Dem candidates for West Virginia Attorney General face off in June
CHARLESTON — The coronavirus might be making it harder to do a traditional political campaign, but two candidates in the Democratic Party primary for state Attorney General have their sights set on keeping Republican incumbent Patrick Morrisey from winning a third term.
Isaac Sponaugle, a 41-year-old lawyer and a representative for Pendleton County in the West Virginia House of Delegates; and Sam Brown Petsonk, a 35-year-old employment law attorney from Fayette County and a former legislative assistant to the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, will be on the ballot in the June 9 primary election. The winner will go on to face Morrisey — who first took office as attorney general in 2013 — in the Nov. 10 general election.
Both seek to return the office to its original focuses under former Democratic attorney general Darrell McGraw — an emphasis on consumer protection, using the office to fight for West Virginians hurt by the opioid crisis and protecting workers. But both candidates will need to fight an opponent not on the ballot: The Coronavirus.
VIRTUAL DOOR KNOCKING
Campaign season usually consists of candidates attending county party meetings, going to union halls, walking in parades, visiting fairs and festivals and campaigning door-to-door to introduce themselves to voters. The spread of the coronavirus, which has required people to stay home when possible and caused large gatherings and events to be canceled and postponed, has made it nearly impossible to campaign.
Petsonk, who first filed to run for attorney general nearly 11 months ago, has a considerable head start when compared to Sponaugle, who first filed last December. In campaign fundraising, Petsonk has raised $174,037. Sponaugle raised $46,975 in contributions over the last four months, but with a $100,000 loan he has $136,458 in cash-on-hand after expenses compared to Petsonk, who has $86,439.
During the coronavirus, Petsonk has turned to social media to keep his supporters motivated and to reach new voters. This includes multiple posts and videos on his Facebook page commenting on recent actions by Morrisey and the Attorney General’s Office, as well as providing help to people struggling as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the economy.
“Over the past year, we’ve organized a sizable base of volunteers and support from around the state, and those volunteers are helping us reach out to ensure that our campaign is providing support to communities and remaining present and engaged with communities digitally over the phones,” Petsonk said.
Sponaugle has spent the last two months working the phones and reaching out to voters and constituent groups. The four-term House member is also relying on a network of fellow House members who have openly endorsed his campaign and who can spread the word about Sponaugle in their districts.
“Because of the social distancing and event cancellations, it’s pretty much impossible to get around the state to campaign, to see people, and to go to various events. “What I am doing, all you can do, is working the telephone and calling people and reaching out that way. That’s the sort of the world we live in in 2020 right now.”
Both Sponaugle and Petsonk want to withdraw West Virginia from a federal lawsuit that could overturn the Affordable Care Act.
West Virginia, represented by Morrisey, is among 18 states and the U.S. Department of Justice suing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act adopted under former President Barack Obama. They allege the act is unconstitutional because of the individual mandate that penalizes people who haven’t purchased health insurance. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
According to 2018 numbers from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 44 percent of West Virginians have private insurance, 26 percent have Medicaid and 19 percent have Medicare. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, more than 800,000 West Virginians — or 52 percent of non-elderly state residents — have pre-existing conditions. The repeal of the ACA could cost the state $1 billion in federal funding for the state’s Medicaid expansion.
“Health care cuts across our entire economy and it cuts across the duties of the attorney General’s office,” Petsonk said. “This is a top priority on day one, but I would withdraw West Virginia’s support for Morrissey’s lawsuit to eliminate healthcare coverage for hundreds of thousands of West Virginia. It would harm not only our patients, it would harm our community health centers, our critical access hospitals, and our coal miners who rely on the black lung provisions that I worked on securing for Sen. Byrd.”
Sponaugle helped to defeat an effort by Morrisey and Republicans in the Legislature to stop a bill that would have possibly cost the state more than a billion dollars if the ACA was overturned.
SB 284, the West Virginia Patient Protection Program, would have created a high-risk pool for people with pre-existing medical conditions, giving the state Commissioner of Insurance the authority to activate the program should the ACA be struck down in total or in part. Opponents of the bill, such as Sponaugle, argued that the bill would require the state to cover West Virginians in the Medicaid program.
“The very first priority day one would be…we withdraw from the Affordable Care Act lawsuit to strike protections for people with pre-existing conditions,” Sponaugle said. “We’re the leading state for people under the age of 60 with pre-existing conditions. As a result of that, if you lose (ACA), your health insurance is going to get canceled or your premiums are going to go through the roof if (Morrisey is) successful.”
While the attorney general acts as a legal representative for state departments and agencies and argues cases for the state before the state Supreme Court and federal courts, most people are familiar with the office’s consumer protection and anti-trust divisions.
Critics of Morrisey argue that the consumer protection division puts out more press releases than actual serious consumer protection work on behalf of citizens. Petsonk, who once worked in the Attorney General’s Office under McGraw, would like to return the office to a more aggressive posture.
“Certainly, we need to continue the public service of representing consumers through the consumer protection office,” Petsonk said. “What I am focused on is restoring the number of settlements that we achieve through that office. This office is effective. We need to be reaching as many people as possible and helping as many families as possible to resolve unfair debt collection and other consumer challenges.”
“Instead of using it as a slush fund to send out press releases every day to all the newspapers in the state, those monies need to be going toward going after consumer fraud that is rampant in the state of West Virginia, or at least I believe to be,” Sponaugle said in agreement.
Sponaugle, as well as Petsonk, would like to see the office focus more on labor issues, especially in light of the recent closures of several hospitals in the state and other labor issues
“The Attorney General’s Office needs to have a labor division that’s set up inside so you can crack down on illegal hirings or workplace safety items that are all violations that are being done throughout the state,” Sponaugle said. “That should be something that would be taken care of in-house. The state enforces the law that we have on the books.”
“I proposed early on in this race to create a workers’ rights initiative within the Attorney General’s Office, and I know how to do that because that’s what I’ve done in my law practice,” Petsonk said. “We’ve had numerous, numerous mass layoffs in our state over the last eight years. I’ve been there litigating to protect working people.”
Petsonk and Sponaugle are critical of Morrisey’s handling of lawsuit settlements with prescription drug manufacturers and suppliers.
In 2018, Morrisey settled two lawsuits with prescription drug manufacturers AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. for $36 million. Last year, Morrisey settled a lawsuit with McKesson for $37 million. All the while, Johnson and Johnson was ordered last year to pay the state of Oklahoma $572 million for playing down the dangers of prescription painkillers. And two counties in Ohio reached a deal with drug manufacturers for $260 million.
According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, West Virginia healthcare providers wrote 69.3 prescriptions for painkillers for every 100 persons in 2018. The national average was 51.4 prescriptions per 100 people. There were 702 opioid overdose deaths in West Virginia compared to 833 in 2017. Of those 702 deaths, 234 deaths were attributed to prescription drugs.
Sponaugle said Morrisey, a former Washington, D.C. lobbyist whose clients included several pharmaceutical manufacturers, is not doing his best to secure better settlements for a state that has been ravaged by prescription drug abuse.
“I would actually go after the pharmaceutical companies and the suits that he hasn’t mass-settled already,” Sponaugle said. “He has ripped the state off literally for pennies on the dollar, on these settlements while he and his wife have made a fortune off of it…you need to go after them and you need to hold them responsible.”
Petsonk also sees a way for the Attorney General’s Office to have a larger hand in the war on opioids, helping direct settlement dollars down to the local county level where the drug war has done some of the most damage to communities and budgets. Petsonk said the office should have a role in helping people recover from addiction and return to productive lives.
“The addiction crisis needs similar comprehensive attention from the attorney general. It’s a healthcare issue, but it’s also a law enforcement issue,” Petsonk said. The attorney general must support better outcomes in long-term recovery through his Civil Rights Division, working to ensure access to vocational rehabilitation and job opportunities that help those in recovery get back in the workforce and back with their families.”
THE FINAL STRETCH
A little more than a month remains before the June 9 primary, and as Gov. Jim Justice slowly eases restrictions on non-essential travel and gatherings, both Petsonk and Sponaugle will have addition opportunities to make their case on why they are the best choice to challenge Morrisey in the fall.
“I believe that West Virginia deserves an attorney general who has proven results for all of us, from the Southern coalfields to the panhandles and everywhere in between,” Petsonk said.
“I believe I’m the only candidate who can beat Patrick Morrissey, that has the grit to go after him and it will not stop, and be an attack dog,” Sponaugle said. “All you’ve got to do is tell the truth on the guy and he should lose. Surely those New Jersey values don’t compare to these West Virginia values.”
Steven Allen Adams can be reached at email@example.com