THE RADICALIZATION OF CHARLESTON
– How a Group Named “Charleston Can’t Wait” is Damaging Our City
It’s an election year across America, including the city where I live and work, Charleston, WV. If you care about the upcoming election in Charleston I hope you will take the time to read what I admit is a long post. Even if you don’t live in Charleston, what happens here affects the surrounding communities and, at times, the whole State.
There is a lot to say about what is currently happening in Charleston, so there is no way to make this post any shorter than I already tried. Some who read this won’t know me, so I’ll give some brief history.
In 2018 I ran for Mayor of Charleston, which was my first time on the ballot. I ran as a Republican who focused on the economy and public safety. My opponent, who won, is a self-proclaimed progressive Democrat.
If you think this is going to be an attack on our current Mayor, you’re wrong. This post certainly involves her. However, the focus is on a radical (I don’t casually throw that word around) political organization named “Charleston Can’t Wait.”
That group is disingenuously attacking anyone, Democrat or Republican alike, who does not support its ideological platform. Charleston Can’t Wait is a spin off of a statewide organization named “West Virginia Can’t Wait” so, again, this affects more than Charleston.
Since the last Mayor’s race in 2018 I have only put up one pretty innocuous Facebook post about Charleston politics. Many times I could not have disagreed more strongly with our current city administration. However, in my view the voters made their choice and it is not my goal to point out every mistake made by our city government. I’ve had a great life and I’m not a sore loser.
This post IS a criticism of the increasing radicalization of politics in our city. This is not unique to Charleston, but it is new here. We have now reached a point that some of the most liberal Democrats in city government are facing attacks from a far left group that thinks being liberal isn’t enough.
I will get to that later in this long post. First I need to discuss some recent history that helps explain how we got here. The recent history I’m starting with ties directly in with where we are today, so stick with me.
In 2022 Democrats control the White House and Congress. The party in control of the White House historically performs poorly in mid-term elections. Democrats are predicted to suffer significant losses in November, almost surely losing the House and possibly the Senate.
2018 was virtually the opposite. Republicans controlled Congress and Donald Trump was President. Republicans lost the House by a wide margin. The national mood trickled down to the local level, including cities like Charleston.
The urban/rural political divide exists everywhere, including in West Virginia. Many outsiders probably consider this entire State “Trump Country.” It is true that for the first time in generations Republicans now outnumber Democrats in West Virginia. It is also true that Donald Trump won all 55 of West Virginia’s counties in his two presidential elections. However, he didn’t win in cities like Charleston, even if he won the county it is in.
During the 2018 Mayoral race, more than 50% of Charleston’s registered voters were Democrats. Only around 23% were Republicans. The rest were a mix of mostly independents followed by third parties. That has only slightly changed in the past four years with around 48% of the city’s registered voters remaining Democrat.
Most voters who switched registration are now independents, who are virtually tied with Republicans at around 23% apiece in the city. In other words, Democrats lost some voters, but Republicans in Charleston didn’t see any real gains. This is still a blue city in a now mostly red State. Charleston Can’t Wait sees this as an opportunity.
In 2018 around 57% of votes cast in Charleston were by Democrats while only about 24% were Republicans. Historically, Democrats made up around 53% of the vote total while Republicans were around 27% (voter turnout rarely matches voter registration if you’re wondering why some of these numbers look different).
In other words, in 2018 Charleston Democrats showed up at higher than average numbers and “outvoted” Republicans, who showed up at a historically lower than average number, by well over 30%. If voter turnout were historically average then the conventional wisdom is I would have won. Don’t take that the wrong way – I lost. But it’s also an axiom that in politics timing is everything.
2018 was undeniably a Democrat year, and in Charleston that was at least partially true due to the activist work of WV Can’t Wait. For the first time that anyone can recall, not one Republican won an at-large City Council seat. State Senate and House races with Charleston precincts were significantly impacted. Outside of city limits the vote results were largely red. In Charleston, the map was largely blue.
2018 was a “historic” municipal election in Charleston. While city races had always been held in off years, in 2018 the municipal election was moved to coincide with Congressional midterms.
Statewide candidates invested heavily in the county where Charleston is located and in the city itself. This was especially true of Democrats who needed to win here to overcome more conservative voters in West Virginia’s rural counties.
Donald Trump was hugely unpopular in Charleston, and 2018 was a referendum on him even though he wasn’t on the ballot. Other issues like a constitutional abortion amendment were up for a vote. It passed statewide but was likewise very unpopular in Charleston. City Democrats rallied around multiple issues.
In short, prior to 2018 the Charleston municipal election was almost singularly about one thing – Charleston. Our city had elected a string of moderate Democrat and Republican mayors along with moderate city councils. Our prior Mayor was fairly described as a moderate to even liberal Republican who switched his affiliation to independent while he was still in office.
That all changed in 2018 when our city’s election was moved to coincide with statewide and federal races. The municipal election was no longer just about Charleston, it was also about whatever was happening at the State Capitol and in Washington, D.C.
In 2018 WV Can’t Wait campaigned heavily in Charleston (along with other places; the group has a statewide network and its founder ran for Governor in 2020). WV Can’t Wait’s work included involvement in Charleston’s Mayor’s race and many City Council races. WV Can’t Wait exclusively supported Democrats in those races.
WV Can’t Wait staffers and volunteers made phone calls. They knocked on doors. They engaged in a get out the vote campaign. They posted 1,000,000x on social media (maybe not exaggeration). I can tell you that local Republicans have very little to frankly almost no grassroots presence. No one else on the local level had an activist presence like WV Can’t Wait in 2018.
WV Can’t Wait helped the current Mayor dominate her primary, in which she ran against a moderate, established City Council member. In our 2018 general election many of the people pictured in her door knocking campaigns were WV Can’t Wait volunteers, not necessarily volunteers for the current Mayor.
They worked hand-in-hand and the current Mayor, along with several City Council members, solicited and gladly accepted the group’s help. Politics aside, there is no doubt that WV Can’t Wait and its allies helped usher in our current city government. After the election, WV Can’t Wait’s founder claimed in an online interview that his group got the current Mayor elected. Point blank – whether you agree or not, he took credit for her win.
A spin-off group named Charleston Can’t Wait now exists here. You can look the group up online, where its platform is posted. While some people may support that platform, no reasonable person would classify it as “mainstream” or even liberal. It is a leftist platform.
While Democrats have essentially run from the phrase “defund the police” since 2020, Charleston Can’t Wait’s platform calls for cutting our police budget in half. I could write a whole different post about this (maybe I will), but our city police department has consistently been understaffed by as many as 20 officers in the past few years, even though it was fully staffed prior to the 2018 election.
The voters have already spoken on this issue when they approved increasing our police department roll several years ago. I won’t comment here on the efforts, but the current city administration claims it is trying to get us back to a fully staffed department. Charleston Can’t Wait not only does not want a police department staffed at the level voters previously approved of, the group wants to cut that number by half.
Charleston Can’t Wait advocates for legalizing drug use sites (they call them “safe use sites”). These are places where substance abusers may legally shoot up with hard drugs like heroin and meth while under supervision. They then leave, going back into the public while under the influence. This obviously goes well beyond giving syringes/needles to drug users to prevent infection, which is allowed in Charleston and other cities in West Virginia.
(On a side note – for those who support drug use sites, I can almost guarantee our Legislature will outlaw the practice if it is allowed at the local level. Moreover, some of Charleston Can’t Wait’s other platform planks are already illegal in WV. Should you trust someone who promises to do something they already know they can’t do?).
Some public health ideologues support legalized drug use sites. They are at odds with voters. Even California’s (very) liberal governor recently vetoed a bill allowing drug use sites in that state.
So called “harm reduction” was one of the most misunderstood and inflammatory subjects in the 2018 city election. I was firmly in favor of treatment based models but I vehemently opposed our local health department’s needle distribution program that was run so poorly it was eventually decertified by the State.
I, and others, weren’t against helping drug users. We were against a terrible program that did not have ONE documented treatment referral with over 6,000 participants. My view aligned with that of most voters – treatment should be the ultimate goal, not the perpetual use of drugs that will eventually kill the user.
I could write another post just on this issue (maybe I will), but “harm reduction” has remained a controversial issue during the current Mayor’s administration. After her election some of her former political allies from WV Can’t Wait and Charleston Can’t Wait began an unsanctioned syringe/needle distribution in Charleston under the name of “SOAR.” This led to a well publicized media investigation and, ultimately, a new ordinance that criminalized the group’s work.
Charleston Can’t Wait wants to not only undo that ordinance, it wants to create drug use sites that were too radical even for California’s governor. Those who oppose them are labelled with whatever words the group decides to use – heartless, uninformed, murderer. No insult is too much. No accusation is too far.
Of course none of this is new. WV Can’t Wait, before it formed its Charleston Can’t Wait spinoff, used these same tactics in 2018. I was called all those same names back then. It’s simply the truth that Democrats who welcomed WV Can’t Wait with open arms in 2018 never asked the group to stop those attacks, tone down its rhetoric or honestly debate the issues.
There are otherwise decent Democrat officeholders in Charleston who accepted WV Can’t Wait’s brand of advocacy in 2018. Now many of those same Democrats are in Charleston’s Can’t Wait’s crosshairs, and the same politics of personal destruction are being used against them. This week in particular, some of those Democrats are calling on Charleston Can’t Wait to stop the “lies” (their word for what’s happening to them).
Charleston Can’t Wait required its endorsed candidates to sign a pledge to support its platform. This is the same platform you can find online that calls for defunding the police and legalizing drug use sites that even California won’t allow (among other things, the platform contains more).
Democrats who wouldn’t sign the pledge, because most of their constituents would oppose it, are now being treated as the enemy. This is true even if those Democrats worked with WV Can’t Wait/Charleston Can’t Wait in 2018.
To those Democrats – this is not an I told you so, but you should have seen this coming. WV Can’t Wait’s founder essentially refuses to discuss his past when he’s interviewed. It’s no secret, however, that he was a trained activist before he moved to WV from Chicago. Charleston Can’t Wait members also include trained activists from other states.
Charleston voters – please pay attention to exactly what the candidates on the ballot believe. By now it should be an immediate red flag whenever a candidate simply uses buzzwords like caring, compassion and inclusion without telling you their actual plan. Those ideals are worthwhile, but they are also used by activists to make it appear as though other candidates aren’t caring, compassionate and inclusive.
Charleston Can’t Wait isn’t debating policy with the candidates it is attacking, it is attempting to delegitimize them. Unfortunately this tactic is enough to make some people align with an activist group, to avoid the politics of personal destruction. That is one of the goals – agree with us or we’ll attack you on a personal level.
To the Democrats in Charleston city races who are now being attacked, and frankly lied about, by Charleston Can’t Wait – I know some of you and you are good people. I wish you would have spoken out against WV Can’t Wait in 2018, before it took root and morphed into Charleston Can’t Wait at the local level. I’m glad some of you are now speaking out, and I hope you continue to do so even after the election.
There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides in politics. For now, in Charleston, the city I love and my family calls home, a radical cancer exists. Good people on both sides must fight it, or it will continue to grow and damage not just our city, but every community around us. This election is a tipping point.