Many similarities, but some differences between Cole, Justice

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Republican Bill Cole (left) and Democrat Jim Justice, the two major-party candidates for West Virginia governor, have major similarities, but also major differences.

Both promise to bring back vanishing coal jobs, despite scant evidence that it’s possible.

Both would fight West Virginia’s drug epidemic by cracking down on dealers and pushing for increased treatment options for addicts.

Both want a pay raise for teachers but are vague on where the money would come from.

Neither supports Hillary Clinton for president.

There are quite a few similarities — more so than in most elections — between the two major party candidates for governor of West Virginia, Republican state Senate President Bill Cole and Democratic businessman Jim Justice.

“One’s registered as a Democrat and one’s registered as a Republican,” said former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, a Democrat who Justice defeated in the primary election and who hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race for governor. “It’s a difference in registration.”

But there are, of course, important differences between the two candidates even if they may not always be the issues highlighted by the campaigns.

Cole’s campaign wants nothing more than to tie the race to presidential politics, where Donald Trump is likely to win big in West Virginia and Cole hopes the nominee has long coattails. But Justice recently announced he doesn’t support Clinton, a revelation that garnered national media attention and at least partially blunts Cole’s attacks.

Justice’s campaign stresses that he’s a businessman, not a career politician. But Cole is also a businessman, and although he’s Senate president, he’s served only one term in the Senate and a few months in the House after being appointed to fill a vacant seat — not exactly a career.

Here are some of the major differences (and similarities) between the two candidates.

The state budget

The biggest issue facing the next governor is the state budget, which will almost surely see a repeat of this year — projected deficits in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Justice has said almost nothing of substance on how to close the gap. He opposes both tax increases and spending cuts, and he says West Virginia just needs some sort of short-term solution until he can get job growth to take off, which would bring in more tax revenue.

“Jim Justice will be coming out with a responsible financial road map in the coming weeks; something Bill Cole failed to do during his tenure as Senate president,” spokesman Grant Herring said.

The last two years, since Cole has led the Senate, have seen significant spending cuts, along with a hike in the tobacco tax this year (which Cole reluctantly supported) and a long stalemate between the Legislature and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin over how much money to take from the state Rainy Day Fund.

Cole spokesman Kent Gates said Cole would try to set more accurate revenue estimates than Tomblin has, to prevent budget crunches, and he would better manage special revenue accounts in the hopes of returning money to the state’s general revenue fund.

“Jim Justice has no plan other than some risky Wall Street scheme,” Gates said.

Cole talks about the need to “right size” state government and has expressed more willingness than Justice to further cut state programs and services.

“Neither candidate has put forth a concrete plan to address the state’s severe revenue problem, which is the results of past tax cuts, lower coal production and gas prices, and our weak economy,” said Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a progressive think tank.

Boettner pointed out that while both candidates have been vague, Cole has shown more inclination toward tax cuts. Cole, last year, had effusive praise for the policies of Arthur Laffer, an iconic conservative economist whose chief advice is to cut income taxes on the wealthy.

In the inaugural meeting of Cole’s special committee on tax reform last year, he cited a report from the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council that lauded states that have aggressively cut taxes.

The state Chamber of Commerce, a recent major financial supporter of West Virginia Republicans, praised Cole’s approach but is still deciding on who to endorse.

“We appreciate the agenda that Mr. Cole has shepherded through the Legislature, we are very clear about that,” said Steve Roberts, the Chamber’s president. “The goal that Mr. Justice has set, which is ‘I want to revitalize West Virginia’s economy,’ we want to know, OK, what would you do?”

Cole will release a jobs plan Thursday at the Chamber’s annual convention at The Greenbrier resort, Gates said. The resort is owned by Justice, who is also speaking Thursday at the event.

National politics

The single issue that the Cole campaign is most eager to discuss — presidential politics — is one where there’s not actually that much difference between the two candidates.

Cole wants Trump to be president. It’s not clear who Justice wants to be president, but it’s not Clinton.

Even as state-level Republicans in competitive races throughout the country shun Trump and his controversial, xenophobic and sometimes racist statements, Cole has embraced him, running an ad through much of the summer touting “the Bill Cole-Donald Trump team” and saying that he “stands with Donald Trump.”

“Cole is simply hugging Trump so hard that I think if Trump were to come back here, which I doubt he will, Cole might suffocate him,” Goodwin said.

Justice has steadfastly declined to endorse a presidential candidate, but earlier this month announced he would not support Clinton and released a new ad saying he did not vote for President Barack Obama.

In a presidential race where only two candidates have a chance to win, Justice’s opposition to one could certainly be seen as tacit support of the other. But, asked for differences between the gubernatorial candidates, the Cole campaign still cited the presidential campaign as “the biggest difference” in the governor’s race.

“Does Donald Trump give folks some comments that raise some concerns? Of course,” said Republican state Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, a Cole ally. “But at the end of the day, his views on energy jobs are just much more in line with the views of West Virginia voters.”

Justice’s party affiliation is a big reason why the West Virginia Coal Association chose to endorse Cole over Justice — even though Justice is a longtime coal mine owner and operator.

“Jim is trying to distance himself from perhaps the national Democratic Party, but the fact is, he’s running on the Democrat ticket,” said Chris Hamilton, vice president of the Coal Association and president of the state Business and Industry Council, which also endorsed Cole.

Hamilton also cited Cole’s support of a 2015 rollback in mine safety regulations — strongly opposed by the United Mine Workers — that the industry considered antiquated and onerous. And he noted Democrats’ opposition to mountaintop removal mining, “the same type of mining that Jim Justice has been involved with his whole career.”

Business and labor

Both candidates are wealthy businessmen, but, as befits their parties, business interests are largely aligned with Cole, the Republican, while labor is behind Justice, the Democrat.

The two candidates fall on opposite sides on the two marquee issues of spring’s legislative session — the repeal of the prevailing wage, which mandated wage levels on state-funded construction projects, and the passage of a right-to-work law, allowing employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union fees even though they reap the union’s benefits.

Cole, as Senate president, made both bills top priorities and shepherded them through the Legislature, despite union protests. Neither bill attracted a single Democratic vote in either the House or the Senate.

Justice says he would have vetoed both bills. (Tomblin did veto both bills, but was overridden by the Legislature.)

In the unlikely event that Democrats retook control of the Legislature and reversed right-to-work and prevailing wage repeal, Justice said he would sign bills reversing both measures.

Social issues

There are significant differences between the two candidates on social issues, but it is unclear exactly how big those differences are.

Cole’s positions are clear. He repeatedly voted for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, a measure which became law after the Legislature overrode Tomblin’s veto in 2015. He voted for a ban on the safest type of second-trimester abortion, which became law this year, again over Tomblin’s veto. He was a featured speaker this year at a West Virginians for Life rally at the Capitol.

Justice’s stance on abortion is not clear.

Asked if he considered himself pro-choice or anti-abortion and what he would have done with the abortion restriction bills that Tomblin vetoed, Justice did not respond.

“I am not in favor of abortion, however the Supreme Court ruled on this, and the law is the law,” he said in an emailed statement. He did not respond to follow-up queries seeking clarification or even which Supreme Court case he was referencing.

Among the most contentious bills of the last legislative session was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which conservative supporters said was necessary to protect religious liberties, but critics argued was a thinly veiled justification to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

Cole declined to take a position on the bill as it worked its way through heated battles in the House of Delegates, but he supported it when it arrived in the Senate.

He voted against an amendment that explicitly said the bill could not overrule any non-discrimination laws. Once that amendment passed, gutting the bill in the eyes of conservative supporters, Cole voted against the bill.

Justice opposed the bill after it passed the House but before its ultimate failure in the Senate, citing the experience of Indiana, which passed a similar measure and, amid the ensuing national uproar, lost $60 million in convention revenue, according to one estimate.

Education

“Make education a centerpiece” is one of Justice’s campaign slogans. Cole says education is the “biggest and most important” challenge the state faces.

Both would like to pay teachers more. Cole says he would take a “business approach” to find savings in the Department of Education. Justice, who has the endorsement of both state teachers’ unions, has called the education system “an 18-karat dog’s mess” and says he would listen to teachers to search for solutions.

Cole wants to launch a “read by third grade” initiative to identify reading problems earlier and allow students who need it to get extra help. His campaign spokesman said he would increase access to computer coding classes.

One significant difference is the candidates’ position on charter schools, which are publicly funded, but privately run and exempt from many state regulations. Cole supports charter schools; Justice does not.

Charter schools are legal in 43 states, but their results are decidedly mixed.

A paper released this month from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, on average, “charter schools have no impact on test scores and a negative impact on earnings.”

But the most successful charters improve test scores and performances for students who could otherwise be stuck in failing public schools, and competition to get a spot in such charters is fierce. The least successful ones are rife with mismanagement, siphon money from the public school system and sometimes even shut down mid-school year.

Cole voted in 2015 to allow the creation of 10 charter schools in West Virginia. The bill passed the Senate on a party line vote but stalled in the House. A charter school bill this year made little progress.

Justice opposes charter schools. “Until all West Virginia schools are thriving, Jim doesn’t think we should spend taxpayer money on an elite few,” Herring said.

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