One of the mysteries of the coronavirus pandemic is Gov. Jim Justice’s reluctance to postpone the May 12 primary election.
“We’re going to have a free and fair election, and I hope we’re going to have it on time,” Justice responded when asked about postponing the election.
Justice made those comments in the same week he extended closure of state schools with the earliest reopening date pushed to April 20, which seems optimistic.
Even assuming the state essentially reopens on that date, that would give suspended campaigns a limited three-week window to reach out to voters. Actually, less than that, since early voting is set to begin April 29.
That’s particularly critical in the Supreme Court elections, in which the primary is the election.
Also, in contested primary races, the shortened campaign season puts incumbents at great advantage and their challengers at great disadvantage.
One example that comes to mind is Matt Hahn, a Berkeley Springs physician who is running against Rep. Alex Mooney in the 2nd Congressional District Republican primary.
Hahn had stopped by the press room before the legislative session to discuss his candidacy, which ironically is primarily driven by his revulsion over a woefully dysfunctional and outrageously costly healthcare system — and that was long before the pandemic began.
Hahn also said he’s running because he’s unhappy that the 2nd District is represented by an absentee congressman who rarely seems to have his constituents’ best interests at heart.
At the time, Hahn divulged his strategy to build name recognition leading up to the primary election, playing off two of his avocations: As a runner and as a singer and musician.
Hahn planned to generate publicity by running to each city where he would be campaigning by day, and after making campaign appearances, performing at local venues by night.
Would it work? Well, Robert C. Byrd’s early campaigns capitalized on his talent as a fiddle player and little-known lawyer Bob Wise gained notoriety on the campaign trail for his clogging.
Of course, with campaigning suspended, Hahn’s plans went out the window.
Mooney, meanwhile, is able to use coronavirus prevention campaign ads to give himself faux gravitas — never mind that he was one of 40 votes in Congress against the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Even as Justice hopes against hope the pandemic will have peaked before May 12, there’s no way, shape, fashion or form that the virus will be eradicated by then, and that means putting a lot of poll workers, election volunteers and county clerk staffs at risk — keep in mind that most poll workers are in the high-risk age group.
Attempting untested statewide absentee balloting seems like a recipe for disaster, and would not preclude requiring polling places to be open on Election Day.
While the consequences of holding a May 12 primary could be dire, there’s no consequence to postponing the election.
The major political parties’ presidential nominees have essentially been selected, and West Virginia will have no bearing on that outcome whether the primary is held in May, June or July.
The Republican Party has a reputation of being the party of voter suppression, and holding an election at a time when many voters will be reluctant to participate for health concerns will add to that perception.
Err on the side of caution, Big Jim. Postpone.
So when is a shutdown of non-essential businesses and services not really a shutdown of non-essential businesses and services?
When Gov. Justice’s executive order provides an expansive list of businesses and services deemed essential, falling into 67 broad categories.
(The actual executive order has all the hallmarks of a cut-and-paste job, with its effective time of 8 p.m. Daylight Standard Time and its inclusion of payday lenders — which are illegal under West Virginia law — among the essential businesses allowed to remain open.
Justice’s chief counsel, Brian Abraham, said the intent of the broad definition of essential businesses was to strike a balance between preserving the economy and protecting the public health.
I talked to a small town private practice attorney who was irate that Justice categorized professional services as essential. He had hoped to close his practice but cannot afford to do so if potential competitors can remain open and take on new clients.
As state Public Health Officer Cathy Slemp pointed out, many businesses designated essential have taken and can take steps to have employees work from home. Businesses also can restrict public access by encouraging contact by telephone or online.
Certainly, though, some of the designation of essential services was driven by a desire to pander to constituent groups.
Justice went out of his way to express his belief that coal miners are essential, even though the nature of underground mining makes social distancing impossible and even though coal-fired power plants undoubtedly have stockpiles that would allow miners to stay at home for some time.
Likewise, auto dealerships are allowed to stay open. While automobiles are essential and auto repair and maintenance services logically should remain open, the vast majority of state residents could forgo a vehicle purchase for a couple months.
However, auto dealers tend to be generous campaign contributors, particularly in statewide and legislative races. (Notably, the VIP reception at the West Virginia International Auto Show is one of the biggest legislative receptions each session.)
It appears most area dealerships have done the reasonable thing and closed their showrooms, or made them by appointment only.
The most gratuitous act of pandering in the essential businesses list has to be firearms and ammunition suppliers and retailers.
This has been a topic of some debate nationally, with many states and localities determining firearms dealers are not essential businesses. Some states with the strictest definitions, including Pennsylvania, define essential as life-sustaining.
By that standard, you can’t eat a firearm, you can’t use a firearm to treat illness and a firearm won’t give you immunity from the coronavirus.
As John Cleese of “Monty Python” fame noted on Twitter: “Buying guns seems to be the default position for some of the American electorate ... When confronted by something upsetting, they buy guns.”
In localities where firearms dealers have been ordered closed, there have been threats of legal challenges on Second Amendment grounds. Which is as absurd as a movie theater owner challenging a closure order as being a violation of his First Amendment right to show films to groups of paying customers.
All that being said, anecdotal evidence is that stay-at-home and closure of non-essential businesses is working in spite of the many loopholes and exceptions.
During my weekly appearance on “Steve Novotney Live” on WKKX radio in Wheeling, Novotney observed that in Wheeling currently, every day is like Christmas Eve night, with almost no one out on the streets.
Being the heathen I am, I used a climatic metaphor to describe Charleston. I related how I had gone out jogging the evening before in East End and downtown Charleston, and it reminded me of the city after a heavy snowstorm. You might see an occasional vehicle here and there, and the occasional pedestrian, but that was about it.
Which makes sense. Why be out if there’s no place to go?
With dine-in restaurants, bars and clubs, concert halls and entertainment venues, gyms and fitness centers, shopping malls and many retailers, bowling alleys and bingo halls all closed, there’s no “out” to go to, which might ultimately be the state’s salvation in slowing the spread of this virus.
Either that, or a majority of state residents are finally taking the pandemic seriously.
Finally, Justice finally admitted last week that the pandemic-forced suspension of normal activity in the state is going to blow cannonball-sized holes in state revenue collections.
For instance, not unexpectedly with large numbers of businesses ordered closed or in reduced operations, unemployment compensation claims soared past 40,000 in the week since Justice’s first executive order, closing bars, dine-in restaurants and casinos went into effect.
According to WorkForce West Virginia, in February, the agency paid out a total of $25.99 million in benefits and had an unemployment trust fund balance of $161.05 million.
Which sounds like a nice buffer, until you do the math that 50,000 new claims at average benefits of $300 a week will add $60 million a month in benefits. Without federal relief, that would require a special session to tap into the state Rainy Day reserve funds by May.
And, as I extrapolated last week from February and year-to-date financial reports from the state Lottery, the closure of casinos and bars and clubs offering Limited Video Lottery is costing the state about $9 million a week in lost Lottery profits.
And that’s just two examples of how the state budget has been obliterated.