Four candidates are running for the Kanawha County Commission seat being vacated by longtime commissioner Hoppy Shores, who is retiring after the current term.
The new commissioner will sit alongside Commission President Kent Carper and Commissioner Ben Salango, who is running in the Democratic Party primary for governor.
Republican Party primary
Dewayne Duncan and Lance Wheeler are the two Charleston Republicans vying to replace Shores.
Duncan, a native of Charleston, works as a real estate developer. For 20 years, Duncan said, he worked in the public education system as a teacher and principal, later serving as the executive director of the Office of Middle and Secondary Learning at the West Virginia Department of Education.
Wheeler was born and raised in St. Albans and moved to Charleston after graduating from the University of Kentucky. He’s worked for political nonprofits and volunteered for candidates, and he currently is a regional sales executive at a medical equipment company.
Both candidates said economic development is the primary issue for their campaign. Making Kanawha County attractive for companies starts by connecting with the private sector, Duncan said.
“We have to start looking at private-public partnerships. I don’t think we’ve been doing that in the past, but that’s something that we must do as we look to the future in Kanawha County to see growth,” Duncan said.
Expanding broadband internet to every corner of the county will be a requirement to get good-paying jobs, both candidates said.
If a telecommunications or tech company wanted to locate outside of Charleston, where the tax base is lower, Duncan said, those businesses would want high-speed internet access for every resident.
Wheeler said that, while the county can work tirelessly to expand broadband, it would still fall mainly in the hands of the West Virginia Legislature working to connect the entire state.
Wheeler supports competition between private companies, but said some locally run utilities, such as St. Albans’ water system, prove beneficial — during the 2014 water crisis, Wheeler said, St. Albans was not gravely affected because it pumped water from the Coal River.
“Having a local-municipality utility is not a bad thing,” he said. “If that’s something the County Commission can [support] when it comes to our broadband here in the county, then I would be in favor of looking into that.”
Wheeler said he wants to establish a line of communication between the county and potential businesses across the country, letting them know what land opportunity is available, and finding people willing to work.
“I’d like for the County Commission to look into creating their own economic development program, where we are researching vacant properties, or just open fields, [and where] we are communicating with companies not just inside the state but outside the state,” Wheeler said.
While manufacturing business was on the upswing nationally, Wheeler said, West Virginia was seeing steady or declining rates.
“If we’re seeing that national incline in manufacturing, but we’re not seeing it in West Virginia, what are we missing? And I think that missing component was having someone that could be a voice to bring those companies here,” Wheeler said.
Duncan also said he sees a county ripe for economic growth, small locally owned businesses included.
He said a greenhouse owned by the same people in Hernshaw and Alum Creek could flourish as a private-public partnership.
“There are potential areas for growth throughout all of Kanawha County; we’re just not meeting with those business people,” Duncan said. “I think they think they’re too small. I want to be that bridge to fill in that gap.”
Duncan helped develop the Elk City historic district on Charleston’s West Side, a neighborhood project that he said can be replicated in municipalities throughout the county. The use of private-public partnerships, coupled with grant funding, can work in places like Montgomery and Clendenin, if the proper resources are allocated, he said.
Both candidates said drug addiction and homelessness are problems throughout the county, not just in Charleston. Wheeler said he will sit down with first responders to discuss the best resources and programs for those recovering from addiction.
Asked about whether he supports the now-discontinued needle exchange program at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, Wheeler said he is OK with a needle exchange program, but only if it’s being run effectively.
“I am not against necessarily a needle exchange, but I am against inefficiency in government, and unfortunately, that’s what we see time and time again with government programs,” Wheeler said.
Duncan said he would have to speak with Dr. Sherri Young, health officer of the health department, and other local officials before deciding if a needle exchange program should be implemented.
“I would have to actually meet with all the stakeholders involved, to see if it’s a real true fit for Kanawha County, before I could comment yes or no,” Duncan said.
Democratic Party primary
Greg Childress, a farmer, locomotive engineer and volunteer firefighter from Tornado, is running against former state legislator and local attorney Mark Hunt for the Democratic nomination for the County Commission seat.
Childress, who has lived in the St. Albans area his entire life, said he’s running to represent the communities outside Charleston — he said he thinks Kanawha County should switch to a five-person commission, like Jefferson County did, to better represent the county’s regions.
After serving 14 years in the Legislature, running for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District seat in 2016, and for the state Supreme Court in 2018, Hunt said he’s running at the local government level for the first time.
He said the barriers blocking economic growth in Kanawha County largely mirror statewide issues. The county must continue to develop clean water and sewage in all areas, a requirement for businesses wanting to locate here.
“If someone wants to come into Kanawha County and build a company, they’ve got to be able to tap into water and sewage,” Hunt said. “The next problem with that is ... they have to have an educated and drug-free workforce.”
Drug addiction stems from the idea of hopelessness, Hunt said, and finding people stable jobs is one form of recovery and prevention.
Asked about the needle exchange program, Hunt said that, from what he’s heard from friends and community members, they don’t think the program is a good idea and he would not support it.
Childress does support implementing a needle exchange program, he said, but noted there are issues like who the program would attract from outside the region.
“Maybe it’s not helping these people get off of the drugs, but it’s helping prevent other medical problems, like hepatitis C or AIDS,” Childress said. “Right now, we don’t need nothing else spreading around.”
He said he has responded to multiple overdose calls as a volunteer firefighter. He said he’s learned over the years that people recovering from addiction need compassion, because they do have a real medical problem.
Childress also supports keeping those recovering from addiction out of the jail system and in drug court, instead, saying it’s a better method of recovery.
The Tornado Volunteer Fire Department operates on about $77,000 a year, Childress said.
“How can you expect a department to run on that much a year?” Childress said, adding that, as a commissioner, he would work for increased funding for the county’s volunteer departments.
As a former legislator, Hunt said, his experience lobbying for resources will translate well to the county level.
He said the county must ensure businesses using public subsidies to operate don’t bail out after a decade, having watched the state get burned by businesses taking millions of dollars in funding and fleeing the state before.