Two men who grew up in Raleigh County sparred over each other’s tax records, job performances and what their plans are for the next four years in a West Virginia gubernatorial debate Tuesday night.
From response to the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting teachers and school service personnel to civil rights and substance abuse, Gov. Jim Justice and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango aimed to take the other candidate to task during the debate moderated by MetroNews’ Hoppy Kercheval at the news outlet’s studio in Morgantown.
It was likely the only debate between the major-party nominees for governor, as they have not agreed to any other debates with 21 days of voting left in the 2020 general election.
Justice, a 69-year-old Republican coal magnate and owner of The Greenbrier resort, is seeking reelection as the Mountain State’s 36th governor after he was elected as a Democrat in 2016.
The 2020 election is the first time Charleston attorney Salango, 47, a Democrat, is seeking election to statewide office.
The other candidates for governor, Libertarian Erika Kolenich, the Mountain Party’s Daniel Lutz and independent write-in candidate Marshall Wilson, were not part of Tuesday’s debate.
Kercheval moderated a debate that didn’t go off the rails, despite both men making pointed attacks on the other’s character. Justice attempted to portray Salango as a wealthy, out-of-touch, trial attorney. Salango called Justice a governor who has to get sued or have public employees strike if he is to be motivated to pay his bills or show up to do his job.
Early in the debate, Justice said Salango would be bad for business, pointing out that Salango has sued businesses in the state earning millions of dollars in settlements and claims for his clients.
“I’ve practiced law for 22 years,” Salango responded. “This governor has been sued over 800 times for not paying his bills. He has more courtroom experience than I do.”
The issue of the COVID-19 pandemic led the debate. Kercheval asked Justice to respond to criticism about the color-coded school reentry map.
Regarding the handling the COVID-19 pandemic, Justice said he has listened to the experts when it came to developing a map and its metrics, which determine whether public school students may attend classes in-person and if student athletes may participate in extracurricular activities. He also said West Virginia has received a high rating in how it has allocated $1.2 billion in CARES Act money provided by Congress in June to respond to issues created by COVID-19.
Salango said West Virginia had received a pat on a back as to how it allocated the money, not on how it actually had spent the money. He pointed out that of $1.2 billion sent to the state in March, $1 billion of the money has not been spent.
If elected, Salango said he would keep the state of emergency intact, as well as the mask mandate, but he said he would not shut down the state, saying it would be devastating to the economy.
Salango grew up in Glen Morgan, just outside Beckley, and graduated from Shady Spring High School before attending West Virginia University to earn his undergraduate and law degrees.
Justice grew up in Beckley and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. He earned his undergraduate degree and a master’s in business administration from Marshall University.
Justice, frequently noted as being the only billionaire in West Virginia, has been criticized for not completely cutting ties with the day-to-day operations of his businesses, which include coal, hospitality and agricultural businesses, by putting them in a blind trust. On Tuesday, Justice said he is not involved with his businesses. He noted that his children, James “Jay” Justice III and Dr. Jillean Justice, handle the family business operations.
Salango joined critics who have taken issue with the fact that the governor doesn’t work full-time in Charleston, often commuting from his home in Lewisburg to the Capitol Complex in Charleston. Justice often is late for his thrice-weekly news conferences he’s hosted since the pandemic began.
A lawsuit is pending before the West Virginia Supreme Court about the governor’s lack of residency in the capital city. Supreme Court justices are set to hear arguments in the case against the governor at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Salango asked voters to consider this election as a job interview, saying he thinks voters won’t rehire Justice based on his job performance so far.
“I wasn’t born wealthy. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Salango said. “We need somebody with energy, somebody who is going to bring new ideas, somebody who is going to move West Virginia forward, not somebody you have to sue just to get them to show up to work.”
During the debate, Justice said Salango, as a Kanawha County commissioner, had cut the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s budget amid the pandemic, which Salango denied.
Justice also said Salango owns multiple lavish vehicles, including a Porsche, saying Salango has not paid property taxes on his vehicles. Salango also denied this, saying he drives a Dodge Ram pickup and is up to date on his taxes.
Justice told West Virginians that it has been his honor to be their governor, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that he has been able to lead the state for the past four years without raising taxes.
“It is a very, very, very difficult job,” Justice said. “Now, my opponent is very, very greedy, and he has an incredible amount of ideas and everything, but this job, you have seen what I’ve done. You have seen what I achieved. As I go forward, I will continue to achieve more and more.”
On the issues
- Asked if they would devote more government resources to sustain the coal industry or invest in alternative, renewable fuels for the state’s future, Salango said he would “never turn his back on coal miners” while focusing on training in new, other forms of energy.
“We know there is a life span on coal,” Salango said. “We have to make sure we’re providing other opportunities, providing vocational and technical training to kids in middle school and high school to make sure, when they graduate from high school, their options aren’t to leave for Charlotte or leave for Columbus.”
Justice said Salango saying there is a life span on coal is Salango “throwing in the towel” on coal miners.
“I truly believe that coal has a future, a real future,” Justice said. “Now, it might be diversified ... absolutely. To give up on coal, there’s no way Jim Justice is doing that.”
- A point of agreement between Justice and Salango was whether they would support the Fairness Act, a bill that, if passed by the Legislature, would make it illegal for employers or landlords to fire someone or kick them out of a rental property based on the employees’ and tenants’ sexual orientation or gender identity.
Both men said they would sign the Fairness Act into law if it came to the governor’s desk.
- When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, Justice said West Virginia is “blessed to have much better relations with others from other races,” than the rest of the country. He said, “of course” Black lives matter.
“They matter like all lives matter, and we should absolutely always try to work together,” Justice said, noting that he has a problem with looting and burning businesses.
Salango said West Virginia needs a governor who would bring people together and not tear them apart.
“We need a governor who is not going to make racially insensitive comments, referring to children as thugs,” Salango said, referring to comments Justice made after a high school basketball game earlier this year.
Salango said he rejects the notion that one can’t support both the Black Lives Matter movement and police.
- When asked if he would support President Donald Trump or former vice president Joe Biden for president, Salango said he would work with whomever is president beginning in 2021. Salango said Trump has disrespected U.S. military veterans, their families and disabled Americans, and that makes him a candidate Salango can’t support, so he will vote for Biden.
Justice said a Biden presidency would be bad for West Virginia, but he didn’t mention his support for President Trump, and he wasn’t asked about it.
- Both men said they would support medical marijuana but wouldn’t immediately support recreational marijuana use in West Virginia. Salango said he would support legalizing recreational marijuana use in the state if a roadside test for marijuana is developed, similar to that of a breathalyzer test for alcohol.
- On education, Justice said he had twice signed pay increases for West Virginia teachers and school service personnel. Salango, however, said those employees would remember that differently, having had to twice strike to motivate Justice to get involved in mediating the strike that led to those pay increases and providing financial support to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which provides health insurance to state employees.
- Justice pointed out the success of his $2.8 billion Roads to Prosperity program approved by voters in 2017. Salango said he supported the program in 2017, even backing a proclamation from the Kanawha County Commission supporting the measure. He said the voters passed the measure, but little work had been done until the months leading up to the election.