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Reporter’s notebook/Two months away from the election

As of this writing, we are 64 days from the Nov. 3, general election, with the traditional start of campaign season coming next week on Labor Day.

Of course, candidates have been trying to get out and around the state now for weeks since they mostly couldn’t do it during the lead up to the June 9 primary. So, how is everybody fairing?

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Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, the Democratic challenger to Democrat-turned-Republican Gov. Jim Justice, knows he still has a name-recognition problem. So, he’s been on a road trip around the state, meeting with voters in a socially distanced way, and making the case on why he is the better choice for governor.

Justice, on the other hand, has stuck with the medium that probably helped him win the primary, YouTube live streaming. Outside of a pro-coal rally nearly two weeks ago, Justice’s outings away from the Governor’s Reception Room have revolved around official business.

These include attending the groundbreaking for the Marshall University flight school in Charleston, welcoming National Guard soldiers home from deployment, presenting checks to groups fighting opioid addiction and road construction announcements.

Otherwise, the only time most voters have seen the governor has been Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during COVID-19 briefings. Sometimes Justice makes important announcements during these briefings, though mostly the briefings consist of information that could be more easily presented in the form of a press release.

The briefings helped Justice during the months prior to the primary, especially when COVID-19 case counts remained low, but the public was in lockdown. I’m unsure how helpful the live streams are now that candidates can physically hit the trail. Voters are going to need to see Justice leave the Capitol compound more.

I also think that Justice, and our government agencies in general, need to start reopening their meetings to the press. Justice claims if everyone who participated in the briefings were in the same room, it would be hard to socially distance. Never mind the fact that if the briefing was reopened to reporters in-person, at least one-third would not be able to participate anyway since they’re in distant parts of the state.

Our government agencies have gotten too used to being able to meet via conference call or live stream. They’re pretending to be transparent while protecting themselves from being questioned. Justice himself might provide an answer to every question, but the press only gets one question each and no follow-ups. I know the intentions are good, but if we can reopen schools, we can reopen meetings to the press. It’s already happening on the local level.

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Justice walked into an unforced error last week with his comments on the Brooke County Power project, a proposed natural gas-fired power plant. If Justice had simply said the state was still considering the project and seeking answers to some questions, that would have been fine.

He said those things, but also went on a whole tirade about whether the project would create the number of jobs it claimed, how many of those jobs would be West Virginia jobs, where the gas for the power plant was coming from, whether ratepayers would be affected and why the loan guarantee was needed if the project was truly happening.

I got the impression from Justice’s statements that he has a bit of a bias against the plant. Understandable, as Justice’s coal companies primarily mine and sell coal to coal-fired power plants. It also doesn’t help that the West Virginia Coal Association just endorsed him. As I said above, Justice was part of their pro-coal rally last week.

But just about every question Justice had about the project I had an answer to easily. I don’t understand how they can say they don’t have answers to those questions. According to the filings for the plant, at least 75 percent of the construction jobs would be filled by West Virginians. The pipe feeding gas to the plant is coming from Pennsylvania, but it’s connecting into the Rover Pipeline which is mostly gas from West Virginia at that point. Ratepayers in West Virginia wouldn’t be affected because it’s a merchant power plant selling energy on the wholesale market.

And lastly, they want the state to guarantee the debt on a $5.6 million loan as a sign of support. Considering we gave a $12 million tax break to a coal-fired merchant power plant last year, $5.6 million is chump change and the state only becomes liable for the debt should the project fall through.

But by stating his concerns openly, Justice gave Salango an opportunity to state his support for the project, a project that has a lot of bipartisan support in the Northern Panhandle, while he was in Wheeling for his statewide tour.

Comparing primary votes, Justice won the primary in Ohio County with 2,238 votes, while Salango won his party’s primary with 1,197 votes, a difference of 1,041 compared to Justice’s vote total. That seems sizable, but keep in mind that the general election will bring out more voters, especially if they see a major economic project depending on their vote.

With just over two months left until the election, I wouldn’t do anything that might push voters away.

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Unrelated, but as an aside: I saw more parents upset last week about the possibility of their children not being able to march in the marching band during high school football games than I’ve seen people upset about the Sept. 8 start date for schools to reopen. Something for teachers unions who still want all counties to start school virtually to keep in mind as that date fast approaches.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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