Former West Virginia Senate president and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler called out the party’s leadership Friday, saying it never should have recruited Gov. Jim Justice, who jumped to the Republican Party on Friday just seven months into his term.
“It’s time for a change at the top, particularly when you have someone who embraced someone who turned on the Democratic Party,” Kessler said. “They need some new leadership at the Democrat chair.”
Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said Justice duped her. She called Justice’s switch a “slap in the face to all of us who believed in what he was promising.” She gave no indication she would step down.
“The leadership of the West Virginia Democratic Party will continue to be committed, as we have always been, to do what’s best for the people of West Virginia,” Biafore said late Friday. “We will stand strong together and move forward. We can now say, with 100 percent certainty, that the leaders of our party will do what’s best for the people, not personal political motivations.”
Kessler said Biafore, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and former Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio — party leaders who helped recruit Justice to run for governor as a Democrat — should have known better than to trust Justice’s promises of “moonshots” and “magic carpet rides.”
“I thought Jim was a creation of the Manchin machine, and now he’s turned into Frankenstein,” said Kessler, who lost to Justice in the 2016 Democratic primary. “He’s turned on the party that put him in power.”
Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said state party leaders “hitched their wagon to the wrong guy.” Justice, a former Republican, became a Democrat days before entering the gubernatorial race.
“What are we getting out of the top of the party now?” Fluharty asked. “This is good self-reflection time for the Democratic Party. They’ve been trying to be Republican-light, but voters want authenticity.”
Justice’s recent criticism of Democrats in the House of Delegates hasn’t sat well with House Democrats.
Some expressed relief Friday that Justice left the party: They no longer feel compelled to defend him just because he was a governor who shared the same party registration, they said.
Muzzles are off.
“His ego, his know-it-all attitude — he wore out his welcome,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.
At a news conference Friday, Justice criticized House Democrats, saying they had “dropped the ball” and “drove into the ditch” his budget proposals from earlier this year.
Democrats shot back that they weren’t going to blindly follow Justice — no matter that he was a registered Democrat at the time.
“He expected us to follow him into the abyss,” Fluharty said.
Kessler said Democratic Party leaders became enamored by Justice because he’s a billionaire and expected him to shower down-ticket candidates with campaign donations. Kessler called Justice a “Democrat by convenience, not conviction,” who used the party after he was “pursued and coaxed” by party leaders.
“When I asked, ‘What does he stand for?’ nobody knew, other than he had a lot of money,” Kessler said. “Once he got into the race, all he cared about was getting himself elected, and we ended up losing seats. Now, he’s turned his back on them and stuck a sharp stick in their eye. I’m sure it’s embarrassing to them.”