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Woelfel, Lunsford vie for state senate seat

October 2, 2018

Larry Brooke Lunsford, candidate for West Virginia State Senate 5

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of previews The Herald-Dispatch will provide for certain local contested races in the 2018 general election, which will take place Nov. 6.

HUNTINGTON — One of two seats representing Cabell and Wayne counties in the West Virginia State Senate will be up for grabs in November as Democratic incumbent Mike Woelfel and Republican challenger Larry Brooke Lunsford seek the senate’s District 5 seat.

The winner would represent the district, which covers all of Cabell County and the northern portion of Wayne County, alongside current senator Robert Plymale, who is not up for re-election this cycle.

Woelfel, a lawyer and former prosecutor from Huntington, and Lunsford, a small business owner from Salt Rock, agree on the severity of the same issues facing West Virginia, but outlined different paths the next legislature should take.

For Woelfel, economic development and revitalization is the major issue at hand, both statewide and locally in the Huntington area.

The incumbent senator pointed specifically to tourism as a potential economic driver, the main reason he helped kill a bill that would log 40,000 trees in Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County last session.

“I thought it was bad policy because one of our greatest assets as a state are our state parks and state forests,” Woelfel said.

Specific to Huntington, Woelfel touted his established support of Marshall University and the local health care field, which he called two of the region’s most important economic forces.

“I’m always trying to be focused on promoting and funding those, making sure they’re not inhibited by a bad law,” he added.

Lunsford’s banner issues begin with finding a solution to the state’s overwhelmed foster care system, which currently oversees more than 7,000 children in foster care.

“It’s unrealistic to think that 7,000 families are going to reach out to 7,000 kids and help them,” he added.

Lunsford also promoted tourism’s benefits like Woelfel, but pitched the idea of turning the region into the “high school basketball capitol of the world.” To do so, Lunsford proposed forming a local league consisting of local prep schools like Huntington Prep, Teays Valley Christian and Wesley Christian that he said would consistently bring top-tier national programs to the Huntington area for tournaments.

“That’s the big issue - what can we do to get new money into the state,” Lunsford said. “And that’s what I think is one of the most cost-effective ways.”

Both agreed to the economic significance of the discovery of natural gas in West Virginia: Woelfel calling it an economic driver for generations, and Lunsford comparing it to the discovery of coal.

Not only would natural gas generate millions in severance tax funds, Woelfel said, but it would lead to a bevy of new development in light and heavy manufacturing secondary to the establish gas industry. He cautioned, however, the protection of land of tourism’s sake, protecting the property rights of land owners and any public nuisances caused by development.

“There’s a balance there, and the state has to be on top of (it) through regulation and enforcement,” Woelfel said.

Lunsford, however, was opposed to raising or imposing additional taxes on the gas industry, which he said would encourage more players to the area, and possible major refining developments like a cracker plant.

“We don’t need to scare anybody away with anymore taxes,” he said.

Lunsford, who owns three machine shops in Salt Rock, also proposed manufacturing education, such as that offered at the Robert C. Byrd Institute in Huntington, as a means to stock the workforce with trained, local hands.

On the opioid epidemic, Woelfel said the state government has not taken the lead in creating good policy, which needs to change. He pointed specifically to the ineffectiveness of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, calling it “a rudderless ship” still without valid leadership.

“It starts at the top, and that should be a cabinet-level position because of the tsunami of drugs that have hit our state,” Woelfel said.

He outlined three components to taking on the problem at the ground-level: incarcerating mid-to-high level drug dealers, increasing prevention efforts and extending rehabilitation offerings to those “truly motivated to taking their addiction.”

“It’s going to take a multi-pronged approach. There’s no silver bullet or panacea,” Woelfel said. ” It’s going to take a lot of work by a lot of smart people to dig us out of this.”

Lunsford proposed the idea of detaining, but not necessarily arresting, those suffering from addiction and homelessness who have become a public nuisance - promoting it as a way to get them physically one-on-one with service providers and off the streets.

“Addicts have got to get face-to-face with something they’ll learn to care about and overpower them to have to care even if they don’t want to,” Lunsford said. “I think you’ve go to detain these people in some way to protect them from themselves.”

Lunsford also proposed that law enforcement continue to enforce the current laws relating to drug use, which he said often go overlooked.

“We’ll let somebody that we can see is completely high lying there on the sidewalk, but we’ll walk past them to arrest someone who ran a stop sign,” Lunsford said. “Until we enforce the laws on the books, we’ll be in trouble.”

Arguably the most important issue current is the impeachment of proceedings surrounding West Virginia’s State Supreme Court justices, which both candidates agreed are necessary.

While other Democrats have called the proceedings politically motivated to stock the court with conservative judges, Woelfel dismissed this feeling.

“I don’t buy any of that. I think some outrageous events occurred,” Woelfel said. “I’ll listen to every bit of evidence I can and do what my conscience tells me to do.”

Lunsford agreed the proceedings are headed in the right direction, but said they should be moving with more of a sense of urgency to get them done.

“You’ve got to clean house,” he added. “When you have something at that high level that’s that corrupt, you can’t leave anything behind.”

West Virginia’s state senators serve staggered four-year terms and earn a $20,000 per diem.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.

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