In his gubernatorial campaign, Senate President Bill Cole has emphasized shrinking the size of state government and cutting down on regulation in West Virginia. Cole has drawn support from like-minded national Republican figures, such as Wisconsin’s controversial governor, Scott Walker.
It’s that kind of support that has generated some of Cole’s strongest opposition among voters in the Mountain State.
Boos greeted Cole and Walker as they arrived for a campaign rally in Charleston last week.
“We’re here to protest the fact that Bill Cole is bringing a guy named Scott Walker to town,” said Josh Sword, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO union. “And Scott Walker is the governor of Wisconsin whose claim to fame is lowering wages, taking away benefits and making work places less safe in Wisconsin. And I guess Bill Cole thinks that’s going to help his candidacy.”
Walker joined Cole on a tour of West Virginia – making stops in Bluefield, Charleston and Morgantown.
Cole voiced his admiration for what Walker has done in Wisconsin during their joint campaign stop in Morgantown. He said Walker came into office with more than 9 percent unemployment and a $3.6 billion deficit.
“And in the six years he’s been in office, unemployment is down to 4.1, I think he said, and they have a $300 million surplus -- budget surplus -- this year,” Cole said.
Walker ran into a lot of union opposition when he passed some of the same legislation in Wisconsin that Cole shepherded through West Virginia’s Legislature this past session.
Right to Work
One of those bills made West Virginia the 26th right-to-work state.
The law makes it illegal to fire a worker for refusing to join a union or pay union dues or fees, but it’s being challenged in a state court, with union leaders leading the charge against it.
“Right- to-work is not an anti-union vote,” Cole said. “Now the union bosses are going to say that it is because the union bosses are all of a sudden going to have to get up and deliver for their membership.”
Cole said unions will now have to prove that those dues will help workers. Opponents of the law say those fees help unions negotiate fair wages for all workers.
The backlash against right-to-work and other GOP-backed legislation Cole advanced during this past session has spurred opposition candidates to run in West Virginia, even Republicans. West Virginia’s race for governor has also attracted money from national political action committees that want to make sure those laws stay in place.
Back at the protest in Charleston, Ginny Moles with the Alliance for Retired Americans, said she doesn’t agree with Cole’s leadership during his time in the Legislature.
“You don’t cut jobs. You don’t pass right-to-work when only 8 percent of the workforce is union and tell us that’s anything but union-busting,” she said. “If you want to build the state, you don’t do those two things. You create jobs.”
Job creation is featured prominently in Cole’s campaign. He often cites wanting to change West Virginia’s low workforce participation rate as one of his primary goals. So has his Democratic gubernatorial opponent, billionaire Jim Justice.
U.S. Presidential Race
Another thing they both agree on is who they’d like to see as the next U.S. president.
“We in this room all better pray it’s a Donald Trump Whitehouse,” Cole said to a group of energy industry executives at a meeting in Wheeling last week.
He told the group Hillary Clinton is bent on regulating the coal and gas industries to death and that’s something West Virginia can’t afford. At that meeting, Cole also referenced leaked footage of Trump making vulgar remarks about sexually assaulting women, defending his party’s candidate.
“I’m sure we’ve all said and done things that we’d love to take back or take off the table or wouldn’t be so proud of in a different setting than when they were said,” he said.
Justice campaign ads have taken shots at Cole over several lawsuits stemming from his auto dealership in Ashland, Kentucky. They include allegations of sexual harassment -- not at the hands of Cole himself, but other employees.
Cole describes them as nuisance lawsuits that most businesses deal with on a regular basis.
“They’ve all been discharged. Not a one of them went anywhere,” he said.
Cole making a living as an auto dealer has generated criticism of another kind, though.
Under his watch as Senate president, West Virginia lawmakers passed S.B. 453, in 2015. The bill banned direct sales of Tesla electric vehicles, which critics say cuts competition for Cole’s dealerships.
The law also set a minimum reimbursement rate for warranty work done on cars. Democrats say this is especially hypocritical considering Cole pushed through the repeal of West Virginia’s prevailing wage this year. Prevailing wage laws set the minimum amount contractors can be paid on state construction jobs.
Cole said repealing the prevailing wage and other legislation he has championed as Senate president will move the state forward.
Back at the rally at a bar on High Street in Morgantown, Cole also referenced the fact Justice says he’ll continue to coach high school basketball if he’s governor, potentially splitting his attention during the Legislative session.
“So if we have full-time problems, they require full-time solutions and I’m going to tell you, we need a full-time governor,” he said. “That governor is Bill Cole.”
The latest MetroNews West Virginia poll shows Justice leading Cole by 11 points. That’s down slightly from the previous month’s 14 points. The margin of error still puts Justice’s lead in double digits.