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State of the state: Candidates for governor present visions for West Virginia

SHOWDOWN — First Lady Cathy Justice and Gov. Jim Justice, at left, and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango and Kanawha County Circuit Judge Tera Salango, are pictured following their respective primary wins on June 9. (Photos by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON — The race for governor of West Virginia is pitting a Democrat-turned-Republican billionaire businessman seeking a second term steering the ship of state against a Democratic county commissioner, attorney and business owner wanting a shot at the big chair.

Both are relatively new to politics. Both have created businesses. Both have fought the coronavirus that has plagued the state and nation since March. Both have visions for the state. And both have 24 days or less to make their case to West Virginia’s voters casting absentee ballots and preparing for early voting and Election Day on Nov. 3

JUSTICE: “It is the best time for me”

Gov. Jim Justice relies on his Christian upbringing and his faith. That faith has become more important dealing with the weight of the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s response for the last eight months.

“It is the best time for me, because this is what God took me to do,” Justice said. “He wanted somebody that had been through the battles and been through all the trenches and been through the mud and been through the tough stuff. I didn’t get this white hair by just doing nothing. Really when it really boils right down to it, I have been battle-tested.”

Justice won the election as governor in 2016 as the Democratic Party’s candidate. He came into office in 2017 dealing with the largest budget deficit since former Gov. Gaston Caperton took office in 1988. The state had crumbling roads, teachers were agitating for long-overdue raises, and the opioid epidemic had caused a catastrophic number of overdose deaths.

After getting his first taste of governing in 2017 as a Democrat, President Donald Trump talked Justice into re-joining the Republican Party. He announced the switch with Trump at a rally in Huntington in August 2017.

Since then, Justice helped push through the Roads to Prosperity program, allowing the state to secure up to $1.6 billion in bonds for major road and bridge construction projects. Premiums from the bonds, as well as additional funding secured by the West Virginia Legislature, have gone to paving and maintenance projects for the state’s secondary road systems, including new equipment.

Since 2018, teachers have received two 5 percent pay raises, with Justice taking a stand against members of his own party in 2019 when they tried to tie the raises that year to a whole set of education reform initiatives. Justice was a strong supporter of the WV INVESTS program, a last-dollar-in program designed to help high school graduates and adults earn a two-year degree in a high-demand job field. The governor and first lady Cathy Justice expanded the Communities in Schools program to help students with physical, social, and emotional needs.

The Jobs and Hope program, unveiled by Justice last year, is working to both help those suffering from opioid and drug addiction get clean, stay clean and learn a new job and trade. Jobs and Hope connect those leaving drug treatment centers and those in recovery with transition agents who will help connect them with other state and private agencies to find job training programs and help with finding jobs with the goal of expunging non-violent criminal records.

For Justice, focusing on these issues during his first term was about marketing the state to the outside world. The perception that the state was backward, crumbling and a haven for drug abuse had to be changed for good things to happen.

“We had to change our image,” Justice said. “We had to really put a stake in the sand and declare education as our centerpiece. We had to do that because we had to let the world know that we were going to do that and everything. And then we had to put another stake in the ground. By God, we’re going to absolutely put our roads back in great shape and everything. Now we’ve done a whole lot on that.”

Justice believes the state’s image is changing for the better. A sign of that perception is the selection of West Virginia out of 17 states for the new Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center on 800 acres of land between Tucker and Grant counties. The facility will test a new kind of high-speed transportation using pods traveling at more than 600 miles per hour through magnetic tubes.

Justice points to projects like the Virgin Hyperloop and his friendship with Trump as examples of the connections and power he has to recruit major projects. In comparison, Justice pointed to Salango’s work in helping construct the Shawnee Sports Complex, a professional soccer, baseball and softball complex in Kanawha County that has brought in more than $20 million in revenue so far in 2019.

“If you think a trial lawyer kid that has built a soccer field with somebody else’s money…can relate and discuss with the president of the United States and bring opportunities to the State of West Virginia, then you need to go vote to the kid and then just see what happens, because I truly believe that it will be a disaster to West Virginia.”

Key to changing the state’s image, Justice said, is high-speed broadband expansion. While there have been a couple of projects, including a fiber optic data network being built through Southern West Virginia by Facebook, Justice is betting big on the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction.

The auction will allocate up to $20.8 billion over a 10-year period to subsidize construction of high-speed gigabit internet in unserved rural areas across the U.S. West Virginia is eligible for up to $766 million in federal funding available over 10 years through the auction. At least six companies have prepared applications for West Virginia broadband expansion projects.

Justice announced last month he issued an executive order removing regulatory caps on the West Virginia Development Authority’s Broadband Loan Insurance Program as an incentive for companies to participate in the auction. Justice said it was time to think big.

“We have got to solve this broadband riddle, and we’ve got to do it now,” Justice said. “If we go to this broadband thing and we throw a few million dollars at it, you will grow white-headed and die 10 times before we ever get across the state. No, we’re not going to do that. We’re going to blanket this state and we’re going to blanket this state immediately.”

While it’s common for candidates to travel the state to meet with voters, COVID-19 has made it much harder. Justice has left his campaign in the hands of his staff, choosing to focus on leading the state’s COVID-19 response. Justice briefs the state three times each week on the latest coronavirus news and updates.

Justice is hopeful for a vaccine by the end of the year, but he acknowledges that there is still much work to do. Much of the criticism Justice faces is over the County Alert System color-coded map and metrics for school re-entry. A less strict version of the Harvard Global Health Institute map, Justice said the model developed by state health officials better represents the virus spread in counties and gives local officials a guide for when to re-open or close schools.

“I do really believe we have a model that is unique, and it fits West Virginia and it’s working, it’s truly working,” Justice said.

SALANGO: “I want the job”

For Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, every day is an opportunity for him to work hard. An active attorney, the owner of multiple small businesses, and one of three commissioners in the largest county in the state, Salango is always hard at work. It’s a work ethic he wants to bring to a state office he believes has been vacant until the coronavirus pandemic.

“People want new leadership,” Salango said. “They want a governor who is focused on their business. Somebody who is going to work full time. Our current governor, he took the first three years off. And then with COVID, he does a press briefings three times a week now, but really has showed a lack of leadership throughout his tenure as governor.”

Salango, a native of Raleigh County, co-founded the law firm Preston and Salango in 2006 with his wife, who became Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Tera Salango in 2018. In 2017, Salango added elected official to his resume when he was appointed to the Kanawha County Commission to replace David Hardy. Salango won a full term to the commission in 2018.

The 46-year-old Salango cuts a vastly different profile than the 69-year-old Justice. Young and fit, Salango recently showed off his rock-climbing skills in a TV ad to talk about his work ethic and willingness to do the hard work.

“The purpose of the ad is really to showcase the differences about ideas and energy,” Salango said. “We need somebody who is going to be out there every single day to work for West Virginia, someone who has ideas, somebody that’s not running the same playbook we’ve been running since the 1950s, someone that’s going to be focused on developing the economy and not just focused on his own businesses.”

If elected, Salango said he would divest himself of his business interests, something Justice only did for two of his more than 100 companies. Salango points to millions in unpaid bills and fines that have been levied against Justice and his companies over the last 20 years, as well as tax breaks his businesses have received from the state prior to his election for governor.

Speaking of business, Salango unveiled a regional economic development plan focused on the strengths of different parts of the state. Salango hopes the plan will become a conversation starter on how to best develop all the regions of the state and diversity the economy.

“The state is just so different: The Eastern Panhandle compared to the Northern Panhandle compared to Southern West Virginia,” Salango said. “You can only move West Virginia forward by having a regional plan. You can’t do the same things in the Eastern Panhandle that you’re doing in Southern West Virginia, it’s completely different.”

Salango said on day one he would release the memorandum of understanding between the state and China Energy that has never come to fruition. The $83.7 million deal was supposed to see Chinese investment in West Virginia natural gas and petrochemical projects. Salango said the public deserves to know what happened and whether or not the deal was real.

“Someone is going to tell the truth to the people of West Virginia,” Salango said. “That’s been concealed from the public. We’re going to release day one. When I walk into office, everybody’s going to have it because they need to understand what happened with that deal. I try not to use game-changer, but that was a game-changer for West Virginia and it turned out to be fake.”

As for Justice’s handling of the coronavirus and the school re-opening plan, Salango wants to push decision-making on school re-opening decisions to the local level. While counties now have the authority to close schools or switch to a blend of in-person and distance learning, Salango said the County Alert System map has been watered down in order to allow schools cover for re-opening. Salango said he is supportive of a system of metrics, but those metrics should act as a guide.

“I think it’s important that the superintendent and your boards of education work with the health department to determine what’s best for that county or even within the county at a particular school,” Salango said. “The map should be used as a guideline. It should be used just for decision-making purposes, but not the only thing that’s used. I think that’s one of the biggest problems, because the Governor’s changed the metrics. I think that’s one of the issues that our teachers are having and that many parents are having. He’s changed the metrics so that by November 3rd, the entire map is green.”

Salango also wants to focus on broadband expansion, as well as infrastructure improvements to make possible sites for future economic development shovel ready. Having helped develop the Shawnee Sports Complex, Salango see a real opportunity to expand outdoor sports facilities and bring national and international competitions to West Virginia. All of this would involve a new and improved marketing plan to put the word out to the rest of the world that West Virginia is a great place to live or to visit.

For Salango, wanting the job of governor is about public service, not self-service. Salango hopes voters will share his vision and cast their votes for him on Election Day.

“We need somebody with new energy, new ideas, and somebody who has a history of getting things done, not somebody who’s going to make promises and then bail on them at the last second,” Salango said. “I’ll work the number of hours that it takes to do this job. Jim Justice wants the title and he wants the perks, but he doesn’t really want the job. That’s the difference: I actually want the job.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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