Democratic gubernatorial candidates debate crisis responses, state economy

Amid growing concerns regarding Gov. Jim Justice’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, three Democratic gubernatorial candidates took to the debate stage Tuesday to detail their own policies and ideas about defeating Justice in November.

WVVA’s 2020 Democratic Gubernatorial Debate was broadcasted live Tuesday evening beginning at 7 p.m. and ending at 8 p.m. as Justice’s statewide stay-at-home order officially went into effect. Each of the three candidates—WV Can’t Wait movement organizer Stephen Smith, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango and state Sen. Ron Stollings (D – Boone, 07)—used a portion of his speaking time to outline failures and potential improvements of Justice’s pandemic response.

Smith said he knows West Virginians feel concerned about each other, but he also hopes the state government’s response to the pandemic under Justice causes them to feel anger.

“I hope you’re angry,” Smith said. “I’m angry. There is always money when an out-of-state CEO wants a bailout, yet here they tell us there’s no money—nothing can be done.”

Smith noted multiple initiatives the governor could enact to ease the burden of the pandemic on working families, including suspending evictions, guaranteeing paid sick days, expanding telehealth, conducting a full bed inventory, enacting a childcare tax credit, ensuring testing is available in every county and providing an economic stimulus package for local businesses. Smith said his campaign was significantly more prepared to deal with the coronavirus crisis than the governor. He noted that his campaign published its comprehensive economic relief plan 10 days ago while Justice has been hesitant to act.

“The people of this state are fighting for each other, but our governor is not fighting for us,” Smith said. “This governor has blood on his hands (…) The people know what to do in a crisis. We just need a governor who is led by the people.”

Salango also criticized Justice’s lack of effective and timely action leading up to and in response to the pandemic.

“The time to plan for a crisis is not two or three weeks after it starts,” Salango said. “The time to prepare for a crisis is months or years ahead of time. We were caught flat-footed in West Virginia.”

Salango said the state should have had a plan in place to ensure testing labs would remain open through all hours of the day. He said he had a similar plan in place in Kanawha County.

Salango said the state should be doing a better job supporting first responders as well. He said Kanawha County has, amongst other measures, transferred $400,000 from its emergency budget into a budget for overtime pay for first responders.

“West Virginia needs someone who can prepare for a crisis,” Salango said. “We’re going to get a lot of federal assistance, and we need a governor who can actually implement that.”

Stollings said the state’s cuts to DHHR, CPS and various other public health departments are proving to be costly during the pandemic. He said the governor should be focused on effectively allocating federal resources that will be offered to the state government.

“I think the first dollar out should be given to our small businesses and entrepreneurs,” Stollings said.

Stollings also said the governor should be prepared to utilize the National Guard to help combat the crisis.

“We have to be ready,” Stolling said. “We should always be on our toes.”

In addition to disaster preparedness and coronavirus crisis responses, the candidates also outlined their visions for the state economy, debating methods of increasing available jobs, encouraging young people to remain in the state and appropriate adjustments to tax codes.

Smith said West Virginia is wealthier now than ever before, and his focus as governor would be on ensuring that wealth is more effectively distributed amongst residents.

“Now is the wealthiest time in West Virginia history,” Smith said. “We can have the best roads and schools and the highest wages we’ve ever had as soon as we stop sending our wealth away.”

Smith said his campaign is the only of the three candidates with a published plan to shift hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks away from out-of-state businesses in favor of small businesses and establishing a state bank and infrastructure and jobs programs.

“As soon as we stop rigging our economy in favor of companies that are dodging their taxes and start rigging it in favor of small businesses, family farms and entrepreneurs, we can make West Virginia the best place in the country for people who pay their taxes.”

Smith said West Virginia could be the best place in the country to live and to raise a family if the government would listen to the concerns and demands of average residents, which he said his campaign has been doing for the past 15 months.

“We’ve had over 11,000 conversations and 197 town halls—listening more than talking,” Smith said. “Anyone can go online and see our plans and how we will pay for them.”

Smith also said he supports full legalization of marijuana and broadband for all. He said the state needs a movement rather than just one leader, noting that his campaign is the only of the three candidates with a published plan to end corporate tax breaks and has recruited 93 other candidates—including 14 educators—for state office who have pledged to deny corporate PAC money and to never cross a picket line.

“The people of West Virginia are always taking on more and more responsibilities with less and less resources (…) The solutions we need have always been inside us—in neighborhoods, in communities, in unions,” Smith said. “We are the only ones who can save ourselves.”

Salango and Stollings each credited their personal experience in government as reasons they are “uniquely qualified” to act as governor and to revitalize the state’s economy.

“As commissioner, I’ve been on the forefront of economic development for years,” Salango said. “We can’t keep running the same playbook we have been running since 1950 and expecting different results.”

Salango said the governor should view each region of the state individually and provide solutions tailored for each location rather than one solution for all.

“The issues they’re having in Martinsburg are different than the ones they’re having in Morgantown and in McDowell County,” he said. “We have to look at each area individually and come up with solutions.”

Salango said as governor he would focus on cultivating a more educated and trained state workforce.

“Small business is the backbone of West Virginia,” he said. “It’s time to put them first.”
Salango also said he would prioritize ensuring that the state Democratic Party is more inclusive and not only for “the far left.” He said the party should “return to the party we were years ago.”

Stollings said he would promote economic growth by prioritizing small businesses, supporting entrepreneurs and expanding the state’s technology sector.

“This is something we have been working on in the Senate for some time,” Stollings said.

Stollings also said he would establish a governor’s office of grants and partnerships to take advantage of funding for recovery efforts following the coronavirus crisis.

Stollings said his experience in the Senate and his record in public office are proof that he is the best candidate to reinvigorate the state’s economy.

“As I watch what’s happening in our state (…) I can’t help but think that I’m the person who’s most uniquely qualified to lead our state,” he said. “I have relationships with leaders of both parties and a 14-year record of accomplishments.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].