By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A scheduled editorial board appearance last week at the Daily Telegraph between Democrat Mark Wills and Republican Bill Cole quickly turned into a gentleman’s debate in the Senate District 6 race.
With no official debate scheduled between the two men, both Cole and Wills welcomed the opportunity to wrangle over the issues, including job creation, prison overcrowding, support for the state’s coal industry, and other issues, including the long-sought-after veteran’s clinic for Mercer County.
Wills, the incumbent senator, has served for the past two years. He is being challenged by Cole, a Mercer County businessman and former member of the state House of Delegates. Both candidates were asked to give an opening statement.
“I’m a fifth generation businessman in southern West Virginia,” Cole said. “In a word I would contend that the simple answer to everything that ails us in southern West Virginia is jobs and job creation. I’m a positive person, and I look toward the glass-half-full side. In this case, in job creation and job friendliness we work near the bottom. And I think it takes a businessman and a businessman sense in Charleston to create an environment that is conducive to creating jobs We need to level the playing field simply to open the door to job creation. I think with jobs it almost goes full circle. We worry about high school dropout rates but if we truly had a job waiting for kids, he or she may be more inclined to stay in school. It revolves back to having a job waiting for kids.”
“In the newly created district, which is the 6th District, I’ve been a hard worker,” Wills said. “I have a passion for this county and this district. I love Mercer County. I make this my home. I live here full time. I agree with Bill Cole that jobs are an issue. But we have taken steps to help business by lowering the corporate income tax. One goal of mine is to get this King Coal Highway going. If we get that going Mercer County will benefit. Bluefield will benefit. I think the future in West Virginia is bright. I think it’s a good place to do business. I think we need to work on our infrastructure. In addition to that, one of my other goals is to try to get a satellite vet center for Mercer County from Raleigh County.”
Cole and Wills then debated job creation.
“I think in the southern part of the state we’ve often made the statement that the state line stops at Raleigh County and Beckley,” Cole said. “And I think there may be some truth to that with Byrd and Rahall being Beckley people. As far as Raleigh County and Beckley doing better, they aren’t a border community. We struggle to keep a gas station in Bluefield. Now Princeton is OK because people don’t’ want to drive 15 miles to fill up their car. But we struggle in Bluefield. Same with the grocery store. We are finally getting rid of the food tax, but it’s been a five-year process to try to level that playing field. We have so many things we need to do in Charleston to make ourselves competitive with our border states. We are in 50th place for the lawsuit environment. Mark says it is a good place to do business. It’s not an easy place to do business. What about the businesses we already have? We can’t turn our back on them. You know Flowers Bakery and Kroger — we’ve lost so many businesses here for the wrong reasons. I don’t promise if I go to Charleston that I can’t magically undue 85 years of single-party rule. But I do sense change, and I believe it might be an exciting time moving forward.”
“I can assure you that I care about all people, and about all of the state’s needs,” Wills said in response to Cole. “Number two, the gas tax is different from Virginia’s (gas tax). Our gas tax supplies all of the money we have to take care of our roads. There is a difference in that tax. Number three, our border state — we are very small — and we have less people. Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio are much more populated than we are. Bill talks about — I assume — his insurance rates because of lawsuit abuse. But I can assure you that lawyers don’t file lawsuits that are not legitimate. We’ve had tort reform over the last years that was supposed to lower those rates.”
“First of all, I didn’t suggest that you didn’t care,” Cole said in response. “I did suggest a two-party system is a healthy system, and we haven’t enjoyed that since 1932 in West Virginia, and I didn’t say the only reason my property and car rates are double is because of tax rates. But we’ve ranked for the fifth consecutive time in eight out of 10 years as 50th in lawsuit climate. I don’t know how you defend that and I’m not asking you to defend that. That’s the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I think this may be a philosophical difference. If you have people working that is what fixes the tax base.”
“For years the (U.S.) chamber has told people what a bad place it is to do business,” Wills responded. “And they convinced people that it is. But you can do business here. Right here is an example. I think Mr. Cole does good business and has a good lifestyle. So you can do business here. I think the potential is there. Unfortunately, I think the chamber has convinced people it is a bad place to do business.”
The two candidates were asked what the state could — or should be doing — to help support and enhance the Mercer County Airport.
“In the past, this was a viable airport, and Bill is a pilot,” Wills said. “You know it’s unfortunate the economy has been bad all across the United States. I assume less people are flying out of here because of the way the economy is. But I can assure you I would support anything and do anything to get this airport going again. We need it”
“When we lost the Essential Air Service, I fear that county wide we had some people asleep at the switch,” Cole said. “I’ll just call it what it was. That was done and over with before we realized what was going on. And when the subsidy went away so did the air service. In contrast, and this isn’t to pump up Virginia, but Virginia does spend a fair amount of money from their state end on airports. I think it is critically important that we support our airports. I don’t think we will ever have commercial air service again in Mercer County if we don’t turn around our business (climate). But I will tell you what an airport is. It’s a gateway to an area. And the first thing they will see is our airport. And we know what first impressions mean. I am pleased that we recently had a shake up on the airport authority. I think we have some new blood on the airport authority, and they are pilots, which I think is critical. I’ve flown for more than 30 years and I’ve had businesses in four of five states. And I never considered opening a business where there wasn’t an airport close by because it is how I travel.”
The two candidates were then asked about the future of coal, and who they are supporting in the presidential election.
“First of all the EPA has a role,” Wills said. “We want clean air and clean water. I think they (the EPA) have overstepped their bounds. And what we can do is join with the governor who I have a great relationship with in fighting the EPA on some of these permits. He’s been successful in going to court and having some of these turned around. It’s not only the EPA. There are other factors. The price of coal is just down. But I believe if coal is in the ground it will come out eventually.”
Wills said he plans on supporting President Barack Obama for re-election.
“First of all, I’m running for a state office,” Will said. “I believe in what I do and I believe I can help this country and this district because of my relationship with the governor and these people in leadership. Whoever Mr. Cole and I vote for president is really not relevant. Because Obama is not going to win West Virginia. Our five electoral votes will go to the Republicans. But I can’t, in a good conscious, support the Republican candidate because of his stand on Medicare and Social Security. We have an elderly population here that depends upon Medicare and Social Security, and a voucher system simply won’t work. So it is important that that doesn’t happen. I can’t support Mitt Romney because of that.”
“First of all let me say West Virginia is abundant with natural resources,” Cole said. “We have coal, oil and natural gas and timber, and we need to go after all of those. But coal is still our main topic. And it’s not even up for conversation that our president is anti-coal, and is doing everything to stop coal. ‘You can build a coal-fired plant, but I will bankrupt you.’ That is what he said. We’ve closed 11 coal plants now. When we artificially hobble our best resources by having an EPA that is creating more policy than trying to just rule with the laws on the books, the permitting process is impossible.”
Cole said he plans on supporting Republican Mitt Romney in November.
“In my heart of hearts, I’ve seen the programs our current president has put in place,” Cole said. “We are moving so closely to big government and government control. I don’t think our country can stand another four years of the current administration.”
“Business and government are two different things,” Wills said. “Bill Cole is in business to make money. Government is organized to solve the problems that we as individuals can’t solve, like building a road — like the King Coal Highway — that we need to keep going. Like putting in a water system or sewer system they so desperately need in McDowell County. That’s government’s role. And I agree they should do it as efficiently as possible. But the facts are the facts. In the Senate of West Virginia there are six Republicans in there. If it changes at all, it isn’t going to change much. The Democratic Party is going to be the majority party. If this district sends a Republican up there, they will never chair a committee, he will never be a vice chair. Their hands are tied because there are so few of them. That’s just a fact. It’s the way it is. I believe with the relationships that I’ve been able to do in two years that we are getting things done. I met with the governor in my office two weeks ago, and we left my office, and went to address the flooding problem in Princeton that’s been there for 20 years. And we are finally working on a solution to get things fixed.”
“I think Mark did a real good job of explaining what’s wrong with our government in Charleston now,” Cole said. “And it’s because it’s one party. I don’t think it will be like that forever. I think people are finally waking up. But I will argue on this. Government is a business. Federal government is a disaster but state government is a business. Because state government isn’t supposed to spend more than it takes in. That’s one of the things we aren’t willing to do. We need to reduce the waste that we have in our own government. We need to maximize our opportunities for income, and we will do that by making this a job friendly place that will in fact be conducive to bringing new business in. We are a small state. We have so much to offer. It is a beautiful state. The King Coal Highway — I was on the I-73/74 board and worked with Mike Mitchem — it’s critical.”
Both candidates vowed to work for an outpatient veterans’ clinic for Mercer County.
“Not only will I commit to it, but I have been doing it,” Wills said. “I have written the president personally. I think I’ve sent him five letters. I’ve met with Wayne Griffith, the CEO of (Princeton Community Hospital). It’s a win-win for the veterans. It’s a win-win for the hospital. What I think the stumbling blocks have been is Beckley might not want to give it up. I don’t know, but I’m committed to getting that clinic down here.”
When asked if Obama has responded to his letters, Wills said no. However, he said the Veterans Administration has.
“I commend you for your efforts on that and I think the solution of partnering with Princeton Community Hospital to get that wing is phenomenal,” Cole said in response. “We never do enough for our veterans. The very people who enable us to sit here and have this conversation today. So I think we ought to have it, and yeah I think it’s a turf battle and Raleigh County not wanting to give it up.”
Both candidates also addressed prison overcrowding.
“This is not an easy solution,” Wills said. “Do we build a new prison and just lock people away forever? I don’t think so. I think it’s a combination of several different things. There are some repeat offenders that need to be locked away forever. So what we are looking at in this study we are doing is a combination of having treatment for those people so that you just don’t lock them up and when they get out they do the same thing. For some people it will work and some it won’t.”
“Having said that on the violent-offender side, yeah it seems like they get out,” Cole said. “So I would certainly be for stricter sentencing and keeping them in jail. That is what jails are for. I realize the drug situation is the major culprit in overcrowding now. But I have to go back to let’s quit feeding it. The way we quit feeding it now is back to job creation. If we have jobs waiting for children they don’t get involved in drugs and petty thefts to support their habits. Would I support another jail? As an absolute matter of last resort. But I think counseling for people who have drug problems is something we need to look at.”
— Contact Charles Owens at email@example.com