Republican incumbent Gov. Jim Justice’s record on the coronavirus, education and other policies were under scrutiny Tuesday night as he faced off in a debate against his Democratic challenger Ben Salango.
The candidates took shots at one another, but also found some common ground on issues that have created partisan divides across the nation.
The debate — hosted by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and moderated by Hoppy Kercheval of WVMetroNews — is likely to be the only debate in the race for the state’s chief executive.
Throughout the hour-long broadcast, billionaire businessman-turned-politician Justice defended his administration’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which as of Tuesday morning had killed at least 387 West Virginians.
Since the pandemic hit the state in mid-March, public health officials have recorded 18,555 cases — of which 4,687 are considered active.
With schools resuming learning as of early September, Justice’s administration has made a variety of tweaks to a set of metrics to guide reopenings, including a map that has drawn criticism from public educators.
“You know the situation is fluid. You know you have to change and everything. We listen to the experts, we don’t listen to the union bosses to tell us what to do. We listen to the medical and the educational experts. Along the way, you have to adjust. You know, that’s all there is to it,” Justice said. “I’ve said it many, many times, but a pandemic is no different than a trip to the moon.”
Salango — an attorney, businessman and Kanawha County Commissioner — said schools being open is a high priority, but he argued that the map guiding the school reopenings is being manipulated so that more counties have opened for in-person instruction.
“We need to make sure that we’re putting public health ahead of politics — and anytime you take a map and then you do political polls and adjust the metrics based on the polls, you’re putting politics ahead of public health. That’s something we don’t need to do,” Salango said.
Salango took aim at Justice’s legal woes, including a long history of lawsuits over unpaid debts. He also noted a federal investigation into Justice’s businesses that yielded no indictments.
“We need a governor we can be proud of — not someone who’s constantly bogged down in controversy,” Salango said.
Salango also poked at Justice for an ongoing lawsuit attempting to compel him to abide by a constitutional mandate and live in the state capital of Charleston.
“For people preoccupied where I go to bed at night, I have spent all my time in Charleston using the mansion to my benefit,” Justice rebutted. “I don’t use the mansion for perks. I have been on the state helicopter one time. I don’t use the mansion for a party every night. What in the world does that have to do with anything?”
The case regarding Justice’s residency is slated for oral arguments Wednesday in the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
“You don’t get to pick and choose which parts of the Constitution you follow,” Salango said. “And so, you know, if you’re going to run for governor, you have to understand that comes with it that you have to live in the seat of government — you have to live in Charleston.”
The two candidates also split on major national issues, including ongoing protests of police brutality and racial injustice.
“We have a division in our country and with us looting and burning in our cities and not demonstrating in a peaceful manner,” Justice said. “I’ve got a real problem with it. I’ve got a real problem first not funding our police. Yeah, do Black Lives Matter? Well, of course Black Lives Matter — and they matter just like all lives matter. And we should absolutely always try to work together.”
Salango also argued that Justice has a record of being insensitive to other races, including an incident earlier this year in which the governor called a predominantly Black girls basketball team “thugs” after a heated game.
“I reject the proposition that’s out there that you either have to be pro-law enforcement or pro-Black Lives Matter. I’m endorsed by law enforcement. I’m proud of that endorsement,” Salango said. “But I’m also proud of the fact that I stand up against inequality.”
While Justice and Salango parted ways on many issues, they did agree on a few items affecting West Virginia and the rest of the nation.
When it comes to legislation that would ensure equal rights for state residents who identify as lesibian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer, both Salango and Justice said they support such a measure. Salango said the state needs to be welcoming to everyone.
“One of the things that companies look for when they come in is whether or not it’s welcoming. They look at whether or not you know it’s an equal opportunity — equal rights state — and I support the LGBTQ community,” Salango said.
For nearly two decades, a “Fairness Act” to ensure employment and housing protections for the LGBTQ community has been introduced in the Legislature, although multiple attempts to move the bill to a vote in recent sessions has failed. However, Justice said Tuesday he would support such legislation if it came across his desk.
“I think, really, truly that we have no place in our society to be discriminatory towards anyone at any time. I mean that’s terrible to do and it’s degrading and so I concur,” said Justice, agreeing with Salango.
Asked by moderator Kercheval whether he would sign such legislation, Justice clearly said that he would.
Both candidates expressed support of the state’s as-of-yet launched medical cannabis program, but neither said they support joining 12 states and the District of Columbia to legalize the plant for recreational use.
“We have a terrible drug situation in West Virginia right now and we do not need something else to add to that situation,” Justice said.
Salango said he worries about the potential for those driving under the influence of marijuana to cause accidents.
“Until there’s a roadside test so we don’t give up on public safety, I won’t be in favor of full legalization,” Salango said “But I will say, you know, it is an opportunity for additional revenue. It is an opportunity to help people get off of opioids and get off of more hardcore drugs, but I do worry about the public safety aspect of it.”
Libertarian Party candidate Erika Kolenich and Mountain Party candidate Danny Lutz are also on the ballot for governor in the 2020 general election. Neither candidate was invited to take part in Tuesday’s debate.
Those registered to vote can apply for an absentee ballot through Oct. 28. Completed absentee ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day. Early in-person voting runs from Oct. 21 through Oct. 31.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.