What would it take for you to devote your life to a cause? Not many people consider this question unless they have no choice. I had the opportunity to speak to an individual who made that difficult decision, the 2020 candidate for the 35th district of the West Virginia House of Delegates, Rusty Williams.
I was curious about his journey and what led to his decision to run for office as well as the issues he found important for West Virginians living in his district. On a phone call, Williams told me he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 and was informed he needed emergency surgery. He quickly learned that when you don’t have insurance, an emergency doesn’t mean the same as it does when you do have insurance.
“So, I spent the next five weeks fighting bureaucrats when I should have been fighting cancer, and the cancer ended up spreading.” Williams recollected.
After five weeks, Williams secured the coverage needed for the surgery through the WV Catastrophic Illness Commission, but the damage had been done. One night, during week four of the recovery process, Williams woke with excruciating back pain.
He recounted, “The doctor said that definitely shouldn’t be something I was experiencing so they went ahead and did the scan and that’s when they found the cancer had spread. It went from being able to get back to your regular life soon to without aggressive chemotherapy you’ve got 4 months to live. Even with it you have a 30% chance you’re going to get through it. I was absolutely terrified. I started doing some research and saw that people all across the world had used cannabis to get through aggressive chemotherapy without the need for pharmaceuticals. I made the decision to do that, and that decision saved my life. I feel that plant gave me my life back and as a result I decided to dedicate my entire life to ending [marijuana]prohibition to make sure everyone who finds themselves in the position I was in will have legal access to something that could save their life.”
For Williams, the prohibition of cannabis and civil rights are interwoven much like high profit margins and our healthcare system. These dynamics wreak havoc on socioeconomic structures that impact an individual’s quality of life; therefore, a grassroots approach to selecting our Representatives would give power to the people while benefiting residents in our community and state.
“When you look at prohibition it takes you about five minutes to see that the roots of prohibition are deeply seeded in racist soil. The perpetuation of these policies is continuing the awful trend of institutional racism and slavery. To me, ending prohibition of marijuana is always a civil rights issue. We have approximately 23 states that have decriminalized it now, 33 are medical and 11 are fully legal for anyone over 21 years old. But nationally, minority arrests for non-violent cannabis offenses are going up. Even as the trends are changing and states are making their cannabis laws more liberal, they’re still using this to target black and brown communities or white people in economically depressed areas. Before we allow rich people to come in and get even richer off this plant, we have got to stop the practice of locking people up for growing and possession.” Williams said.
If elected, Williams will go to our state Capitol as a Representative, but it is not an unfamiliar place to him. While fighting his battle with cancer, Williams had been quarantined, but he had a goal, “As soon as I was able to get out and do my thing, I started going to the Capitol. I would basically talk to anybody who would listen. I didn’t know what in the world I was doing. Citizen’s Action Group in Charleston were holding lobbying training classes, and I started going to learning everything I could about navigating the process and I basically stuck with it. It was to the point that if the lawmakers were there, I was there and I just figured it out as I went.”
I asked Williams why he decided to run for political office and he presented me with a well thought-out plan backed by personal experience: “What prompted me to sign the paperwork and run for office was the fact that our medical cannabis bill was passed and signed into law in 2017, yet here we are two years later and patients still aren’t any closer to accessing medicine. And that’s a problem! I basically saw it for what it is — our lawmakers are not listening to us. If we really want to change this state and turn it into the place that we all know it can be, the only thing you can do is get in the game.”
Williams explained how his grassroots campaign and the cannabis community were connected and how they were responsible for the medical cannabis bill, “Senator Mike Woelfel wrote that bill – he wrote the bill but he had cold feet when it came time to push for it. He was worried about what political capital that would cost him and he wouldn’t do it. Then, Senator Ojeda took the bill and not only did he introduce it but he took on that charge of his fight. Senator Ojeda fought his ass off. He fought harder for the WV patients than any lawmaker I have ever seen, and he did it unapologetically. And it passed – because people hold the power when money doesn’t influence their Representatives.”
Williams continued: “You know that medical cannabis act didn’t get passed because I was up there knocking on doors every day. That medical cannabis act did not get passed because Senator Ojeda gave floor speeches every day. That medical cannabis act got passed because you couldn’t walk down the halls without hearing the phones ringing off the hook with phone calls coming in day in and day out from citizens from West Virginia who believe in medical cannabis enough to engage their lawmakers. The people of the grassroots community in West Virginia had already proved their strength by showing the entire state that people power beats money. This people power is why we are the 29th state to legalize medical cannabis. We’ve already shown what we’re capable of doing together. Look at what the teachers and public service workers did with the #55Strong Movement. That resonated all the way across the country. If we stand together, we don’t need money. We will beat them without it.”
Williams is realistic about how much money influences campaigns: “It makes it harder when someone has a PAC throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars into their campaigns. I think it gives them this false sense of security almost to where they have the money to run ads and run mailers and they don’t have to do the work. They don’t have to go out and knock doors and canvass folks and actually listen because they’ve got the money, right? While it looks to some to be a disadvantage, I think candidates running grassroots campaigns like mine have an advantage. I understand that I can’t compete with money but that understanding has just forced me to work harder.”
Williams described the bottom line for his campaign: “I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. I’m not one of those politicians who will say, ‘Well, elect me and I’ll fix your problems.’ I’m just not that way. But one thing I will say to the citizens of the 35th district is that nobody will work harder than me; I will not be outworked. I am willing to knock on as many doors as possible. I want to have as many face to face conversations as possible and I think that’s how we win. We win with people power. People power is a lot better than money.”
Rusty Williams is a candidate with whom many people can relate. He’s experienced many of the same things average West Virginians have experienced, and he cares more about these people than he does money. This shows in his campaign and his attitude toward his home state.
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