Republican Bill Cole and Democrat Jim Justice spent West Virginia’s second gubernatorial debate pointing fingers, arguing who supports coal more and fighting to see who could more closely link themselves to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
In most of the country, Republican lawmakers are fleeing from their presidential candidate after an audio tape from 2005 revealed Trump bragging about how he was able to kiss and touch women — including grabbing their genitals — because he was famous.
But in West Virginia, which remains one of Trump’s most solid regions of support, the opposite scenario is playing out, as Trump’s admittance that he forced himself on women is being ignored.
Cole and Justice spent a significant portion of the debate, and interviews after the broadcast, trying to embrace Trump as closely as possible.
Cole, who has tried to run on Trump’s coattails since he visited Charleston in May, said Trump’s remarks were “wrong in every respect” and “demeaning to women,” but said he would be “praying” for Trump to win the White House.
Justice — the Democratic nominee in the race — also tried to position himself with Trump, a candidate who has seen prominent Republicans renounce his candidacy, by pointing out that the presidential candidate had not endorsed Cole, the Republican.
Justice said that he and the Trump family are close, and in a post-debate interview, said that he and Trump have talked on the phone often. But after lauding Trump, Justice said he would not be supporting either Trump or Clinton for president, something Cole quickly jumped on.
“That’s just sitting on the fence,” Cole said, as he advocated voting for Trump. “We don’t need people sitting on the fence right now.”
Like the first go around, the second gubernatorial debate lacked any significant policy proposals on how to fix the state’s budget crisis, how to pay for schooling in West Virginia and how to improve the economy, when everything is pointing to the coal industry not making a dramatic rebound.
Again, Justice — a billionaire coal operator — tried to place blame for West Virginia’s systemic problems on Cole, who has been the state Senate president for two years. Cole, in turn, blamed everything on decades of Democratic rule in the state.
Justice’s most specific policy proposal during the debate was to try to have more wood furniture manufacturing in West Virginia. He then suggested the federal government should give West Virginia credits for having trees in the state, which he tried to suggest offsets air pollution.
The Democrat said the state needed to find profitable agricultural businesses, though he and Cole both said during the first debate that they would not legalize marijuana, which has created millions of dollars in revenue in states like Washington and Colorado.
When asked how he would balance the state budget, Justice suggested he would neither raise taxes nor cut state spending — the only two direct solutions. He instead suggested the state could borrow money somehow to balance the budget until he enticed new business to the state.
“Cut, cut, cut or tax, tax, tax. I don’t believe in any one of those,” Justice said.
Cole’s policy proposals centered around shrinking state government and replacing the state Department of Commerce and the Economic Development Authority with a privately run nonprofit development organization that he and business executives from throughout the state would be in charge of.
At one point, Cole said that he would look to privatize portions of the state government. When asked after the debate what agencies or programs he would seek shift to for-profit businesses, Cole cited the privatization of the state’s workers compensation program around a decade ago and said other state insurance programs might be a good option.
While lambasting unspecified government waste, Cole said that he could not rule out new taxes to balance the budget.
“We are facing unprecedented times in West Virginia,” Cole said. “To take anything off the table is imprudent.”
The host of the debate, Hoppy Kercheval of MetroNews, also questioned Justice about a National Public Radio story published last week that showed Justice owed about $15 million in unpaid taxes and mine safety fines. That story also showed that Justice reneged on a philanthropic promises for the Cleveland Clinic and the Boy Scouts of America.
For the first time since the story was released, Justice had to answer questions about those unpaid debts, which included millions of dollars of severance taxes in West Virginia.
He blamed the downturn in the coal industry, even though the businessman-turned-politician also didn’t pay on time hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal withholding taxes that he owed for the historic Greenbrier resort.
“The coal business over the past four years and everything has been one tough deal,” he said, as he went on to blame the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for unfairly inspecting his coal operations. “I don’t want any sympathy or anything, but I am a big target.”
As he did in news releases, Justice tried to paint his companies in a different light than the region’s other major coal companies that filed for bankruptcy last year.
“I didn’t declare bankruptcy, did I? You saw every great coal company in the world belly up,” Justice said. “They stiffed everybody. I just kept digging.”
After the debate, Justice blamed the news of his companies’ tax debts and federal fines on Howard Berkes, the NPR reporter who tracked down all of Justice’s unpaid obligations. He tried to say that Berkes was “twisting things” and said he was making Justice out to be a bad guy.
Kercheval also pointed out that Justice has a long history of unpaid taxes, including a Gazette-Mail story earlier this year that showed the candidate didn’t pay $3.9 million in property taxes on time in West Virginia.
The moderator also brought up the divide in the West Virginia Democratic Party, between the party’s more conservative leaders and the party’s liberal wing that was successful in influencing the state platform, which now supports a $15 minimum wage, the legalization of marijuana and a single-payer health care system.
Those more progressive Democrats also got the party’s official platform to oppose mountaintop mining and the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that has allowed unlimited political spending by corporations and the country’s wealthiest people.
When Justice was asked how he brings those progressives into the fold, he said that he was only interested in supporting “good, down-home West Virginia Democrats.”
Justice said those Democrats are “people who really care, people that are really grounded.” He added that they should be “conservative in their thinking a little bit” and that they should absolutely be supporting coal without any question.
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