CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Democrats are trying candidates on for size.
One by one, four candidates for governor introduced themselves to the most faithful and most enthusiastic members of the party during a Friday evening Roosevelt Kennedy Dinner at the Charleston Civic Center.
“Some of you have heard of me, some of you know me and most of you are going to forget about me soon,” said Jody Murphy, an economic developer in Pleasants County, whose pitch for governor includes some self-deprecating humor.
A couple hundred Democrats, including current office holders, county chairs and union leaders, got four rounds of speed dating with Murphy, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, activist Stephen Smith and state Senator Ron Stollings.
Those candidates, all trying to increase their name recognition, spoke just shortly after a West Virginia household name who considered — and then decided against — running for governor again, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.
“I applaud anybody who wants to put their name on a ballot in this political climate the way things are,” said West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore. “We want to showcase them tonight and give everybody a feel for what each message is going to be about.”
“It’s a good opportunity because there’s not going to be a lot of time between now and May to be able to talk to a crowd like this from so many different counties. I think you’ll hear a variety of plans each one has, and quite frankly there are folks who have never heard from any of them. So they’re all new. It’s an open seat. It’s going to be interesting how it plays out.”
It is, uh, not exactly an open seat. That was a slight misstatement by the party chairwoman.
The incumbent — and the elephant in the room — is the guy who won the Democratic nomination four years ago, Jim Justice.
Justice, the billionaire who owns The Greenbrier resort, went on to win the General Election. About six months after taking office, he switched parties to Republican, citing kinship with President Donald Trump and saying he couldn’t push policies as a Democrat any more.
Now Justice will be running in the Republican primary, which is also contested. Other candidates include former Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and former state Delegate Mike Folk.
The gathering on Friday evening included several members of Justice’s staff when he was a Democrat, including chief of staff Nick Casey, who was fired, and senior counsel Joey Garcia and former Labor Commissioner David Mullins resigned, who left.
Mentions of Justice were consistent and barbed, usually referencing the governor’s decision to continue living in Lewisburg, a couple of hours from the capital. Justice is being sued over constitutional questions surrounding his residency.
“We don’t have a governor right now, right?” said Natalie Tennant, a former Secretary of State who was serving as the evening’s emcee.
“I wanna hear some Democratic gubernatorial candidates. We are like six months away folks.”
Murphy bounded onto the stage to Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” and acknowledged his uphill odds. While the other candidates wore dark suits and ties, Murphy appeared in dark jeans and a checked shirt, no tie, underscoring his outsider persona.
“I know I’m a longshot and an underfunded candidate,” he told the crowd. “Tonight I’m pushing. I want my children and my children’s children to live in West Virginia.”
He pitched unorthodox ideas to diversify the economy, including a proposal to give away a hundred or so acres of land as an economic development pilot program, cash incentives for new residents, income tax-free communities for seniors and in-city entrepreneurship zones.
“I want to recruit people to live here. We are hemorrhaging people,” he said. “I want to pay people to come and live here.”
Next up was Salango, who took the stage to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”
“Folks, my name is Ben Salango, and I’m running for governor,” said Salango, who has been a commissioner in West Virginia’s largest county since 2017, when he replaced Dave Hardy, who became Justice’s revenue secretary.
Salango took aim at Justice right away.
“It’s been said 80 percent of life is showing up and we have a governor who simply will not show up,” he said. “It’s important to remember the governor works for us and you are the boss so we can change that. Not only will I show up but I will move the state forward.”
He described his own upbringing, growing up in a Raleigh County trailer while his parents worked to start their own business and taking his own first job as a union employee at a Kroger grocery store.
Salango highlighted his role in developing a new sports complex in Kanawha County and then drew more contrasts with Justice.
He noted that Justice ranks near the bottom of governors in terms of popularity. Morning Consult’s Governor Approval Ratings list Justice with 42 percent approval and 47 percent disapproval.
Justice is listed as the lowest ranked Republican aside from Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who just lost a re-election bid.
“We need a governor we can be proud of, not someone who is constantly in scandals and controversies,” Salango said. “You’ll never need to file a lawsuit to get me to come to work.”
Smith, who is running with an organization called “West Virginia Can’t Wait,” then strode onto the stage to “Power to the People,” a 1971 song by John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band that has been used by Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Smith used to lead the Healthy Kids and Families Coalition but gave no personal history at all as he spoke to West Virginia Democrats. Instead, he emphasized trying to build a statewide political machine, powered by a couple hundred town hall meetings.
Smith’s campaign has been the top fundraiser in the early months of the election cycle, and it received the boost of an early endorsement by presidential contender Elizabeth Warren.
“My name is Stephen Smith. I’m running for the governor of West Virginia,” he said. “But our campaign is kind of different. We don’t just need a governor. We need a legislature, we need a bench.”
One by one, he asked those seated in different sections of the big room to stand, describing the roles each could play in politics and government.
“When we do all of this , we don’t just beat Jim Justice at his own game, we play a game he can’t play,” Smith said.
“We make it so every single one of the 373,000 voters that we need to turn out on election day 2020 will have heard about us, our movement an dour message. We can change what politics is.”
He described policy goals such as establishing a black lung fund, legalizing cannabis and using a base of severance tax on energy resources to support education and healthcare.
“Let’s build a state we can all be proud of,” Smith said. “Thank you all so much.”
Finally, state Senator Ron Stollings took the stage to the lower-key Bruce Springsteen song “The Rising.”
“I’m Ron Stollings, and I’m running for the governor of West Virginia’s families,” he said.
Stollings, who has served in the Senate since 2006, described his upbringing by a single mom who was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12, dying five years later.
“During those five years I learned how to work and what to believe in,” he said.
He talked about mowing grass, painting houses and eventually earning his medical degree. Stollings is a doctor in Boone County.
“Speaking of work ethic, if I’m elected governor, if any of us are elected governor, they will show up — I will show up — to work every day,” he said.
Stollings spoke of focusing on West Virginia’s rampant opioid addiction problem while promoting recovery programs. He also talked about greater investment in education while valuing educators.
“I’m pleased we have several people with good ideas running for governor on our side. At the end of the day we need to support the Democratic nominee for governor,” Stollings told the crowd.
“Tonight I humbly ask and would be honored to have your support for my candidacy for governor.”
As the evening neared its conclusion, moderator Tennant spoke a similar sentiment.
“We’ve got six months of fun primary,” she said, “and then we’re all coming together after May 12.”