buy it on their own. It is immoral and heartless. Basically, people that vote for the Senate bill, vote for the repeal of the Medicaid expansion and the reinstitution of lifetime caps and pre-existing conditions will have blood on their hands, because people will die.

How can people keep up with you and the work you are doing?

We are on Facebook. We have a webpage:, West Virginia Citizen Action Group. We are on Twitter @WVCAG. We try to keep engaged through all the different and new social media. We would love to have more West Virginians getting our action alerts, for sure.

We really have expanded our base since November. It has been amazing. A good example of the attention that West Virginia people are getting is that Bernie Sanders has been in West Virginia twice in the last month to hold rallies. He was here in Charleston three weeks ago. We had already had a big health care rally planned and got word several days before that Bernie was available and interested in coming back to West Virginia. We invited him to join the rally that we already had going and had 2,000 people show up. I think we garnered nearly 1,000 names on petitions at that rally. Some of the old faces, but a lot of new faces. We are building our base, we are building power, and we plan to use that power. People power for the good of the citizens of West Virginia opposing the special interests, the 1% or 2% that like to call the shots.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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