West Virginia’s Democratic drama goes beyond Joe Manchin

The political drama in West Virginia goes well beyond Sen. Joe Manchin (D).

Fissures within the state’s Democratic Party are breaking to the surface in Charleston even as Manchin, the state’s most powerful Democrat, faces his own political storm in Washington, D.C.

And while the issues aren’t related, there are parallels because both touch on race and diversity.

This week in Charleston, the top Democrats from the state House and Senate held an in-person meeting with the chair of the state party over whether she is actively pursuing a mandate from the Democratic National Committee pertaining to race and representation.

Tensions have run so high that leaders and activists have privately discussed plans to call on West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Belinda Biafore to resign, three sources with knowledge of the situation told The Hill. 

State House Minority Leader Doug Skaff (D) confirmed a meeting took place on Monday evening with Biafore and state Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin (D). He said the conversation was to lay out a range of concerns over how to “do better as a party” to expand diversity among the top ranks. The leaders stopped short of calling for her to step down. 

“I did meet with Belinda [and] with Stephen Baldwin, we discussed many things,” Skaff said in an email. “We did not ask her to resign.”

A spokesperson for Biafore’s office brushed off the previously unreported chat with Baldwin and Skaff as a “regularly scheduled meeting” intended to “discuss legislative proceedings and party affairs.”

The spokesperson did not address a sense of growing frustration over her leadership and also said the two legislative leaders did not ask her to resign.

Baldwin did not comment for this story.

Sources who spoke with The Hill said the meeting was primarily about the handling of a diversity document that caused internal turmoil. Last week, the state party approved a new affirmative action plan intended to increase representation among people of color within its ranks. 

But the plan was opposed by the state party’s recently established Affirmative Action Committee, which includes Democrats who identify as Black, women, youth, seniors and members of the LGBTQ and disability communities. Latino, Asian American and Native American Democrats are expected to join in the coming weeks. 

This group felt the predominantly white state party leadership was ignoring its concerns to create guidelines with their input to help members of minority groups advance within the party.

“We did not have a hand in one word of it,” said Mary Thorp, a state executive committee member and co-chair of the Affirmative Action Committee, describing the drafting of the diversity plan. “That’s why it was rejected.”

Critics say Biafore has dragged her feet on both setting up the committee and more broadly diversifying the party leadership and that the virtual meeting last week exacerbated those concerns.

“The uproar was swift and furious,” said a source in the state familiar with the dynamics. “Even people that I’ve seen that have defended Belinda for years, they’re saying this is indefensible.”

Skaff said leaders asked Biafore to apologize for how the plan was approved and handled.

“We asked her to start with apologizing for the way that meeting happened,” he said. “And encouraged her to reach out individually to all members of the Affirmative Action Committee and apologize and schedule a face to face so we can learn from this and move forward to represent all our constituent groups.”

Biafore, who took over the helm of the state party in 2015, responded to criticism by saying the plan was “created in a fair and transparent manner” and that she’s working to strengthen it.

“The West Virginia Democratic Party is committed to doing the work to make itself more inclusive and representative of all West Virginians,” she said, according to a report by radio network West Virginia MetroNews. “We’ve always had an affirmative action program in place. The work we are doing now is to make it more robust.”

The discord in the state party comes as Manchin faces criticism from his caucus over his opposition to the For the People Act, a voting rights bill that Democrats say is necessary as a check on legislation in a number of states that could curb access to the ballot for Black voters.

Manchin’s objection to the bill, and his support for the Senate filibuster, likely guarantees the death of it.

The debate over the filibuster also has roots in racial divisions. For decades, Southern senators used the rule to stop civil rights legislation. Now Democrats say centrists in their party are joining with Republicans in a 50-50 Senate to prevent action on that and other issues that could help Black and brown Americans.

Several sources saw similarities between the two battles.

Both Manchin and Biafore are moderates that some progressives say are resistant to more liberal agendas. And they are both operating on terrain where voters strongly supported former President Trump. While West Virginia was once a Democratic stronghold, it is now solidly Trump country. In both the 2016 and 2020 general elections, Trump won the Mountain State by landslides. Many outside observers think that if Manchin decides to not run for reelection in 2024, he is likely to be replaced by a Republican.

“There’s a real challenge going on here,” said a second Democratic source. “Is there really a Democratic Party in West Virginia or is it just another Republican Party?”

But some political observers say there’s more nuance to the electorate. What’s happening at both the Senate level and within the state party further showcase the range of beliefs. And they each draw attention to a wider Democratic debate over how to best help create opportunities for people of color to participate in the political process. 

“Yes, West Virginia has definitely moved to the right,” said John Kilwein, a political science professor at West Virginia University, before providing a caveat about the storylines unfolding among his state’s Democrats. “It captures that there’s still — as small as it is — there’s still a significant and important component of the Democratic Party in the state that’s progressive.” 

Tags Affirmative action Donald Trump Joe Manchin voting rights West Virginia

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