by Avi Selk, The Washington Post
Video of a little-known candidate for a statehouse seat in West Virginia went viral over the weekend after she was forcibly removed from a hearing for reciting a list of oil-and-gas donations to lawmakers’ campaigns. Here is her story.
You don’t run for the statehouse in rural West Virginia because you’re in it for the fame. Lissa Lucas hadn’t raised much money either, she said, more than a year into the Democrat’s first campaign for public office.
By February, Lucas wasn’t even sure whether she had a shot at the District 7 seat, 100 miles outside the capital. Her long-term campaign goal was to raise $1,500 for some yard signs, in hopes that the voters would remember her name come November. (It’s Lissa, like Melissa, by the way. Not Lisa.)
Lucas is a writer by trade. She said her best-known work before this month was probably “My Pet Chicken Handbook,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
She jumped into politics, she said, because when her grandfather left her a farmhouse outside Cairo (population 263) some years back, the land came with a gas well on it. Not that Lucas minds the well, but she said state politicians have been taking more and more money from energy companies, which since at least 2015 have been pushing for bills that give their industry more rights over landowners in a state that is already among the nation’s top natural gas producers.
“I feel like no one’s listening to us in rural areas,” Lucas told The Washington Post. “Those pipelines will go through your property whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or libertarian. These companies have been pushing bills that eat away at property rights.”
As it happened, the West Virginia House Judiciary Committee was voting Friday on such a bill — one that would let companies drill on some people’s land without their consent, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
So she drove 100-odd miles to Charleston last week with a two-minute speech in hand, almost none of which she would get to read.
Lucas arrived at the state Capitol before sunrise on Friday — too early; she said she hadn’t been sure of the starting time.
She stood around and chatted with the security guards, she said. She looked over her speech, which was mostly a printout listing committee Republicans and the donations they had taken from donors linked to the oil-and-gas industry.
“I was hoping to make them realize how it looks,” she said. “It’s not just the issue of impropriety. It’s the issue of the appearance of impropriety that’s breaking our government.”
By the time the hearing started, the Gazette-Mail wrote, 30 people had signed up to speak, including natural gas lobbyists.
The first speaker was the state secretary of commerce, who “assured the room the bill would create more jobs,” the paper wrote.
Lucas went second.
“Lisa Lucas,” announced the committee chairman.
“It’s Lissa,” Lucas said.
She adjusted her glasses and looked at her notes. “And first I’d just like to say that, um.”
Lucas had thought she’d have two minutes to speak but had since been told that the limit was only a minute and 45 seconds. Her notes didn’t look likely to fit in that limit, and, anyway, she was a bit fired up about the secretary of commerce’s speech.
“No jobs will be created by this,” Lucas ad-libbed. “I’d also like to point out that the people who are going to be speaking in favor of this bill are going to be paid by the industry. For example, and, I have to keep this short …”
She named Del. Charlotte Lane (R). “About $10,000 from gas and oil interests,” Lucas said, and listed several companies from her list. “I could go on.”
She flipped a page and named the committee chairman, Del. John Shott (R).
“First Energy $2,000,” she said. “Appalachian Power $2,000. Steptoe & Johnson — that’s a gas-and-oil law firm — $2,000. Consol Energy $1,000. EQT $1,000. And I could go on.
“Now let’s talk about Jason Harshbarger —”
In her speech, she had written out a disclaimer noting he was her Republican opponent in District 7, but the chairman interrupted her.
“Ms. Lucas,” Shott said. “We ask no personal comments be made.”
“These are not personal comments.”
“It is a personal comment, and I’m going to call you out of order if you’re talking about individuals on the committee.”
Lucas looked at the chairman. She look at her notes. She considered and kept talking.
“About 40 percent of his money comes . . . First . . . Energy.”
A red light bulb flashed on the lectern in front of her. Her microphone went dead, and two guards approached.
“I want to finish,” Lucas said.
“You’re not going to finish.”
One guard took her right arm. Another took her left.
“Drag me off then,” Lucas said. As they walked her out of the room, she shouted the motto of West Virginia — “Montani semper liberi!” Mountaineers are always free.
Most of the people who spoke after Lucas supported the bill, WVNews reported.
Lucas waited in the foyer all morning, catching snippets of the action when someone opened the door. She apologized to the guard, she said. “I just thought I ruined their morning.”
Maybe she should not have made a scene, she thought. “I was just kind of mad. I thought it was a ridiculous twisting of the rules, to suggest this was a personal attack.”
Rules were rules, Shott told The Post, and Lucas had known she was breaking them. “The purpose of the hearing was not campaign finance,” he said. “I think the whole thing was a setup, to be honest with you.”
He was referring to what happened next.
The committee passed the bill 16 to 9 on a party-line vote in the early afternoon, with a few amendments in favor of landowners.
Afterward, Lucas said, a friend brought her coat out of the chambers. They got a late breakfast, and she drove back to Cairo.
The Internet is slow out in rural West Virginia, Lucas said, so it was a hassle to put the video of her speech up on her campaign’s Facebook page. But why not, she figured. Could not hurt.
“You had every right.”
Comment after comment, tens of thousands of views. By Monday, Lucas was rushing from one interview to the next — from Newsweek to The Post, and her donations approached $20,000 and counting.
“I guess I don’t have to worry about the yard sign,” she said.
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