CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One of West Virginia’s leading education unions is backing Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango in this year’s gubernatorial contest.
AFT-West Virginia’s endorsement, announced Wednesday, comes four years after the union endorsed Gov. Jim Justice in his first run for office.
“We feel that Ben Salango — being a product of West Virginia public schools — understands our battles, our fights, and our members have spoken very loudly and very clearly, and told us that we feel Ben can move us to where we need to go as far as education is concerned in West Virginia,” AFT-West Virginia President Fred Albert said on “MetroNews Talkline.”
Albert noted on the program the group’s endorsement of Justice’s 2016 run for office; AFT-West Virginia supported Justice — then running as a Democrat — for being committed to “getting politicians out of our classrooms” and an advocate for competitive salaries and benefits.
Albert acknowledged political changes since the previous general election contest have changed the feelings between the two, including Justice joining the Republican Party in August 2017 and two statewide education work stoppages.
“One of the things I want also to be known is the strike of 2018 that brought teachers and service personnel and parents together and brought us out of our schools and off of the school buses was not about a pay raise,” Albert said. “We appreciate the pay raise, but it was about PEIA, and that’s a bigger issue for many of our employees.”
According to Albert, AFT-West Virginia members took notice of Salango’s comments regarding the state Public Employee Insurance Agency program during a forum held in January.
“One of the things that resonated loudly and clearly with our members was his very first day in office when he’s elected as governor of our state, he will bring the stakeholders together to find a find a permanent fix or a long-term fix for PEIA,” Albert said.
“We believe that Ben Salango is the person who can do that.”
Fellow Democratic gubernatorial candidates Stephen Smith and Boone County Sen. Ron Stollings took part the forum. Albert said Wednesday the union invited all declared candidates to participate.
Salango reiterated the challenge on Wednesday, saying he would call a special legislative session on PEIA if elected.
The Justice campaign criticized the endorsement, saying AFT-West Virginia has an ally with Justice. The campaign noted two teacher pay raises — claiming Justice “led the charge” on both — as well as funding for education programs.
“Even though this union decided to engage in partisan politics, Governor Justice remains committed to ensuring our students have access to a world-class education system in West Virginia,” campaign manager Roman Stauffer said in a statement.
Albert said Justice should have done more with PEIA.
“There, looming ahead of us, will be some major increases that we cannot shoulder as school employees,” he said.
The West Virginia School Service Personnel Association endorsed Salango earlier this year.