CHARLESTON — For the first time in nearly two decades, there is not a Democrat incumbent governor on the ballot in West Virginia.
Gov. Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat in 2016 and changed his affiliation to Republican in 2017, is seeking a second term. The last time a sitting Republican governor sought reelection was 2000, when incumbent Cecil Underwood was defeated by Democrat Bob Wise.
The five men seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in the June 9 primary election have a range of experience they are hoping to bring to the job. They join seven Republicans seeking the office to comprise the largest field since 2004.
All of the Democrat candidates answered questions from HD Media, some by phone and others by email.
HD Media is focusing on candidates’ stated motivations for seeking the Mountain State’s highest executive office, as well as their take on infrastructure issues, which HD Media readers indicated were among their highest concerns this election cycle.
Douglas Hughes, Logan
Douglas Hughes, who advocates for hospital patients and disabled veterans, entered the governor’s race because, he said, people are being failed by their health care systems due to inadequate pain management procedures and an overall lack of accountability.
“Unaddressed pain can kill in a number of ways, in addition to this loss of the will to live,” Hughes said in an email to HD Media. “It can mask the presence of other fatal conditions.”
Hughes said it would be his goal to establish a Governor’s Call Center to “understand your hopes, dreams and concerns and where best to use the billions of tax dollars I will save.”
Hughes was born in Wirt County, and lived in Beckley and Huntington growing up. He is a U.S. Army Reserve veteran who studied biology at Marshall University and earned a mining engineering degree from Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. He’s worked a variety of jobs, from short-order cook to surface mine foreman to environmental permit writer.
On the subject of infrastructure, Hughes said tax reforms are needed to generate funds to improve things like roads.
“Infrastructure has been ravaged far too long,” Hughes said. “Development of broadband access will become a reality once we have judiciary strength to demand the best instead of settling for the worst.”
Jody Murphy, Parkersburg
Jody Murphy said he wants to create an environment in West Virginia that will make his children want to stay here when they grow up.
The FedEx courier and former newspaper reporter said he doesn’t want to have to travel far and wide to visit his family as he grows older.
“My primary focus is to recruit and retain residents, and grow and diversify our economy,” Murphy said in an email to HD Media. “I want to halt, and hopefully reverse, our declining population trend.”
To accomplish that goal, his plan includes three pillars — giving away land for industrial and commercial use; creating more free post-secondary educational opportunities; and developing entrepreneurship zones and income tax-free retirement communities through revitalizing old towns and communities.
Murphy said providing infrastructure is the primary role of government. He said providing quality basic services is required to attract and retain new population and industry to the state.
“We need better and more roads, and infrastructure,” Murphy said. “People are not going to live in areas where they can’t watch Netflix, shop on Amazon Prime, have a grocery store close by and a good educational system. I want to help provide this. This has to be a partnership between state and local government. As Gov. Manchin used to say: ‘A hand up, not a hand out.’”
Ben Salango, Charleston
Ben Salango grew up near Beckley, and after earning his law degree from West Virginia University made Charleston his home.
Salango said he’s heard from West Virginians that the state needs new leadership, and that’s what gave him the idea to run for governor.
“We need a governor who’s going to put public service ahead of self service,” Salango said. “That’s what I’ve done as a (Kanawha) county commissioner. That’s what I’ve done as a lawyer and a business owner.”
Salango is pushing a plan that would redesign the state Department of Commerce to be regionally focused, with offices throughout the state instead of one central office in Charleston. The state’s economic and geographic differences, he said, require different resources and solutions.
On infrastructure, Salango said the state needs to make “a significant investment” in broadband in addition to fixing roads and providing more access to clean water.
He said his experience as a county commissioner showed him there needs to be more cooperation among state, counties and municipal governments.
“We’ve been running the same playbook since the 1950s, and we need to run things differently to build opportunity,” Salango said. “I think if you pull those resources and you coordinate the effort, you’re going to see tremendous growth.”
(Editor’s note: Salango was among a group of people who invested in HD Media in 2018 to purchase the Charleston Gazette-Mail from Charleston Newspapers, which was subject to bankruptcy proceedings at the time. Salango sold his share in HD Media in December 2019, after he announced his candidacy, according to Doug Reynolds, managing partner of HD Media.)
Stephen Smith, Charleston
When Stephen Smith watched teachers across West Virginia strike in 2018, he said he saw it as a call to action.
“For me and a whole lot of people across West Virginia, we were reminded of the power we have if we come together and are willing to take courageous collective action,” Smith said. “We don’t believe one politician, one government is the answer to all of our problems. That change comes from the bottom up.”
Smith was born in Charleston and moved away with his family as a child. He returned to West Virginia after college, where he worked for a nonprofit that he left to pursue his campaign for governor.
As for the state’s infrastructure, Smith identified two simultaneous and related issues — the crumbling infrastructure itself and people who needed work. To address this, Smith said the state needed a massive jobs program “akin to the New Deal era jobs program.”
To pay for it, Smith said the state’s tax code needed an overhaul to make sure corporations and the wealthiest people paid their fair share. He added that out-of-state corporations need to be incentivized to develop property they own in West Virginia or sell it to someone who will.
“If you have an economy where the people who have the most pay the least and the people who have the least pay the most, it starts to feel like we’re poor and we can’t afford the type of infrastructure and services we need to get by,” Smith said. “As soon as we flip it and are willing to have a fair tax structure where everyone is willing to pay their fair share, we find there is enough ... to have decent roads and decent wages and decent schools, but, again, we have to keep ourselves from being robbed.”
Ron Stollings, Madison
Ron Stollings has practiced internal medicine in Boone County for more than three decades in the same community where he grew up. He’s also been elected to the state Senate four consecutive terms.
He said many politicians have lost touch with the people of West Virginia.
“Don’t you think that’s what’s wrong in West Virginia, that the only people who can run for office are gazillionaires who lose touch with the people?” Stollings said. “They don’t see poor people. I do. I’ve seen the substance use disorder devastate families, grandfamilies, kinship care, the foster care system, all of that. I looked around, and I said, ‘Who better than me to run for governor of West Virginia?’ One, you love it. Two, you love its people, so I stepped up to the plate.”
When it comes to fixing the state’s infrastructure, Stollings said it’s all about funding priorities. He said the state has been “penny wise and pound foolish,” causing it to lose resources, including those that would help the state access federal dollars that could help fix roads and provide more access to broadband.
“We have to be able to take full advantage of federal monies that are being pushed out right now,” Stollings said. “A lot of that is broadband infrastructure. The problem we have, because we’ve cut government so much, is we don’t have a robust group of people over there that are applying for and on top of federal grants. We’ve lost a lot of federal grants because of that.”