CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — For the first — and likely only — time, all three Democratic candidates for West Virginia governor will take the same debate stage.
With the May 10 primary looming, billionaire businessman Jim Justice, former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler will participate in Saturday’s hour-long forum.
It’s a critical race for a historically conservative Democratic state that has surged to the right. The GOP overturned more than eight decades of Democratic rule in the Legislature after the 2014 election. Aside from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, Republicans fill every West Virginia seat in Congress.
The GOP avoided a contested gubernatorial primary by clearing the field for Senate President Bill Cole.
Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is hitting his two-consecutive term limit, and his job won’t be an easy one to inherit.
The state is in a budget standoff over possibly raising taxes or slashing into government programs to fill a huge revenue hole left by the fizzling coal industry and low natural gas prices.
Some key details about Saturday’s debate:
FIRST, AND PROBABLY LAST, DEM DEBATE
Kessler and Goodwin have challenged Justice to debate multiple times.
Until this point, Justice passed each time, sometimes calling the other candidates’ debate challenges political theater.
Justice, who says he has also been a registered Republican, has revealed little about his political leanings. He has depended upon strong name recognition, his purchase of The Greenbrier and ability to revive the historic resort, and his companies’ track record of creating jobs. The agriculture and coal magnate says he owns 97 companies.
Justice has a huge cash edge, with almost $2 million of his own money in the campaign and another $582,000 raised from donors. He has spent more than on $746,300 on media expenses, mostly on positive TV ads that tout his reputation.
Goodwin raised $286,200 and Kessler yielded $213,800.
Justice has been critical both of plans to raise taxes and make substantial budget cuts.
He’s been more optimistic about a bounce-back for coal than Goodwin and Kessler, despite contrary coal forecasts due to pervasive economic, geological and regulatory burdens. He says he has big ideas about rebooting West Virginia’s economy, but hasn’t laid them out.
Kessler has called for higher tobacco taxes to stabilize the state budget. Likely the most progressive candidate, Kessler endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, while Justice and Goodwin haven’t backed anyone. He wants to ensure public education is fully funded and provide free or reduced tuition at community and technical colleges.
Goodwin told the Charleston Gazette-Mail he doesn’t necessarily disagree about raising tax revenues, but it has to be “in the right areas.” He has called for a freeze on college tuition and a “GI bill” of sorts to cover higher education costs for out-of-work coal miners.
IN-FIGHTING, AND GOP INTERVENTION
Justice faces scrutiny from his Democratic competition and from Republicans over legal issues related to his businesses’ trouble paying taxes, mine safety fines and bills.
An outside group that doesn’t disclose donors is running TV ads about those problems. The Republican Governors Association booked $600,000 in TV ad time leading up to the primary, likely to levy similar attacks.
Justice has responded that West Virginians are “tired of the political dog snot from do-nothing politicians.” He says he’s the only Democrat who can win in November.
He has blamed Goodwin for the undisclosed TV ad attacks, which Goodwin says weren’t his doing. He also criticized Goodwin for only landing a misdemeanor against ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, and said Goodwin used the case to promote his political career.
Blankenship was sentenced to the maximum penalties of a year in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine, where an explosion killed 29 men in 2010. The jury acquitted him of felonies that could’ve stretched his sentence to 30 years.
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