We are thrilled to have a guest contributor join us. Mark Brazaitis is a first-time candidate for city council in Morgantown, WV. We look forward to following his story of his candidacy over the coming months. Today, we hear about his decision to run.
Early on the morning of November 9, the day after the election of Donald Trump, my 17-year-old daughter stepped into our kitchen, her face flushed with fear, her eyes brimming with worry.
She’d been deeply invested in the 2016 presidential campaign. She’d adorned her backpack with “Feel the Bern” buttons and stickers. She, her little sister, and I waited hours in line to attended a Bernie Sanders’ rally in our hometown. She knows more about climate change—she is the president of her high school’s Green Initiative Club—than most politicians.
She understood exactly what was at stake in this election—from the Paris Climate Agreement to a woman’s right to choose to the fragile foundations of our democracy—and she was terrified that our country’s well-being and future, and therefore her own, were now in serious peril.
It is a parent’s instinct to reassure a child. Hugging my daughter, I opened my mouth to calm her with the standard words: Everything will be OK.
But I knew that to speak those words would be a lie. I didn’t honestly know if anything, much less everything, would be OK. I was as unsettled, and as full of deep concern, as she was.
So instead of providing her with false reassurance, I said, “I’m going to run for office.”
I have been around politics my entire life. But after the election of the man I refer to as the Candidate Who Lost the Popular Vote—a man whose politics and manner of engaging with the world are antithetical to everything I’ve worked for and stand for—I decided to go all in: I am a candidate for a position on the city council in Morgantown, West Virginia.
In 1980, when I was fourteen, I volunteered for President Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign. At one point, I was asked to run the switchboard at the national campaign office. (I didn’t consider it at the time, but a teenager filling such an important role probably suggested something dire about Carter’s re-election bid.)
In this capacity, I fielded a phone call from an auto worker in Michigan who wanted me to convey his words to the President. The caller, a lifelong Democrat, said he would vote for Carter. “But we’re hurting here,” he said. “We are losing jobs, and we’re worried about our families.”
I felt for the man and his community. I wished I could have helped.
My father was the longtime Washington bureau chief of the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and he often invited me to events he covered. I attended both the 1980 and 1984 Democratic and Republican Conventions. At the Democratic Convention in 1984, I heard two extraordinary speeches: New York Governor Mario Cuomo’s and the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s. Both men spoke about their dreams of an inclusive country, one in which, to paraphrase Jackson, our economic and social tides lift all boats.
In college in 1988, my friend David Barron and I, full of progressive brio, wrote an editorial for The Harvard Crimson endorsing Jackson for the presidency. After college, I joined the Peace Corps and served in Guatemala, working with subsistence farmers and community-health advocates.
In addition to my job as a professor of English at West Virginia University, I coach four girls’ basketball teams at a local elementary school, co-direct a learn-to-skate program at our city’s ice rink, and co-lead a book club at the women’s facility at USP-Hazelton, the federal prison thirty miles outside of town. I am a founding member of the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which thus far has mailed more than 17,000 books to imprisoned women and men in six Appalachian states.
My writing—I am the author of seven books of fiction and poetry—often focuses on issues of social and environmental justice.
In short: I am doing what I can for our community.
But after the presidential election, and my older daughter’s reaction to it, I committed to doing more. I thought about running for Congress, but decided to begin where I was more likely to succeed and where I work daily to improve lives: at the local level.
Even so, winning will be difficult. I am running against a candidate who is backed by my city’s development-at-all costs crowd, a crowd that doesn’t understand that green spaces are an essential component to the physical, spiritual, and economic health of our community.
My wife and our daughters, urgently engaged in social- and environmental-justice issues, are behind me, of course. So are my like-minded friends and colleagues. People are at once stunned and saddened by the election results and are committed, in manifold ways, to fighting back against a regressive regime founded on fear, ignorance, and intimidation. I am not alone, locally or nationally, and this gives me comfort, courage, and hope.
I am running for my daughters and for all people, young and young in spirit, who believe in building, outside our front doors and around the globe, a humane, just, and sustainable world.
Mark Brazaitis, a professor English at West Virginia University, is the author of seven books, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize from the University of Notre Dame Press and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose from the University of Southern Illinois-Carbondale.