Justice declares Cole debate ‘loser’; GOP hopeful dismisses attack

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Jim Justice didn’t say definitively¬†that he¬†won Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate at the Clay Center, only that he was certain Senate President Bill Cole lost.

“Bill Cole lost the debate. He’s lost us in a lot of ways for the last two years,” the Greenbrier Resort owner told reporters after the debate. “We’re struggling, guys. That’s just all there is to it.”

Justice repeatedly attacked his GOP opponent throughout the hour-long debate for what he saw as a lack of leadership as the Senate president, failing to balance the budget in a timely fashion during a special session last spring, and a lack of progress throughout two years of Republicans control in Charleston.

Cole responded it wasn’t fair to put all of West Virginia’s legislative problems on him, though he wasn’t surprised by Justice’s tact.

“Well sure. I mean, he wants to paint me as a career politician, but that’s just utter nonsense,” Cole said. “I’ve had two years in leadership and I think my record speaks for itself. The things we’ve done to advance an atmosphere that is good for the job creators, I don’t think any reasonable person could deny we’ve done a phenomenal job.”

MORE In broad strokes, Cole and Justice differentiate themselves

Cole claimed there is a lot Justice doesn’t understand about the legislative process, including the fact the Legislature must rely on revenue figures from the executive branch to balance the budget. Justice didn’t see a big difference between business and government.

“In anything there’s wickets that you’ve got to work through,” he said. “I’m not going to let that be our crutch and be an excuse and say because government moves a lot slower we can’t get anything done. I mean, do we just want to crawl in a hole and die? Not me.”

Cole criticized Justice for a lack of details in his campaign, and a suspicious candidacy from the beginning when Justice declared he would run as a Democrat.

“It strikes me as strange that he leaves the Republican Party when the state’s turning conservative very quickly,” Cole said. “His whole deal is ‘Trust me and anybody will take my call.’ I’m sorry, that’s not a good business model. He needs a better grip on, in fact, how the process works.”

Several of the state’s most prominent political leaders held a watch party at the Clay Center. Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael was quick to defend his fellow senator, incensed by Justice’s lack of detail.

“Jim Justice has no specifics on any issue. He trots out all these platitudes and it just drives me crazy,” said Carmichael. “Being in state government, and knowing that there are real-world problems that demand real-world solutions. I believe that Bill Cole really did offer more specifics in this debate.”

State Democratic Party chair Belinda Biafore admitted she’d like to see more specifics from Justice, but said part of his lack of detail was due to the limited format.

“I think it’s tough to do in 60 or 90 seconds, to really get into what your plan is without being cut off,” said Biafore. “I hope there’s more opportunity. And I know he’s been going around the state and everywhere that I’ve been and listened to him he’s a lot more detailed.”

GOP Chair Conrad Lucas said Cole’s two-year tenure as Senate president is misleading because of the regular session only lasting two months.

“We’re in the legislative session for only 60 days a year. Thinking of the legal reforms we’ve passed, the pro-life legislation, the pro-gun legislation, Right to Work. Obviously all of the reforms that have come under Bill Cole are benefiting West Virginia now.”

The two will return to the stage at the Clay Center next Tuesday, for the second and final debate.

The first debate was sponsored by AARP and the West Virginia Press Association, and was moderated by WV Public Broadcasting’s Ashton Marra. Next Tuesday’s debate, moderated by MetroNews “Talkline” host Hoppy Kercheval, will be sponsored by the West Virginia Broadcaster’s Association and CityNet.

Election Day is 5 weeks away, on Tuesday Nov. 8.

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