Earlier this month, Politico published an opinion piece by contributing editor Bill Scher ranking the best and worst governors in terms of response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He prefaced the article noting, “With President Donald Trump largely unable or unwilling to play the part of a national unifier to take decisive action to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the leadership we normally expect from the Oval Office has instead come from state executives throughout the nation — or not.”
Not surprisingly, the top governors in the rankings include Ohio’s Mike DeWine, California’s Gavin Newsom, Washington’s Jay Inslee and Maryland’s Larry Hogan.
(Scher failed to include New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the list, citing his initial hesitancy to close schools statewide or impose a stay-at-home order.)
Also predictably, the six governors ranked as “busts” by Scher were led by Trump sycophants Ron DeSantis of Florida, Tate Reeves of Mississippi and Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma — all of whom took little or no action initially to prevent the spread of the virus.
Surprisingly, Gov. Jim Justice ranked sixth on the “bust” list, with Scher concluding, “His lack of experience in crisis management has been glaringly obvious from his discordant statements and actions.”
Scher noted that Justice was initially “preaching defiance,” citing his infamous, “If you want to go to Bob Evans and eat, go to Bob Evans and eat” statement.
Scher also cited Justice’s “disjointed” statewide address on March 21, which he noted prompted the “Governor urges action, takes none” headline in the Gazette-Mail.
While Justice might have stumbled a little getting out of the starting block, Scher’s assessment is overly harsh, or perhaps incomplete in that his assessment of governors seems to cover actions only through March.
Compared to his red state, pro-Trump colleagues, Justice has looked absolutely decisive.
Given that West Virginia started out with certain advantages as a rural state with low population density, no real cities and negligible levels of foreign travel, Justice could have followed Trump’s lead and initially ignored or downplayed the pandemic.
Yet, while he might have made his share of nonsensical or unproductive statements, he generally followed up with rational, positive actions.
Justice closed schools statewide, shortly after saying he wanted to keep them open.
A day after urging people to go out to eat, he ordered bars, casinos and dine-in restaurants closed. From there, while acting incrementally, Justice ordered nonessential businesses closed and imposed stay-at-home directives (with stricter policies for what at press time was 12 “hot spot” counties).
(One could argue that Justice’s definition of essential is wide enough to fly a 747 through, with florists, gun shops, tobacco and vape shops among the businesses allowed to remain open under his executive order. Bait shops, to be clear, are essential.)
At a time when the easiest out would have been to heed the calls of politicians and build up some brownie points with his BFF in the White House, Justice seems to be relying on the recommendations of state health care experts, particularly Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president of health sciences at West Virginia University, whom he named as state COVID-19 czar.
A survey last week by WalletHub, which admittedly posts studies as clickbait to get people to its personal finance website, but nonetheless does some credible research, ranked West Virginia 13th in aggressiveness of state responses to coronavirus, ironically, one spot ahead of New York.
Of course, Justice’s grade is incomplete. As he has said, going forward, he faces a difficult balancing act between protecting public health while avoiding permanently damaging what’s left of the state economy.
(As Limited Video Lottery operator Steve Holbert told me, a shutdown of four to six weeks is survivable, but if the closure stretches out 10 weeks or more, many businesses will not survive.)
Justice will be under great pressure to reopen the state, perhaps prematurely, particularly with Trump hankering to open the country sooner rather than a more responsible later.
Given that the state is nowhere close to having the testing capability needed to conduct a safe reopening, Justice’s actions of the next few days and weeks will be critical.
Justice, like many other governors, and like Trump, has been hosting daily COVID-19 briefings.
On one level, having a daily forum in an election year is unquestionably a perk of incumbency.
However, the real question is, are the briefings helping or hurting Justice’s reputation and image?
I raise that in light of multiple media reports that Trump aides and GOP insiders are concerned that Trump’s briefings — full of bluster and balderdash, misinformation and falsehoods, finger-pointing and denial of responsibility — are hurting, not helping Trump.
Gallup Poll numbers released this week seem to bear that out, showing that after the initial bump that all presidents receive in times of crisis (George W. Bush had 90 percent-plus approval ratings after 9/11), Trump’s approval rating has plunged 15 net points in just three weeks, going from 49 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval in mid-March to 43 percent approval and 54 percent disapproval this week.
While Justice doesn’t have a national television audience or a key timeslot normally reserved for local news, the briefings do provide him with a forum that other candidates lack, particularly given that the pandemic has effectively shut down campaigning.
The feedback I’ve gotten has been mixed. Some readers have been impressed that Justice has surrounded himself with health care experts and accedes to their advice and recommendations. Others find his messaging confusing and contradictory and complain that his backwoods country colloquialisms shtick has long ago lost whatever charm it might have had.
Suffice to say, Republican gubernatorial primary challenger Woody Thrasher’s campaign, for one, isn’t impressed with the briefings.
“West Virginians want a principled leader who gives them confidence in our future when he or she speaks, especially during tough times,” campaign manager Ann Ali said, when asked to comment on the briefings. “As West Virginia voters begin casting their ballots, they are surely thinking of Jim Justice’s words and his deeds. I doubt many of them look back at his highlights with much esteem.”
I received many comments regarding last week’s column item on Harry Zain — and also got a novelty tin foil hat in the mail from a reader.
Among those offering comments was the attorney who brought the first mental hygiene petition against Zain in the early 1980s as well as retired state Supreme Court Justice Tom McHugh, who said he also recently got a call from Zain.