A few weeks ago, Julia Temple and Charlotte Macht interviewed Saira Blair. Saira Blair is a former politician from West Virginia. Blair was the youngest person elected to state or federal office in 2014. Blair represented the Republican Party in the West Virginia House of Delegates while studying Economics and Spanish at West Virginia University. She was touted as the future of the Republican Party by multiple national and international media outlets, but she left politics to work with young people in the nonprofit world. You can find the interview with the millennial Republican star below.
Can you tell us a little more about why you decided to run for office at such a young age?
I’ve always been involved in politics. My dad first ran for office when I was about six years old, and so it’s something that I was familiar with. I attended a program called “Youth in Government,” where I got to go into the Capitol building and write a piece of legislation myself, and it made me want to be involved in government. I was the first person in my family to be college-educated, neither of my parents went to college, and both had successful careers anyway. So, the legislation was aimed to avoid pushing students so hard in high school and forcing them to choose a path too early. Where I grew up, between eighth and ninth grade, we had to decide if we would go on the college path or the career and tech path. I just think that’s an early age to push someone between the two without providing enough opportunities for them. So, it was a bill that would have offered more funding for more education and more of an introduction of other jobs at an earlier age.
It took me a while to admit that I was going to run. I came back from the program, and I was– this is so embarrassing–sitting at a Cracker barrel with my parents. I had just had the greatest weekend of my life. And I was like, you know, this is something I want to do, I want to fix these issues. I thought about it more and decided that it was something that I was going to do. I then ran my senior year of high school for the primary election, which was actually against an incumbent. He had served four years, but I disagreed with him a lot. I ran on a more conservative platform because that’s what you do to get elected in a primary, but as far as social issues, I’m 24, so I fall a lot more in the middle of the line on social issues than most people do.
Why did you decide to leave politics?
When I ran, I wanted to only serve for four years. After that, I wanted to get experience in another sector. In West Virginia, we have a part-time legislature, so it’s made up of people who have careers in so many different fields that vary in ages. It’s beneficial to have all those different mindsets come together because everybody has different inputs on pieces of legislation. I knew that I would severely limit myself if I stayed. I needed to walk away to continue growing. I’m not saying I would never go back, but I think that my ability to contribute would have been restricted had I stayed for six years or eight years. Also, my contribution was being a college student- that was what I brought to the table.
When I served, I also tried to avoid any of the perks that come with being a legislator. For instance, you can get special vanity license plates. I didn’t want any of those privileges because I realized it’s hard to walk away from that sometimes. You feel like you have such an influence. You also get invited to a lot of really cool events. It’s so fun, and it’s such an honor, but I think it’s also crucial for people to back away sometimes and take some time off, go back to being a constituent and listening and contributing in different ways. I think it’s a dangerous path to go down when you stay in politics your whole career. If winning the seat in an office is how you sustain your family, it matters more about winning your race and taking votes that will keep you there because it’s your paycheck. It’s how you feed your family. And I don’t necessarily blame anyone who keeps their family and stability in mind when taking a vote, but that’s not how the system was intended. Had I stayed in the legislature, being a politician would have been the most significant skill that I would have had to offer. I thought it was imperative for me to back out and get different assets that I could bring to the table.
How did growing up in West Virginia influence your political views?
I think that fiscally I was made to be conservative. For us in West Virginia, we don’t have much of a security net from our state government. For example, we don’t have really any form of public transportation. We also don’t offer a lot of government grants to nonprofits, something that I see a lot in Philadelphia right now where I’m living. In Philadelphia there are so many different offices that are created by the city and the state to help provide assistance. We really didn’t have that infrastructure in West Virginia. Therefore, I grew up being in the mindset of fewer taxes. I have the mindset that money should be going directly from people to the charities of their choice, to the people that need it, versus taking my taxes and then giving them to the charities. I understand now, after being here in Philadelphia and working in a nonprofit, more of how that works and more of why that works in a city versus in a more rural area.
I was very much a big proponent of lower income taxes and higher sales taxes because we had a very cash-based economy in West Virginia. It was a black market with under the table cash, so a lot of the taxes on that cash wasn’t being collected.
As far as social views, I tend to lean more to the right than most people my age. I will say that a lot of my social views are not accurate based on what is painted about me on the internet. It’s a lot more interesting if reporters push me further to the right because moderates just aren’t interesting. Nobody likes people that are in the middle. They’re boring. I do think, say on pro-second amendment rights, most people in West Virginia own a gun, so I grew up around guns. I never really saw them as anything more than used for hunting or sport. I understand the debate we have now, though. It’s definitely interesting to be here in Philadelphia where most of my friends have never even seen a gun, let alone shot one.
Obviously, our country is currently very polarized, how do you think it became that way? Do you think our generation is as polarized as others?
I genuinely think the biggest reason for the polarization right now is the ability to share news quickly through social media like Twitter or Facebook. This is so cheesy and cliche, but it’s the keyboard warrior mindset where people feel confident saying things behind a computer screen that they would just never say to someone to their face. I think that really adds to it. Also, access to cell phones means I have a camera on me at any given second. Obviously, I was never in DC in the ’50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, but I’ve heard so many stories about Republican and Democrat senators being able to go to dinner together to genuinely bond. But if you do that today, someone takes a picture of it and sends it back to their community and the story is now ‘oh, how dare XYZ go to dinner with this Republican, they must be crazy far right. You don’t want that type of person representing you’. There is no room for humanity anymore because people are so concerned with winning their election that they don’t want to be seen with the opposing party.
As someone who serves at the state level, I don’t think I could ever do that because a lot of my closest friends were people that I completely disagree with. In fact, I’m working right now in political fundraising for the West Virginia Senate. Some of the work that I’m doing is against some of my former colleagues. We still talk though and there are no hard feelings. I don’t think that’s unique to West Virginia. I think that’s very common in most places, but it’s also not something that really gets talked about. How could it? It is hard for the news to cover this intimate conversation that I’m having with someone that I wouldn’t want to be made public either because I’m working against him. I’m supposed to be painting him as a villain in the public, but I don’t personally feel that way. I don’t know that there’s a way to really combat that, but I think our generation is less polarized because of the ability to have conversations with each other. We communicate more than our parents. I think there’s more of a desire to get to the truth too. Especially if the 2008, 2012, or 2016 elections are the first that you’re aware of because they were just so heavily covered by the news. There is so much polarizing information that we have become a generation that’s curious about knowing what’s actually true.
You mentioned that some journalists tend to paint you in a more polarizing light as well. Could you talk about one of your experiences with that?
Yeah, so I have a great one. As far as my stance on being pro-life, I am pro-life after 20 weeks, so I supported legislation that you can’t have an abortion after 20 weeks. It’s called the Pain Capable Bill. I’m very supportive of state-funded birth control. I think that it is important, and I wish every woman had access to any form of birth control that she needed. Options such as the morning after pill should be completely covered for her.
My views are still very right, but they’re not completely all the way. Most conservatives believe that life begins at conception. I had a reporter write that I didn’t support the use of the morning-after pill, which isn’t true. I tried to get them to take that off and they wouldn’t, and now it’s something that I’ve had to combat over and over again. I don’t think it’s necessarily relevant because I’ve never voted on legislation that has anything to do with it. The only pro-life/pro-choice legislation I’ve ever dealt with was the 20-week Pain Capable Bill that I was a sponsor on. Yet, the reporter’s opinion ended up on my Wikipedia page and I tried to take it off, but I was told that I can’t take it off my Wikipedia page because it’s facts. I was just like, but I’m telling you I’m the person and that’s not how I feel. They said, well it was reported that way. It was on the record, and Wikipedia argued that it had to stay that way. It was definitely frustrating.
One question I have is about the election. So obviously there are two candidates, but I think a lot of people that I’ve talked to say they settled for a candidate and aren’t really excited about voting. How do you think we got to this point? Why do you think people aren’t excited about the candidates that their parties are putting forward?
Once again, I think that has to do with news and sharing information. I think we in 2020 are more educated on political candidates than we’ve ever been. Everything you want to know about anyone is at the tip of your fingers. The candidates are so humanized now. In the past, presidents were seen as these very noble people, these leaders that were put on a pedestal. It was very easy for their teams of highly skilled people to hide all the bad things of their past. However, politicians cannot bury those details anymore. There’s a clip of me from 2018 and I was singing a rap song with my friends in my apartment. The song had the N-word in it and I sang it- it was the lyrics. Someone had taken that video, and five years later, someone leaked that video to the Huffington Post after a controversial vote that I took. My grandfather’s black, so I’m not trying to say that I can use it, but I’m also not racist. My friend in the video was Vietnamese, but it was something people could pull out to bring me down at that time. I was a kid when that was taken, and I’m embarrassed to have a video of me rapping on the internet. It’s just not lady-like and it’s not something I would do now, but I was so young. It was a foolish mistake, but if I were to run for president in 30 years, that video would resurface. People have more content and they can keep it for longer. Today, if you take a photograph, you keep it on the cloud instead of keeping it in a box in your parents’ basement. Information is more readily available, and I think that’s why the candidates are painted so poorly.
I also agree that they are just two poor candidates, but I think in the past there’s been a lot of that as well. The flaws of past candidates got hidden. I don’t think that in 2024, this problem goes away or 2028, even with fresh candidates, there are still going to be problems. It’s going to be nearly impossible to find a pristine candidate as time goes on. We’re humans and we make mistakes. We, as a society are just going to have to decide what mistakes we tolerate. I think we’re going to see a push from more individuals than from the party nominating system. I have a feeling in 2024 that there’s going to be 15 candidates on both sides in the primaries. I don’t think they’re going to be the usual suspects, I think you’re going to see a lot more of the Andrew Yang type, where he comes out of nowhere and has really unique ideas. I think those people will be taken a lot more seriously. I think that will help to get people excited.
When voting for a political candidate, do you think that morals should be taken into consideration? Should you be voting for the political agenda and disregard their morals?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I believe in voting for candidates’ morals, and I can give an example of why. When I was first elected, I kept an index card that I had broken down into four categories based on whether or not I trusted someone and whether or not I agreed with them politically. I broke down four categories: completely agree and completely trust, completely disagree and completely trust, and so on. That is how I organized the 99 other people that I served with. There were a lot of Republicans that I didn’t agree with their morals that I didn’t trust, but I agreed with them politically. When I had conversations with them, I kept in mind that I didn’t agree with them. Half of the people that I agreed with morally, that I trusted and that I genuinely liked, were ones that had completely opposite political agendas. Their values influenced how I served with them and if I would sponsor legislation with them. If I didn’t trust a person, then it didn’t matter if we lined up 100%, I didn’t want to be working that closely with them.
I think it’s very difficult from the ballot perspective. The note card with the 99 people that I was working with took me so long to genuinely fill out. As a voter, I don’t feel like I have a great understanding of the candidates. I don’t get to interact with them to know what their morals are. I try not to let their morals get painted by someone else. I don’t want to judge that without actually speaking to them. I believe that morals are more important than political agendas because agendas can be changed. Your values and morals are who you are. I’m comfortable with politicians and legislators who are comfortable admitting their mistakes because your views on policy can change, but your values usually do not.
I’m guessing that it was really challenging to always have to consider what the news is going to react like and how people are going to view this. But do you think that part of it is also important just because people need to know what their politicians are doing? So how do you kind of balance that dilemma of being in the public eye?
If you’re not doing anything shady then it’s okay to have the spotlight on you. However, it got frustrating at times. People took clips out of context on very difficult decisions. Many issues are not an easy sound bite that you can explain in 30 seconds, but people often try to paint it that way. I could have taken the easy vote and not had to try to explain myself. For instance, one of the votes I took ended up being one against 99 people and it was a very controversial vote. I got a lot of heat from it, but it was the vote that I thought was right. It brought a lot of attention to me. I was really disappointed because I had a lot of people come up to me and tell me they wish that they had also voted against it. They didn’t vote with their morals because they didn’t want to deal with the media coverage. I understood I wasn’t running again, so I was not worried about reelection. However, many politicians are wary of bold decisions because it can hurt their next campaign.
Can we ask what that vote was?
Yeah, it is complicated to explain, but I’ll try to do it as quickly as possible. It was on a teacher pay raise. We had passed one at the beginning of the session for $1,000 across the board. The teachers ended up going on strike for two or three weeks asking for a 5% raise instead. We had compromised to keep the $1,000 and then give them 5%, but doing it at 1% every year for a few years. The teachers were unhappy with that outcome. We were explaining that we’re a state that had come out of a really bad financial deficit. We had horrible flooding in West Virginia in 2017 that killed over 20 people. Our argument was we want to give you more and we care about teachers, but we can’t make that monetary commitment right now. We wanted to do it gradually and slowly because we didn’t have the money. That was something we all felt very strongly in both parties, but it was an election year. It played well for the minority party to criticize that decision. It had nothing to do with them being Democrats because I would have done the exact same thing if I was in the minority party. I would have tried to paint the other guys as bad guys. That’s just how that works, but the Democrats were in the minority.
Then, out of nowhere, our governor goes, “We just found $72 million in our budget. We can give you the pay raise.” I was just like, you didn’t just find $72 million. He explained later, well, we don’t actually have that money. We’re just projecting that we could possibly have that money next month because sales tax revenue has been increasing. I ran on being a fiscal conservative, so I am not comfortable spending money that we don’t have. If it didn’t come through, we would have had to draw out of our emergency fund, which we been drawing on year after year because of actual emergencies. We are drawing on it now due to COVID-19. After a Republican governor came out to say the money was there, every other Republican felt that they had to support it. It was tough, but I voted no because we did not have the money. I still voted yes for the original pay raise though. A lot of people thought that I was a villain who hated teachers. Yet, I went to a public school, and I obviously think they deserve to be paid more. They’re one of the most underpaid groups in our society, but we couldn’t spend money we didn’t have.
How you ever felt conflicted at times being a millennial but working with older representatives?
Yes, I think things that I said wouldn’t get through to older representatives. I remember one time we had this argument about the roads. Roads are important, but they were saying “if we don’t have better roads, no one is going to move to West Virginia.” I was like, “I really promise you that’s not the reason people don’t move to West Virginia.” I was saying, “Maybe the really poor-quality internet connection that we have or that I can’t get service in half the state is what is stopping people from coming.” They were saying, “no you don’t know what you are talking about. It is the roads.” It was a generational difference.
So I think a lot of young people, are trying to promote change, through social media. I was just wondering, as a former delegate, who did you listen to? How can people get their voices across to their representatives?
I listened to people that made an effort to build a relationship with me. A lot of people only reach out to their representatives when they’re upset about something, which makes sense. That’s human nature, but that can be tiresome for elected officials. As much as they don’t want to admit it, it’s really hard to wake up to 300 emails that say, “you’re a horrible person, don’t vote for this.” Most people don’t admit that because politicians want it to seem glamorous. It would be good for everyone if people were more honest about the experience. I always preferred people when they had an issue like that, instead of immediately attacking me, they said, “Hey, can I call you to talk to you for 10 minutes about this? Here are some of the things that I was thinking about.” Pre-COVID, it was, “Could we get a cup of coffee and talk about it?” I always said yes to conversations with people. If you leave me an angry voicemail, I’m definitely less likely to call you back because nobody wants to get yelled at for 20 minutes. I think that’s important, so being nice is probably the best advice. Especially to people you don’t like, those are the people that you should want to reach out to because you want to get through to them. A little bit of compassion and humanity goes a long way. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, 99% of people genuinely are good and nice people, but those emotions get lost in translation in the social media age.
As far as being heard, you should start at a local level. I was more interested in having a voice in my local community that I was active in. I think it’s important that people focus on starting small. The possibility and the likelihood that the average person becomes a Gretta Thunberg is low. She’s the exception, not the rule. I think it’s fantastic, but it’s important to be realistic and to value the impact that you make at a small level. It’s a snowball effect, where one small achievement builds from there, instead of saving the whole world at once. That’s just my opinion, but I do think it is a huge problem that politicians have. The mindset of “I’m going to come in and I am going to solve everything because I have all the answers,” and it’s like “no you don’t.” I did the same thing when I got elected. I came in thinking “I will be four years in and out. It’s going to be beautiful, easy, done,” but I had no idea. I was young and naïve, but it had less to do with my age and more to do with never serving in the legislature. That was a problem for my fellow first-term elected officials that were 50 years old. You come in thinking you have all these answers, but it turns out the ideas aren’t new. It’s important that politicians put aside the savior complex, so they can sit down and listen. That is where real change begins.