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How West Virginia teachers showed their power at the ballot box

Almost 90 percent of teachers' union–endorsed candidates won their primaries Tuesday.

by Chelsey B. Coombs
May 9 2018, 7:33pm

West Virginia teachers walked their nine-day protest to the polling place yesterday, where almost 90 percent of teachers’ union–endorsed candidates went on to win their primaries.

The West Virginia Education Association endorsed 115 candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House and the state’s House of Delegates and Senate. Of those 115, 99 won their primaries.

"I hope that that energy [from the teachers’ walkout] carries into the elections and the people that were those holdouts feel the backlash," Carmen Soltesz, a social studies teacher from Williamson Middle School, told West Virginia Public Radio.

West Virginia’s teachers sparked a nationwide teachers movement after they walked out of their schools for nine days in February, demanding better working conditions. The state Legislature eventually gave them a 5 percent pay raise. And the teachers remembered the state delegates and senators who supported them, and those who didn’t, when they voted in the primary Tuesday.

Republican Bill Hamilton, who was backed by teachers’ unions, won 62 percent of the state Senate primary vote over incumbent Robert Karnes. Karnes was deeply unpopular with the teachers; he has a reputation for being anti-labor and called union members “free riders” during a Senate floor debate over a right-to-work bill that eventually passed in 2016, making it so employees don’t have to pay union dues.

Karnes took one last swipe at the teachers on Twitter yesterday before the results came in.

Democrat Richard Ojeda, who has been unabashedly pro-teacher, won his U.S. House District 3 primary against three other candidates. His popularity surged when Gov. Jim Justice proposed a one percent teacher raise, and Ojeda, a current state Senator, called it a “slap in the face.”

Ojeda also backed teachers by introducing bills that would have given teachers a tax break for classroom supplies, stabilized health care premiums for all public employees and given public employees a $5,000 raise over three years. While those bills didn’t pass in the Republican-controlled Senate, teachers seemed excited to support him, and the West Virginia Education Association backed him against his primary challengers.

Democrat Richard Lindsay also won a state Senate primary over 14-year incumbent Mark Hunt by just 325 votes.

“It’s a people’s movement,” Lindsay told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “They really got a chance to see how the sausage is made at the Capitol, and I don’t think they appreciated it.”

Cover image: Striking school workers hold signs and chant inside the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, U.S., on Friday, March 2, 2018. Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

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