MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Democratic congressional candidates Ralph Baxter, Kendra Fershee and Tom Payne held calm demeanors during a debate Tuesday at the Mountainlair Ballroom at West Virginia University, using their hour on stage to discuss ways to improve the 1st Congressional District and West Virginia.
The debate took place less than two months from the statewide primary election, in which the winner of the race will face off against the incumbent Republican Rep. David McKinley. The West Virginia Young Democrats organized the debate.
The candidates did not use the debate to point out their opponents’ shortcomings, but rather lay out their vision for West Virginia, even using the remarks of others to expand on their own positions.
Baxter, the former CEO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in Wheeling, said his candidacy is focused on job creation.
“Jobs is the pathway for us to return to us being the West Virginia we want to be: stronger families, young people who want to stay home, people who are less vulnerable to drugs, a greater, more robust economy,” he said. “Everything will work better if we bring back more jobs to West Virginia.”
Baxter said young people want to stay in West Virginia, but the limited job opportunities force college graduates to seek jobs out of the state. As an example of jobs that could be created in the state, he pointed to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe’s legal work regarding Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012.
“We’ve got to be imaginative, think about how we match our resources to the demand in the world which is insatiable for finding places where people can really do a great job and do it more effectively and more efficiently. And that’s us in Wheeling and everywhere else in the 1st District of West Virginia,” he said.
Fershee, the associate dean of academic affairs at the West Virginia University College of Law, said one of her biggest concerns is seeing young people leave the state as it flounders.
“The young people I work with … are people who have chosen to come to West Virginia like I did or people who grew up with communities in West Virginia that are starting to fail at a level that is unprecedented,” she said. “West Virginia is losing people at record numbers. Communities are struggling. People are leaving and too many people are dying of drug addiction.”
Fershee said job creation is an issue of hers as well, proposing the federal government fund community initiatives to create businesses and jobs.
“We have graduates from the law school who move to Colorado and they get on Facebook and say, ‘I love it here. It reminds me of home,'” she said. “They’d rather be here, so let’s keep them here.”
Payne, a lawyer with consulting experience in Washington, D.C., said his campaign was about “returning common sense to Congress” and improving the state’s wellness. He also said if elected, he would reach out to lawmakers he knows, such as Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, to propose policies to improve West Virginia.
“I believe we can be successful with the contacts I already have in the Senate and in the House,” he said.
On addressing the opioid crisis, Baxter said it needs to be declared a national emergency; President Donald Trump declared the matter a public health emergency in October, which allowed government agencies to seek appropriate actions but did not provide additional funding.
Baxter said he would recommend a comprehensive program regarding opioids, which would include $100 billion in federal spending over a 10-year period to fund solutions to the health crisis.
His proposal also includes recruiting 10,000 college graduates for the AmeriCorps VISTA program, a service effort in which volunteers work in areas affected by poverty. Under this initiative, volunteers would be given a stipend and have their student loans forgiven upon completing three years of service.
“This is a complicated, multifaceted problem. And in a lot of ways it’s more complicated than anything I have ever encountered before in my life,” Baxter said. “People are selling these drugs are really good at this, and they are determined to sell as many drugs — whether they are legal pharmaceuticals or heroin — to our people.”
Fershee said a short-term increase in Medicare funding would provide facilities with the resources needed to treat addiction, but universal health care would provide families with stable access.
“If we had universal health care, we will avoid the addiction crisis in the first place because we would be treating people’s health and not talking about insurance,” she said.
She additionally said law enforcement also has a role in prosecuting drug traffickers as well as drug distributors and manufacturers.
Payne said West Virginia needs to implement modified versions of addiction programs in Switzerland and the Netherlands, which allow people to use drugs in supervised clinics.
The primary election will be held May 8.