BETHANY, W.Va. – Forcing change in West Virginia’s government will require taking risks, said Stephen Smith, candidate for governor, during a Bethany College event organized by the Junior Honors Seminar.
Smith’s West Virginia Can’t Wait campaign goes beyond his own Democratic bid for governor. He also urges people to take a risk and run for government office. So far, more than 60 people have signed on to the program.
More than 40 people, many of them students, attended at least part of the two-hour town hall-style event on Tuesday, Dec. 3.
In introducing Smith, Junior Honors Seminar student Tony Cirri said he and his classmates set out to “educate ourselves on the political realm” and to show others that “change comes by a coalition of people working together.”
Smith was born in Charleston, W.Va., before his family moved to Texas, where he graduated from high school. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in sociology. He served as the executive director for the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition until he announced his run for governor.
He invited five volunteers to the front of the room and set out six empty chairs.
“West Virginia is at its wealthiest right now, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Smith said, noting there is more than enough to go around.
He then sought another volunteer, playing the role of an out-of-state wealthy landowner who proceeded to occupy two of the empty chairs. Yet another volunteer played the role of the government paid for by the landowner.
Smith’s illustration left two chairs for the four remaining volunteers who stood in for average West Virginians. The four remaining students – uncomfortably – shared the chairs.
“It’s the most West Virginian thing you can do,” said Smith, who earlier had noted that West Virginia was among the top states in spending time with neighbors and in charitable giving. “It’s a beautiful thing and it’s a tragic thing.”
He then asked why the students didn’t take one of the chairs held by the landowner or the government.
“I didn’t feel like I could,” one said.
Another said, “It’s against the rules.”
That is the mind-set that West Virginia Can’t Wait aims to change, Smith said.
He said it is important for citizens to go the West Virginia State Capitol and push the “good old boys” to change, but people also need to step forward to replace them. Smith said his grassroots campaign has broken records in West Virginia by out-raising his opponents through small donations.
“West Virginia is at its best when our backs are against the wall,” he said.
Smith then had attendees divide into pairs and share what political issues mattered most to them, using only their own personal stories rather than parroting political parties or media.
Addiction recovery programs, environmental concerns, poverty, and education were among the conversations that followed.
Smith sought volunteers who were willing be a “vote tripler,” meaning that they themselves would vote and then urge three others to vote. Dozens stepped forward.
Event organizer Celeste Marchbanks said she thought the event went well and she was pleased with the turnout.
“It was an entertaining and interactive way to get informed,” student organizer Elizabeth Lineberry said.
Student volunteers were also on hand to help people register to vote.
Dr. William Hicks, professor of biology and Junior Honors Seminar adviser, said the students felt more strongly about this service project than they have on past projects because of the impact it could have.
Students Madison Cramer and Ethan Young also helped organize Tuesday’s event.
“We didn’t want it to be a typical stump speech,” Hicks said. “We wanted it to be something that motivated students to get involved.”
And to Smith, that is vital to West Virginia.
“There’s so much talent in West Virginia, but the only way that we cause change is when the teenagers and twenty-somethings get involved,” he said.
As for the Junior Honors Seminar, Tuesday’s event was only the first planned event, Marchbanks said. The seminar students have invited West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, to campus, and are hoping for a response. They also would like to host a forum of all the gubernatorial candidates in the spring.
For photos from the Get Out the Vote event, click here.
ABOUT BETHANY COLLEGE
Bethany College, founded in 1840, is the oldest private college in West Virginia. The Bethany experience focuses on academic excellence in the area of liberal arts and prepares students for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.