'It's Never Been Just About Me:' Tina Russell First Black Woman To Win Democratic Primary In Mercer

Jun 18, 2020

The results were in on Monday, June 15 – Tina Russell of Glenwood, Mercer County, is the first black woman in West Virginia history to win a Democratic primary in her district.

Russell, who won her primary uncontested, is a U.S. Army veteran, a substitute teacher and a long-time social worker who says she has helped clients dealing with addiction, socioeconomic inequality and new foster care parents.

Russell sat down with West Virginia Public Broadcasting over the phone to discuss her campaign going forward.  

***Editor's Note: The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Emily Allen: Can you kind of tell me a bit about yourself? Are you a lifelong West Virginian? Where did you grow up?

Tina Russell: I actually grew up in Beckley. I lived in Beckley as a child and I went to Woodrow Wilson High School, and I lived in Beckley 20 years – well, no, I take that back, 19 years. 

When I initially finished high school, I went into the United States Army. I served a tour in Desert Storm, but I also served in the Army Reserve unit, so I was also able to go to college while I was serving.

I was attending Concord College when I was about 19. When I went to school there in Athens, in Mercer County, I pretty much never left. I just decided that was where I wanted to live.

Allen: What encouraged you to run for office?

Russell: What had happened is, I had noticed a lot of activity on my social media platforms about a delegate in our district. He had made some pretty concerning comments about the LGBTQ+ community, and he had also made some pretty concerning votes to it, related to public education. 

I just felt like from all my years – and I have lived in Mercer County for 25 years – that type of talk didn’t represent the people I knew here, and my neighbors. I just felt like it was very important that somebody have a counter argument to him.

So, I decided to run initially for that reason, but that's not the only reason. I had already been helping other candidates, you know, by door knocking and making phone calls before I decided to run. I felt like I could make more of an impact if I ran myself, because I pretty much dedicated the last 25 years of my life to public service anyway, in the military, as a social worker, as a teacher. So why not do public service in a way that they can make an impact with my vote through the West Virginia legislature?

Allen: You're talking about Eric Porterfield. Something that kind of created big headlines last week was his loss in the Republican primary. What were you feeling when you saw that? What do you think that loss meant to your community and in Mercer County, in that district?

Russell: Well, I think to be just completely honest, behavior has consequences. Even though a person is entitled to freedom of speech, they're not entitled to freedom of consequences for that speech. 

Behavior has consequences. The people of Mercer County have spoken, and it doesn't represent their values, or he'd still be there.

Allen: You are the first black woman to win a Democratic primary in Mercer County. Why do you think it's taken this long to have that sort of thing happen in Mercer County?

Russell: You know, I really don't know the answer to that. Actually, believe it or not, as far as per capita, we have actually one of the most concentrated minority populations in the state of West Virginia, in Bluefield. 

So, we've had people of color, men and women, win city council seats and other seats. … I think people kind of get at a place where they don’t think things will change. They don’t think it’ll make a difference if they run. And I think it takes one person to kind of say, ‘Hey, let's try. We don't know until we try.’ 

My hope is that me running will encourage other people to run. That's my goal. It's never been just about me, it's about encouraging other people to step out there and say, you know, we all benefit from a diverse community. We benefit from other cultures and learning things that can help us to get along better. And that’s important in local offices, too. 

So, I'm hoping if nothing else, this will encourage other people – other black people, I'll just be frank – to run for office.

Allen: Your win comes at a time when people all over the country and all over the state are protesting violence and discrimination against the black community by law enforcement. 

Just a few weeks ago there were protests in Princeton and Bluefield. What have you heard on this topic from voters when you're out and about? And, as a candidate for state house, what do you think the state should do about the topic?

Russell: I think it's time to have a hard conversation. We accomplish nothing by being separate. We need to be at each other’s dinner tables. Our kids need to play together. We need to be at each other’s barbecues. We need to be at each other’s churches, having conversations. As long as we’re separate, we’re not going to be able to truly understand or empathize with where the other person is coming from. 

In my opinion, I need to have more conversations with people who don't agree with me, who maybe don't understand me, who may be a little bit afraid of me. They may have misconceptions about me based on race. Whether that's uncomfortable or not, we have to talk about it or it's not going to change.

Allen: Have you come across a lot of misunderstanding or misconceptions on the campaign trail, like that?

Russell: Not as much as you would think. Very few. Every once in a while, I’ll get a comment, like, I had someone say to me once, ‘You're more articulate than I thought you would be.’

I think you kind of know where I'm going with this. I call it a backhanded compliment.

And I challenged him in a polite way. I said, ‘Is there a reason why you thought I wouldn't be articulate?’ And he just kind of looked at me and said, ‘Well, no.’

I said, ‘You know, I went to college and everything. I learned a thing or two.’ And we just kind of talked about other things after that. But I think sometimes it’s just stereotypes, misunderstandings.

Allen: Something that was really big were the protests that were happening for the education omnibus bill [in 2019]. And you have experience as an educator...

Russell: And I did participate in the teacher’s strikes. I was very involved in that. I would go down to the Capitol, and I was there when we were fighting for the 5 percent raise.  

We tell everybody it was not just about that. It was about PEIA, it was about more supportive services and mental health services in schools for kids, more social services – there was a lot of stuff we wanted. It was never just about money. It was about what's best for our students, but what's best to help us best provide for our students, as well. 

If teachers are paid a living wage, and they get cost-of-living raises, they're better to care for themselves, which means they're going to be better at caring for their students.

Allen: What are some issues that you're hearing that are important to voters and the community, that maybe the rest of West Virginia isn't aware of?

Russell: I don’t think we’re really a lot different than the rest of the state. But I think one of the big concerns about the southern part of the state is we kind of feel like we're last on the totem pole sometimes, as far as getting access to certain things. Like, road repair. We feel like a lot of times the northern part of the state will get those things before we do. And that's a big concern here.

Russell is the only Democrat running for one of three seats in District 27, encompassing Mercer County and part of Raleigh County. 

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.