Erika Kolenich is the candidate for governor of the Libertarian Party in West Virginia. Kolenich stopped in and talked about the importance of having a third-party option, opportunity for the state and campus carry with the Daily Athenaeum newsroom on Aug. 21.
Daily Athenaeum: With this being your first time running for public office, what made you decide to run for Governor rather than the U.S. Senate or in the state legislature?
Erika Kolenich: So, the Libertarian Party has to run the Governor’s race for an issue that is called ballot access. That means in order for us to maintain the status of a recognizable political party in West Virginia, we have to run a gubernatorial candidate. In that race, we have to get 1% to ensure that Liberations in future elections can run on the ballot, whether or not that's president, Senate or all the way down to city council. So, it is a really important race, and when I decided I wanted to run and help out, it just made sense for me to run the race that was most important to the party in the state.
DA: For you personally, what was the process in deciding to represent the party?
E.K.: My day job when I am not running for office is that I am a travel lawyer, so I spend an awful lot of time in Charleston at the Legislature, kind of watching how things are going and watching what really happens there as opposed to what they tell you, and I just got really disenchanted with the process. There were people who if they didn’t vote the way their political party told them to, they were getting kicked out of the caucuses, they were getting kicked out of conferences, none of the bills that they wanted to put on the floor were moving at all. It just made me realize how much those people are beholden to their party and aren't really representing the citizens and folk that put them there. I just got really mad, for lack of a better word. I just got really mad and frustrated and decided I had to do something to help.
DA: You mention on your campaign website that you plan to tackle youth retention within West Virginia. What do you think has caused young adults to leave the state, and what are your plans to remedy that?
E.K.: Well, I think there are two things. There's economic opportunity and cultural opportunity. Those are different things that I think that young folks are looking for. In terms of economics, it’s about creating a different type of system in West Virginia for jobs. Historically, what we have done is we've sold our soul basically to oil and gas and coal companies and they come into West Virginia. Maybe there are temporary jobs but they don't last long. The money doesn’t stay here and there's really nothing left when those things are over. My plan for economic development is to make it easier for small businesses and artists to operate.
I think by doing that, we will experience economic impact in West Virginia like we have never had before, which will create jobs and motivate people to want to stay in that regard. Then one thing will follow the other. Once you start keeping younger people here for jobs, then culturally those offerings just start coming here because that type of business, artistic business, will know that there are young folks here looking for those types of opportunities.
DA: What do you believe is currently preventing local small businesses in West Virginia from being more successful, and how do you plan to help those businesses?
E.K.: There is a ton of regulation in West Virginia. We make it as difficult as possible for small businesses to operate. What I mean by that is there is a ton of things people do not realize. If you own a convenience store in West Virginia, the state tells you where you have to buy your beer from — which distributor. That distributor might not be the closest one to you, so you have a distributor that the state says you have to buy from and they are a half-hour away. By the time they get to you on Fridays, they are out of product, so you can’t fill your shelves. You can open a restaurant and you can comply with getting your business license, you can comply with getting your tax license, your food handlers card, all those things, and then if the health department says, "Well we need to do an inspection and we can’t get there for 60 days,” your business has to shut down for 60 days even if you have all the other necessary licensing. There are so many regulations in West Virginia that are not necessarily meant to protect safety. Now some are, and those I would keep, but these small-type regulations that are just meant for people to keep control, I would eliminate those things.
DA: Much of Morgantown’s economy is made up of small businesses. How do you feel Gov. Justice has worked to ensure small businesses have stayed afloat while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
E.K.: Well, I don't think that he has done anything. What he did was say that Walmart can stay open but the coffee shop, where you might have two people rather than 200 people, can’t stay open. He really did make it more difficult for small businesses to operate when he said you’re going to have to be one of these major chains to be open or one of these major stores. I mean if you went into Walmart during that time period, and this was even before masks, you could be shoulder to shoulder with somebody literally before they started drawing the arrows and things like that and limiting the amount of people who could go in. You could be in there with hundreds of people doing your grocery shopping but a tiny little market that might be in downtown Morgantown or something like that — that business can’t operate because they don’t meet the guidelines to stay open. Really what he did was make it much more difficult for small business to stay open.
DA: Campus carry has been a debated topic, even at our own University back in 2019. Do you believe guns have a place on college campuses?
E.K.: I do. I think that the second amendment is pretty clear. It doesn’t say you have the right to bear arms anywhere except for these particular places. When we are really talking about guns, 75% of the population when they are against guns aren't really against guns, they are against massive violence. Prohibiting guns from areas like college campuses doesn’t really prevent mass violence. If somebody wants to commit a mass killing, they can drive down a crowded street in the middle of the day, they can set off bombs. Actually, in the United States, the one time we had the most limitations on assault weapons is when we had the Oklahoma City bombing. Really it distracts from what the real issue is, which is “Why do people want to kill one another?” I think it is completely reasonable for students on college campuses who want to have a firearm to protect themselves to be able to do that.
DA: Do you believe the current political system in West Virginia accommodates the ideas of third parties?
E.K.: No. We don’t even just get to run if we want to. It’s not even that simple — we have to get 1% in this governor race to be able to run the next year. If we don't do that then the next year when someone wants to run for governor, or president or whatever, as a Libertarian, they have to go out and get thousands and thousands and thousands of signatures. It shouldn't be that way. It should just be if you want to run for office, put yourself on the ballot. It's restrictive in terms of the debates. It’s very, very questionable as to whether or not I would be invited to the debates with Ben Salango and Jim Justice, which it shouldn’t be. I am a candidate and my name is on the ballot just as theirs, I should be invited. The people should be able to hear from me, but that’s not really how it happens.
Now in terms of the voters, I think the voters are ready for something else, maybe that’s not me, but it’s something else. People are getting really tired of the Republicans and Democrats just fighting all the time and not getting anything done.
DA: Do you have any reservations towards the party’s platform regarding ending the war on drugs?
E.K.: No, because nobody has ever been on their way to the drug dealers house and said, “Wait a second, this is illegal, I better turn around.” They just don’t. Prohibition does not stop drug use. Just like many, many years ago when we had a prohibition on alcohol, people still used alcohol. There was crime associated with running alcohol because it was illegal. That’s what made it dangerous was that it was illegal, so people were running in the shadows of the night to get moonshine across state lines. It’s the same thing with drugs. If drugs were legal, you wouldn’t have as much crime associated with doing drugs.
DA: Win or lose, is being able to campaign as a member of the Libertarian Party and spread party ideals considered a victory?
E.K.: Absolutely. I have many, many measures of victory in my campaign that don’t necessarily involve winning. If I win, that would be great. To be candid, I would be an overnight celebrity because no Libertarian has ever won an election as big as governor. I do not necessarily anticipate to win, although I am running to win.
My bigger goal is to spread the message of the Libertarian Party, to maintain ballot access and to increase members in our party, which I have been successful in doing so far. We are the only political party in WV that is growing at the rate we are. Last month alone, we grew by 2%, which is pretty astronomical in terms of voter registrations.
DA: You touched on the point that there can be a “hang-up” or issue that people face when it comes to joining the party, can you think of a common one and how you might explain it?
E.K.: For me, when I first started listening to the Libertarian philosophy, mine was definitely the guns and the drugs. I didn’t understand. I thought drugs meant something bad. Drugs meant people committing crime. Where drugs go, crime goes. It just took somebody explaining to me the things we just discussed. If someone is sitting in a room doing lines of cocaine, and they just stay there for the evening, who is that hurting? The answer is no one. Your issue is the crime related to drugs, which really happens because drugs are illegal, so it’s a high-risk industry. It just took people explaining that to me. With the guns, you know, it’s the same thing. I thought, well guns make it easier for people to kill people and I just had to be explained the idea and think about it a lot. It wasn’t something that happened overnight at all for me. My transition to libertarianism was probably a few years.
Normally when I talk to people, those are the two ones that stand out. People have a hard time wrapping their mind around the guns and the drug issue.
DA: Do you have anything else you would like to add, in particular for college students?
E.K.: I would just encourage people, especially young people, to keep an open mind. It’s okay if you’re not a Libertarian, but don’t assume that you have to be a Democrat or Republican just because that’s what the system tells you have to be. There are a ton of other political thoughts out there, there are a ton of other candidates out there and if you’ve ever thought that you don’t fit squarely in one of the parties, it’s worth looking into a third. People really need to stop voting out of fear, which is what happens right now. I mean if we use [President Donald] Trump and [Joe] Biden as an example, you’ll hear a lot of people say, “I don’t like Joe Biden but I have to vote for him because I don’t want Donald Trump to win. That would be terrible.” And you hear a lot of people say, “Well, I don’t necessarily like Donald Trump but I don’t want Joe Biden or some other liberal being president.” It’s voting out of fear — it’s voting for the lesser of two evils and so often voting is like that.
So, I really just encourage people to look for somebody that they believe in and vote for that person. A vote for your conscience is always the correct vote.