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Statehouse Beat: In WV, the buck doesn't stop with Gov. Justice

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Jim Justice likes giving himself (and others) nicknames, and last week, he could have called himself Truman Harry, because on two occasions he did the exact opposite of “The Buck Stops Here.”

Justice did some mighty buck-passing when asked both about the necessity to mandate the wearing of face masks, and on the question of whether to remove the Stonewall Jackson statue from the Capitol grounds.

On the first issue, Justice, in his COVID-19 briefing, implored West Virginians to wear face masks and practice social distancing following coronavirus outbreaks at six churches around the state.

However, Justice declined — as other governors and public officials have done — to mandate wearing of masks in public places, not because he questioned the effectiveness of mask-wearing in limiting the spread of coronavirus, but because it would be “divisive.”

Divisive in that mask-wearing is a political and cultural hot button among what The Washington Post has dubbed as anti-maskers.

Many Republicans and conservatives see mask-wearing as a sign of government overreach, the nanny state, or even as a sign of weakness and unmanliness. Of course, they’re taking their cues from Donald Trump, who has consistently refused to wear masks, even in settings where they are mandatory, and mocked Joe Biden for wearing one.

In West Virginia, we’ve been down this road before.

West Virginia was one of the last states to pass a mandatory seatbelt law, as legislators annually shot down the legislation for a decade, only relenting in 1993 after the feds kept cutting state highway funding each year until the law was passed.

Delegate Bill Carmichael, R-Jackson, (Mitch’s dad) made a typical argument against the seatbelt law, stating, “If it’s stupid not to wear a seat belt, I want to vote for the right of people to be stupid.”

The same argument comes up periodically with attempts to repeal mandatory helmet laws and opposing smoking bans in bars, restaurants and other public places.

The argument that one has the right to endanger one’s own life is, of course, nonsense.

Individuals who suffer debilitating injuries in accidents requiring lifelong care because they chose not to wear seatbelts or helmets impose a huge cost on society.

Smoking — as well as refusing to wear facemasks to diminish the spread of coronavirus — not only poses risks for the individual, but for those around him or her, either from secondhand smoke or through the transmission of COVID-19.

Refusing to wear a facemask is not macho or a show of liberty. It’s stupid and selfish, and putting others at risk.

Justice has authority to mandate mask-wearing, but rather than do the right thing, he’s doing the politically expedient thing in hopes of retaining a few votes in November.

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Likewise, Justice did some major buck-passing when asked if he supports removing the statue of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from the Capitol grounds.

Justice indicated he’d be supportive of removing the statue but claimed he lacks authority to do so and it would require legislative action.

To which I call bull.

I’m not a lawyer, but it appears that nothing in state Code gives the Legislature authority over what is or isn’t placed on the Capitol grounds.

The Legislature did pass a resolution in 1905 granting permission to the Daughters of the Confederacy to erect the Jackson statue at their expense.

This is common practice since the statuary on the Capitol grounds are paid for by third parties or donations. Resolutions do not carry the weight of law but rather are effectively statements allowing people to place statues on Capitol grounds provided they cover the expense.

In recent years, tea partiers in the Legislature have unsuccessfully tried to pass what they call the Monuments and Memorials Protection Act, which would make it illegal to remove, alter or relocate any statues, monuments or memorials on public grounds.

If the Legislature already had that authority over statuary on Capitol grounds, as Justice claims, this legislation would be moot.

As I read it, that authority (State Code 4-8-1 et. seq.) actually rests with the Capitol Building Commission, which in most recent years, has approved adding the coal miner and female veteran statues to Capitol grounds.

The governor appoints four of the nine members of the commission, and technically appoints two others, since the curator of the Department of Arts, Culture and History chairs the commission and the Department of Administration Secretary is a member.

If Justice wanted to remove the Jackson statue and the Jackson bust in the Capitol rotunda, he could direct the Capitol Building Commission to call a special meeting to take up those agenda items.

Instead, he’s claiming he doesn’t have any authority regarding the statues. For someone who claims he’s not a politician, Justice certainly plays politics frequently.

•••

Dean Obeidaliah had an interesting opinion piece in the Daily Beast last week, entitled,“It’s Not Just Trump – The GOP is Getting Crueler and Crazier.”

It focused on the GOP race in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, where the Trump-endorsed incumbent was soundly defeated because he was not sufficiently anti-immigration and anti-LGBTQ.

Locally, that cruelty and craziness was reflected last week in GOP state Senate nominee Robert Karnes‘ responses to a Facebook discussion by Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, regarding removal of Confederate statues.

Whataboutism is rampant among conservatives these days, and Karnes pulled the Robert C. Byrd card during the debate.

(For the record, no reporter I know spent more time covering Byrd and no person I know was less tolerant of racism than Paul Nyden, and Paul believed that Byrd was sincere in his remorse and apologies for being a Ku Klux Klan member and voting against the Civil Rights Act in his earlier days.)

Regarding Pushkin’s tolerance of the Byrd statue in the Capitol rotunda, Karnes commented: “Maybe you should put on your white robe and hood.”

Pushkin responded, “I’m Jewish, you moron.” (Pushkin said he regretted the moron part, but we’ve all put things on social media in the spur of the moment that we’ve regretted.)

Karnes fired back with this vile comment: “So is George Soros, but he made his fortune selling Jews to the Nazis. Maybe you can be like George.”

Never mind that Soros was 3 years old when the Nazis came to power, but vilification of the billionaire supporter of progressive causes by the far right is so pervasive that the mention of his name is shorthand for anti-Semitism.

As others objected to Karnes’ comments, he went off on a tweet-storm so vulgar and vile that I chose not to repeat any of it here.

While some may dismiss Karnes as an extremist and outlier who, if elected, would be a backbencher in the Senate, at about the same time his exchange with Pushkin was taking place, House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, posted on her Facebook page a meme depicting girls of Caucasian and Asian descent, with the statement: “Asking her to apologize for slavery/Is like asking her to apologize for Pearl Harbor.”

Besides attempting to trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement, the meme was posted by Michael F. Rose, a contributor to TruNews, a far-right Christian media outlet that was banned from YouTube after posting a video claiming that Trump’s impeachment was a “Jew Coup” and that planned to “kill millions of Christians” once Trump was overthrown.

Shouldn’t we expect better from our legislative leaders?

•••

Finally, when it comes to the anti-mask crowd, perhaps a more substantive argument they could make is that, under West Virginia law, it is illegal to wear masks in public (State Code 61-6-22). Wearing a mask is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500, or up to one year in jail, or both.

The law makes a number of exceptions, including for those employed in professions or trades where the wearing of masks is necessary for the safety of the wearers.

There are also exceptions for holiday costumes, theatrical productions and protection from the elements in winter.

However, there doesn’t seem to be an exception that precisely fits the current circumstances, with the closest being that masks are allowed as “prescribed for civil defense drills, exercises or emergencies.”

The last time I can remember the law being enforced was in the late 1980s, when wildcat coal miners’ strikes were still commonplace.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Thursday, July 9, 2020

Ankrom, Vada - 1 p.m., Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Dillard, Helen - 11 a.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Greenlee, Margaret - 10 a.m., Bellemead United Methodist Church.

Harper, Carl - 10 a.m., Matics Funeral Home, Clendenin.

Humphrey, Connie - Noon, Restlawn Memory Gardens, Victor.  

Justice, Thelma - 1 p.m., Evans Funeral Home, Chapmanville.

Lanham, Kathy - 1 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.

McDerment, Randall - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Russell, Michael - 4 p.m., Morris Funeral Home, Cowen.

White, Thomas - 11 a.m., St. Anthony Catholic Church, Charleston.