Because of the early Friday deadlines for this column, the state Supreme Court’s ruling rejecting Gov. Jim Justice’s motion for a writ of prohibition came out too late for my quasi-insightful commentary last Sunday. Justice was trying to halt a lawsuit to compel him to comply with the state constitutional mandate requiring the governor to reside in the Capitol city — and the ruling Friday effectively obliterates Justice’s claim that the residency requirement is discretionary.
While we can presume Justice will be Justice and do everything possible to drag out the case, now back in Kanawha Circuit Court, for as long as possible, the Supreme Court decision seemingly makes it inevitable that at some point in his second term, Justice will be compelled to reside, if not at the governor’s mansion, at least somewhere in Charleston.
During his Monday COVID-19 briefing, Justice dismissed the court’s action as a triviality, saying, “It’s probably the last thing we need to worry about or attend to right now.”
Then, of course, Justice had to go all Trumpian, throwing shade on his predecessors and claiming no governor in state history has ever worked as hard or as long as he does.
Justice said he could “have parties at the mansion every other night” — a veiled reference to former Gov. Joe Manchin, who hosted so many parties and receptions that he erected a giant party tent to cut down on wear-and-tear to the mansion. Or, Justice said, he could work “Monday through Thursday,” presumably referring to former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s propensity to get headed home on Corridor G south as early on Fridays as his schedule would permit.
(A lawyer friend noted that one of the remaining issues in Delegate Isaac Sponaugle’s suit to compel Justice to reside in Charleston is to determine a minimal standard for compliance with the residency requirement, which the lawyer suggested Justice may have inadvertently done Monday by alluding to Tomblin’s supposed four night-a-week residency.)
Next up is discovery, which could uncover some revealing evidence, including how much — or how little — time Justice spent in Charleston pre-pandemic, and how much it costs to have state police escorts bring Justice to and from Lewisburg on a regular basis. Former Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Jake Zuckerman requested this information, too, but was denied on the basis that releasing it would jeopardize the governor’s security. As if people didn’t already know the governor traveled back and forth to Lewisburg.
Voters also might have liked knowing before the Nov. 3 general election how much that cost and perhaps could they have known, had the case not dragged on for more than two years at this point.
There’s been considerable speculation over the past four years among Statehouse observers as to why Justice refuses to live in Charleston.
One theory is that he requires an in-home medical care procedure of some sort and that it would be hard to maintain discretion at the governor’s mansion, where the comings and goings of visitors are in full view of anyone who happens to be on the southwest quadrant of the Capitol grounds or has a view of the mansion from the Capitol building.
We know that in his COVID-19 briefings, Justice frequently references discussions with doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he was hospitalized in 2017 for a “viral infection.”
Another theory is that Justice continues to oversee operations of his business empire, despite claims to the contrary, and that the performance of such functions from the governor’s mansion or the governor’s office could constitute an Ethics Act violation.
Remember, Justice initially began placing his business assets in blind trusts — a process abruptly halted with only of handful of companies placed into trusts.
It could be that Justice simply prefers the familiarity of retiring to his own bed at night. He and wife Cathy have lived for years in the same house, a house the national media consistently describes as “modest” in the same way as they invariably describe southern West Virginia as “hardscrabble.”
The question is, what happens if the court orders Justice to reside in the Capitol city?
Knowing Justice’s temper and stubbornness, it’s not inconceivable that, faced with a court order requiring him to live in Charleston, he would simply say, “Take this job and shove it. I’m outta here.”
As with Donald Trump and the presidency, it is clear there are many aspects of being governor that Justice simply does not enjoy, and his interactions with the Legislature have been a source of frustration and ineffectiveness throughout his first term.
Given Justice’s age and health, it’s not inconceivable that for whatever reason, he might choose to not complete his second term.
This brings us to Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, the heir apparent to become Senate president (and lieutenant governor) in January.
It speaks volumes that the Senate Republican caucus unanimously endorsed him over the more moderate Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha.
Blair championed anti-worker bills including right-to-work and prevailing wage; co-sponsored a constitutional amendment that would have barred cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances for the LGBTQ community; and said teachers who object to classroom teaching because of COVID-19 should be fired or furloughed.
With Blair being the proverbial heartbeat away from the governor’s office, his potential ascent would be historic.
Blair would be the first governor since William Mercer Owens Dawson, who served from 1905 to 1909, to lack a four-year college degree.
(According to John Morgan’s “West Virginia Governors,” Dawson was a newspaper editor and publisher by trade, and though a Republican, his administration was notable for tax reforms, including imposing a tax on corporate charters, and quadrupling property tax assessments.)
Dawson also advocated for, but apparently failed to achieve, pay raises for teachers, saying, “The average monthly salary paid teachers throughout the United States is $50.15. In West Virginia, it is $37.66 … We are spending enough money to educate all the children of the state, but we are educating probably less than half, so that cost per pupil is very high.”)
It would be a tribute to Republican anti-intellectualism if West Virginia reverted to having its first non-college-educated governor in more than 110 years.
Speaking of moving, the Division of Highways is planning to move its Engineering Division from Smith Street in Charleston’s East End to Building 5 on the Capitol complex. (That’s one of the two office towers, and after three decades here, I would be hard-pressed to tell you which one is Building 5 and which is Building 7.)
That’s a workforce of nearly 100, many of who are working from home, and most are none too enthused about having to move from comparatively spacious accommodations on Smith Street, where social distancing is easy to maintain, to a 10-story office tower housing multiple state agency tenants.
At the very least, that means the likelihood of sharing elevators or stairwells with others.
It also involves being assigned to cubicles (apparently to be newly installed), and as anyone who has worked in a cube farm knows, you don’t necessarily have the luxury of being spaced six feet away from coworkers.
I asked the Division of Highways for comment, but as is par for the course for communications under the Justice administration, I did not receive a response.
Finally, I think we need to start a pool on who will be the last congressional or statewide elected official to acknowledge the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
These politicians are so terrified of invoking the wrath of Trump cultists that they, for the most part, will not publicly acknowledge the obvious, and cling to Trump’s ludicrous claims of election fraud. (It’s notable that Trump’s lawyers claim boatloads of evidence while making the rounds on cable news shows, but when they’re under oath in front of a judge, all that evidence mysteriously evaporates.)
Time likely will show that the politicians’ subjugation to Trump and the Trumpians is misplaced.
I suspect the next four years will not be kind to Trump, who will face criminal investigations in federal, state and New York City courts (the latter two not immunized with a presidential pardon), will have nearly $1 billion of loans and mortgage balloon payments coming due and will be the subject of the inevitable uncovering of misdeeds committed during his one-term presidency.
While none of this will deter his hard-core supporters, I suspect that in 2022 and 2024, declaring one’s fealty to Trump will not be a sure-fire way for down-ticket Republicans to win election as was the case in November.