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West Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidates navigate pandemic campaign trail

CHARLESTON — The winner of the Democratic primary for governor of West Virginia will not only have to face a Republican opponent in November, but the victor will have to rebuild the state’s economy and deal with the medical crisis started by COVID-19.

Five Democratic candidates are on the June 9 primary ballot, though the race has boiled down to three candidates: community organizer Stephen Smith, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango; and Sen. Ron Stollings of Boone County.

The winner will face the Republican candidate, which could be incumbent Gov. Jim Justice. In 2016, Justice, a businessman and owner of the historic Greenbrier Resort, ran on the Democratic ticket, but 10 months later switched party registration to Republican.

Democrats would like to rectify that mistake.

THE EARLY BIRD

Stephen Smith is used to bringing people, communities and coalitions together to try to solve problems, such as poverty, food insecurity and health disparities. He spent several years organizing candidate trainings for those wishing to take a seat in the statehouse, but in November 2018, shortly after the midterm elections, Smith decided to run for office himself.

Smith, the founder of the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, Our Children Our Future and other groups, would probably not use the word “founder” himself. While he is running for governor, his considers himself just one of many in the WV Can’t Wait movement of progressive state and local candidates.

Even his platform is not his. It was developed through statewide meetings and input from supporters.

Now that the coronavirus has made traditional campaigning nearly impossible, Smith and the WV Can’t Wait movement turned their coalition into ways to help move food, personal protective equipment and other resources to those in need. Meetings conducted through Facebook Live chats have helped keep supporters motivated.

It’s an example of the bottom-up way Smith wants to govern.

“We have 377 neighborhood captains based all across West Virginia, each one of whom is checking in on 100 of their neighbors on a weekly basis to make sure that folks have the food and medicine and unemployment benefits and absentee ballots and everything they need to stay safe at home,” Smith said. “But the fundamental idea of our campaign is that the people should be the one who is governing, not out-of-state corporations. And we’re trying to show what that looks like in the course of our campaign.”

Smith, who could best be described as a populist in the vein of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or President Franklin Roosevelt, sees many similarities between West Virginia’s situation in the pandemic and the Great Depression facing Roosevelt. Just last week, Smith unveiled his version of the New Deal, which includes 32 different plans, more than 100 pages and 250 specific public policy ideas.

Most of the plans involve shifting wealth from millionaires and billionaires to the lower and middle class by retooling taxes to keep more wealth in-state. Smith also calls for full legalization of recreational cannabis for added economic benefits. His third priority would be a massive infrastructure plan to put more people to work and update the state for the 21st century.

“If we do those three things, we shift the economy back in favor of working and small businesses, If we give ourselves new economic tools and public health tools that we use here locally and we put people back to work in communities, then we can be on the right track,” Smith said.

THE RIGHT PRESCRIPTION

Sen. Ron Stollings is not one to speak up unless he feels it is important. First elected in 2006 and now serving his fourth four-year term, the former chairman of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee has worked in matters related to the health of the public.

Stollings is a doctor at Boone Memorial Hospital in Madison, working as a physician for 34 years in the town where he was raised. Not only has the physical health of his neighbors been important to him, but also the economic health.

Boone County was once a major producer of coal, but the wealth produced over the decades didn’t stay. Now that coal mining has diminished, Stollings has watched his community decline into unemployment and drug abuse.

Those were the major issues that finally pushed Stollings to announce a run for governor last September. With the coronavirus pandemic, those same issues of health, education attainment and economic development have only grown, affecting the entire state.

“This is something that I’ve talked about for the past 25 years…the economy, the health of a population and the education of a population are so inextricably connected,” Stollings said. “If you see a region of the country that has no jobs or low income, they are undereducated and they’re unhealthy. So those three things run together.”

Stollings said the state needs to progress through what he calls the three Ts to come out of the coronavirus pandemic and ultimately the right side of the state’s economy.

At present, Stollings said the state is in triage mode with not enough testing and personal protective equipment and people not wearing face masks in public.

The next step is transition and figuring out what the new normal is going to be and utilizing federal dollars to fix issues such as infrastructure and broadband expansion.

The final step was transformation, Stollings said.

“That is what West Virginia can look like a year, five years and 10 years down the line, and that has to do with strategic planning. I don’t see strategic planning going on,” Stollings said. “We have to really have this plan, a strategic plan, a vision where people and industry can come into West Virginia in a safe way…that you can maintain green spaces, exercise, maintain all the beautiful things that we have here, the great outdoors, but also welcome in industries.”

HITTING THE GOAL

Ben Salango, a native of Raleigh County, co-founded the law firm Preston and Salango in 2006 with his wife, who became Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Tera Salango in 2018. Besides being an attorney, Salango is a small businessman with an apparel company that promotes West Virginia’s area code 304.

In 2017, Salango added elected official to his resume. He was appointed to the Kanawha County Commission to replace David Hardy, who was elected to the commission in 2018. During his tenure on the Kanawha County Commission, Salango helped balance the budget for the largest county in the state while also instituting paid family leave. Salango led the project that later became the Shawnee Sports Complex, multiple professional soccer, baseball and softball fields near Institute that has brought in more than $20 million in revenue so far in 2019.

Most recently, Salango has been front and center for Kanawha County’s response to COVID-19. The county was the first to implement hero pay for first-responders, something the state copied when they gave $100,000 to all 55 counties. Salango has pushed for drive-through coronavirus testing and has focused on health disparities in minority populations — two things the state didn’t start doing until weeks later.

Salango also has the support of 20 labor groups, not counting the support of six county chapters of the American Federation of Teachers, which has helped him make up for being one of the last candidates in the race. But the coronavirus has caused Salango to focus his campaign on engaging supporters through social media as well as balancing his campaign with his responsibilities as a county commissioner.

“The coronavirus has changed everything. It’s changed the way that we campaign. It’s changed all of our lives. “(The campaign) been secondary to what my true focus has been on even before coronavirus, and that is my responsibility to the people of Kanawha County and, honestly, the people of West Virginia. The coronavirus doesn’t know where the county borders are, right?”

Salango also is thinking ahead to what his administration might focus on should he secure the governor’s seat. The next governor will have to repair the damage done to the state economy by the coronavirus and deal with the issues facing the state long before the coronavirus came along. Salango has a three-pronged plan that included loans and using federal resources to boost small businesses; an infrastructure plan focused on revamp the state’s roads, bridges, and small airports; creating new opportunities for students, including additional focus on vocational training; and working to increase reimbursement rates for the state’s rural hospitals.

“We don’t have as much private insurance as we used to, you know, so the hospitals are struggling,” Salango said. “They’re billing Medicaid and Medicare, but they only pay 30 cents on the dollar. So typically, it doesn’t even cover their expenses. We have to change our model for hospital reimbursement.”

MAY THE BEST MAN WIN

Smith, Stollings, and Salango are not the only candidates on the Democratic ballot for governor. Other candidates include former Pleasants County economic development official Jody Murphy and retired Department of Environmental Protection employee Douglas Hughes.

Smith hasn’t held elective office before, like Salango and Stollings. He doesn’t have Stollings extensive experience as a physician or lawmaker. He doesn’t have Salango’s legal and business experience. But Smith said he has the machine that can beat whoever the Republican nominee for governor is in November.

“In order for a Democrat to win the governor’s seat in West Virginia in a year like this, they’re going to have to do three things,” Smith said. “One, they have to energize the base. Two is they’re going to have to bring tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of voters back into the political process. And three is they’re going to have to reach people who voted for the president in 2020. A traditional candidate can’t win in West Virginia in 2020. We’re the only campaign that is doing all three of those things or at least doing those things more than any other campaign.”

Stollings has the most experience between Smith and Salango, having been part of a Democratic legislative majority until Republicans took the majority in 2014. He helped approve reforms and the privatization of the state’s workers’ compensation system. His work with the previous version of the Higher Education Policy Commission, the Board of Risk and Insurance Management, and the State Medical Association had long-lasting effects on state policy. For Stollings, it comes down to experience and knowledge.

“I’m head and shoulders above the other two as far as experience goes,” Stollings said. “You put that up against anybody running for governor and I surely hope that people would understand the difference between me and the other two guys.”

For Salango, it’s about who can bring a multitude of skills, ideas and energy to the governor’s office. In his short time as a county commissioner, Salango can point to several public policy wins and one of the largest economic development projects in the county in recent years.

“We need somebody who has a history of getting things done. We need somebody who’s going to think outside the box, and I’ve demonstrated the ability to do that,” Salango said. “When I make a commitment, I follow through. I keep my promises and I’ve done that for over 20 years as a lawyer. I’ve done it as a county commissioner. I’ve done it as a business owner, and I’ll do it as governor.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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