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Sam Brown Petsonk, left, and delegate Isaac Sponaugle – Contribution

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CHARLESTON – The coronavirus could complicate the execution of a traditional political campaign, but two candidates for the Democratic Party primary for the state attorney general aim to prevent Republican President Patrick Morrisey from winning a third term.

Isaac Sponaugle, a 41-year-old lawyer and Pendleton County representative in the West Virginia House of Delegates; and Sam Brown Petsonk, a 35-year-old Fayette County labor lawyer and former legislative assistant to the late US Senator Robert C. Byrd, will be on the ballot in the June 9 primary election. The winner will face Morrisey – who took office as attorney general in 2013 – in the November 10 general election.

The two seek to bring the office back to its original purposes under former Democratic Attorney General Darrell McGraw – a focus on consumer protection, using the office to fight for West Virginians injured by the opioid crisis and for protect workers. But the two candidates will have to fight an opponent not present on the ballot: the coronavirus.

VIRTUAL DOOR KNOCKING

The campaign season generally consists of candidates attending county party meetings, visiting union halls, walking in parades, visiting fairs and festivals, and campaigning door to door to introduce themselves to voters. The spread of the coronavirus, which forced people to stay at home when possible and resulted in the cancellation and postponement of large rallies and events, made any campaign almost impossible.

Petsonk, who applied for the position of attorney general almost 11 months ago, is a step ahead of Sponaugle, who applied last December. During the campaign fundraiser, Petsonk raised $ 174,037. Sponaugle has collected $ 46,975 in contributions over the past four months, but with a loan of $ 100,000, it has $ 136,458 in cash after spending compared to Petsonk, which has $ 86,439.

During the coronavirus, Petsonk turned to social media to keep supporters motivated and reach new voters. This includes several publications and videos on his Facebook page commenting on recent actions by Morrisey and the attorney general’s office, as well as helping people in trouble as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the economy.

“Over the past year, we have organized a considerable base of volunteers and support from across the state, and these volunteers are helping us reach out to make sure our campaign supports communities and stays there and digitally engaged by telephone by telephone. “ Said Petsonk.

Sponaugle has spent the past two months working on phones and reaching out to constituents and constituents. The four-year-old MP also relies on a network of colleagues who have openly endorsed his campaign and who can promote Sponaugle in their districts.

“Due to social isolation and event cancellations, it is virtually impossible to travel around the state to campaign, see people, and participate in various events.”What I do, all you can do is work on the phone and call people and reach out that way. This is the kind of world we live in 2020 right now. “

HEALTH CARE

Sponaugle and Petsonk want to withdraw West Virginia from a federal lawsuit that could overturn the Affordable Care Act.

West Virginia, represented by Morrisey, is one of 18 states and the United States Department of Justice suing to dismantle the Affordable Care Act passed under former President Barack Obama. They allege that the law is unconstitutional because of the individual mandate that penalizes those who have not purchased health insurance. In March, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

According to 2018 figures from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 44% of West Virginians have private insurance, 26% have Medicaid and 19% have Medicare. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, more than 800,000 West Virginians – 52% of the state’s non-elderly residents – have pre-existing conditions. The repeal of the ACA could cost the state $ 1 billion in federal funding for the expansion of the state of Medicaid.

“Healthcare affects our entire economy and the tasks of the Attorney General’s office,” Said Petsonk. “It’s a top priority from day one, but I would withdraw West Virginia support for the Morrissey trial to eliminate health care coverage for hundreds of thousands of West Virginia. This would harm not only our patients, but also our community health centers, our critical access hospitals and our coal miners who depend on the black lung supplies that I worked to secure for Senator Byrd. “

Sponaugle helped defeat an effort by Morrisey and Republicans in the Legislative Assembly to stop a bill that would likely have cost the state more than $ 1 billion if the ACA were toppled.

SB 284, the West Virginia patient protection program, is believed to have created a high-risk pool for people with pre-existing health conditions, giving the Commissioner of State Insurance the power to activate the program if the ACA had to be canceled in whole or in part. . Opponents of the bill, like Sponaugle, argued that the bill would require the state to cover West Virginians in the Medicaid program.

“The very first priority would be the day … we are withdrawing from the Affordable Care Act lawsuit to put in place protections for people suffering from preexisting diseases”, Said Sponaugle. “We are the first state for people under the age of 60 with pre-existing conditions. As a result, if you lose (ACA), your health insurance will be canceled or your premiums will go through the roof if (Morrisey is) successful.”

CONSUMER PROTECTION

Although the Attorney General acts as the legal representative of state departments and agencies and pleads for the state before the State Supreme Court and federal courts, most people are aware of the consumer protection divisions and anti-trust office.

Critics of Morrisey argue that the consumer protection division issues more press releases than real consumer protection work on behalf of citizens. Petsonk, who previously worked in the Attorney General’s office under McGraw, would like to put the office in a more aggressive position.

“Certainly, we must continue the public service of representing consumers through the consumer protection office”, Said Petsonk. “What I’m focusing on is restoring the number of settlements we are achieving with this office. This office is efficient. We need to reach as many people as possible and help as many families as possible to resolve unfair debt collection and other consumer issues. “

“Instead of using it as a slush fund to send daily press releases to all state newspapers, these funds should be used to combat consumer fraud in the state of Virginia.” -Western, or at least I think I am, “ Sponaugle said in agreement.

Sponaugle, as well as Petsonk, would like the office to focus more on work problems, especially in light of recent closings of several state hospitals and other work problems

“The Attorney General’s office must have a division of labor that is set up inside so that you can crack down on illegal hires or work safety items which are all statewide violations”, Said Sponaugle. “It should be something that would be taken care of internally. The state applies the law we have on the books. “

“I proposed very early in this race to create a workers’ rights initiative in the attorney general’s office, and I know how to do it because that’s what I did in my legal practice “, Said Petsonk. “We have had many massive layoffs in our state in the past eight years. I was there to advocate to protect workers. “

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

Petsonk and Sponaugle are critical of the way Morrisey deals with dispute resolution with manufacturers and suppliers of prescription drugs.

In 2018, Morrisey settled two disputes with the manufacturers of prescription drugs AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Cardinal Health Inc. for $ 36 million. Last year, Morrisey settled a lawsuit with McKesson for $ 37 million. Meanwhile, Johnson and Johnson was ordered to pay the state of Oklahoma $ 572 million last year for minimizing the dangers of prescription pain relievers. And two Ohio counties have reached an agreement with drug manufacturers for $ 260 million.

According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, health care providers in West Virginia wrote 69.3 pain reliever prescriptions per 100 people in 2018. The national average was 51.4 prescriptions per 100 people. There were 702 deaths from opioid overdoses in West Virginia compared to 833 in 2017. Of these 702 deaths, 234 deaths were attributed to prescription drugs.

Sponaugle said that Morrisey, a former lobbyist from Washington, D.C., whose clients included several pharmaceutical manufacturers, was not doing his best to get better facilities in a state ravaged by prescription drug abuse.

“I would actually go after the pharmaceutical companies and the combinations that he has not yet settled en masse”, Said Sponaugle. “He literally tore the state apart for pennies on the dollar, on these colonies when he and his wife made a fortune of them … you must prosecute them and you must hold them responsible.”

Petsonk also sees a way for the Attorney General’s Office to have a bigger hand in the war on opioids, by helping direct funds to settlement at the local county level where the war on drugs made the most impact. damage to communities and budgets. Petsonk said the office should have a role to play in helping people recover from addiction and resume productive lives.

“The addiction crisis requires similar overall attention from the Attorney General. It’s a health problem, but it’s also a law enforcement problem, “ Said Petsonk. The Attorney General must support better results in long-term recovery through his Civil Rights Division, working to ensure access to vocational rehabilitation and employment opportunities that help people in recovery reintegrate into the workforce. labor market and to reunite with their families. “

THE FINAL STRETCH

Just over a month left before June 9 primary, and as Governor Jim Justice slowly eases restrictions on non-essential travel and gatherings, Petsonk and Sponaugle will have additional opportunities to explain why they are the best choice to challenge Morrisey in the fall.

“I believe that West Virginia deserves a proven Attorney General for all of us, from coalfields in the South to beggars and everywhere else,” Said Petsonk.

“I believe that I am the only candidate who can beat Patrick Morrissey, who has the courage to pursue him and it will not stop, and be a dog of attack”, Said Sponaugle. “All you have to do is tell the truth about the guy and he should lose. These New Jersey values ​​are certainly not comparable to these West Virginia values.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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