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Justice, Salango explain policies, exchange barbs in gubernatorial debate

MORGANTOWN – Gov. Jim Justice and his Democratic challenger Ben Salango met Tuesday night in Morgantown for their first and likely only debate leading up to the Nov. 3 election.

In a bit less than an hour, moderator Hoppy Kercheval covered an array of topics. The three were unmasked but socially distanced around a circular table.

The candidates jabbed each other but, overall, the debate was the exact opposite of the Trump-Biden showdown: The opponents were civil and let each other speak.

In the jabbing arena, Republican Justice called Salango naive, young and inexperienced, while Salango called Justice a part-time governor who pays more attention to his personal business interests.

On actual issues, Kercheval directed questions to one candidate or the other and allowed the other time to rebut. Answers were allowed one minute, rebuttals 30 seconds.

On the often-criticized state alert system COVID map metrics, Justice said, “You adopt a map; you know the situation is fluid.” He said he listens to the medical and education experts, not the union bosses, and tailors things to make them work. The recent positivity metric is meant to help find the super-spreaders.

Salango said changes were made in response to polls. “We need to make sure we’re putting public health ahead of politics.”

Salango criticized Justice for running companies subject to more than 600 lawsuits and more than $128 million in legal settlements and judgments over unpaid bills, while never placing his companies in a blind trust.

Justice responded that when 55 coal companies went bankrupt, his kept working. He said added that the ProPublica investigation that unearthed the figures Salango cited cost him “untold millions” personally, and his children run his companies.

Kercheval asked Salango if he would be voting for President Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The candidate danced around it for a while, saying “whoever is president of the United States, I’ll work with him.” 

He added that voting is a personal choice, and good ideas don’t come with political labels. But when pressured, he admitted he will vote for Biden. 

Justice then responded, “What do you think Joe Biden’s administration will do to America? What do you think Joe Biden’s administration will do to West Virginia?” He’ll turn it into a state park, the governor said.

Justice cited Biden’s evolving stance on banning fracking, which most recently he’s clarified as a ban on new fracking on federal lands. Salango responded, “I’ll stand up against anybody who’s going to take on West Virginia.”

Salango repeatedly referred to Justice’s preference to commute from his Lewisburg home instead of staying full time in Charleston, and being perceived as a part-time governor. When Kercheval pitched that as a question, Justice said, “I have spent all my time using the mansion to my benefit.”

He went on to say that he doesn’t use it for nightly parties. “I absolutely use the mansion for goodness. … All I do is work.” He doesn’t take vacations, he added.

Kercheval brought up teacher raises, noting that each 1% raise costs the state $14 million. He asked Salango how much of a raise he would propose for them.

Salango turned the answer to a jab on Justice, saying he’d stop granting corporate giveaways, such as the tax breaks recent legislation provided to Justice’s coal companies. He said he’d call a special session on education and funding PEIA but the amount of a raise would depend on how many years it’s spread across.

Justice clarified that his coal companies don’t mine thermal coal, so they didn’t qualify for the tax breaks. He added that he was the first governor to sign legislation granting record teacher raises two years in a row and funded PEIA without premium hikes.

That led to a question on the statewide teacher walkouts preceding both rounds of raises, and whether those strikes, as they were termed, were justified or legal.

Justice said, “I love our teachers.” There were struggles with the Legislature, he said, but the raises and PEIA funding got passed; and the only way to afford good raises is through a thriving economy.

Salango, a lawyer, said its not illegal for teachers to strike. They have the freedoms of speech and assembly.

Justice and Salango came close to agreement on the topic of recreational marijuana.

Justice said he supports medical marijuana but not recreational, in light of the drug crisis. “There’s no point adding another layer to the problem.”

Salango, likewise, said he supports medical marijuana and sees opportunities for additional revenue through taxation of recreational. However, states with legal recreational marijuana have seen an increase in traffic accidents, so he wouldn’t support it without measures to preserve pubic safety, such as increased roadside sobriety testing.

Asked if he would roll back right to work legislation, Salango didn’t say, but did say he opposes right to work because it decreases wages without increasing jobs.

Justice said he supports the concept because everyone has that right, but most of his companies are union, and they work well together. 

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