Eyeing 2020, Democratic governor candidates seek to break from pack
By Jake Zuckerman
Charleston Gazette-Mail Nov 16, 2019
Two of the most conservative Democrats in the U.S. Senate wrapped up their remarks Friday at the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center. Then the first of four gubernatorial candidates took the stage, where he floated the idea of paying people to move to West Virginia.
Jody Murphy, a newcomer to statewide politics, acknowledged his platform is unusual. But speaking at the state Democratic Party’s annual fundraising dinner, he said he has plans to realize the elusive, though oft-pitched, goal of broadening West Virginia’s economy.
“We can diversify the economy by giving away land,” he said, offering another idea to draw companies that will deliver at least 100 jobs. “Not a whole bunch of land, not everywhere, but a pilot program. These are ideas we can do. This can be done.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., won reelection in 2018 in a stronghold state for President Donald Trump. On Friday, he introduced Sen. Jon Tester, another Democrat who pulled off a similar 2018 victory in Montana despite Trump carrying the state by 20 points, to deliver a keynote address.
The divide between the proven successes of centrist Democrats like Manchin and Tester and an increasing presence of outsider, progressive candidates, points to the state party’s split.
The traditionally blue West Virginia has steadily slipped in recent years to its current state of near total Republican control: the GOP holds the Governor’s Office, both chambers of the Legislature, all three congressional seats, one Senate seat, and all but one Board of Public Works seats.
In the May primary, voters will decide whether to stick to the state party’s more establishment, centrist bent, or shift to outsider candidates running further to the left.
At the moment, the only Democrat running for U.S. Senate is Paula Jean Swearengin, who lost in the 2018 primary against Manchin while pushing for Medicare-for-all and other progressive reforms.
On Friday, community organizer Stephen Smith, the first candidate to enter the gubernatorial race, rattled off a progressive platform ranging from ending “election buying,” building a Medicare-for-all system, boosting small business while ending “corporate tax giveaways” and legalizing the use of marijuana.
“We will win a raise to the severance tax that guarantees our children the best education they can receive anywhere in the country,” he said. “We will win a cap to prescription drug prices. And we will choose coal miners over coal executives and pass a black lung pension fund once and for all.”
The leftward push isn’t lost on Manchin, the only Democrat to win federal office in West Virginia since 2014. He said in an interview he’s not planning to endorse any candidate in the gubernatorial race.
In the last election cycle, he endorsed Gov. Jim Justice in the Democratic primary, less than two years before Justice switched parties at a Trump rally in Huntington.
Manchin did, however, weigh in against a Medicare-for-all system.
“The policy, if they’re going to run on things that’s not going to be acceptable to West Virginians, that makes the primary much more interesting,” Manchin said of Medicare-for-all.
Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango kept his stump speech focused more on his background and attacking Justice (“We need a governor who will come to work every day”) than any policy platform.
He told the crowd of candidates and donors how he ascended from humble, Raleigh County roots to a successful legal practice and a seat in county office. As a commissioner, he spearheaded the Shawnee Sports Complex, a multimillion-dollar project hosting several athletic fields.
He, like most Democrats seeking office, sought to ally himself with public school teachers.
“We need to move forward in education by doing whatever we can to make sure we pay our teachers appropriately, and protect their benefits,” he said. “We need to bring in the brightest and the best teachers, and guarantee that our children have the best educations.”
Salango is a minority owner of the parent company of The Charleston Gazette-Mail, though he has said he is in the process of divesting from his share.
The last to speak, state Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a longtime state lawmaker, said his work as a physician best positions him for the Democrats’ spot on the ticket.
He, too, voiced support for beefing up public education in West Virginia.
“We need to invest in education and value our educators,” he said. “Studies show that having a certified teacher in a classroom, smaller class sizes and parental involvement will help improve the education outcomes — not charter schools.”
Other Democratic candidates present Friday may be spared primaries, but are looking for ways to breakup a GOP win streak.
For instance, labor attorney Sam Petsonk is running for attorney general. In an interview Friday, Petsonk said he’s not running on any candidate’s slate, but wants to re-instill some of the values of his old boss, the late-Sen. Robert C. Byrd, back into the party.
Incumbent Republican attorney general Patrick Morrisey — who is fundraising for office though has not yet announced what he’s running for — has historically campaigned on guns, anti-abortion views and challenging what he sees as overbearing federal regulations.
Petsonk, however, said he’s talking to voters about creating an Attorney General’s Office catered to protecting workers’ wages in the event of a bankruptcy, or working with the Human Rights Commission to build out recovery services for those battling substance abuse.
It’s not flashy, but he says West Virginians get it, and they’re ready for something new.
“Look, the overdose rate has doubled over the last eight years now, over half the coal-fired power plants in this country have shut down,” he said. “Our leaders have failed, they have failed to deliver the results that everyone hopes for and talks about. I’m talking about concrete approaches to deliver results for the people.”