W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice, Dem challenger Salango clash in debate

Staff Writer
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Mineral Daily News-Tribune

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice defended his response to the coronavirus pandemic, clashing in a debate Tuesday night with Democratic challenger Ben Salango.

Justice and his advisers had often tweaked a color-coded map that rates the severity of the virus outbreak in individual counties and determines whether schools can remain open and whether athletic teams can hold competitions. Critics and education groups said multiple changes to the map over several weeks have confused parents and school officials.

"A pandemic is no different than a trip to the moon," Justice said during the debate held in Morgantown. "We have to tailor things to make them work."

In recent weeks, Justice has pushed for as much testing as possible to identify potential virus cases that could further community spread. Critics say the higher number of tests are aimed at reducing virus rates and keeping schools open. Salango has said local leaders should be the ones deciding if schools should shut classrooms and hold classes virtually.

Justice, who has held weekly news briefings on the coronavirus pandemic since March, ordered residents to wear masks in indoor spaces in early July.

"It should have been ordered early," said Salango, who is an attorney and Kanawha County commissioner.

The candidates also answered questions about federal funding doled out to states for virus response, the economy, the Black Lives Matters movement, and protecting people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 Justice, a billionaire businessman who lives in Lewisburg, switched from Democrat to Republican less than a year into his first term. He has firmly aligned himself with President Donald Trump, who carried West Virginia by 42 percentage points in 2016.

In a poke at Justice, Salango said he plans to be a "full-time" governor, in reference to a lawmaker's ongoing lawsuit seeking to force Justice to live in the state capital. The state constitution says the governor must "reside at the seat of government."

"For people preoccupied where I go to bed at night, I have spent all my time in Charleston using the mansion to my benefit," Justice said. "I don't use the mansion for perks. I have been on the state helicopter one time. I don't use the mansion for a party every night. What in the world does that have to do with anything?"

Salango replied, "You don't pick and choose what parts of the constitution you follow."

Both candidates have aired attack ads. According to the most recent state campaign finance reports, Justice outraised and outspent Salango over the past three months. Justice has loaned his own campaign nearly $2 million.

The debate, the only scheduled one before the Nov. 3 general election, was sponsored by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association.