By Brad McElhinny
WV Metro News
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia might be the only state in the country where the two candidates for governor debated who is tighter with Donald Trump.
Besides discussing matters like how they would balance the budget and how they would get West Virginia’s economy moving again, Democrat Jim Justice and Republican Bill Cole expressed their admiration for Trump, who is embroiled in controversy.
“I’m friends with the Trump family. I like the Trump family,” Justice said.
“I will absolutely support a Donald Trump presidency,” Cole said.
Cole noted that as soon as Trump’s remarks about forcing himself on women became public last week, he issued a press release saying Trump’s remarks were wrong.
In other states, some high-level Republicans are disavowing Trump. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said he would no longer defend Trump and told other lawmakers to do what’s best for themselves and their district.
The picture is different in West Virginia, where the economy is closely tied to the coal industry and where voters are expected to go heavily for Trump.
Cole, who has tied his campaign closely to Trump’s, said he believes Trump will loosen federal regulatory policy, allowing West Virginia’s coal industry room to breathe.
Justice has distanced himself from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, and suggested he won’t vote for president at all.
“First of all, it’s preposterous for a coal man to be a supporter of Hillary Clinton,” Justice said.
Either way, Justice said, he’d be able to work with the next president.
“I promise you I can work with either party. The Trump family is friends of mine. I met Bill Clinton years ago.”
This was the second debate between Cole and Justice, one more opportunity for each to make his case before a statewide audience. The debate was presented by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and moderated by Hoppy Kercheval of MetroNews.
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Whoever takes office will lead a state government with a troubling budget picture. At the first of this month, officials said the state is already $81.2 million short of projections over the first three months of the fiscal year.
Justice touted several possibilities to improve the economic picture, including sweeping accounts, a federal environmental subsidy meant to promote the timber industry, what he believes is a trend toward rising coal prices and a short-term loan of millions of dollars.
“The alternative is cut, cut, cut or tax, tax, tax — and I don’t believe in either of those,” Justice said.
Cole promoted his plan for a public-private development arm to go after private development. He also said the state needs to systematically review what’s necessary in state government and what’s unnecessary.
“It’s a combination of growing the revenue by putting people to work, but also about digging down in agencies,” Cole said.
Cole was asked if raising taxes might be necessary.
“To take anything off the table is not prudent,” he said. “I will fight to keep from raising any kind of tax.”
Cole cast Justice’s proposals as pie-in-the-sky.
“There you go again, I still didn’t hear a plan,” Cole said. “Other than to borrow money, which is not how you balance a budget.”
Cole continued, “Borrowing $200 million should be a nonstarter.”
Justice addressed revelations by National Public Broadcasting last week that companies he owns owe $15 million in taxes and fines — and that Justice’s coal holdings are the nation’s mine safety delinquent.
Justice said the coal business has been very difficult over the past few years, and he pointed to the bankruptcies of several large coal companies. He said it’s better that he keep his mines open to continue to employ people and continue to pay what they can.
“I’ll tell you what I won’t do. I didn’t declare bankruptcy did I?” Justice said. “I won’t feel bad for a second trying to keep those people in their jobs.”
He said he does not have a pattern of letting his company’s bills go unpaid.
“Every single month, I write 7,750 checks. Now there’s going to be issues guys. It’s not a style.”
Cole countered that the counties and local governments that are having trouble paying their own bills would benefit from the severance taxes that Justice’s businesses owe.
“They don’t need the money in a year or two years from now. They need it now,” Cole said.
“I don’t see how you get it both ways, Jim. You either pay your bills or you don’t.”
Justice said he believes he can manage to be governor while also continuing as the girls and boys basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School.
“I am going to coach this year, and we’ll see. We’ll just see.”
He said he would give both activities his all.
“I ask any of you, what have I ever done halfway? I mean, what have I ever done halfway?”
He went on to say, “I’m telling you I will be here 1,000 percent of the time.”
Cole contended the job of governor can’t possibly be shared with coaching basketball.
“I intend to be that full-time governor.”
Each concluded by saying the other’s approach is wrong.
“I can lead. Bill can’t lead. He proved it,” Justice said.
Cole countered, “It’s rich for Jim Justice to tell me I have no plan. I’m sorry. It just takes my breath.”
Early voting starts Oct. 26 and goes through Nov. 5.
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.