WV Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin Is Facing A Tough Decision, Should He Serve, Or Should He Go? - The West Virginian
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WV Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin Is Facing A Tough Decision, Should He Serve, Or Should He Go?

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Stephen Baldwin is at a crossroads. He has been in public service for 10 years. First, as a member of the Greenbrier County Board of Education, then as a delegate for District 42, and now as West Virginia State Senate Minority Leader serving District 10. During his service, the political landscape has changed. It has become increasingly common for politicians to throw insults, dismiss the needs of those on the other side and believe there is only one answer to every question. However, Baldwin has remained true to his Democratic voice. Now, he faces a personal challenge. He must decide whether he should stay in politics, or leave.

It will not be an easy decision for Baldwin to make.

“I haven’t officially announced anything,” Baldwin stated in a telephone interview on Thursday, Aug. 5. “That’s a decision I will have to make some time in late summer or early fall. I haven’t announced anything because I haven’t decided on anything.”

When asked if he was hesitant to run again, he said “hesitant” wasn’t the right word. But he did admit that the process of running for a seat is tiring.

“It wears on you,” Baldwin said. “These are very difficult times. I think tensions have been very high, but I do get a lot of positive feedback. People tell me ‘this is why we need you — you are a reasonable person in unreasonable times. You are a civil person in times that don’t feel very civil,’ but it’s just awfully difficult.”

“For me, it’s always been about a sense of call,” he continued. “I do ministry and I do public service because I think it’s a form of ministry, and that’s what I have always felt my call was. The issue now is just that I need to take time to check in about my call and see if this is where I still need to be and if this is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Baldwin, who also serves as pastor of the Ronceverte Presbyterian Church, added that his natural tendency to be a peacekeeper isn’t working in the legislature.

“There aren’t a lot of people who are interested in peace or who are interested in working together. There are clearly divided partisan lines and you are either with me or you’re against me, end of story,” Baldwin said. “That’s not the way I see the world. It does make it difficult to try and bring people together in a context like that.”

He said that every decision he makes in the course of a legislative session comes out of his belief to do the right thing.

“I have made several votes that have been unpopular and people say ‘why in the world would you ever do that? Don’t you know that’s a bad idea?’ But I would do it again because my process isn’t just about voting for what’s popular.”

As for those who are announcing their intent to run for seats statewide, Baldwin said that it’s “interesting because nobody knows what the districts will look like yet.”

Due to a delay in gathering census data, the redistricting process is starting later than usual. The final census data should be in by the end of August, but that is not a guarantee, according to Baldwin. A special legislative session must be called to officially approve new district maps, with boundaries most likely moving north and east.

“Ideally you want that to happen a year before the election so that people have time to decide what district they are in,” Baldwin said. “It’s all unknown right now because that census data has been delayed.”

Additionally, he noted that some former Democrats have changed their political affiliation to hold down their office, but that is not something he would do.

“To me, it doesn’t matter if a person is a Democrat or a Republican. I pastor a church that is full of Democrats, Republicans, Independents and people who are completely apolitical. They are all members of my congregation, and I love them all. I view the world and the community that way. We need people of all perspectives, but I don’t think it is particularly helpful if you are constantly switching. Just pick a party, stand up for what you believe in and move forward.”

Baldwin is one of 11 Democratic senators out of 34 West Virginia state senators, and he expects Democratic representation to dwindle in the coming election.

“We are in the super minority now and I suspect we will be smaller if not significantly smaller after the 2022 election. I think that’s problematic . . . from a what’s good for the state of West Virginia perspective. There is no balance. There is no reason to work together when you can run over the other side.”

Baldwin said that if he does decide to run again, it will not be because of who puts their name in the hat, but he will do so because the needs of West Virginians are so overwhelming.

“We need more people who are willing to help overcome those needs, as opposed to just flinging mud and doing that whole partisan divide thing which is so prevalent right now.”

He said it makes him angry to see people who have “retreated to tribal divisions because we are just shooting ourselves in the foot and unable to make progress because of perceptions in the past or invisible partisan lines today.”

He added that he also gets angry when he travels around his district and sees the opportunity that surrounds the area, but witnesses a continued inability to take advantage of it.

“I see people living in substandard conditions. We have the most beautiful state and the most caring people, but we have a lot of people who are just struggling to make it every day. Some people look at that and they get sad. I look at it and I get angry.”

Currently, Baldwin’s main priority is ensuring every person in his district has broadband access.

He has been working with Greenbrier County Schools Technology Director Vicky Cline to create the Greenbrier County Broadband Council.

Part of the mission of the broadband council is to have every family complete a survey stating whether or not they have internet service. The need for this arose out of outdated federal broadband maps which declare most Greenbrier Countians have internet access when they do not. These faulty maps, mostly created from information provided by internet service providers, prevent our area from receiving federal funding to create broadband infrastructure, Baldwin explained.

“The first thing we need to take care of is the mapping,” Baldwin stated. “If you look at federal and state maps, they are wrong. They are just flat-out wrong. If you look at the federal mapping you will see Rainelle blanketed with high-speed internet and that’s just not true. Similarly, you could look at the map for the Gap Mills area and it is blanketed with internet. They don’t even have cell phone service, let alone internet.”

Part of the American Rescue Plan Act funding will be cut out of this area if those maps continue to stay the same.

“The fix is to get census-style workers going door to door and get accurate information to update those maps in the next couple of months before these funds start to come down,” Baldwin said. Only Pocahontas and Greenbrier Counties are doing a push like this, he continued. “I don’t think people realize what’s going to happen. They are going to get left out. They are not going to know why, but this is the reason.”

He further said that a volunteer-driven program like this needs to be statewide. Once the maps are redone and federal money can start filtering its way into southern West Virginia, county commissions and private companies can start investing in infrastructure and find ways to make internet access affordable to all, Baldwin said.

In addition to working on broadband, Baldwin said that each of the four counties he represents has its own issues that he wants to see fixed.

For example, flood recovery has been the number one issue throughout his district, especially in Greenbrier County. However, Fayette, Monroe and Summers were also significantly affected by the 2016 floods.

“It has been five years since the flood, but we are still dealing with that every single day,” Baldwin said. “To transform a region, you need to have a three-tiered approach. Number one: you have to have initial recovery and whether we want to admit it or not, five years later, we are still in initial recovery. Number two: You have to have infrastructure so that when it happens again, the effects aren’t as severe. Number three: Economic development. Once people have a place to live and they have a reliable infrastructure system then you can get to economic development.”

“After that, we have roads that need to be fixed and Monroe County needs a courthouse,” he continued. “There have been multiple efforts to try and find a way to do that, but none have been successful, yet.”

Of all the work that Baldwin has completed while in office, he said that he is most proud of a funding measure to build a Veteran’s Nursing Home for southern West Virginia.

“We just never had the money, but we finally have it now,” Baldwin said. “It’s a huge need right now for veterans. We have an aging population of veterans and unfortunately, they are having to travel long distances and be away from home to get the care they need.”

The nursing home will be located near the Jackie Withrow Hospital along Eisenhower Drive in Beckley.

These moments are what make being a state senator fulfilling, according to Baldwin.

“I spend a lot of time frustrated, but when you can finally break through and get to the final step of the process and help somebody — that’s what makes it worth it,” Baldwin said.

He added that one of his greatest joys has been helping a young man with a rare form of cancer in Fayette County get an early Covid vaccine.

“He was not eligible according to state standards to get a vaccine, but I couldn’t think of anyone who needed a vaccine more than he did. It was a struggle because of the bureaucracy, but we got him a vaccine comparatively early and he was able to resume a somewhat normal life. His mom was just totally overcome with joy and gratitude and she was crying.”

Baldwin also personally facilitated 4,000 cases where people needed to get their unemployment after losing their jobs because of Coronavirus.

“It is being able to help people that brings me joy,” he said.

He said that if he had a billion dollars, he would like to set up a micro-loan program for small businesses.

“Micro-lending programs have been successful in third world countries and in many ways, whether we like it or not, West Virginia is like a third world county,” Baldwin said. “You give people who have a skill set and an interest in meeting a need in their community, but they don’t really have the capital or the know-how to start a business. You give them a little capital and some coaching and they start a business. Before you know it, they can take care of their family.”

At the end of the day, Baldwin said that the future of West Virginia does not belong to a big corporation coming in to save us, but to those who start small businesses.

Additionally, he said if he could wave a magic wand and eliminate an issue in West Virginia, he would eradicate the drug crisis.

“It’s the most overlooked and the one that no one wants to talk about, because there’s so much pain associated with it. Every family has been touched and we don’t know what to do about it. Oftentimes, because we don’t know what to do about it, we don’t do anything and it just tears people and their families apart. It has taken away a lot of hope.”

Of all the things that Baldwin has been thanked for, he said that people most often approach him regarding his transparency and his willingness to keep West Virginians informed through social media and his newspaper column “The Back Pew.”

He looks forward to seeing West Virginia continue to diversify its economy from coal and energy to tourism.

“We have shifted to tourism. We have shifted to outdoor recreation and destination spots featuring restaurants and the arts. We have a lot of untapped potentials, but I think that is something we are doing right.”

With everything that Baldwin is working toward to make his district, and the state of West Virginia, a better place, he admitted that it can be a struggle to balance his time between his jobs and his family.

“I only have so much time, so I just have to schedule everything down to 15 minute blocks,” Baldwin said. “I have to schedule to an obsessive degree and I have learned to say no, which is something I don’t enjoy doing. I have a lot of good help from my staff in Charleston and my friends and volunteers who help me with projects here. I couldn’t do it without them. We all make a good team.”

For those who want to make a change in their community, when help from legislators can seem so far away, Baldwin stated that it is important to build a good team and have a specific purpose.

“When people are prepared with these two things, a change can happen.”

Although Baldwin is usually a person who gives advice, he noted that he is also willing to receive it.

Personally, he said the best advice he ever received came in 2007 when he finally became ordained after spending years in college working toward his Masters of Divinity at Vanderbilt University. His childhood pastor was there to give him the charge.

“She told me the bible story of when Jesus and his disciples were out on the water in a storm. They had a moment where they were stuck between being afraid or having faith. They had every good reason in the world to be afraid, but they had Jesus there reaching out his hand saying ‘Trust me. Have faith in me. Don’t choose fear. Choose faith.’ That was her charge to me,” Baldwin remembered. “She said you are gonna be in situations where you are stuck between faith and fear all the time and I want you to remember that decision that the disciples made out on the stormy sea that day. They had every reason to choose fear, but instead, they chose to be faithful.”

One can only imagine that as Baldwin makes his choice of whether or not to lead his district again, it will be a decision made of faith and not of fear.

“It’s a great honor to get to serve and not many people have the opportunity,” Baldwin stated. “I don’t know if I will ever do it again. I may do it again and I may not do it again, but it’s been a tremendous opportunity to serve the people over the course of this term and I will always remember that.”

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