Three term Huntington Mayor Steve Williams discusses his bid to be West Virginia’s next Governor

By Matthew Young, RealWV

“I think we’re all called to serve, and what I’ve come to learn over the years is that this is a gift. There is nothing more pleasurable than being able to serve the people in your community.”

That’s what Huntington Mayor Steve Williams told RealWV on Friday, regarding his decision to seek the Governor’s office. First elected in 2012, Williams is the only three-term mayor in his home city’s history. Prior to his election, Williams served two years as Huntington City Manager, four years on the Huntington City Council, and six years as a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. 

“There’s a satisfaction in being able to help people,” Williams said. “Early on in my career I was thinking, ‘Alright, I have grand ambitions as to what I’ll do.’ It’s amazing how my life started taking turns, and I ended up working for 20-plus years in business. But the goal, even then, was to help people.”

“There is no better way to be able to make people’s lives better than through public service,” Williams added. 

In the early 2000’s, Williams explained, he began to feel as though his public life was behind him. He left his home in West Virginia for the hustle and bustle of Chicago, ultimately spending six years in the Windy City. 

“That was the best thing in the world that ever happened to me,” Williams said. “I saw that I was able to compete with the most sophisticated people in such a large city. Before that, I had always seen myself as ‘little Stevie Williams, from Athens, West Virginia.’”

“I found that with what we do in West Virginia, we have to be a lot better than they are in Chicago, and in the larger cities, because we don’t have an economy to the scale that they have,” Williams continued. “When I say that we have to set standards that the rest of the nation will seek to follow, I really, truly believe that with what we have in West Virginia – in Appalachia – we have to be more innovative than anybody else. Fortunately, that’s in our DNA.”

“What I have to do right now as I’m setting a vision for where we’re going to go, or where we can go, is I need to encourage folks to believe in themselves,” Williams added. They can overcome any problem that is out there. We need to do everything that we can to make sure that we’re lifting others up. That’s in our nature in West Virginia.”

In a crowded field of gubernatorial candidates, Williams stands alone as the sole Democrat. And while the six Republican challengers attempt to outflank each other on the right through the final leg of the primary season, Williams can keep his attention fixed squarely on the bigger picture. 

“The sense that I’m trying to communicate throughout the state is that we can’t be afraid of failure,” Williams said. “We have to be aggressive in order to be able to compete in a global market. And certainly in the United States, when West Virginia is ranked 50th in everything that is near and dear to us, we have to be more aggressive and more assertive than any state in the nation.”

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams addresses supporters at the Charleston Coliseum, on Oct. 28. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

“Here’s an example: if we want doctors to come in and be able to practice medicine in the State of West Virginia, then let’s leave the medical decisions to the experts,” Williams continued. “Frankly, for individuals who are wanting to control reproductive choices, the way to do that is through the power of persuasion, not the power of prison.”

“I respect individuals who have pro-life sensibilities, I respect that deeply,” Williams added. “If somebody wants to tell me that I’m going to Hell because I don’t believe the way that they do, that’s fine. But if they’re telling me that I’m going to prison because I don’t believe the way that they do, that’s a line that I’m not willing to cross.”

In keeping with the post-primary bigger picture, Williams recently called on current Gov. Jim Justice to add a constitutional amendment guaranteeing abortion access to the agenda of any potential forthcoming Special Legislative Session. 

“I don’t necessarily expect the governor to place it on a special agenda,” Williams explained. “And if he did, I don’t know that it would even come out of committee. But they’ve opened up the door, and frankly, the former President (Trump) said, I think the quote was, ‘Take it out of federal hands, and bring it into the hearts, minds, and the vote of the people in each state.’ Well, I think we should oblige him.”

“My question to those who would be fighting it is what do you have to be afraid of?” Williams asked. “If you truly do think that to make abortion illegal in the State of West Virginia, and to place the licenses of those who practice medicine in jeopardy for simply doing whatever is necessary to protect the health of a female patient is what people want, then show some guts and put it on the ballot.” 

“If indeed they’re saying that the government that governs best is the government that’s closest to the people, then let’s let the people speak,” Williams added.

If successful in his bid to be the state’s next chief executive, as one of the only Democrats in government, Williams would essentially be an island unto himself. However, despite the differing philosophies between Williams and his Republican colleagues, the former state legislator doesn’t foresee that being a point of concern. 

“One thing that I’ve learned over the years, and certainly as mayor, is you play with the players who are on the field,” Williams said. “I’ve worked with Republican and Democratic presidents, I’ve worked with Republican and Democratic governors, and I’ve worked with Republican and Democratic legislators. That doesn’t worry me.”

“You have 134 members of the legislature, and 134 different ideas as to how to do things,” Williams continued. “But there’s only one governor, and I’ve learned how to exercise the powers of the chief executive. There’s one voice coming out of that office, and one thing that I truly believe is that you govern aggressively.” 

“I’ll do everything that I can to be able to work with the members of the Board of Public Works and the members of the legislature, but there’s only one governor,” Williams added. “I’ll identify where the boundaries are. I’ll make sure the lines of those boundaries are very bright, and we’re going to use every centimeter of the field within those boundaries. We might even lean over them, just as long as our feet stay in bounds.”

If elected, Williams says his first priority will be to ascertain the state’s financial status, noting, “We’ve got to make sure that we have the money to be able to do things.” As Huntington’s mayor, Williams’ administration is credited with leveraging more than $500 million in investments toward the revitalization of the city.

“The approach that’s being taken now (statewide) is to eliminate taxes, not necessarily to grow and create other revenues,” Williams said. “I cut taxes in Huntington, but it took us 10 years to figure out a way to make that sustainable. As I see it, they’re looking to eliminate taxes to downsize government. When you have roads that need to be built, water systems that need to be constructed or improved, broadband that is necessary to be in place in every nook and holler of the state, children not being taken care of and a foster crisis that won’t go away, you don’t downsize government by 40%. You have to have the resources to be able to do things.”

As Williams is unopposed in the Democratic primary, he stands as the party’s presumptive nominee. Primary Election Day in West Virginia is Tuesday, May 14. Voters must be registered either as independent, or a member of a particular political party to vote in that party’s primary election. 

“I think this is my calling – to somehow find a way to see that our state is transformed,” Williams added. “This is a very personal thing to me. I’m being called to run, and in that I will discover where I’m supposed to be, and where I’m able to help others.” 

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