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Kessler challenges Justice to gubernatorial debate

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Kessler challenges Justice to gubernatorial debate
By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler is challenging his opponent, billionaire businessman Jim Justice, to a series of debates before the 2016 Democratic primary election in West Virginia.

Kessler, a state senator from Marshall County, issued the challenge during an interview Tuesday afternoon on Ravenswood radio station WMOV.

“Mr. Justice is a fine man, but I’ve yet to hear him have a substantive opinion on much of anything other than the fact he loves the state of West Virginia, and he’s all for jobs,” Kessler said. “Well, everyone in this state loves this state, and I assure you … we’re all worried about jobs.”

Justice’s camp characterized Kessler’s debate challenge as a political stunt. The gubernatorial primary isn’t until May.

“We are taking time to hear voters’ concerns about how we can create jobs and move West Virginia forward,” said Grant Herring, a spokesman for Justice’s campaign. “It’s still very early, and West Virginians will get to hear from all of the candidates. This is just political theatre and people are sick of it.”

Kessler suggested the first debate take place Oct. 2, shortly before the Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner at the Charleston Civic Center. Former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to speak at the event.

“It would be an excellent opportunity,” Kessler said. “Let’s get us in a room somewhere in Charleston, and let the people of the state hear his views and mine on where we are.”

The recent MetroNews West Virginia Poll shows Kessler trailing Justice, who owns The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, by six percentage points. In the poll, 26 percent of likely Democratic Primary voters were undecided. That poll and others also show Justice leading Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole in a general-election match-up, but Kessler trailing Cole.

Kessler said a debate with Justice would help voters learn where the candidates “stand on issues, not generalities.”

“I openly throw down the gauntlet … and challenge him to a debate or a series of debates throughout the state,” said Kessler, minority leader of the West Virginia Senate. “It’s a very important election.”

Kessler said debates also show how candidates handle pressure and think on their feet.

“Everything now seems to be staged, manufactured,” he said. “I’m not a manufactured candidate.”

In 2011, Kessler took part in a debate of Democratic gubernatorial candidates at the University of Charleston.

He isn’t sure what organization would host the event this time around.

“All I can do is issue the challenge, and we’ll see if anybody is willing to accept it,” Kessler said. “It’s like if you want to be hired by somebody, you better be willing to tell them why you want to be hired. I haven’t heard that from the other guy yet.

“I’m willing to give the people an open opportunity to ask me any question, and to ask him any question, and let us respond and go from there.”