West Virginia Voters Remember Teacher Strike at the Polls

Teachers hold a rally outside the Senate Chambers in the West Virginia Capitol Monday, March. 5, 2018 in Charleston, W.V. Hundreds of teachers from 55 counties were on strike for pay raises and better health benefits.

From Morgantown to Matewan, educators and their supporters pledged to “remember in November” the Republican state lawmakers who held out on the raise they demanded this winter during the teacher strike. On Tuesday, they went to the polls to, as some put it, “make them pay in May.”

Carmen Soltesz, a Williamson middle-school social studies teacher, was among those thinking hard about the historic teacher walkout shortly before she cast her vote. A registered independent, she leans conservative, but was planning to pick up the Democratic ballot to support Sen. Joe Manchin. But Soltesz, 37, also recalled the united front of her fellow educators and school service personnel in the halls of the Capitol as they demanded a 5 percent pay raise and a plan to fix their health insurance program.

“I hope that that energy carries into the elections and the people that were those holdouts feel the backlash,” she said.

Their message may have been clear in at least one race: State Sen. Richard Karnes was defeated by Rep. Bill Hamilton, both of Upshur County, in the 11th District GOP primary, according to election results.

A longtime critic of organized labor, Karnes in 2016 called union members opposing what became the state’s right-to-work law “free riders.” During the teacher strike, and even on Tuesday, he trolled those on Twitter calling for his ouster.

Attempts by state Senate Republican lawmakers to block the proposed teacher pay raise helped extend the strike, which stretched to nine days in March. Some of West Virginia’s youngest voters also considered the holdouts — and the politicians who were the teachers’ biggest advocates. One outspoken backer, state Sen. Richard Ojeda, of Logan, appears to have benefited from his support: He earned more than half the votes in the Democratic primary for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in District 3, according to election results.

Ojeda was among those who drew first-time voter, Jillian Music, 18, of Delbarton, to the polls. The Mingo Central High School senior is a registered independent, and she had a personal connection: Her mother is an educator.

“She’s a teacher, and I’m going to be a teacher, so a lot of this stuff was based around everything that happened with the strike and stuff,” she said. “A lot of it was based on how [lawmakers] treated the teachers.”

In Morgantown, Democrat Dave Mebane said his wife, a teacher, sent him to the polls with a list of candidates to vote for.

“I’m really hoping that month-long political fight makes a difference in the fall and that we see some changes in the statehouse in particular,” he said.

Teachers across West Virginia posted pictures of themselves in “55 Strong” T-shirts Tuesday on a Facebook page many used to follow events of the strike. One post noted that the primary fell on Teacher Appreciation Day.