West Virginia's major party nominees for governor went head-to-head Tuesday, Oct. 4, in the first of two debates before November’s general election. The two businessmen focused mainly on the state’s economic issues.
Democratic billionaire and Greenbrier Resort owner Jim Justice emphasized his business acumen and the fact that he is a political outsider during the hour-long debate. Republican state Senate President and car dealer Bill Cole touted himself as a leader who can make tough decisions when it comes to cutting government.
“We need a governor who has the guts and the will to right-size, to streamline and modernize our state government at the same time we increase our revenues,” Cole said.
While Cole said there are more efficiencies to be found in state government, Justice disagreed. He said that there may be more small savings, but that won’t be enough. “You will not be able to cut your way out of this mess,” he said. “You’ve got to some way grow your way out of this mess.”
Cole and Justice agreed on a few things, though. Both said coal and natural gas are here to stay but that West Virginia needs to diversify its economy and that timber should be a part of that solution. They also both said they support the possibility of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes, but not for recreation.
Justice took several opportunities to criticize Sen. Cole for the state’s recent budget crisis, saying Cole was at the helm and could have avoided an expensive special session.
“In two years, we’ve lost 40 percent of our rainy-day savings under president Cole’s reign,” Justice said. “40 percent of it’s gone.”
He said the state should take advantage of low interest rates and begin rebuilding the state’s infrastructure, especially in the wake of June’s catastrophic flooding.
Senator Cole countered that Democrats were to blame for the state’s current budget issues and intentionally dragged their heels in finding a solution. He said the state needs to fix problems with government before putting more money into roads.
“Just the simple waste, because we don’t think it through,” he said. “We need to get that fixed before I want to go invest a lot of money further into highways.”
High-speed internet access was also a point of contention for the two candidates. Justice said he supports letting government play a large role in developing broadband infrastructure. Cole said after the debate that private industry should lead the way, with the governor only facilitating industry conversations.
“I think they’ll come together and come up with a solution that is a proper one,” Cole said. “And it’ll be in their best interest to do that because if the heavy hand of government enters, no business is going to be happy about it.”
Justice offered few specifics during the debate and in his own post-debate remarks, but said he’s a big-picture leader, which is what the state needs.
“We’re dying on the vine, we’ve proven how to die,” he said. “We’ve got to think big and we’ve got to move forward.”
Justice and Cole are competing to fill Governor Earl Ray Tomblin's seat. Tomblin is reaching his two-consecutive-term limit.
No third-party candidates were invited to participate in Tuesday’s debate.
Cole and Justice will meet again next week during a debate scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 11, in Charleston.