Democratic gubernatorial candidates discuss coronavirus response in debate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As in-person campaigning has been limited during the coronavirus pandemic, three Democratic candidates for governor faced off in a debate Tuesday evening, three weeks before the election.

Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, activist Stephen Smith and Boone County Sen. Ron Stollings participated in the hour-long debate hosted by television station WDTV, in which the candidates appeared via video.

“We’ve had some real challenges in our lives here in West Virginia over the years,” Stollings said,” but we’ve never had anything like this coronavirus pandemic.”

Each candidate spoke about the ongoing pandemic, as well as the state’s response.

Stollings said Gov. Jim Justice “stumbled out of the box a bit” with the state’s initial response to the coronavirus, but efforts have improved as state Chief Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp and coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh have played larger roles in the statewide response.

“There are some very big holes, however,” he added, noting his constituents have called him about not receiving unemployment benefits.

“We just have to, again, push out to people who really need this the most.”

Stollings, a practicing physician, said he is also concerned the state does not have adequate testing and protective equipment.

Salango, who took office in February 2017, discussed the coronavirus response efforts in Kanawha County, such as the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department testing nursing home residents and daycare workers ahead of a statewide order.

“We’re doing everything we can to be proactive and not reactive,” he said.

Salango also criticized the Justice administration for not spending $1.25 billion in federal relief funding, in which the money has to go to the coronavirus response.

“Sitting back on it just like they did the RISE program, just like they did the Roads to Prosperity money isn’t doing anything for anyone,” he said. “We need to get that money out there for our businesses. We have to make sure they survive this.”

Smith said Justice has failed to protect small businesses and workers.

“This is what happens in a crisis in West Virginia: those in charge try to convince us that we have to choose between our health and our bank accounts. We don’t,” he said. “Then if instead, we went after those who have been robbing us forever, we can have paid sick days. We can have a safe-at-home plan that is for real. We can support telehealth and frontline workers. We can make it so no matter your skin color, you can have access to the health care you need not just during the pandemic, but 365 days a year.”

Smith’s campaign and the West Virginia Can’t Wait movement have formed a coronavirus response effort focused on community outreach.

Douglas Hughes and Jody Murphy are also running in the Democratic primary. Election Day is scheduled for June 9.

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