CHARLES TOWN – Sammi Brown is excited to be the new delegate from the 65th district, an area that includes Charles Town, Ranson and part of Kearneysville.
“It’s important to me that people realize that my candidacy and my win this time around are based on my lived experience here in my home county,” the Democrat said on Thursday, two days after winning 52.7 percent of the 3,615 votes cast over Republican incumbent Jill Upson.
In the 2016 election, Upson was re-elected over first-time candidate Brown. Brown acknowledges that she learned some lessons the hard way in that contest, and she tried to bring that learning to bear in the recent campaign.
“I may have taken [some of] my community for granted,” she said of the African-American voters of Jefferson County. “I was a young woman, and I found that some people misunderstood me and what I was about. I did not go directly to them to ask for their support in 2016. I regret that mistake. This time, I did.”
She credits the intensive canvassing and listening to a broad range of the county populace. “I knocked on 3,000 doors. The 65th District is about equally split into Republicans, Independents and Democrats, and my efforts at direct contact brought my values-based campaign to the attention of a lot of people.”
Brown said she believes a big part of her appeal was emphasizing her local roots and humble origins. “My first home on Leetown Pike was in a rent-controlled apartment that was all my mother could afford at the time. There was no silver spoon, and I still don’t have one. I didn’t start out this year as the ‘chosen candidate’ of a lot of people. Canvassing began with just me, going door to door, and grew to whole crowds of us going out together to work a neighborhood. It was really encouraging.”
Disagreement last year over the future of the plaque on the Jefferson County Courthouse entrance honoring Confederate soldiers – the same soldiers who nearly leveled the court house midway through the Civil War – led Brown to speak out for its removal.
“It was the day of Mr. [James A.] Tolbert’s funeral, and I was asked to speak on behalf of the community in favor of removal. I went slightly over my allotted time, and the County Commission asked for me to be removed from the room. Someone said, ‘Taze her.’ I got home that night and there were email blasts denouncing me as hysterical and radical. I decided that it was time to seek office in the 65th District again. I thought, ‘This kind of behavior will not be what governs my hometown.’”
Brown said she assessed the mistakes she made in her first electoral outing and decided that she could do better the second time around.
“The part missing was that the Democratic base did not come out. I was determined to run in a way that would change that.”
More people came to believe in her this time around, Brown says, because her canvassing work included doorstep meetings, kitchen table discussions, phone conversations and hand-written post cards to potential voters.
“I think more people believed in me [this time around] because I was direct, and self-effacing, and honest. I worked hard, and so did the people who worked with me. I told people that even being as tired as I felt sometimes was not going to change my passion to create something different from the usual [political approach].
Educated in Jefferson County through the ninth grade, Brown went to her last three years of high school at St. John’s at Prospect Hall, a Catholic high school in Frederick, Md.
“I enjoyed my public school experience here, but as I got older there were some issues with my [interracial] identity that became recurring themes. For some of the kids, I wasn’t ‘black enough.’ For others, I was ‘too different.’ People didn’t know what to make of me, and there were some racial epithets.”
Brown’s European-American mother was from a Roman Catholic background; her African-American father had grown up Baptist.
“At St. John’s, I got to learn more about the whole spectrum of my background … when I went on to Shepherd, I was coming to a strong sense of my identity, and I think I have helped other girls and women to succeed in being who they are. That means a lot to me.”
Like many in Jefferson County, Brown cites the late James Alvin Tolbert as a mentor and encourager. “Mr. Tolbert believed I was on the right path, and that there was a real fight worth fighting here. I also found it inspirational to talk to Mrs. [Shirley] Tolbert. I canvassed Tuscawilla Hills, and I must have been there for 25 minutes.”
Like Shirley Tolbert – a teacher in Jefferson County and in Clarke County, Va., and an instructor at Shepherd – Brown believes passionately in the value of education, and plans to work for improved education when she is in office.
“My priorities will include economic development that focuses on good corporate citizenship, working to eradicate the opioid epidemic—that will include the creation of a live-in facility here, improving education for all our citizens, and finding ways to fully fund and sustain the Public Employees’ Insurance Association. Education is so important. Here’s a figure for you: the last time I checked, the yearly wage for an educator with a Ph.D. in West Virginia was $55,000. Educators who have invested so much time and money in their studies need a living wage.”
“Working in volatile situations in the labor movement has prepared me for political office and being a public servant,” Brown says. “The labor movement has not had the wind at its back for a long time. There is an anti-worker agenda , and most labor organizers don’t look like me. It is a predominantly male space, and yet I have learned negotiation skills, and had allies and mentors. I have learned to develop actions that have policy impact. The labor movement has definitely shaped my view of how to govern and how to serve.”
She has worked with the state AFL-CIO on projects related to health care employment.
Brown has been a labor organizer on state and national levels. “It has been a rough and tumble experience—and very useful, especially in working in politics in West Virginia. The government is gridlocked, and people no longer feel the need to listen to each other. That needs to change. We need to communicate with each other, and with our constituents. I hope to work in a way in which the needs and wants of the people are able to meet the features and benefits of a particular government policy.”
Brown supports the efforts to prevent the Danish manufacturing company, Rockwool, from building a major heavy industry plant in Jefferson County. She says that the Jefferson County Development Authority mistook the will of the people for what kind of work and play environment is wanted here.
“I think that is why the board of the JCDA resigned together—there was recognition that the decision [to invite Rockwool] was not in accord with the values set that operates for a majority of people who live here.”
As Jefferson County’s newest state lawmaker, Brown wants to represent the values of the majority of her constituents. Given recent actions in Jefferson County, she can count on hearing from them if she doesn’t.