Ep. 44. Talley Sergent, WV-02

[MidPod theme music]

NICIE PANETTA: Greetings and welcome to another edition of The MidPod, the midterms podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. It's another Candidate Friday and we've got a real fighter for you today, Talley Sergent. She's running in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District. West Virginia-2 was one of the first districts we visited and to cover it we drove all across the state, from Charleston to Seneca Rocks to Martinsburg to Harpers Ferry. We fell in love with the natural beauty of the state and we admired the fierce and independent spirit of the people we met along the way. At the same time we saw firsthand the struggles and the suffering of West Virginians dealing with overall low incomes, the opioid epidemic and an economy dominated by extractive interests. We also learned some key history lessons, especially about the role of organized labor in our country. Lessons that have been echoing loudly this year with the recent teacher strikes that started right in West Virginia. You can travel along with us on our journey by listening to episode 10 of The MidPod. Now since we visited, Democrat Talley Sergent won the May primary and she will face Trump-loving incumbent Republican Alex Mooney in the fall. This is a longshot race for Sergeant in this very red district but she's not backing down. Here's your chance to get to know her. We met last fall at the Capitol Market in the state capital of Charleston.

TALLEY SERGENT: So my name is Talley Sergent. It's T-A-L-L-E-Y S-E-R-G-E-N-T. I am running for Congress in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District. I'm a native West Virginian so I've been here since birth. Born and bred. Loud and Proud. Looking forward to running a very engaging and inclusive grassroots campaign.

NICIE: Could you talk a little bit about the race and how you see it shaping up?

SERGENT: It's been the Wild Wild West in West Virginia the last few months politically. You know, I think everybody was looking for it to be quiet post-2016. The Republicans swept through the House, the Senate, all the federal races. We have one member of the Board of Public Works left standing. He's all of 6 foot 7. So it's a good thing with our state Treasurer John Perdue, a dear friend of mine, who I'm grateful to have his support in this race. And then our governor switched parties a couple of months ago, which was no surprise I don't think to people here. But that's -- it's kind of like when you still get a bit of news that you weren't expecting that particular day, you're still a little bit shocked. So for the second congressional district it's one of the classic gerrymandered districts that you'll see. It goes from the Ohio River in the West all the way across the Potomac Highlands to the Potomac River in the east. 17 counties. It's the widest district east of the Mississippi. So I've got a new pair of tires, a new pair of Nike's ready to go. This is a very diverse district compared to the other two districts in the state. There's three total. In the Eastern Panhandle you have an area that the economy is growing. There are new investments. They are suffering from some growing pains, infrastructure-wise, zoning, schools, all of the stuff that you would see in communities that are growing, whereas other parts of the state are struggling a little bit more. I mean there are some bright stars that we're seeing but with the downturn of the traditional industries here in West Virginia such as coal, you know there is a scramble right now in West Virginia for many people to try to, what I like to say, renew our economy but also forge a new economy, which is what we really need to do. And so you've got several different buckets of interests just with the electorate alone. And you know, all politics is local. As a first-time candidate you start a little bit behind, which is good in my opinion. Makes you work a little harder or a lot harder. But it also, you know, makes you work smarter. And so we're starting to see different numbers come out from West Virginia poll and the "D triple C" has it listed as red to blue. I know that Emily's List is looking at this race as well. The people in West Virginia are sick and tired of being marginalized by Washington and the federal government, by 49 other states. It's a little bit of our Scotch Irish heritage to be honest but I think that people feel like they've been marginalized by Charleston now. But I think that there is an appetite in West Virginia that may be moving back towards anger again of people not listening and not hearing what the voters are saying. And I would venture to say Alex Mooney didn't. He may have heard 'em but he didn't listen to them.

SERGENT: And so health care is going to be a huge component. I mean the ACA in West Virginia, as we've talked about the decline in some of our traditional industries and some of the economic issues in this district and around the state. The ACA created 13,000 jobs. That's a big deal. And you know what Joe Biden would call that? An even bigger deal. But we need those kinds of jobs. We need our rural hospitals. I was in Morgan County last night, took two hours of Q and A at a mini townhall. Said, where do you go when when your hospital close? Well they have to go to Virginia. Whole nother state.

NICIE: Could we spend a minute on the opioid issue? I'm wondering what -

SERGENT: Hopefully more than one. [laughs].

NICIE: You think could really make a difference and what kind of leadership you could provide for the state?

SERGENT: So for me this isn't a talking point. My sister is an addict and she has three kids. One's 18, one's 16, and one's 11. And it's something that I've had to live with with her for the last 20 years and it's really ripped my family apart to be quite honest. And it's ripping people's family apart right now. I mean the new West Virginia family consists of grandparents and grandkids. I mean, no state is immune to this and if we sit back and wait for someone else to take the reins it will never happen. I mean, number one I think we've got to hold the pharmaceutical companies accountable. They're dumping down in this small town called Kermit in southern West Virginia is like 438 people. They dumped over a million five pills. What? Are you kidding me? Like, no. And you know, people who write the prescriptions - it's not every doctor it's, you know, a few bad apples out there. And that's not OK. And people need to go to jail for that. I think we also, you know, addiction is a disease. For the addicts who continue to use, we've got to find ways to help make them better from this disease. But for me personally it's about breaking that cycle. It's about getting into the schools, because that's the one safe place these kids in this state have every single day for 180 days a year.

NICIE: Is this an issue that West Virginia can handle without significant federal help?

SERGENT: No. I mean, we can't even get consensus at the Statehouse to pass a budget on anything and we don't have the revenue streams. I mean, this gets beyond just, you know, you're the way you feel about something. I mean you've got to find the money and have the know-how to get the job done and right now we don't have the money. And it's been quite evident that we're still building the know-how and expertise in the different areas, whether it's public health, public safety, and in our school system because I think that the school system can play a hugely important role in breaking that cycle for our young people.

NICIE: One of the themes of the show that we're producing really is the institution of Congress itself and what the candidates that are running in this midterm election, which is so consequential, are going to do or not do in terms of reforming the way Congress works. I'd be interested, especially having worked for Senator Rockefeller, what your thoughts are on the institution itself and how you might try to be part of helping it be more effective.

SERGENT: So a couple of thoughts on that. I think that the person that, though, really shaped my view on how to work in a bipartisan way and still make sure that West Virginia got its fair share in his view was Robert C. Byrd. And you know, Senator Byrd did work across the aisle quite a bit. And to watch him master the legislative process to build the coalitions. I mean, whether he was the majority leader, the Senate President, Pro Tem, whatever it may be, it was just fascinating to see that. And I think now there's a lack of leadership and courage. I mean, people are so divided. And when they get to Washington, I think they all forgot where they came from and they owe their jobs and allegiances to people who don't live in their district and you know, don't face the same challenges we do. So for me it's more of: I want to go to Washington to make sure that we are bringing in this new generation of leaders regardless of party. And I wish that more people would see it that way versus who's going to be in the majority. Who's going to have majority rule.

NICIE: Could you talk a little bit about your childhood and your family and where that confidence in West Virginia's future comes from?

SERGENT: Well as a native West Virginian, six generations strong, back to when we became a state in 1863, my dad was a public school teacher and a football coach. He was actually on the Young Thundering Herd in 1971, which was the football team at Marshall University after the plane crash that killed the entire football team the year before. And so I think that our pride is, at least in my hometown of Huntington, a lot of that for my generation and for my parents' generation is rooted in the fact that we know how to rise from the ashes and go do great things. And we had to do that. Some of us have friends who have lost grandparents in that plane crash. We know how to go use those lessons that they taught us and apply those moving forward. And it be hard somedays but at the end of the day it's worth it. We're proud of who we are. We put pride in our work. As one of six kids and being the third of six, you know, you've got to throw your elbows out a little bit. You got to hold your ground. And I think that's pretty typical of most West Virginians too.

NICIE: Is there someone along the way who's been either a particular mentor or inspiration to you?

SERGENT: I would say...I know that my grandfather, his name is Homer Cummings, played a very instrumental role in my life. He's part of the greatest generation. He has played just a huge role in my life. He was poor as dirt. His father was a Methodist minister down in the coalfields in the early 1900's. I mean, for them the menu was either beans with ham in it or beans with that or just the broth, you know? And they would get cornbread maybe once or twice a week, maybe. And he was stopped on the street when he was 17 years old by a coal operator, William McKell in Fayetteville, West Virginia. 1937 I believe it was. And Mr. McKell walked up to him and gave him a thousand dollar check in 1937 and said, "Homer, I see the promise that you hold. Here is a thousand dollar check for you to go to college." And my papa, as we called him, went on to Marshall University. He went to WVU for a little bit. He went to medical school at Northwestern. He was a doctor in the U.S. Army. And then he came back to West Virginia and started his own practice down in Huntington and served the community for over 50 years. And he was the one that would call me on Sunday afternoons. It's actually how I learned to drive and he said -- It was '96, it was 1996, huge blizzard all the East Coast. I'm sure you all got it in Boston too. But he said, can you drive me to go see some patients? Like, there's no way they can get to the hospital or the office. It's like, I'm 15 years old. I had my learner's permit, like, "I don't know how to drive in snow." He's like, "Great! I'll pick you up." And we went out. That's how I learned to drive in the snow but we did that every Sunday, almost every Sunday in high school. It was hugely influential. I miss him every day.

HEATHER ATWOOD: So, you have a history with Hillary Clinton in this state. Do you want to explain your role?

SERGENT: Sure. I've worked for Hillary Clinton as her State Director in 2008, which was the largest non-home state win in the primary. And then again I was asked to come home in 2016. I left a great job at Coca-Cola to come back home to serve as her state director this last go around.

HEATHER: And what happened when that famous quote went that, what was -- give us the context for that famous quote, the Hillary quote.

SERGENT: So I mean, that's something that she's talking about. And I think in her new book she said it's the thing she regretted the most saying in the campaign last year. But for me, I'm not Hillary Clinton. She has afforded me opportunity at a young age to be able and to serve my country at the State Department. And for that I'm grateful. And you know, as a 29-year-old being able to go and do those things I would say anybody in West Virginia would consider themselves pretty blessed and lucky to be able to serve their country in that way and to see the world that they never thought they would see. But that being said, she's not popular in this state. That's just the reality. I would ask you one question. What is my name?

HEATHER: Talley Sergent.

SERGENT: Thank you. So I am running my campaign as me and I'm Talley Sergent and I'm running for Congress. And no one heard the anger or saw the frustration that the people of this great state felt last fall than me. It was every day. It was in my face. And the voters had their voices heard but the elected officials didn't listen because people like Alex Mooney then go to Washington to take away their health care. They go to Washington and say I'm going to pray for the Hurricane Harvey victims but I'm not going to fund the disaster relief response and we have firsthand knowledge of how hard that is here in West Virginia because of the 2016 floods of which he was missing-in-action on. And so you know, to me there's the matter of getting elected but then there's also the matter of delivering once you've been elected. And I think Alex Mooney has lost his mojo on that. I mean, I don't think that he's listened or cares to listen to the people of this district. You know, he just relies on a crutch of brand recognition under the Republican Party and uses that to get elected. He does nothing for the people of this state. And we're going to give up what we got. I kind of subscribe to the school of Ann Richards. We're just going to go out there, Speak Truth to Power, put the people first, give them hell. And have a lot of fun along the way. [MidPod theme music]

NICIE: That's Democrat Talley Sergent, running for Congress in West Virginia-2. You can learn more at talleysergent.com. That's spelled T A L L E Y S E R G E N T dot com. Tune in next Tuesday for our profile of New Hampshire's first congressional district. It's an open seat and a wide open race where the theme is standing up for what you care about and standing up for what you believe in. Thanks for listening and see next ya week.

Eunice Panetta