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Morrisey, Petsonk Go Toe-to-Toe in Attorney General’s Race

Photo Provided – Democratic attorney Sam Brown Petsonk, left, and Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey face off Wednesday.

CHARLESTON — In the first, and likely only, time the two candidates will meet face-to-face before next week’s Nov. 3 election, Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Democratic challenger Sam Brown Petsonk sat down to debate on Wednesday.

Morrisey, seeking a third term as the state’s top attorney, was first elected in 2012. He encouraged voters to keep him in office, both for the work his office has done over the last eight years and to stay the course as the state navigates the COVID-19 crisis.

“I’m running again because West Virginia needs someone in the post-COVID world who has deep experience and a rich record of accomplishment,” Morrisey said. “There’s a lot going on in the world, a lot of uncertainty. West Virginia needs to rely on someone … who’s gotten a lot done fighting the opioid epidemic, and who knows how to make this AG office a huge value.”

Petsonk, an employment law attorney from Fayette County and a former staffer for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, focused his opening statement on the federal lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act as an example of Morrisey not doing what is best for the state.

“Two-hundred thousand people in West Virginia will lose their health insurance if Patrick Morrisey succeeds with his lawsuit that is pending right now in the United States Supreme Court,” Petsonk said. “That’s one in 10 West Virginians will lose their health insurance. That’s 179,000 hardworking West Virginians who have a medical card today. That’s tens of thousands more who have tax credits that help them buy private insurance on the individual marketplace.”

West Virginia is one of 20 states challenging the individual mandate in the ACA. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case next month. Opponents of the lawsuit contend that people could lose their health insurance coverage and that people with pre-existing conditions will have difficulty getting covered. Supporters of the lawsuit believe the Supreme Court will only strike down the individual mandate — a provision that requires nearly all American citizens and legal residents to have health insurance and, from 2014-18, included a financial penalty for not having health coverage — and leave the rest of the ACA intact.

Morrisey and Petsonk debated on MetroNews Talkline.

Morrisey said if the ACA lawsuit is successful, health insurance premium hikes caused by the ACA — also known as ObamaCare — could decrease. The ACA lawsuit is one example Morrisey cited of the office working to protect West Virginians. Morrisey said one of the roles of the attorney general’s office is to file lawsuits against federal overreach.

“I think one of the principal things that West Virginians rely on for the attorney general is to defend our jobs,” Morrisey said. “We’ve been very successful since I’ve taken office defending so many of our state’s energy jobs and many other jobs. That means I’ve had to sue the federal government. I’ve had to intervene in a lot of private actions, and the results have been fabulous, not only winning the Clean Power Plan — the Obama power plan at the U.S. Supreme Court. We’ve won pipeline cases. We’ve reversed WOTUS (Waters of the United States).”

Petsonk agreed that the attorney general’s office is the people’s lawyer, but he said the priorities of the office have not been in the people’s best interest. Petsonk pointed to his career as an employment and public interest attorney fighting for workers.

“The job of the attorney general is twofold: number one, to serve as the people’s lawyer,” Petsonk said. “That means to go to court, to litigate, to recover for our people. And you know, this is what I do for a living. I’ve recovered millions of dollars for hundreds of coal miners and other workers from some of the largest, most cantankerous and ornery companies in the state of West Virginia. And I’ve done that for our people.”

Both Morrisey and Petsonk tried several times to tar each other on hot button issues to paint each other as being either too liberal or in the pockets of special interests. Morrisey accused Petsonk of being a supporter of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who lost the Democratic nomination for president. Petsonk was also accused of being pro-choice, anti-gun and in favor of defunding police departments. Petsonk accused Morrisey of working for pharmaceutical companies during his career as those same companies shipped millions of pain pills to West Virginia.

Moderator Hoppy Kercheval asked both candidates how they would defend the laws of the state if those laws contradict their personal or political beliefs.

“We need a watchdog not a lap dog,” Petsonk said. “What we need is an attorney general who will win for the people of West Virginia … I can work with anybody and I will. And I think that my record really shows that I’ve delivered for people regardless of political position.”

“I have a rich history of defending laws, whether I liked them or not,” Morrisey said. “I do that. That’s what you have to do is defend the state. It’s not about what you personally believe, but you do have to analyze the Constitution and you have to make sure that what they’re doing is consistent, whether you’re talking gun rights, talking about pro-life and other policies. And that’s where there are huge differences.”

Turning to the substance abuse crisis in the state, Petsonk accused Morrisey of not playing hardball with pharmaceutical companies as opioid overdose deaths increased during Morrisey’s eight years in office.

“This problem has spiraled out of control under Mr. Morrissey and everyone knows it,” Petsonk said. “He settled for pennies on the dollar without even pushing the lawsuits in those cases. So, we need to do three things. We need to litigate better. We need to protect the federal health care dollars which he’s trying to take away … and third, we’ve got to use the attorney general’s office to promote long-term recovery.”

Morrisey said his office has successfully sued opioid manufacturers and distributors, bringing in tens of millions of dollars in settlements to help with substance abuse treatment programs. Morrisey said his work on the national settlement with opioid manufacturers could also bring the state a substantial windfall.

“It’s going to end up being one of the best in the country because what we have now is basically a partial settlement,” Morrisey said. “I’ve rejected the national settlement and specifically preserved the state and the local claims. West Virginia will end up being either number one or two — very, very high up — in terms of money to help treatment for those who need it most. That’s critical.”

Voters can weigh in on their choice for attorney general during early voting through Saturday and on Election Day from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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