To launch his campaign for US Senate, Zach Shrewsbury chose the site of one of America’s most famous hangings.
Charles Town, West Virginia, was where state authorities executed the abolitionist John Brown after he led an attack on a federal armory a few miles down the road in Harpers Ferry, a pivotal moment in the lead-up to the civil war. One hundred and sixty four years later, Shrewsbury – who decided against attempting to get a permit for the event at the site of the insurrection, which is now a national park – stood on the courthouse grounds where Brown’s hanging took place to announce that he would be the only “real Democrat” running to represent West Virginia in the Senate next year.
“We need leaders that are cut from the working-class cloth. We need representation that will go toe to toe with corporate parasites and their bought politicians. We need a leader who will not waver in the face of these powers that keep the boot on our neck,” Shrewsbury said to applause from the small group of supporters gathered behind him.
“So, as John Brown said, ‘These men are all talk. What we need is action.’ I’m taking action right now to stand up to these bought bureaucrats.”
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The remarks were a swipe at Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator who for the past 13 years had managed to represent what has become one of the most Republican states in the nation. In recent years he has used his power as a swing vote in Congress to stop several of Joe Biden’s legislative priorities – attracting the ire of progressives and prompting Shrewsbury to mount a primary challenge.
A few weeks after Shrewsbury began campaigning, he was showing a friend around an abandoned mining town when his phone rang with news: Manchin had decided not to seek re-election, leaving Shrewsbury as the only Democrat in the race.
By all indications, Shrewsbury, a 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran and community organizer, faces a difficult, if not impossible, road to victory. West Virginia gave Donald Trump his second-biggest margin of support of any state in the nation three years ago, and Manchin is the last Democrat holding a statewide office. Political analysts do not expect voters to elect the Democratic candidate – whoever that turns out to be – and predict Manchin will be replaced by either Governor Jim Justice or Congressman Alex Mooney, the two leading Republicans in the Senate race.
Shrewsbury’s message to them is: not so fast.
“People were really sold on the fact that Joe Manchin could be the only Democrat that could win in West Virginia, and I very much disagree,” Shrewsbury told the Guardian a week after the senator made his announcement.
Also a former governor, Manchin is considered the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, and when the party took the majority by a single vote in the chamber in 2021, Manchin stopped the Biden administration from passing policies that would have made permanent a program to reduce child poverty, and more forcefully fight climate change.
Sitting in a conference room at the Fayette county Democratic party’s headquarters in Oak Hill, where visitors pass a lobby displaying an American flag, a pride flag, and a stack of Narcan, the opioid-overdose reversal medication, Shrewsbury outlined his plans to run a campaign distinctly to the left of Manchin’s policies – and one he believes can win.
“People want someone who’s genuine. They don’t want a politician. They want someone who actually looks like them. I mean, hell, you can’t get much more West Virginia than this,” said Shrewsbury, fond of wearing flannel shirts and hunting caps.
Among his priorities are creating universal healthcare and childcare programs, and reducing the role of incarceration in fighting the opioid epidemic ravaging West Virginia.
“Everyone here just is thankful for the scraps or crumbs that we get from whoever we elect. And that’s who we keep electing – whoever can keep the little crumbs coming along. I’m trying to say there is a better way,” Shrewsbury said.
He also doesn’t shy away from identifying as a socialist, arguing the term may be less politically damaging than it appears – West Virginia Democrats voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary, and the independent senator, he argues, is popular even with the state’s Republicans.
“If caring about working-class people, caring about people having bodily autonomy, water rights, workers’ rights, makes you a socialist, then call me whatever you want. Doesn’t bother me,” Shrewsbury said.
Raised on a farm by a Republican family in rural Monroe county, Shrewsbury dropped out of college after a semester and joined the marines. In the years that followed, he guarded the perimeter at the US base in Guantánamo Bay, and was deployed to Japan, Malaysia and South Korea before eventually moving to Seattle and then returning to West Virginia, where he realized how bereft his home state was of the prosperity he saw elsewhere in the country and overseas.
“Why can’t my home be as economically profitable as the rest?” Shrewsbury recalls thinking. “It woke me up in the Marine Corps a little bit, and once I got back home, I really just kind of put the nail in the coffin there for what I was gonna be for work. I want to help people.”
He turned to community organizing, seeing it as a way to help a state with the fourth-highest poverty rate in the nation, which is struggling to transition from the declining coal and logging industries that have historically undergirded its economy.
“I know Zach’s a long shot. It’s like David against three Goliaths,” said Pam Garrison, a fellow community organizer. “Zach is able to be hardline when he needs to be. I’ve seen him being forceful and steadfast in his principles and what things are. And then I’ve seen the compassionate and empathy side of Zack too, And that’s what makes a good politician.”
Since 2020, Shrewsbury has helped towns dig out from flooding, door-knocked in the narrow Appalachian valleys – known as hollers – to find out what residents were looking for from the state legislature, and talked to mayors and city councils about the opportunities presented by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which incentivizes consumer usage of renewable energy, including home solar panels.
Though Manchin played a key role in authoring the IRA, he also nixed the expanded child tax credit, which has been credited with cutting the child poverty rate by half in 2021, the sole year it was in effect. Shrewsbury was outraged by reports that later emerged of the senator privately expressing worries that people would use the program’s money to buy drugs, and jumped into the race.
Despite the state’s conservative leanings, Sam Workman, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Public Affairs at West Virginia University, believed Manchin may have had a path to victory had he decided to run. But he said the same cannot be said for Shrewsbury or any other Democrat.
“It’s kind of a fall-on-your-sword moment,” Workman said. “Politics is like sports: you should never say never, but I do not see the Democrats winning the Senate seat, no matter who runs.”
Shrewsbury may be alone in the Democratic primary at the moment, but he expects other candidates to enter. Since launching his campaign, he has not heard from the state Democratic party, nor the national party’s senate campaign arm.
“I’m not exactly what the party wants, because I speak my mind. You know, I’m not going to toe the party line,” he said. “I wish the party would get back in more touch with the workers. But like I said, I have the message that many people aren’t saying.”