By Sarah Mansheim
“Somebody’s missing tonight, and he’s not too far away,” said Senator Jeff Kessler at Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate at Greenbrier Valley Theatre.
Kessler was referring to gubernatorial candidate and Lewisburg resident, billionaire Jim Justice, who has declined to attend Democratic candidate debates across the state, including the one at GVT, which is located less than a mile from his home.
Kessler’s debate opponent, former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, also running for governor, said to the audience, “Welcome to another edition of the Booth and Jeff show,” another tongue-in-cheek reference to Justice’s absence. Kessler and Goodwin have been travelling across the state, facing off in a series of debates ahead of the primary election.
For his part, Justice has been unapologetic about his refusal to attend the Democratic debates. He told a Register-Herald reporter Monday night that he had no plans to attend the Lewisburg debate. “For crying out loud, why go through the same stuff? I’ve got people to see … There’s no point in going for entertainment and sound bites.”
Despite Justice’s distaste for sound bites, both Kessler and Goodwin had plenty to say to debate moderator Mike Kidd during the debate. Both men are running for governor on the Democratic ticket, and, for the most part, agreed with one another’s policies for improving the economy and living conditions for citizens in the Mountain State.
Kessler, in his introduction, identified himself as a grandson of Russian immigrants, whose grandfather was a coal miner. “I’ve been a proud Democrat since 1981,” Kessler said, and then stressed the need for the state to invest in its people and infrastructure, proposing such policies as free community college and vocational training, widely available substance abuse programs, money invested into roads and bridges and enhanced broadband internet connectivity.
Goodwin’s introduction echoed Kessler’s sentiments as he pointed to his 5-and-a-half year stint of U.S. Attorney for the state’s Southern district, which includes Greenbrier County, as giving him experience in solving such community problems as drug abuse and school safety, and, again, broadband connectivity.
“We have to come together to bring West Virginia forward,” he said.
While the two candidates agreed with one another on a slate of issues, dinging off their mutual support of cultural and artistic tourism, expanding rehab facilities for drug addicts (Kessler) while also working hard to keep opioids out of the hands of those who don’t need them (Goodwin), maximizing opportunity for rural workers, especially disenfranchised coal miners, and small businesses, the two men varied differently when it came to Goodwin’s idea of “coming together,” especially in the state house.
“Throw the bums out,” said Kessler when asked about the Legislature’s failure to pass a budget. Kessler serves as Senate Minority Leader, and said that the last two years of Republican rule on the state level has all but destroyed the state.
Goodwin concurred: this past session, he said, “The Legislature messed around and they didn’t do what they needed to do. They violated their oath of office by not passing a budget.” But while Kessler demanded a full house cleaning of the Legislature, Goodwin took a more measured approach, suggesting a “bottom to top review of state government.”
Kessler didn’t pull any punches when it came to the discussion of coal’s future, either. “We need to be realistic,” he said. “People think if we throw out Obama and get rid of the EPA, coal will come back. Get real,” he said.
Then, backing off a bit, he said, “Coal will still play a role, especially metallurgical coal that’s used for steel.” But, he said, the state needs to diversify its economy, a move that can be mightily funded with federal dollars.
“We need to grab every penny the feds are offering. They are putting billions back into Appalachia for education, training, restoring coal land for agriculture, farming and hemp,” Kessler said. “Coal is not coming back like it used to.”
“We’ve relied too long on too few buckets of money,” Goodwin said about the coal industry. “We need to reinvest in our workers and create a jobs program for miners,” he said, referring to the Civilian Conservation Corps of workers from the New Deal era, who were put to work during the Great Depression to build roads, bridges and state and federal parks across the United States.
Further, Goodwin said, the state needs to stop giving tax credits to coal companies and large-scale out-of-state industries. “We need to focus on local businesses,” he said, and move away from the coal-only economy, which keeps West Virginia isolated both culturally and economically.
Kessler agreed. “I am against tax giveaways,” he said, stating that it is critical that tax breaks be tied to performance.
“We need to create opportunity,” Kessler said, “with open, diverse and welcoming policies.” Referencing the failed Religious Freedom bill, voted down by the state senate, Kessler said the state should not be patting itself on the back for not passing the bill, but should, instead, pass affirmative bills on the state level, not discriminatory ones, which will in turn create more opportunities and bring more bright minds to work and live in West Virginia.
“We need to invest in children and infrastructure,” Goodwin said, “and attract people to our state as an open and welcoming society.”
West Virginia’s primary election will be held on Tuesday, May 10. The Democratic candidates for governor are Jeff Kessler, Booth Goodwin and Jim Justice. Bill Cole is running unopposed on the Republican ticket. Early voting begins on Wednesday, Apr. 27.