HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — On a spring day, Dr. Sydnee Smirl McElroy was making the rounds at a day shelter where she volunteers part time providing medical care to homeless people. A few blocks away, 18-year-old freshman Kate White was finishing up final exams at Marshall University.
They are first-time candidates for the West Virginia House of Delegates who took advantage of an opening from the Legislature's redistricting process and hope to secure the Democratic nomination for the 26th District in the May 10 primary. The winner will face another doctor, unopposed incumbent Republican Matthew Rohrbach, in the general election in November.
If one of them defeats Rohrbach, a four-term delegate, chances are they’ll be a minority voice. Democrats are heavily outnumbered 78-22 in the House and 23-11 in the Senate, and the 26th is one of a dwindling number of seats contested by Democrats in a state that has turned sharply Republican.
McElroy is well known outside of West Virginia as part of a husband-and-wife podcasting team that has produced comedy episodes since 2013 and ballooned her Twitter following past 110,000. Since most of those followers live out of state, though, she's hoping to connect with local voters through her experience as a family doctor who grew up in Huntington.
“I think most people here know me as Dr. Sydnee and not so much as a podcaster,” she said.
McElroy is the self-described less-funny spouse who researches stories and anecdotes from medical history for the episodes of "Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine" with her husband, Justin. The couple even turned the podcast into a New York Times best-selling book.
One recent “Sawbones” podcast examined CNN host Tucker Carlson’s suggestion that in order to deal with a masculinity crisis, men should tan their testicles to boost testosterone levels.
“Don’t do this,” Sydnee McElroy said on the show. At the very least, she added, “it’s just bad advice.”
Sydnee McElroy, who has two young children, also works with patients at Cabell Huntington Hospital. When she's not on call, she's either at home with her youngest daughter or volunteering at the day shelter, where many of her patients grapple with substance abuse, severe mental illness or HIV.
McElroy decided to seek office because she constantly hears patients tell her about personal problems she can't address as a doctor — but thinks she could as a state legislator.
"I felt like this was the next step for me as a way to serve my neighbors,” she said.
McElroy's grandmother, Jodi Smirl, served in the House for 20 years.
“It’s something that’s always been a kitchen-table conversation for us,” she said. “In my family, we were always talking about politics and about current events and issues. I was one of those kids who as soon as I turned 18, I was most excited that I could register to vote. So I’ve always been politically aware and interested.”
So has White, who has turned to politics at a time when most college students are looking for a summer job.
White's father is a social studies teacher who instilled in her a love for civics. She remembers visiting the state Capitol in Charleston during elementary and middle school.
“I love politics overall and government is so important. But the legislature seems like the most alive part of it all,” White said. “You get to have the most influence, I feel, and you get to talk directly with constituents if you want to, but also have discourse with other people and not make executive decisions. I just really love the process.”
Only two people younger than her have ever served in the state Legislature. Saira Blair became the nation’s youngest state legislator and the youngest-ever elected in West Virginia when she won a seat in the House at age 18 as a Republican in 2014.
White calls Blair an inspiration.
“I think people know that she was elected, so they see me,” White said. "And if they talk to me for a little bit, they see that I actually care about what I’m doing and they think, well, why couldn’t an 18-year-old be in this legislative body and represent a different group of people?
“I chose to run because I think there does need to be some young blood and like some different ideas represented in the House of Delegates compared to what’s happening now.”
No matter the outcome, White plans to play trombone in the Marshall marching band at her first-ever Thundering Herd football game in the fall.
Her long-term goal is to become a fourth-generation teacher from her family, remaining in Huntington rather than following the temptation of a better-paying job far away. She also plans to work for teachers in the Legislature.
“The education system has been improved, but so much more can be done," she said, “for teachers specifically, and for the system as a whole."