Greenbrier County House of Delegates debate examines COVID-19 future, development on both sides of county

By Bobby Bordelon

The Tuesday, October 13, the House of Delegates debate brought Democratic incumbents Cindy Lavender-Bowe and Jeff Campell virtually face-to-face with their Republican challengers Barry Bruce and Todd Longanacre. Hosted by the nonpartisan Greenbrier County Chamber of Commerce, and moderated by GGCC executive director Ashley Vickers, the candidates discussed business, arts, and school in the time of COVID-19, the development of both sides of Greenbrier County, and more.

The debate featured (top, l-r) Ashley Vickers, Todd Longanacre, Jeff Campbell, (bottom, l-r) Cindy Lavender-Bowe, and Barry Bruce.

Like its presence in the lives of those living in the United States, COVID-19 was front and center at this debate. Since the pandemic spread since March, school and business closures throughout the state have been a cause for alarm and an action taken to keep people safe. With Congress not looking likely to pass more stimulus funding for people and businesses, it falls to the West Virginia Legislature and Governor Jim Justice to utilize the over $1 billion in CARES Act funding from March in a wise and helpful manner.

Both Republicans and Campbell supported businesses opening up on their own terms, with Lavender-Bowe emphasizing the need to follow the science, pointing to an increase in cases and a decrease in mask usage. She did not endorse another shutdown, however, just focused on the need to keep people safe. Longanacre pushed for businesses to be able to make the choice to open and, should a case emerge as a result of lack of preparation, let the legal system sort out the results.

“Let businesses decide what they want to do, then it falls back on the law. If it can be proven that someone got sick at your business because, God forbid, you decided to engage in your livelihood, put food on your table, and pay your employees, you should be held accountable. It’s about individual responsibility.”

Both Lavender-Bowe and Campbell cited the unspent CARES Act funding as what could be used to support local businesses and arts during a time when, as Bruce noted, many businesses “can’t get staff to work and can’t get customers to come in.” Both incumbents highlighted their efforts to help constituents get through to Workforce West Virginia to receive much-needed unemployment benefits after they were laid off due to the pandemic and pointed to the need for people to support their communities.

“I think we need to not take as many trips to Beckley and to Roanoke to shop, find as many things as we can locally here, and try not to do as much online stuff,” Campbell said. “Let’s try to support our local businesses as best we can because this is such a tough time for everyone.”

The reopening of schools has been underway – recently Lavender-Bowe hosted a virtual town hall highlighting some of the issues facing students and teachers operating on the reduced, A/B days, and remote schedule Greenbrier County Schools enacted to keep students safe. Campbell, a teacher at Eastern Greenbrier Middle School, noted many of the issues facing the school system are related to internet and technology, such as broadband access, and cited the hope for reduced transmission rates and a vaccine to return to full-time classes.

Bruce looked to have schools open, as safety permits, to a full time schedule, saying he would like to see expansion. Longanacre, as a teacher in Monroe County, stated he had a full class, and pointed to the full time opening of some West Virginia charter schools as a reason for a full reopening.

Economic and community development in Greenbrier County, on both sides of the county, also took center stage, with all the candidates celebrating the new businesses and nonprofits in White Sulphur Springs and Ronceverte, such as ACE Hardware, Friends of Ronceverte, and many more.

“I think that those communities are doing exactly what we need our communities to do,” said Lavender-Bowe. “They’re coming together within their community and putting forth the effort.”

Supporting the cities to do everything they can includes finances, and Campbell pointed to his introduction and the passage of a bill allowing White Sulphur Springs to utilize more than the interest $1 million fund created by the sale of land from the city to the Greenbrier Valley Airport in the 80s.

Bruce pointed to the national creation of economic opportunity zones in the 2017 tax bill, which allowed certain tax breaks for investors in approved areas. White Sulphur Springs and Ronceverte were both approved by Governor Jim Justice to function as these zones, drawing some investors to the areas. Longanacre also pushed for West Virginia to compete for corporation investments in these areas though tax policy.

The situation looks different in the Meadow River Valley – candidates spoke of the decline in the area after the 2016 flood. Campbell agreed, but cited the expansion of Interstate 64 in 1988, bypassing many towns on the western side of the county for travelers to Charleston, as the beginning of the area’s decline. Bruce explained that working to combat drugs in the area would be key to its future.

“Personally being there, walking the streets, knocking on doors, and talking to the citizens, it’s a problem we have to address,” Bruce said. “They don’t have the resources.”

The possibilities of a walking and hiking trail were celebrated by Longanacre and Lavender-Bowe. In addition, the Meadow River Valley Association (MRVA) and the MARVEL Center are working to bring the communities together in a similar manner to the efforts underway in Ronceverte and White Sulphur Springs.

Medical and recreational use of cannabis was addressed, with each candidate in support of medical cannabis use. While Lavender-Bowe and Campbell endorsed in-home growing for those with a prescription, Bruce pushed back, unsure of how it could be regulated. Noting the state needed to fix it’s medical rules first, Lavender-Bowe also endorsed legalizing recreational use for its potential in the tourism and local farming industries. Longanacre was skeptical of full legalization.

“As for recreational drugs, I fought for everyone’s freedom to shoot up, snort up, do what you want, but not at the taxpayer’s expense,” he said, citing law enforcement costs.

Equal protection under the law in West Virginia was met with both confusion and clarity during one question about the Fairness Act, a bill currently stuck in committee. Co-sponsored by Lavender-Bowe, the bill would enact protections for LGBTQ West Virginians, including outlawing evictions and firings based solely on their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Earlier this year, in an opinion written by Judge Neil Gorsuch, the Supreme Court extended the employment protections in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to these individuals.

Both Bruce and Longanacre pushed for people to follow the law in terms of civil rights for these groups, with Longanacre explaining he did not “understand the mindset” of those fighting for equal legal protections. Citing his experience in other countries, he explained “it’s crazy we’re even talking about.”

“No one has the right to be prejudiced,” Bruce noted.

Campbell agreed the law should be followed but pointed out the bill had not passed. Lavender-Bowe expanded on this, citing her faith and need to treat people with respect.

“We make the laws, not just follow them,” Bowe said. “Freedom from discrimination is the right of all people we should strive to see everyone in our communities is treated with fairness and equality. You shouldn’t be able to be fired from your job or evicted from your home for any reason based on who you love or your gender identity.”

To watch the debate in full, go youtube.com and search for the Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce, where the House of Delegates, State Senate, and Greenbrier County Commission are each available.

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