Democratic Hopefuls Face Off In Gubernatorial Debate Amid Virus Fears

Mar 24, 2020

Three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for governor of West Virginia debated Tuesday night, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread globally and across the Mountain State.  

The virus loomed large throughout the hour-long debate hosted by WVVA between attorney and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, physician and Boone County state Sen. Ron Stollings and child advocate Stephen Smith.

Each candidate tailored their pitch to showcase their background. Stollings, who has served in the state Senate for 14 years, said his legislative experience would give him a leg up as the state’s leader. 

“I have the record, not just a plan on paper,” he said. “I have 14 years of experience as a state legislator and the relationships that can get things done.”

Salango, who has racked up endorsements by prominent labor organizations including the AFL-CIO, touted his business and public service record. 

“I’ve proven I can get things done,” he said. “I've stood beside working families. I've stood up for the little guy. I've fought for those who've been ignored, those who've been forgotten.”

While repeatedly offering his cell phone number to connect with constituents, Smith highlighted the accomplishments of his grassroots campaign, which does not accept corporate donations and has traveled to each of West Virignia’s 55 counties at least twice over the past 15 months. 

“Never in West Virginia’s history has one politician been the solution to our problems. We are the only ones who can save ourselves,” Smith said. “We want a government by and for the people.”

The Democratic hopefuls also took jabs at former Democrat and current governor, Jim Justice, for both his leadership during the current outbreak and his ties to business and industry. Justice is West Virginia's wealthiest citizen, and his family owns more than 100 businesses including numerous coal companies and the luxury resort, The Greenbrier. 

“After this pandemic subsides, we need a leader who can step up and rebuild our economy,” Salango said. “We need a leader who can step up and rebuild our workforce. We need a governor who actually wants this job rather than the title.”

On many issues the candidates often aligned. All supported tackling the state’s opioid and substance use disorder crisis through boosting treatment, growing jobs in the state and were all adamant against repealing the state Business and Occupancy Tax. 

But on the details, the candidates offered different policy suggestions. Both Salango and Smith urged viewers to look at their campaign platforms and plans posted online. Stollings citing many of his past legislative accomplishments. 

Smith offered a more radical vision for the Mountain State, which includes ending all tax breaks for corporations. And on working with Republicans, he offered a different take from his colleagues, who urged cooperation. His campaign has worked to recruit dozens of other political candidates running in races across the state. 

“And finally, we disagree about what the real fight is,” Smith added. “We don't think the real fight in West Virginia is Republican and Democrat, and left versus right. We think it's the good old boys versus everybody else. And we have to be willing to fight that fight, not against our own interests.”

The West Virginia primary is currently set for Tuesday, May 12. Voters may now request an absentee ballot due to the coronavirus.