How one scruffy, folk-singing hippie took on the political establishment in Trump Country…and won.
Standing before a crowd of over 1,000 sign-waving marchers outside the West Virginia Capitol, Delegate Mike Pushkin wears the standard legislator outfit — a pinstripe suit — but his ruffled dark hair and scruffy beard set him apart. Ribbons worn in support of teachers, service personnel, and public employees flutter on his lapel. With the gold-plated Capditol dome gleaming in the sunlight, Delegate Pushkin stops to attach a neck strap to his guitar before picking up the microphone.
Though the crowd showed up to protest an anti-abortion measure on this sunny March afternoon, Pushkin speaks to the issue suddenly galvanizing the state, as well as liberals across the country in 2018. “We’re all standing here in solidarity with the movement to give teachers a decent pay raise, to give service personnel a decent pay raise,” he opens. His voice grows more emphatic with each phrase and the applause grows louder. “We’ll take care of our other public employees while we’re at it.” When the cheers reach a crescendo, Pushkin picks up his guitar and plays “Country Roads.”
A few days before the rally, in the fifth day of a statewide strike, a throng of teachers had filled the galleries at the House of Delegates, and Pushkin took to the floor in their defense.
Later, as the year’s legislative session ended, Pushkin would congratulate the teachers who “wrote the narrative of the 2018 session,” winning a five-percent pay raise. “The really good ideas seem to come from the people,” he said. “If I’m lucky enough to be back here next year we’ll have a people’s caucus.”
Until then, Pushkin will be back driving a cab and strumming out Grateful Dead covers.
* * *
The Empty Glass nightclub sits a few blocks from the Capitol. A mirror with shards of colored glass covers the wall behind the elevated stage. Dog-eared concert posters line the other walls. The restroom doors don’t close. I went to The Empty Glass one Saturday night back in 2010 at the behest of my 22-year-old goddaughter, who’d joined Mike Pushkin’s jam band, 600 Lbs of Sin!
“He’s like in his 40s,” she told me. “He’s a cab driver.”
Pushkin, who today is 48, stood at the bar nursing a cup of ice water, clad in jeans and a New York Jets shirt. His hair flowed and curled every which way, stopping just short of his shoulders. He set his plastic cup down on the plywood bar and extended his hand as he introduced himself.
A few minutes later, Pushkin walked on stage. He picked up a red acoustic guitar, nodding as he plucked the top E string and adjusted the tuning key. After strumming a few chords, he asked for more bass. Then he and his fellow guitarist, Josh Thomas, played a few measures, tapping their feet to the beat and nodding their heads in unison. A few minutes after 11, Pushkin nodded to the other band members and the crowd formed a semi-circle near the stage while the group played original compositions, bluegrass favorites and jam band classics.
Pushkin, who composes and arranges music in addition to playing, likes to introduce himself as a proud member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 136. He started playing drums when he was eight years old, switching to guitar when he turned 13. “I wanted to stand in the front of the stage,” he explains. He has been getting paid to play since he was 15. In 2009 he and Thomas formed a duo known as The Filthy No Counts. After my goddaughter joined as vocalist, they added a drummer and bass player to form 600 Lbs of Sin!. Pushkin tells audiences, “It’s a line from a Grateful Dead song, not our weight.”
Many of Pushkin’s songs have a political bend. “Too Big to Fail” describes the bailout of the financial industry: “The Lord is my banker/He’s too big to fail.” He countered the coal industry’s “Coal Keeps the Lights On” campaign with “Love Keeps the Lights On.” And following a chemical leak that left hundreds of thousands without drinking water, Pushkin enlivened rallies with “We’re All Water”: “If your water starts smellin’ funny, don’t be alarmed/That’s just the smell of money.”
He wrote his best-known song in response to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. On April 6, 2010, an underground explosion in Raleigh County, West Virginia, left miners trapped behind a roof fall. People gathered to wait for word on the fate of the miners trapped below, as national news crews flew into Charleston.
Pushkin picked up Fox News producers at the airport and drove to the mine site. The crew told him to stand by so they could return as soon as some news developed. Waiting in his cab along Route 3 across from Marsh Fork Elementary School, “I was overwhelmed with sadness,” Pushkin recalls. “I noticed many locals carrying in trays of sandwiches for the national media. It was a very moving scene to see people whose friends and families were so directly impacted by this event to be taking care of others that might be considered ‘outsiders.’ That scene really illustrated the true mountaineer spirit for me.”
Twenty-five miners were found dead and four more were missing. A week later Pushkin had a long and unusual driving gig, going to Pittsburgh to deliver a liver. “At some point I heard on the radio that the last four bodies had been found – 25 was now 29,” he recalls. Returning to Charleston he composed “29 (A Dirge in D Minor)”:
Some say it’s almost heaven. I don’t know. You can see it from here.
Objects in this mirror are closer than they appear.
The shaft drops even deeper ’til you can’t see us anymore.
We serve a life, or death, sentence for the crime of being poor.
When he’s not playing with the band on weekends, or busy with his newer gig at the Capitol, Pushkin drives his cab. Like politics, taxi driving is a career he never planned on. His father was a doctor, and after high school Pushkin enrolled at West Virginia University to study English and political science, planning to go on to law school. But he left without a degree. After experimenting with drugs at a young age and continuing through high school and college, Pushkin fell deeper into drugs after his father died in 1993. By age 21 he suffered from full-blown addiction.
After dropping out of college and trying to survive on the music scene in Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, he returned to Charleston in 2002 and took a job driving a taxi. He lasted six months.
“Have you ever been driving a taxi and as you approached a railroad crossing you heard Waylon Jennings’ voice begin to narrate your every move?” Pushkin asks. “You stomp on the pedal and get all four tires off the ground and, as you are in mid-flight, everything freezes to a halt and you go to a commercial break?”
That notable incident ended his first stint in professional driving.
Pushkin started taking classes at a junior college so that the woman he was dating didn’t think he was a load. Still, he was addicted. Looking back, he admits he was strung out a fair amount of the time.
Family members tried several interventions. Pushkin recalls checking out of a rehab facility and finding his mother and other relatives waiting for him. “They handed me these letters. That was the thing, you wrote letters. I didn’t take it too well,” he recalls.
His mother cut him off, but Pushkin didn’t get clean for another five years.
“People tend to only change when they have to,” he explains.
Pushkin tells of being desperate for a fix and taking his girlfriend’s debit card – she’d shared the pin. He knew she only had enough money in the account to cover her house payment, “but I withdrew money anyway.”
Then, for some reason he can’t explain, Pushkin asked himself, “What are you doing?”
He started going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which he still attends. The date was September 3, 2004. He’s been clean ever since.
A few years after getting fired, Pushkin asked for his cab job back.
“They started me back on probation,” he said. “For all I know, I’m still on probation.”
The demand for taxi service in Charleston comes primarily from people who can’t afford a vehicle. Working the night shift, Pushkin sees a side of the 50,000-person city to which many residents are oblivious: guns, drugs and a kaleidoscope of personalities. One older passenger tried to pay his fare with Lortabs. Given the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, the prescription narcotic may well be a recognized form of currency on the streets. Another time Pushkin picked up a group of “kids” outside a trailer park. One came out carrying a TEC-9, which several states classify as an “assault pistol.”
“I’m driving and I hear the cartridge slide into the gun,” he says. “I look back and the barrel is pointed at me. They weren’t aiming at me. The kid was looking down at the gun.” Pushkin stopped the car. “O.K. guys,” he told his passengers. “Take out the cartridge, put the cartridge and the gun on the floor, and I’ll get us all home safely. Then you can play with the gun all you want.”
Pushkin smiles when recalling the story, as if having a gun barrel at his head is an everyday occurrence. “That’s nothing,” he tells me. “One time some guys tried to use my cab as a getaway car.
“I pull up and these guys are running down the alley toward the street while shooting their guns,” he continues in a matter-of-fact tone. “I shut the door and pulled away. They called me and said, ‘Hey, you left without us.’ I’m like, ‘I’m not your getaway driver.’”
Another time Pushkin picked up a fare at the Greyhound station. He had no idea that his passenger carried a Desert Eagle .50 (a semi-automatic pistol originally manufactured for the Israeli military) and a stash of illegal narcotics. Given that traffic downtown was virtually non-existent at that hour, Pushkin didn’t think twice about ignoring the “no right turn on red” sign, before he was pulled over. The dispatcher later told Pushkin that the police had to wait until the suspect entered the cab carrying the contraband, and then needed a reason to stop the cab.
“I would like to thank the Metro Drug Enforcement Unit for waiting until their suspect got in my taxi and rode almost one mile before they found a reason to pull me over,” he posted on Facebook. “You couldn’t get him before he got in? Or waited until he got out?”
Pushkin sometimes accepts what might be considered “dirty money.” He occasionally picks up drug dealers and others who don’t want to swipe a credit card. “Most cab customers do not pick through hundred-dollar bills to find the crumpled up ones to pay me with and then argue about the fare,” he said about one passenger he believes was a dealer.
He does have his limits on whose money he’ll take, though. On January 9, 2014, a storage tank leak caused 7,500 gallons of toxic chemicals to spill into the river, barely a mile upstream from the intake for the West Virginia-American Water Company. Nearby residents couldn’t use tap water for nearly two weeks, and they directed their ire toward the company that owned the leaking tanks.
A few days later Pushkin’s passenger was none other than the 21-year-old son of the company’s president. As Pushkin characterized the conversation, he “arrogantly minimized his father’s role in devastating my hometown.” Pushkin drove his passenger to the headquarters adjacent to the tank site, but not without a parting shot. “When he handed me a twenty and waited for the change, I handed his twenty back and told him I didn’t want his money…it’s stained.”
* * *
In 2014 the incumbent delegate for Charleston’s 37th District announced plans to run for Congress. Following that news, Pushkin posed a “strictly hypothetical” question on Facebook: “How many of my friends live in WV’s 37th House district? And how many of those friends would consider electing a musician/cab driver with a progressive agenda to represent them?”
Four weeks later the “Pushkin for House” page debuted, complete with a video of Pushkin driving his cab through Charleston and the hashtag #TaxiHippie. His campaign slogan? “I’ll take YOU there.”
The campaign opened with a voter registration drive at The Empty Glass, and a fundraiser followed the next day at a local restaurant up the street. The events netted a grand total of $890.
I attended another fundraiser at a downtown law office alongside 25 or 30 others. The crowd was decidedly liberal — a consumer rights lawyer, a pro-choice activist, and a substance abuse counselor among others. In an effort to mitigate my status as a business lawyer, I introduced myself as the godfather of Pushkin’s fellow band member. Midway through the evening Pushkin joined the string trio for a couple of songs and then gave a brief speech.
“I have formidable opponents,” he said, “so I need all the help I can get.” He was one of five candidates vying for the seat, including a trial lawyer and a city councilman. The local press referred to Pushkin as an “unconventional” candidate, and the area’s left-leaning newspaper endorsed the trial lawyer. Pushkin recognized he was not the first choice among party regulars. “But who wants to be establishment’s choice?”
Over the months that followed, Pushkin distributed bumper stickers, buttons and signs featuring a row of yellow and black squares like a Checker taxi. “Lennie, my pit bull, relieved himself on one of my yard signs,” he said. “Everyone’s a critic.”
By early April, he had raised nearly $25,000, much of the money coming from contributions of less than $100. “I don’t have my own money to spend, but no one’s going to outwork me,” Pushkin said. “I got the voter registration records and I’m knocking on doors of the people who actually vote.”
“No offense,” he told me, “but I tell people I’m not a lawyer.”
When going door to door, Pushkin encountered an elderly woman who stood behind her storm door and said, “I don’t like politicians.” Pushkin didn’t miss a beat: “Take a look at me, do I look like a politician?” Recalling the story brings a smile to his face. “She took the flier, and when I was walking away she yelled, ‘Are you Jack’s boy?’ I guess my dad fixed a lot of hips on the East End.”
Pushkin walked the same streets where his father once went to work as a doctor and his great-grandfather peddled pots and pans 100 years earlier. Jacob Pushkin and his wife, Rebecca, arrived from Eastern Europe in 1897, made their home in Charleston, and had five children. Herman, the oldest, followed in his father’s footsteps as a peddler, but his son Jack went to medical school and became an orthopedic specialist, finishing his career as the department head at Charleston Area Medical Center.
Pushkin also canvassed votes from his cab, talking with passengers and offering voter registration forms — even while his cab displayed a paid advertisement for a GOP delegate. “Maybe one day he can return the favor and drive a cab with my sign,” Pushkin jokes.
At 7:32 p.m. on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, Pushkin tweeted: “Polls are closed. Fingers are crossed.” He joined other candidates among the chaos at the county clerk’s office to follow the results. A celebration was set, “win or lose,” at The Empty Glass. The race was still too close to call when the crowd started to arrive shortly after 10. About half an hour later Pushkin walked in, smiling broadly. The band took a break so he could give an acceptance speech.
Pushkin was favored in the general election, but nonetheless he canvassed votes with the same fervor as he had in the contested primary.
On December 31, 2014, the clerk of the House completed his last official act before retiring after 42 years: the swearing in of Michael Ari Pushkin, musician/cab driver, as a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Though popular among some delegates as a designated driver, inside the Republican-dominated House chamber Pushkin was in the minority, and he established himself as a loyal dissenter on hot-button issues like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which sought to protect people from being compelled to perform acts against their religion, like having to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Debate on the bill was virtually over by the time the Speaker recognized the freshman delegate.
“I heard someone say that what RFRA was all about is protecting a religious minority from persecution,” Pushkin said. “I thought about that because I believe I’m the only member of a religious minority in this body. I’m Jewish.” He mentioned how his family had fled Eastern Europe and addressed the assertion by the bill’s supporters that, with the legalization of gay marriage, religious people could now be persecuted.
“Baking a cake is not persecution,” Pushkin said. “Getting baked in an oven is persecution.”
The House passed the RFRA bill but the Senate ultimately killed it. Meanwhile, two of Pushkin’s top priorities got nowhere during his first term. He introduced the Second Chance for Employment Act, providing the opportunity for felons to have their convictions expunged after 10 years – but it failed get out of committee in the 2016 session. He also introduced a bill to legalize recreational marijuana during a special session on the budget. The legislative equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, his bill attracted nothing but a few headlines.
Still, Pushkin easily won reelection in 2016, and he was determined to enact progress on both of his marquee issues.
Pushkin introduced the Second Chance bill again on the first day of the 2017 session, and continued efforts to work with the Speaker of the House, a conservative Republican from a rural district. “I asked him, ‘What’s the problem?’” Pushkin said. “He said an employer should be allowed to know if someone had a criminal history.”
Pushkin conferred with a criminal defense lawyer and devised a compromise: rather than having a felony conviction expunged, the charge would be reduced to a misdemeanor. After more compromise and debate, the bill passed by a vote of 92-8.
Prior to the 2017 session, Pushkin participated in a panel discussion that turned into a debate between him and two law enforcement officers over the issue of medical marijuana. A conservative newspaper editor remarked, “Why are we even having this discussion? It’s not going to pass.”
On the first day of the session, Pushkin addressed the issue at a rally outside the Capitol. “This is a plant that can alleviate a lot of the suffering in this state, and that’s what we need to focus on,” he told the crowd. “There’s a product out there that could potentially save lives, never proven to be physically addictive, that no one overdoses on. There are legally prescribed drugs that have killed people.”
Someone yelled, “Who’s stopping it, Mike?”
“Who’s gonna stop it? Nobody’s gonna stop it,” Pushkin shouted, waving with his left hand as he turned to walk up the Capitol steps.
Midway through the session it appeared that the Speaker would bury the medical marijuana bill. That’s when Pushkin turned to the Liberty Caucus, the libertarian faction of the Republican Party. He convinced a delegate to move to dispense with the committee reference. Once that happened, the public took note of the legislation.
“We got more calls on that bill than the budget,” he said. “People wanted it.”
A few weeks later Mike Pushkin sat next to the Governor as the West Virginia Medical Cannabis Act was signed into law.
Pushkin was also instrumental in setting up a statewide hotline that connects people who are struggling with addiction with recovering addicts who can offer them advice and support, and now volunteers on the hotline himself.
* * *
At the Deep Roots Mountain Revival last summer, a line of thunderstorms wreaked havoc on the schedule. Pushkin’s new band, “Mike Pushkin and the Loyal Opposition,” milled around under the tent waiting, to see if they’d be playing. Pushkin shuffled his feet in the mud, stopping every other minute to put on reading glasses and check his phone. An hour later, he turned to the others and said, “We go on in five minutes.” Festivalgoers packed the tent and Pushkin, outfitted in baggy cargo shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned “Resistance,” strummed the opening chords to “29.”
Half a year later, on the Monday after the 2018 legislative session adjourned, Pushkin was back in his cab. “I decided to wear my Service Employees International Union shirt,” he said. “One of my first customers was a member on her way to work at a nursing home.”
He’s transferred to the day shift last summer, an accommodation to getting married. He met his wife, Stacie, after playing a show and eventually convinced her to join him for a date at the West Virginia Symphony’s tribute to Jerry Garcia. He calls marrying Stacie the “best decision I’ve ever made.”
Pushkin is currently running for a third term in the House of Delegates, after turning down entreaties from supporters to run for the state Senate, but he doesn’t rule out a run for higher office in the future. I ask him, “Will West Virginia have a taxi driver become Governor?”
He just smiles. “Who knows?”