Candidates: West Virginia’s Democrats need new leadership

PARKERSBURG — New leadership is needed in the West Virginia Democratic Party, two former Democratic candidates for governor said on Tuesday.

“Sometimes you got to get a new head coach,” said Jeff Kessler, a former president of the state Senate who with Booth Goodwin lost the 2016 primary for governor to Gov. Jim Justice. Justice last week switched party affiliation to Republican.

Justice’s defection was just the latest of Democratic Party failures in West Virginia, not the least of which were losing the majority in both chambers of the Legislature and Congress, Goodwin said.

“That’s just the latest failure in the last dozen years,” said Goodwin, a former U.S. attorney for the southern district who resigned to run for governor.

Justice, a Republican who turned Democrat in 2015, on Thursday, during a campaign-style visit by President Donald Trump in Huntington, announced from the stage he was switching party affiliations. The announcement rippled through Democratic Party political leaders.

Party leaders in 2016 embraced Justice thinking he might be the solution, according to Goodwin. But they knew Justice didn’t pay taxes or fines and came with a lack of character “that was apparent from the get-go,” he said.

“I’m surprised the Republican Party wants him,” Goodwin said.

A message left for Democratic Party Chairman Belinda Biafore at the state party headquarters was not immediately returned. Biafore was elected chairman in June 2016 to a four-year term. She was a vice chairman since 2004.

It’s not personal, Kessler said. The Democrats have suffered election losses in a trend that has yet to reverse, he said.

“We’re getting clobbered,” said Kessler, pointing out Treasurer John Perdue is the only Democrat on the board of public works.

“That’s the issue, not Belinda,” he said.

The party has gotten out of touch with most Democrats and has allowed itself to atrophy over the years, Goodwin said. People don’t know for what the party stands, he said.

It is losing registration, but Democrats have been leaving the party and becoming independents or affiliating with no party, he said.

For example, many of the younger voters in West Virginia were overwhelming Bernie Sanders supporters, yet the party platform ignores them, Kessler said.

Goodwin said he would consider running for governor again in 2020 only if changes are made in the party. He said he’s willing to help and wants to be part of the solution, too.

“I would run for governor if we can get the Democratic Party back to order,” he said.