West Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates met at the Clay Center in Charleston Tuesday night for their first debate, just 34 days before the national election. Moderated by Ashton Marra of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and hosted by AARP and the West Virginia Press Association, Democratic candidate Jim Justice and Republican candidate Bill Cole, both prominent businessmen in the Mountain State, discussed everything from the legalization of marijuana to broadband access and job creation within the State, but with all of this, did viewers learn anything new that could sway their vote when they go to the polls on Nov. 8?
Other than jobs, the second most contentious topic discussed during the debate was education. Both Justice and Cole believe solving the education crisis is instrumental in rebuilding the State’s economy; their plans for achieving that, however, are what differ significantly.
Justice accused Senator Cole of making too many cuts to education during his time as senate president while emphasizing the need for significant pay raises for all teachers throughout the state.
"We can’t cut our way out of this, we have to grow our way out of this," Justice said.
In the last four years, West Virginia state funding for higher education has been cut four times, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released last year.
For the 2014-15 academic year, 37 states increased per-student higher education funding, while West Virginia and 12 others cut it. West Virginia cut funding $157 per-student, making it one of only five states to cut more than $100 per-student, the report read. The State also joined Kentucky and Oklahoma in being the only three states to cut per-student funding two years in a row.
A recent study conducted by WalletHub analysts shows that West Virginia’s education system currently ranks 45th out of the 51 U.S. states and territories.
Legalization of marijuana
When moderator Ashton Marra asked the candidates about their stance on legalizing marijuana in West Virginia, Jim Justice and Senator Bill Cole both agreed that legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes is something they would readily support.
Both candidates emphasized the benefits of medical marijuana for cancer patients and individuals suffering with other various medical conditions such as seizures. However, when asked by Marra whether or not they would support recreational marijuana use, Senator Cole adamantly objected, calling marijuana a "gateway drug."
Jim Justice took a more liberal approach by agreeing that legalization for recreation was something that can and should be looked into in the future, as it has the potential to bring a substantial amount of revenue to the State. Justice noted that Colorado has seen almost a $150 million increase in revenue by legalizing and taxing the sale of marijuana over a single year.
Of the 1.85 million people in West Virginia, 608,000 do not currently have access to a wireless connection exceeding 25 megabits per second, according to the National Telecommunication and Information Agency. The Mountain State is ranked 45th when it comes to broadband connection nationally, and currently 70,000 residents live in an area where there are no Internet providers available to them.
Since 2010, about $4.8 million in federal grants have been awarded to spread the efforts of the West Virginia Broadband Program, which is working to spread connectivity throughout the State, while urging it to be as efficient as possible for users. Since 2011, the number of West Virginians with access to a broadband connection exceeding 10 mbps has almost doubled, jumping from 45 percent to 83 percent as of 2015, according to the NTIA.
During the debate, both candidates agreed that maximizing the efficiency of broadband within the State is crucial to maximizing the efficiency of the State’s citizens. With better connection comes more job opportunities and educational opportunities, which is key to bettering the State’s economy and the quality of life of those within state lines. Justice and Cole’s approaches to accessing better broadband, however, is where they differ.
When Marra pushed the candidates to discuss their plans for funding better broadband, the answers colored a picture of each man’s broader views, as well.
"The role of government is to be a facilitator," Cole said. "I do not advocate for the State government being invested in the expansion of broadband in all of our communities."
Despite this declaration, Cole did not propose a secondary plan for broadband access.
Because of the advantages better Internet connectivity would bring to the State, Justice was adamant that it is the government’s job to implement these advances, in fact, the government owes it to the people.
"That’s government’s responsibility. We ought to be finding a way to deliver prosperity and jobs to our people," Justice said.
Throughout the debate, Marra pushed both candidates several times to answer her questions with specifics, and yet each time, with few exceptions, she was still given policy goals with no solid plans or steps of how to achieve them.
This debate acted as a forum for the two candidates to discuss and lightly argue their stances with rhetoric we’ve come to know as familiar in the past few months as they campaigned in the primary (Cole unopposed) and around the State; new information and ideals, however, were left off the stage.
Despite broader themes and goals dominating the conversation, one thing viewers could take away from the debate is how both Justice and Cole present themselves. During the primaries, Cole, current senate president, ran the Republican side unopposed, and Justice defeated Boothe Goodwin and Jeff Kessler for his shot at the nomination.
Neither candidates have participated in debates this election season, and their individual styles and mannerisms shined where their policy efforts fell short on Tuesday evening.
Justice took a conversational approach to answering Marra’s questions, rounding out his responses with personal dialogue that separated him from his policy initiatives.
While Cole added some personal touches to his segments (a story about his mother and her illness, and how he would support medical marijuana to alleviate the pain of those in her position), he frequently made clear and concise proclamations about his stances that made Justice’s rhetoric seem almost superfluous.
The next gubernatorial debate will be held at 7 p.m. next Tuesday, Oct. 11 at the Clay Center in Charleston. Hoppy Kercheval of MetroNews will be moderating, and the debate will be aired and streamed for citizens throughout the state.
The last day for West Virginians to register to vote for the Nov. 8 election is Oct. 18. To learn how to register, visit http://sos.wv.gov.