By JESSICA ROSS
For HD Media
A coal miner's daughter who has watched her family struggle with both black lung disease and unemployment in a changing West Virginia economy is running for a U.S. Senate seat on a platform of economic progress through safer, cleaner jobs.
Paula Jean Swearengin, a resident of Wyoming County for much of her life, is running as a Justice Democrat to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Swearengin said she chose to run her campaign with Brand New Congress as a Justice Democrat because it is people-funded.
"I do not accept any corporate funds at all," Swearengin said. "I can't even take more than $5,000 from any one individual. I know people in West Virginia are hurting, but even one dollar into this campaign helps."
Swearengin said she understands the life of a coal miner because many in her family members were coal miners.
"Living in Iroquois, West Virginia, when I was younger, our water was orange with a blue-and-purple film," Swearengin said. "I thought my hair was red until my family moved when I was 12."
She said her family had to move to North Carolina when her stepdad was laid off from the coal mines.
"We moved back around 2001 when my grandpa got black lung," Swearengin said. "My dad got cancer and passed away, and most of my uncles had black lung. My stepdad has heart disease and black lung. Most of my family are coal miners. I've lived long enough to see the progression and regression of the coal mining industry."
Swearengin said she spent years working as a social and economic activist while working and raising her four boys, ages 24, 20, 19 and 16, as a single mom.
"I am a regular, ordinary person," Swearengin said. "I've been working as an accounting clerk, and I am full time now on the campaign. I had been working 16 to 18 hours a day, and I've went all over the country begging people to help West Virginians."
She said she has been a longtime advocate for clean water and air, and a prosperous economic future for West Virginians.
"I've spoke to the United Nations, I've lobbied, and I've followed my leaders at town halls," Swearengin said. "Democrat or Republican, I don't think that we have public service here in West Virginia.
"The nation has been powered by our blood, and we have given a huge sacrifice to give electricity to this nation," Swearengin said. "We don't have true leadership in West Virginia. I think it's time for us to stand up, take our government back, and invest in ourselves."
Swearingen said she thinks the state should prioritize clean jobs, training and healthcare and cut down on the bureaucracy.
She said she believes she is the best candidate for the job because she is not a polished politician, and because she has the experience of fighting for many years.
"I am a faithful West Virginian, and (voters) need to know I am a mom and I am mad as hell, and will fight for every child in West Virginia," Swearengin said. "Through my experience, we can implement jobs and our economic growth by expanding our infrastructure. We have seen a decline in the last 20 years from highway service jobs and coal mining jobs to low-wage service jobs. We need to fight opioid addiction, so we can expand our economy through small business growth and offer more opportunities than coal, like clean jobs."
One way to grow the economy could be to cultivate non-traditional crops, she said.
"Anything we can bring to West Virginia, we need to look at it," Swearengin said. "We need to put hemp on these old mountaintop removal sites. We need to get away from a singular industry-based economy. That's not going to happen with this leadership when our funders are bought and paid for by the industries that are destroying us."
She said trillions of dollars go out-of-state for the sake of coal, but the money does not go back into the communities where the coal came from.
"I want people to realize it is very, very important for us to quit selling ourselves short and thinking we can't have anything else here except for coal," Swearengin said. "I know coal is not going to go away overnight, but people are already going hungry. The market's down and it's been proven it's not going to rebound. Whether it rebounds or not, we should never be put in this situation again."
Swearengin said she has a few goals for West Virginia.
"I think we need economic growth," Swearengin said. "We need healthcare and I think we deserve medical care for all. I think we need to expand our educational opportunities for our children. That's on a local level and in higher education.
"I think we can expand our workforce and give our children more opportunities so they can go to college," Swearengin said. "Most of the children who live in southern West Virginia come from poor families. My children live with a poor, single mom and when my son gets out of college, he's going to owe about $50,000. He's going to owe enough to buy a house. That's just unacceptable. How are we going to build our children up and create a future for them if we don't pave a path for them to have a future? That's not free."
Swearingen said she wants to make Washington aware of the hardships facing Appalachia and help get funding to her state. But it's also important for people within the state to learn to work together to make the best use of any federal funding or other opportunities.
"West Virginia has fallen short in so many ways and as much as we sacrifice, it hurts me to my core to see people so divided," Swearengin said. "People need to stand up like me, even if it's on a local level, and run for office. It is so very important that we get the corruption out of West Virginia. I have fought many years for normalcy and I am tired of asking my children to leave."
She said she wants everyone in West Virginia to know she does not see this as her campaign, but as a campaign for all West Virginians.
"We need to unite like we have never united before, and I hope they can support me and get behind this campaign," Swearengin said. "This is our opportunity to fight back. We've had enough special interest in our government. It's time to let the existing government and coal mines know if they are going to stick around, they need to make sure these coal miners are safe while doing their jobs, and they need to take care of these workers, their families and the surrounding communities."
To find out more about Swearengin's campaign, visit her Twitter and Facebook page at Paula Jean 2018 or her website at www.paulajean2018.com.
For more information on Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress, and Mobilize 88, visit www.brandnewcongress.org.