INSTITUTE, W. Va. – Job creation, the crumbling infrastructure, whether the coal industry has a future, the terrible drug epidemic in the state and legalizing medical marijuana were the main topics of discussion at the democratic gubernatorial debate held at the Davis Fine Arts Center of W.Va. State University in Institute on Monday evening.
The debate was hosted by Eyewitness News WCHS-TV and Fox 11 in Charleston and was broadcast live on that channel, WTOV in Wheeling and live via an Internet stream. Civitas Media newspaper was also one of the participants of the debate.
Democratic candidates Jeff Kessler, the current Minority Leader in the State Senate and former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin attended the debate. Billionaire businessman Jim Justice declined several invitations to participate in the live debate.
Eyewitness news anchor Rick Lord served as moderator for the event, while Civitas Media publisher Edward Martin (Williamson Daily News and Logan Banner), WTOV news personality Ryan Eldridge and Kennie Bass, a longtime television news reporter and anchor for WCHS and WVAH were the three panelists. The panel represented the three congressional districts in the Mountain State.
Kessler answered the first question by Lord on bringing jobs to the state and the budget concerns and what the candidates would do to fix that problem. The longtime senator has already proposed a tax increase on cigarettes in the Mountain State.
“The first thing we need to do is invest in the infrastructure,” Kessler said. “That is the hallmark of my platform. We have been cutting, cutting and cutting services and funding for education.” To dig ourselves out of this hole we have to train a skilled and sober workforce. I’m going to dedicate my administration to investing in people.”
Kessler reiterated that investing in people and infrastructure was his top priority. He also mentioned free community college training. Kessler said that higher education cuts have only increased tuition rates for students.
Goodwin was the first to strike a blow at the empty podium of where Jim Justice was a no-show. “Our opponent said it is all about jobs, jobs and jobs. We haven’t heard word one about where those jobs are going to come from.”
“My idea is this. When is the last time we went to the small businesses in each community and asked them – how can we help grow your business? How can we help you create one new job,” Goodwin said? “We need to commit to that. We need to look inside ourselves in West Virginia to grow within.”
Goodwin said the state has given tax breaks and benefits to out-of-state companies, but not invested in the mom and pop stores. “If we commit to that, we will see corresponding diversification across industry,” Goodwin added.
The candidates were asked about the prescription drug epidemic in W.Va. Kessler knows first-hand about this dilemma. His son has fought drug problems and went through rehab. Goodwin heard and tried many drug cases as a U.S. Attorney for the southern part of the state.
Both candidates said more money needs to be invested in drug treatment and recovery programs. Goodwin noted that it costs $25,000 to $35,000 a year to house a prisoner in the state’s jail system.
Kessler pointed out that there was a need to educate the medical community because physicians are the persons who over-prescribe strong pain medications.
Kennie Bass asked the two candidates about a “quality of character question” (referring to Jim Justice’s absence from the debate.)
“When you are running for W.Va. you have 1.8 million bosses,” Bass stated, talking about the population of the state.
Goodwin answered first and talked about how he was always available as a U.S. Attorney and that public servants should be accessible. “We should be accountable to our boss’s day in and day out,” he added. “Ultimately that is what it is all about.”
This was around the point that Kessler took a shot at Justice for not showing up at the debate. “I’ve said it before if you want to hold the highest office in the state, you ought to be willing to go before the people to share your vision, your platform and solutions. Booth, to his credit, is at least showing up with me. Rule number one you need to show up.”
“I’m disappointed that Jim repeatedly is not showing up,” he added.
On the state’s budget problem, Kessler said he was for a higher tobacco tax and an increased alcohol tax. Goodwin agreed with this and also said a tax on “sugary drinks” would also help with revenue.
Goodwin said that one way to provide jobs and put people back to work was to start repairing the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. He said that out of work coal miners could be trained in these types of jobs.
Kessler said he believes coal still has a future and can be “prominent but not dominate.”
The topic of legalizing medical marijuana also came up. Kessler, who is more liberal, said he is for decriminalization of cannabis and the expungement of misdemeanors for those who may have that kind of charge on their records.
Goodwin, who is more moderate, said he had real concerns about passing that type of law in W.Va. He said the marijuana of today has 10 times more THC content than the pot of the 1960s and 1970s. He also asked if marijuana is the gateway to harder drugs.
The fact that Colorado has received millions in tax dollars by legalizing marijuana was brought up. It was also noted that border states like Pennsylvania and Ohio are looking into similar laws.
A law that would have allowed hemp, a cousin of the cannabis plant to be grown in W.Va., came under consideration in the last legislative session. However, it didn’t pass.
Ed Martin brought up the fact that southern W.Va. does not have good Internet and cell phone service and that hurts the region with attracting businesses.
Both candidates agreed that this is a problem. Goodwin said that the issue has been left up to private industry, but said if it is improved it would help the southern coalfields.
Kessler said that state bonds would be one solution to help invest in better broadband service in rural areas. He said it could help open up education, commerce and entrepreneurship in the coalfields.
Both democratic candidates continued to talk about the need for better infrastructure and higher education in the state in their closing remarks.
They both harmonized to the fact that the Mountain State needs to keep its younger generations from moving away.
Goodwin said he has two young sons and wants to see them stay and raise their families here in W. Va.
Kessler said he wants W.Va. to be the kind of state that welcomes “all kinds of people” and wants to take down the mythical walls around the state.
The two candidates will compete with Justice on Tuesday, May 10 in the Primary Election. The winner will battle Republican Bill Cole who will be the GOP nominee come November.
Eyewitness News and Civitas Media will partner again in mid-October to hold a debate for the General Election.
(Kyle Lovern is the Editor for the Williamson Daily News. He can be contacted at [email protected] or at 304-235-4242, ext. 2277 or on Twitter @KyleLovern.)