CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice defended his shifting response to the coronavirus pandemic as personal attacks flew in a debate Tuesday night with Democratic challenger Ben Salango.
Justice and his advisers had often tweaked a color-coded map that rates the severity of the virus outbreak in individual counties and determines whether schools can remain open and whether athletic teams can hold competitions. Critics and education groups said multiple changes to the map over several weeks have confused parents and school officials.
“A pandemic is no different than a trip to the moon,” Justice said during the debate held in Morgantown. “We have to tailor things to make them work.”
In recent weeks, Justice has pushed for as much testing as possible to identify potential virus cases that could further community spread. Critics say the higher number of tests are aimed at reducing virus rates and keeping schools open. Salango has said local leaders should be the ones deciding if schools should shut classrooms and hold classes virtually.
Justice, who has held weekly news briefings on the coronavirus pandemic since March, ordered residents to wear masks in indoor spaces in early July.
“It should have been ordered early,” said Salango, who is an attorney and Kanawha County commissioner.
The debate featured plenty of sparring and accusations of fake attacks. Justice took heat for lawsuits filed against his personal business empire, while he repeatedly tried to paint Salango as “connected at the hip” with Democratic U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In one instance, Salango claimed Justice was behind on his personal property tax bills, which the governor denied. He instead claimed the Democrat hadn’t paid taxes on a Porsche vehicle, which Salango said he didn’t even own.
“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Salango later said. “And when you look at me as an applicant, I’m somebody who’s going to work hard every single day.”
A billionaire businessman, Justice is running for re-election after switching from Democrat to Republican seven months into his first term. He has firmly aligned himself with President Donald Trump, who carried West Virginia by 42 percentage points in 2016.
Salango has attempted to earn name recognition with labor endorsements and a statewide tour, which has been scaled back due to the pandemic.
The candidates also answered questions about federal funding given to states for virus response, the economy, the Black Lives Matters movement, and protecting people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Justice said he is proud of his work with the Black community. He also said he “has a real problem” with nationwide demonstrations over police brutality on African Americans that have turned violent. He also scoffed at calls to eliminate police departments or strip agencies of funding.
“We have a division in our country, with looting and burning in our cities and not demonstrating in a peaceful manner,” Justice said. “Do Black lives matter? Of course, Black lives matter, and they matter just like all lives matter. And we should absolutely always try to work together.”
During a news conference in June, the governor, without a prompt, said he would welcome all presidents to the state except for former President Barack Obama. The comment drew swift criticism from people who pointed out Obama was the first and only Black president. Justice disputed claims that he was biased and insisted he has Black friends.
In February, Justice, a girls high school basketball coach, called a rival team “a bunch of thugs” after a scuffle broke out at one of his games. Justice said later that it was absurd to accuse him of racism for the comment.
“We need to have a governor who is going to bring people together, not tear them apart,” Salango said.
On education, Salango said he wanted to give teachers another raise and blamed Justice for not meeting teachers’ requests before they went on strike statewide in 2018. Justice said he had “no issue” with teachers who went on strike and that additional pay raises can’t occur “unless you have a thriving economy.”
In a poke at Justice, Salango said he plans to be a “full-time” governor, in reference to a lawmaker’s ongoing lawsuit seeking to force Justice to live in the state capital. The state constitution says the governor must “reside at the seat of government.”
“For people preoccupied with where I go to bed at night, I have spent all my time in Charleston using the mansion to my benefit,” said Justice, who lives in Lewisburg. “I don’t use the mansion for perks. I don’t use the mansion for a party every night. What in the world does that have to do with anything?”
Salango replied, “You don’t pick and choose what parts of the constitution you follow.”
The debate, the only scheduled one before the Nov. 3 general election, was sponsored by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association.