State Attorney General candidates JB McCuskey and Mike Stuart square off in only Republican Primary Debate

By Matthew Young, RealWV

INSTITUTE, W.Va. – West Virginia State Auditor John “J.B.” McCuskey and State Senator Mike Stuart (Kanawha), both candidates to succeed Patrick Morrisey as the state’s next Attorney General, met on the campus of West Virginia State University Monday, for the only Republican debate scheduled prior to the May 14 Primary Election. 

The debate was sponsored by Counsel Connections and hosted by television station WCHS, with reporter Kennie Bass serving as moderator. 

First to deliver his opening statement was McCuskey, who said, “I am a Christian, I’m a husband, I’m a father, I’m a small business owner.”

“For the last eight or nine years of my life, I’ve committed myself to the people of West Virginia,” McCuskey continued. “I know that greatness is within our grasp, and nothing has ever been more important to me than making sure that every single West Virginian has an opportunity at the greatest life possible.”

Next was Stuart, who began by expressing his belief that there is not enough debate during political campaigns.

“It’s critically important that we have more forums for the public like this,” Stuart said. “My dad was a 51-year coal miner, and my grandfathers were coal miners. I’m proud of that heritage, I’m proud of my 30-year marriage to my wife […], and I’m proud of my two daughters.”

While McCuskey cited his pride in reducing state bureaucracy and being a part of what he referred to as the “Republican revolution,” Stuart referenced his service as former President Donald Trump’s 2016 West Virginia campaign manager, and his eventual appointment by Trump as a United States Attorney among his career highlights. 

Before moving into questions, Stuart proclaimed President Joe Biden to be “the real opponent.”

“The Biden Administration is assaulting our way of life on a daily basis,” Stuart said. 

The first question went to McCuskey, and it pertained to the Attorney General’s role in combating the opioid epidemic.

“We cannot allow the next 20 years to proceed the same way that the last 20 years have proceeded,” McCuskey said. “Our number one goal has to be to make sure that we have less children who get addicted to these awful poisons.”

“I am so excited that we have almost $1 billion at our disposal through the West Virginia First Foundation,” McCuskey continued. “I want to make sure that everyone who suffers from substance abuse disorder has every resource they need to get better. But at the end of the day, if we are having the same conversation 20 years from now, we have failed. We cannot allow that to happen.”

As State Auditor, McCuskey added, he has worked closely with local governments in an effort to provide guidance to the efficient use of opioid settlement funds. 

“The opioid scourge is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time,” Stuart said. “We lost more people over the past two years to the opioid scourge than we lost in the entirety of the Vietnam War. The numbers are staggering.”

“The First Foundation will be a big step in that direction (of meeting the challenge),” Stuart added. “But I think it’s important that the Attorney General be engaged on the frontlines, and I’ve spent years working on the frontlines of this crisis.”

“But with the First Foundation, there’s some concerns,” Stuart noted. “The money went to counties all across West Virginia, and many of those dollars went to paying legacy jail bills. My concern is […] that if we spend that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try and deal with the opioid crisis, and we waste it away like we have so many challenges in our past, we will end up with an opioid crisis at the end of our days.”

A question from Bass regarding a hypothetical federal vaccination mandate, one which saw McCuskey proclaim his support for religious freedom, prompted a challenge to that claim from Stuart.

“He talks about religious freedom, but he voted against the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when he was a member of the legislature,” Stuart said. “It’s one thing to give an answer, it’s another thing to give political-speak. Your record isn’t consistent with what you just said.”

In defense of his legislative voting record, McCuskey said, “I don’t believe that we need to codify anything that’s in our Constitution.”

“What we found is that the United States Supreme Court, very recently, figured it out,” McCuskey continued. “We now live in a country where no one is forced, religiously, to do anything that they don’t want to do. The Supreme Court got it right, because they are the proper people to interpret the Constitution of the United States.”

A question related to protecting the rights of both transgender and non-transgener West Virginians resulted in more back-and-forth criticism between the candidates, with Stuart again accusing McCuskey of “political speak.”

“He’s been a sponsor of Fairness West Virginia,” Stuart said. “He’s taken full, maximum contributions from Stephen Skinner- the founder of that organization. Their agenda is primarily the transgender agenda.”

In response, McCuskey said, “As it relates to Stephen Skinner, he is a really well-respected and great member of the Bar (Association) in the State of West Virginia.” 

“He looked at the two of us, and he said he respects my legal ability more than yours, and he decided to give me some money,” McCuskey added. “I don’t think it has absolutely anything to do with his sexuality, or that he had anything to do with Fairness West Virginia.”

Bass then steered the conversation toward the Mingo County Sheriff’s Department’s recent decision to rescind their endorsement of Stuart’s candidacy, a topic which garnered strong reactions from both candidates. 

As Bass explained, the endorsement was rescinded based on statements, made by Stuart, pertaining to the death of State Police Sgt. Cory Maynard. Stuart spoke repeatedly about the details of Maynard’s death while promoting his proposal to reinstate the death penalty in West Virginia. Maynard’s widow reportedly asked Stuart to stop speaking publicly about her husband’s death, and was then blocked from Stuart’s social media accounts. 

“My heart goes out to Rachel Maynard, and that tragedy that befell her family,” Stuart said. “As U.S. Attorney, I prosecuted a lot of corruption. But clearly I didn’t prosecute enough corruption in places like Mingo County.”

“This was a fake endorsement issued so that they could rescind the endorsement,” Stuart continued. “They issued it with a whisper, they rescinded it with a bullhorn. And it’s tragic. The media didn’t report any of those facts. The media didn’t get into any of those details as to how this thing was concocted.”

“Frankly the media, we understand, on a national level can be fake,” Stuart added. “We expect more on a local level. And here I don’t think the media did their work. […] My heart breaks for Rachel Maynard. My apologies to her if she feels I stepped over the line.”

McCuskey felt differently.

“I don’t believe in blocking on social media, especially if you’re a public figure,” McCuskey said. “If you’re going to step in the kitchen, sometimes you’ve got to take a little bit of heat. The second thing I would say is that I am the candidate in this race who has law enforcement’s support. I find it a little off putting that my opponent is blaming the Deputy Sheriffs of Mingo County for playing politics.”

“As it relates to Rachel Maynard, I’ve known about this quarrel that you were having for months,” McCuskey continued. “I’ve gotten to speak with her, and I don’t believe that she feels you apologized to her. I believe that she thinks you used her husband’s death, and probably violated multiple parts of our state’s ethics rules, in trying to promote a bill that I actually support.” 

“We should absolutely have the death penalty on the table for anyone that kills a first responder,” McCuskey added, “But there were so many other ways that you could have done it without breaking open a wound that didn’t need to be reopened, and without describing something that wasn’t public.”

Primary Election Day in West Virginia is Tuesday, May 14. Voters must be registered as independent or with a particular party to vote in that party’s election. Democrats Richie Robb and Teresa Toriseva are also challenging for the Office of Attorney General. 

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