Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango announced plans Thursday to run for governor of West Virginia, the latest Democrat to enter the race seeking to challenge incumbent Gov. Jim Justice.
Salango, who was appointed to his seat before winning election unopposed in 2018, said he’s running to modernize the state’s economy, curb the flow of illicit drugs into West Virginia and improve education in the state.
Throughout a campaign launch event outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Charleston, Salango criticized Justice, caricaturing him as a man most concerned with his personal dealings and who can’t be bothered to show up for work.
“We need a governor we can be proud of, not someone who is constantly buried in controversy, lawsuits and ethical scandals,” Salango said. “Somebody who actually wants the job, rather than the title.”
A Raleigh County native, Salango moved to Kanawha County in 1999. He was appointed to the Kanawha commission in 2017 to replace Dave Hardy, after Justice hired Hardy as his revenue secretary.
Salango is likely best known for spearheading the Shawnee Sports Complex, a $17 million project. The complex went from proposal in February 2017 to six collegiate-size soccer/lacrosse/football fields about 15 months later.
At his campaign launch, Salango didn’t say much about his primary challengers. However, he repeatedly poked at Justice — about a lawsuit challenging his residency, liens and legal judgments filed against his private businesses and about the Justice-owned Greenbrier resort earning “opportunity zone” designation, which entails favorable tax treatment.
“All of West Virginia should be an opportunity zone,” Salango said.
Salango joins community organizer Stephen Smith and Boone County Sen. Ron Stollings in vying to challenge Justice. Salango and Stollings have entered after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced that he would not run against Justice, despite months of publicly mulling the notion.
The race is likely to be pricey. Smith, in particular, has shown a knack for fundraising large amounts from small contributions, and several of the Republicans in the primary have self-financed five- to six-figure dollar amounts. Salango indicated in an interview after the launch a willingness to put personal funds into the race.
Salango has litigated (or is actively handling) several high-profile legal cases: a lawsuit accusing e-cigarette manufacturer Juul of deliberately marketing to youths; one accusing a doctor convicted of one count of sexual abuse of further sexual misconduct; and another accusing a teacher of verbally abusing students with special needs.
Along with his political and legal work, Salango is an investor in HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Huntington’s Herald-Dispatch and several other West Virginia newspapers.