Blog Posts > The Working Man and the Company Store
May 9, 2024

The Working Man and the Company Store

New Yorker – On a snowy day in late January, Zach Shrewsbury, a thirty-two-year-old Marine Corps veteran, picked me up in his battered Chrysler 300, near the West Virginia state capitol. Our first stop was a gas station, where Shrewsbury bought a gallon of wiper fluid and, because his wiper hose had broken the night before, splashed it generously over his snow- and dirt-covered windshield. I asked where we were headed. Shrewsbury, who is bald with a full red beard, wore a camo baseball cap and a heavy red flannel shirt. He held up his right hand and gave the dashboard the finger. “You know, every West Virginian carries a map of the state with them at all times,” he said, laughing. The middle finger is the northern panhandle, the protruding thumb the eastern one. We would be crisscrossing the bottom of his hand.

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Three months earlier, Shrewsbury had announced a bid for the U.S. Senate while standing in front of the Jefferson County courthouse, in Charles Town. This was where John Brown, the Kansas abolitionist, had been sentenced to death for his raid on Harpers Ferry. “Why am I honoring John Brown?” Shrewsbury asked a few dozen supporters. “We need a leader who will not waver in the face of these powers that keep the boot on our neck.” A few weeks later, his presumptive opponent in the Democratic primary, Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s senior senator, announced that he would not be seeking reëlection. Shrewsbury heard the news as he was driving through an abandoned coal town, and he pulled over to shoot a short video. “That puts me in a prime position,” he said. “I am of the working class. I am from our home. And I will fight for the everyday West Virginian.” During the next twenty-four hours, small donations began pouring in and his video was viewed as far away as France.

Shrewsbury, a full-time community organizer, never expected to run for office. His burly frame is covered in tattoos, including a spear and trident on his forearm, marking his stint in the Marines, and a quote from Eugene Debs on his rib cage. (“Thank God you look the way you do,” a Democratic National Committee consultant told him at one campaign event. “I’m fucking sick of these haircuts and suits.”) Shrewsbury first got involved in West Virginia politics on the 2020 Senate campaign of Paula Jean Swearengin, a progressive activist from a coal-mining family, who ran against West Virginia’s Republican senator, Shelley Moore Capito. Swearengin lost badly, but Shrewsbury, who was Swearengin’s field director for southern West Virginia, took inspiration. “It’s about more than just winning a damn election,” he told me. “West Virginia is in a state of desperation. We’re a good example of what happens when your representation won’t advocate for you.”

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