A combat war veteran, a teacher, a woman who works three jobs and a candidate for the 27th district of the West Virginia House of Delegates are simply a few ways in which to describe Tina Russell. In a district where the current representative made national news with an extremely offensive comment about his own children and the LGBTQ community, Tina Russell is determined to become a representative that will not let lobbyists determine how her district is represented. Her military experiences have given her the discipline and drive. She was an active participant during the West Virginia’s Teacher Strike of 2018 and is now ready to represent her district. I spoke to this enthusiastic candidate about her campaign and learned a lot about her passion to help other people, especially her students and the people of West Virginia.
I began our phone conversation by asking Ms. Russell her position on the national minimum wage, and she promptly informed me of her viewpoint: “I support raising the minimum wage to $15.00 an hour because it’s unrealistic to expect somebody to live off of $8.75 an hour. You can’t! Especially if you have children. You must have a second job to survive and I know this because I work three jobs. I have $30,000 in student loan debt and I’m not unique; I’m the American story right now. It’s normal for people to have several part time jobs because nobody wants to hire full time or they would have to pay for health care and other benefits. The economy is fine but the pay wage is horrible. I tell everyone who shares their stories with me that I truly do understand their situation.”
Russell explained how a $15 minimum wage could improve the workforce in West Virginia: “Every person I talk to who owns a small business believes that if you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to hurt small businesses but I don’t agree with that. There really is no statistical proof that raising the minimum wage hurts small businesses. It may initially have a slight financial impact, but when people make better wages, they can contribution to the economy. It’s basic supply and demand in the community. If they have more money, they will spend more because you can’t spend what you don’t have.”
The move from the current minimum wage to $15 an hour would not be done in one dramatic step, Russell explained; she proposed an incremental pay increase. “It would be a difficult stretch to automatically go to $15 an hour. I would suggest incremental raises that could get us there in 2 to 4 years.” Russell continued, “Not raising it at all is not working for the people of West Virginia. It’s keeping us in a cycle of poverty and that does not improving the lives of people. The quality of your community doesn’t improve if everyone is earning a low wage. When you live that way, you’re not thriving, you’re surviving.”
Russell shared how she felt about unions and workers rights: “People are now at-will employees because West Virginia is a, ‘Right to Work,’ state. So, your employer can fire you for just about anything because you have no collective bargaining rights. If workers complain about their wages or treatment while working, they risk being fired. As an employee, you can’t fight back in any way. There are not many occupations that still have unions aside from teachers, steel workers, coal miners & Kroger. It’s unfortunate because unions keep workers from being treated like garbage. Right now, we’re basically balancing our state budget on the backs of the working poor. Nobody should have to choose between a utility bill or co-payment for medication they need. If I get a chance to be on that floor in the Capitol, I will speak for the people who are struggling and everyone in the session will hear it from me.” Russell spoke with confidence and reassurance in her voice.
Russell participated in the West Virginia Teacher’s Strike of 2018, so I asked her how she felt about charter schools being in West Virginia. “I do not feel like they are a benefit to West Virginia, I cannot speak for any metropolitan area; but, I don’t think it’s a good fit for West Virginia.” Russell elaborated, “Charter schools do not have to provide transportation to their students. Many of the public-school students in West Virginia live in very rural areas and we have no mass transit here. These kids live up in hollers!” Russell emphatically continued, “And these schools will probably be at greatest risk because they have smaller populations and don’t need as much funding. Many people don’t understand that rural schools are the heart of rural communities. The entire rural public-school systems would be decimated by this.” Russell remarked. “We all know Legislators will slowly strip away the rights we have until we have nothing left.” Russell explained: “The children that go there are unable to go anywhere else because they can’t get anywhere else. This takes away a child’s chance at any semblance of an educational opportunity which will be productive and competitive amongst other students.”
“These children come to school dirty and we give them extra clothes and back packs of food to take home. Charter schools will segregate low-income families and students,” Russell swiftly added. “But I know they won’t end it there; they could nearly privatize the whole system. Charter schools don’t have to accommodate children with special needs. They have open enrollment, so a student from another county could be accepted into a charter school in Mercer County but that school doesn’t have to accept our children. The children of the state Legislators could absolutely dominate a school and make it very elite,” Russell summarized.
“If the state takes the public school away, it will cripple a community.” Russell stated, “I absolutely believe that the goal is to privatize because if they completely get rid of public education, they get rid of unions and teachers ability to stand up for themselves. I think their goal is to completely break down the current system. During that strike, we gave them hell!! We did!! We showed up at that Capitol and we yelled, hollered, and hooped all while we technically didn’t have any rights at the time. We had no right to strike but we did it and they realized there were too many of us and they really couldn’t do anything about it.”
She passionately explained how the wishes of the community were ignored: “Our representatives did hundreds of public forums across the state, 88% of the people that were polled didn’t want charter schools, yet they voted for them. Our representatives are not even doing what their constituents want. This just makes me wonder who they are representing. They’re not representing us.”
Russell outlined ways in which the people of West Virginia were trapped in a cycle of poverty: “We’re 4th in the nation in poverty. People should be able to make a living wage and be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve; give them a way to thrive and not simply survive. The stigma in our state has hurt the people so much that our dignity is an issue. I have a morale problem with the way people are being treated by huge corporations, like Wal-Mart. They can afford to pay the employees more, but they won’t. Not because they can’t afford it, but because they don’t want to. Instead of treating people with a certain amount of dignity, it’s all about greed and power – I want more so you can have less. Because absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
She proceeded, “I’m not just here to make a statement because I don’t like Porterfield. He’s a spoke in the wheel. We had a negative stereotype on us long before Porterfield. We need to focus on being more informed about the candidates before we vote for them. It begins by educating yourself. I think people didn’t know who he [Porterfield] was. They simply saw a Republican candidate and voted a straight Republican ticket. They didn’t think of it any more than that.”
West Virginia’s political future is bright and full of Democratic candidates who are ready to represent their communities. Tina never had aspirations to become a politician. Her drive came from her desire to see the people in her West Virginia town thriving and not simply surviving. She is active in her community and they know she is someone who will represent each one of them. She has pride in her community and would never embarrass them with derogatory or stereotypical statements about the character of West Virginian’s. Tina Russell would be a representative the 27th district could trust to look out for them while refraining to create a public spectacle. As a lifelong West Virginian, I personally appreciate individuals in my beautiful state who shine a light on our strengths, not weaknesses.
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