McElhinny: Cole and Justice race for the finish line

COMMENTARY

If last night’s gubernatorial debate was a success then West Virginians woke up today having a better idea who deserves their vote.

It was the second and final chance to hear Democrat Jim Justice and Republican Bill Cole onstage together.

If voters have been struggling to differentiate the two, then they may be forgiven. Both are similarly aged with similar backgrounds as businessmen and with similar locations on the political spectrum. Both say they want to encourage economic growth and to bring back coal.

For many, this could be like choosing between 1 percent milk or 2 percent milk.

So what’s the difference?

West Virginians have two years of familiarity of Cole as state Senate president.

On his watch they’ve seen tort reform, the repeal of the prevailing wage and the legislative acceptance of right-to-work. They’ve also seen controversy over social issues such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, plus a struggle to fill gaps in the state budget.

During the past few months, voters have also seen the commercials that closely align Cole with Donald Trump — a relationship that might seem more complicated with every new Trump controversy.

Voters might feel like they know Jim Justice because of his ownership of The Greenbrier Resort. But it’s been harder to peg Justice on policy.

Much of Justice’s approach seems inspired by Professor Harold Hill, the character in “The Music Man” who instructs boys to play their musical instruments simply by thinking of the notes.

Successful public policy? One must simply visualize for outcomes to be successful.

“Think big!” is one of the points of Justice’s economic platform. There’s also a common theme of asking West Virginians to put their personal trust in him: “I will personally recruit businesses and capital to West Virginia like none other” is another statement from Justice’s official platform.

Most of the polls have shown Justice ahead. Those range from a double-digit blowout projection by the MetroNews West Virginia Poll in early September to a more recent squeaker backed by Republicans.

But all those polls came before last Friday’s revelation by National Public Radio that Justice’s companies owe $15 million in state fines across six states, that his coal companies are the nation’s top mine safety delinquents, and that he hasn’t made good on some prominent charitable promises.

At the Democrats’ Jefferson Jackson dinner, Justice’s first appearance since those revelations, he acknowledged he isn’t perfect. Again, he asked the friendly audience to trust him.

“I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve got a lot of experience,” he told the crowd.

If the revelations stirred doubt in the voters’ minds, some progressives might take a long, hard look at someone who is on their ballot who was not at last night’s debate: Charlotte Pritt, the Mountain Party candidate who was the 1996 Democratic Party candidate for governor.

Pritt is unlikely to win, but if enough voters decide they can actually trust her more than Justice then that gives Cole a greater chance.

It’s less than a month to Election Day now. Still time for voters to think and for events to shift.

But by now West Virginians should know their choices pretty well.





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