CHARLESTON — In the first — and possibly the only — debate in the race for governor of West Virginia, Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Democratic Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango faced off Tuesday night.
The West Virginia Broadcaster’s Association-sponsored debate was held at the MetroNews headquarters at the Dale Miller Building in Morgantown, where it was moderated by Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval.
Justice, 69, is running for his second term as governor. Winning election as the Democratic nominee in 2016, Justice switched to Republican in 2017.
Salango, 47, is an attorney and businessman who was appointed to the Kanawha County Commission in 2017 and won a full term in 2018.
The coronavirus played a prominent role in the WVBA debate. Both Justice and Salango were tested for COVID-19 prior to Tuesday night’s debate and tested negative. The candidates and Kercheval sat at a round table separated by 7 feet for social distancing.
Justice defended his handling of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Justice implemented a school re-opening plan developed by education and health officials utilizing a color-coded map and metrics that changed multiple times. Justice defended the tweaks made to the map to allow for more counties to re-open schools. He said the tweaks made the schools safer and more helped spur people to get tested.
“The situation is fluid. You have to change and everything,” Justice said. “We listen to the experts. We don’t listen to the union bosses to tell us what to do. We listen to the medical and the educational experts along the way you have to adjust. That’s all there is to it.”
Salango and others have criticized Justice for changing the metrics. Both teachers’ unions and the school service personnel union have endorsed Salango, who called for more local control over school re-opening decisions. Salango said he supports the executive order requiring mask-wearing in buildings and supported the continuation of the state of emergency while the pandemic continues.
Salango criticized Justice’s spending of federal coronavirus aid for local governments and small businesses hurt by the shutdown of non-essential businesses.
“What I would do is make sure that we were getting out that $1.25 billion in C.A.R.E.S. Act money that we were sending it out to our small businesses,” Salango said. “There was a business program that established: $150 million set aside just to help our small businesses. But unfortunately, only $22 million has been given out and then the program was closed. We’re seeing businesses shut down every single day. We’ve got to make sure we’re getting that money out to support our small businesses and also to keep people employed.”
“Through the C.A.R.E.S. money we have sent out or awarded to your county almost $36 million,” Justice said, pointing to coronavirus reimbursements to Kanawha County. “In addition to that, that’s almost a quarter of all the monies that have been awarded out and everything to all the counties and everything. And we’ve done that to Kanawha County and Kanawha County is still struggling.”
The state economy was also a major focus of debate questions. The state has weathered the worst of the coronavirus pandemic as far as consumer sales tax revenue and personal and corporate net income tax revenue, allowing the state to maintain a budget surplus for the first three months of the new fiscal year. But West Virginia ranked 40th in the nation for its 8.9-percent unemployment rate for August.
Kercheval asked Salango about his background as a trial lawyer and public statements on his attorney website talking about suing businesses, such as natural gas companies, and asked how that computes when it comes to statements about supporting business growth as the next governor. Salango responded by pointing to his support for the Brooke County Power project, a natural gas power plant project that just announced it was not going forward.
“If you are working in the natural gas industry, (Salango) will destroy your jobs,” Justice said.
“I was a champion for the Brooke County Power plant,” Salango responded. “The people in the Northern panhandle needed that project. Unfortunately, we played games and now it’s not going to happen. I would have made sure that the Brooke County Power plant was built. I would make sure that we’re supporting our oil and gas workers. I’d make sure that we’re supporting working families. That’s what I’ve done as a commissioner.”
Salango brought up Justice’s numerous civil suits for millions of dollars of court settlements, fines, fees, and penalties, as well as pending lawsuits by vendors seeking payment for unpaid bills by companies owned by Justice and managed by his son and daughter.
“You know what? I’ve practiced law for 22 years. This governor’s been sued over 600 times for not paying his bills,” Salango said. “He actually has more courtroom experience than I do.”
Justice pointed to the recent announcement that West Virginia was selected as a site for the Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center as an example of his ability to get large economic development deals done. He said Salango doesn’t have the connections or the ability to pick up the phone to make similar deals.
“Ben talks about a lot of pie in the sky stuff and says,’ I will do, I will do. I will do,’ but I’ve done,” Justice said.
Salango said he is hopeful that the Virgin Hyperloop program will become real, but he pointed to multiple projects that have run aground, including the China Energy deal, development of the former Hobet mine site, and the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program as examples of promises not kept.
“One of the things that I worry about is whether or not this is another broken promise,” Salango said. “I am very hopeful for the people of West Virginia that this project moves forward. I have a regional economic plan. I’m going to be out there working with CEOs, developing new business, developing new industry every single day when I’m governor.”
Justice is a well-known supporter of Republican President Donald Trump. When asked whether he supported Democratic candidate Joe Biden for president and the Democratic ticket, Salango didn’t answer the question directly at first, but said he couldn’t support Trump and would support Biden. Salango said he would work with the winner of the presidential election no matter who it was, but he couldn’t support Trump’s comments about women, the disabled, veterans, such as the late U.S. senator John McCain.
“With regard to our veterans, with regard to the comments about women, with mocking disabled people, President Trump hasn’t earned my vote,” Salango said.
“Does that translate into a vote for Joe Biden,” Kercheval asked.
“Yes, I will vote for Joe Biden,” Salango answered.
On race relations, Justice said he has worked well with the African American community and believes that race relations in the state are good. Salango said you can support both the goals of Black Lives Matter and support law enforcement. Both candidates said they support the Fairness Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and both said they would sign the bill if it gets through the Legislature.
Salango said he would call a special session of the Legislature to look at additional pay increases for teachers and school service personnel, but he couldn’t name a specific amount or percentage. Justice said he worked with teachers through two teachers strikes to push through back-to-back 5-percent pay raises for teachers and staff, as well as setting aside funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
When it comes to roads, Salango said he supported Justice’s $1.6 billion Roads to Prosperity but said most of the road construction projects didn’t start until the past year during the election cycle. Justice thanked Salango for his support for the program, saying no one has done more for road construction and maintenance than himself. Justice said a recent attack ad by Salango accusing Justice of only paving roads around his Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Spring was false.
“Ben, that road was last paved in 2010,” Justice said. “Surely to God above you can at least get that right when you’re standing in front of a commercial.”
Justice said he supported medical cannabis but would not support recreational cannabis. Salango said he could not support recreational cannabis until testing became available similar to blood alcohol screenings law enforcement used to arrest people driving under the influence of alcohol. If that can happen, Salango said recreational cannabis could be a cash crop and a tax revenue creator for the state.
Both expressed their support for the coal industry but also supported a more diversified economy. Both supported continued efforts to help people suffering from drug addiction with their recovery and efforts to provide job training.
Early voting starts Oct. 21 and ends Oct. 31. Voters wishing to vote by absentee ballot have until Oct. 28 to get their application into the hands of their local county clerk or apply at GoVoteWV.com. Election Day is Nov. 3, with polls opening at 6 a.m. and closing at 7:30 p.m.