Earlier this year, Cathy Kunkel announced her candidacy for West Virginia’s second Congressional district in the U.S. House—running as a Democrat, and, if she secures the nomination, challenging Congressman Alex Mooney (R-West Virginia) in November 2020.
Kunkel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Princeton University in 2006 and a certificate of advanced study in physics from Cambridge University, says she’s running because, simply, the Mountain State’s second Congressional district deserves better.
Her platform spotlights the urgency needed to address economic transition while strengthening rural economies as climate change and financial weakness continue to impact West Virginia’s coal and natural gas industries. It also emphasizes healthcare for all, and the need for federal infrastructure investment—including drinking water infrastructure, broadband, reclamation, and transportation. A specific nod is additionally given to policies designed to strengthen public education and eliminate student debt, while supporting working families and protecting pensions.
Kunkel gained attention in 2017 when she penned an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail titled: “Alex Mooney Doesn’t Need WV Voters and It Shows,” but she’s been involved in politics locally (she lives in Charleston) since 2014—when the Elk River chemical spill left 300,000 people within nine counties without drinking water for nearly a week.
As an energy policy analyst, Kunkel has testified on behalf of consumer, environmental, and labor groups at the Public Service Commission and addressed utility-related issues around the country. She also co-founded a group called Advocates for a Safe Water System, which has won some changes for the West Virginia water system. Additionally, she’s the co-founder of Rise Up West Virginia—advocating for healthcare for all, involved in supporting school employees, and much more.
“One of the reasons I’m running is to carry those issues through sort of a wider base across the state,” said Kunkel. “In our experience, people are very concerned about healthcare and education issues, and I feel we’re impacted across party lines. People are also very interested in issues concerning economic transformation in West Virginia. And as the rest of the country is starting to wake up on climate change, what does that mean for our state—how do we have a seat at the table and make sure we bring in federal investment so that workers and communities are taken care of in that transition, which has obviously not been the case to date.”
One differentiator about Kunkel that Mountain State voters should take particular note of? “I’m not taking corporate money in my campaign,” she confirmed. “I think that’s important because people are rightfully distrustful of politics because it’s become so contaminated with corporate money. People are realizing that the establishment of both political parties has drifted away from representing the concerns of working-class and rural Americans. They’ve become more and more accountable to big donors than everyday people. And to many West Virginians, that feels especially true.”
Kunkel hopes to both disrupt and evolve that establishment. “It’s easy to step back and look at politics and say it’s all corrupt and filled with corporate money, but fundamentally, there are key issues that are really affecting people’s lives on profound levels,” she stressed. “We know if we don’t really take aggressive action on these issues over the next decade, it’s going to get much worse. Frankly, if we don’t see more people stepping up who aren’t going to take corporate contributions—not willing to do things differently—then not much will change. Those of us that see the corruption of the system, and have the ability to do it, have a responsibility to try to change it.”
A List of Priorities
One of Kunkel’s biggest challenges will be selling her message and brand to a state that has seemingly gone all-in on Trump-ism and/or the old-school politics of the Mountain State—with the exception of some smaller, albeit passionate, pockets of blue that have certainly emerged in the last few years. In fact, the person she’s challenging, Alex Mooney, is widely known for his loyalty to all-things Trump. Kunkel feels she can articulate her message within a divided state, and has confidence that her position is strong enough to sway voters.
“I don’t think we should pretend that there are easy answers to these questions, especially around issues like economic transition,” she pointed out. “The coal industry has been a huge influence in this state for a long time, but I think it’s increasingly clear to more and more people that that industry is not coming back to the way it was and it’s imperative to figure out new investments in other things to bring into this state. I think people can also see in this state the way that one political class exploits the coal issue and beats that drum, but it really hasn’t helped anyone in the last ten years.”
Healthcare is a similar priority for Kunkel. “For me, I have defended and continue to defend the Affordable Care Act—because it helps so many West Virginians in tough spots,” she said. “But it’s also important to realize that there are still a lot of problems with our healthcare system, and the ACA did not solve much of it. Costs are still astronomical for so many. So many are paying enormous amounts of money for what amounts to catastrophic insurance, with huge deductibles. I understand the frustrations. If you go door-to-door, practically everyone you run into—either they or someone in their family has had serious problems accessing or being able to afford healthcare. So I’d like to see us move towards a universal healthcare system and support Medicare for all, and I think, administratively, it’s just so much simpler to have single-payer system where businesses don’t have to support the costs of their employees, allowing them to become more competitive. We shouldn’t ever have to worry about whether or not we can afford to be sick.”
Outmigration is another one of West Virginia’s unavoidable topics that Kunkel plans on confronting. “I think federal investment is key; you travel around this state and the amount of areas that don’t have quality broadband internet access is huge. And if you want young people to return or stick around, especially within jobs that allow people to work remotely, then this needs to be addressed and fixed. It’s simply not feasible for people to do that right now in many parts of this state.”
Environment and education also land high on her list. “Safe drinking water is a major issue in this state,” she stressed. “Again, maybe not the sexiest issue, but fundamental to creating quality of life. In the southern part of the state, we could put people back to work if we had an influx of funding for environmental restoration for mine reclamation projects.
“And education continues to be a very powerful issue in our state. That’s a jobs and economic-development issue. For so many parts of West Virginia, education is the largest employer in the county, and if we’re not paying school employees enough to keep them there, and they’re leaving as a result—well, it’s not sustainable.”
Ultimately, if she lands in Washington, impressing upon her audience—constituents and colleagues alike—that West Virginia’s current methodology and mode of operation simply needs to change is Kunkel’s overarching ambition.
“This is a pivotal time in the future of both our country and our state,” she emphasized. “We’ve seen people rising up across the state and demanding a serious change in the way ‘business as usual’ is done—and whether that’s on education or here locally on the Rockwool issue, I absolutely want to be consistently articulating the vision of my platform.”Mike Chalmers