CHARLESTON — Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango announced plans Thursday to run for governor in West Virginia, the latest Democrat to enter the race seeking to challenge incumbent Gov. Jim Justice.
Salango, who was appointed to his seat before winning election unopposed in 2018, said he’s seeking to run to modernize the state’s economy, curb the flow of illicit drugs into West Virginia and improve education in the state.
Throughout a campaign launch event outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, Salango criticized Justice, caricaturing him as a man most concerned with his personal dealings and who can’t be bothered to show up for work.
“We need a governor we can be proud of, not someone who is constantly buried in controversy, lawsuits and ethical scandals,” Salango said. “Somebody who actually wants the job rather than the title.”
A Raleigh County native, Salango moved to Kanawha County in 1999. He was appointed to the Kanawha commission in 2017 to replace Dave Hardy after Justice hired Hardy as his revenue secretary.
Salango is likely best known for spearheading the Shawnee Sports Complex, a $17 million project. The complex went from proposal in February 2017 to six collegiate-size soccer/lacrosse/football fields about 15 months later.
At his campaign launch, he didn’t say much about his primary challengers but repeatedly poked at Justice, whether it’s a lawsuit challenging his residency, liens and legal judgments filed against his private businesses, or that the Justice-owned Greenbrier resort wound up earning “opportunity zone” designation, which entails favorable tax treatment.
“All of West Virginia should be an opportunity zone,” Salango said.
Salango joins community organizer Stephen Smith and state Sen. Ron Stollings of Boone County as others vying to challenge Justice. Both Salango and Stollings entered after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., announced he wouldn’t run against Justice despite months of publicly mulling the notion.
The race is likely to be pricey. Smith, in particular, has proven a knack for fundraising large amounts off of small contributions, and several of the Republicans in the primary have self-financed five- to six-figure dollar amounts. Salango indicated in an interview after the launch a willingness to put personal funds into the race.
Salango has litigated (or is actively handling) several high-profile cases, ranging from a lawsuit accusing e-cigarette manufacturer Juul of deliberately marketing to youths; one accusing a doctor convicted of one count of sexual abuse of further sexual misconduct; another accusing a teacher of verbally abusing students with special needs; and others.
Along with his political and legal work, Salango is an investor in HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch, along with the Coal Valley News, The Logan Banner, the Putnam Herald, The Independent Herald, The Wayne County News and Williamson Daily News.