Trust me, I hadn’t planned to write back-to-back daily Statehouse Beat columns.
Then I arrived at the Capitol press room Wednesday morning to find social media lit up over an incident at Tuesday’s Greenbrier East-Woodrow Wilson girls high school basketball game in Fairlea, a game that was suspended after a Woodrow coach got in a scuffle with a Greenbrier East fan. Afterward, Greenbrier East coach Jim Justice — you may know him also as West Virginia’s governor — described the opposing players and coaches as “thugs.”
As reported by Beckley Register-Herald sportswriter Tyler Jackson, who posted a recording of the interview on Twitter, Justice said: “I hate to say it any other way, but the honest to God’s truth is the same thing happened down at Woodrow two different times out of the Woodrow players. They’re a bunch of thugs. The whole team left the bench, the coach is in a fight, they walked off the floor, they called the game … They don’t know how to behave, and at the end of the day, you got what you got.”
As Jackson pointed out in the game story, Woodrow Wilson is “one of the most racially diverse schools in the state,” and both coaches, including the one in the scuffle, are black men.
This is not the first time Justice has made what could be interpreted as a racial slur.
In 2018, during the statewide teachers’ walkout, Justice made national headlines for dismissing a proposal by Senate Democrats to raise the severance tax on natural gas to fund teacher pay raises, telling reporters, “There’s not a Chinaman’s chance in the whole wide world that will happen. It’s not getting out of committee.”
Two days later, he apologized for his poor choice of phraseology, saying, “I use a lot of silly phrases and stuff like that. If that offended somebody, then I’m sorry.”
Meanwhile, as Ken Ward Jr. reminded us on Twitter, Justice used a strange, racially charged analogy in a 2010 interview with then-Daily Mail reporter, now House of Delegates spokesman Jared Hunt over Justice’s aspirations for his new acquisition of The Greenbrier resort:
“I tell the Kunta Kinte story all the time. I say, ‘In his life, he had a pretty tough go of it.’ Well, in my world, I pile up a pile of gold and sit and stare at it, and the good Lord looks at me and says, ‘I could have made you Kunta Kinte. I made you Jim Justice for a reason: to provide jobs and make things happen for everything else.’ That’s what I believe.”
Which is an odd way of saying, “What good fortune I have to be a wealthy white man, and not an African-American slave, and I should try to do good things with my money.”
What is most telling is that it took Justice’s office until 1:27 p.m. Wednesday to formulate a response to requests for comment, and the response was completely lacking of anything resembling an apology.
Justice’s statement in part:
“My definition of a thug is clear — it means violence, bullying, and disorderly conduct. And we, as West Virginians, should have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. Anyone that would accuse me of making a racial slur is totally absurd.
“I’m extremely proud that my coaches, my team, and myself were not involved in this incident in any way, shape, form, or fashion and I’m truly saddened that the Woodrow kids had to be subjected to this behavior.”
Effectively, Justice didn’t apologize for his use of the word, or even acknowledge that many people regard the word as a racial slur. He doubled down on describing the behavior of the opposing players and coaches Tuesday as being thuggish.
Justice made a similar statement later Tuesday, according to the article in the Register-Herald (of which I am an alum), indicating he did not intend any racial connotations in his comment: “That wouldn’t never even enter my mind. I teach my kids the right stuff.”
Nonetheless, it’s certainly another embarrassing moment for the state at a most inopportune time.
Listening to the audio of Justice’s postgame comments, I was taken by the emotion and anger in his voice.
At the Capitol, I’ve never heard Justice speak anywhere near that passionately about legislative matters, be it fixing our crumbling roads or diversifying an economy that is overly dependent on extractive industries.
It is also notable that on the critical 35th day of the legislative session, Justice was not in Charleston but 114 miles away in Fairlea, and that his focus was not on his legislative agenda, but on a basketball game.
For someone who has been criticized for treating the governorship as a part-time job, Justice’s appearances at the Capitol this session have been as scarce as his legislative agenda.
Currently, there are a total of 11 governor’s bills introduced in each house.
Excluding the budget bill, which the governor is constitutionally required to submit, two pro forma bills conforming state tax laws to changes in federal tax code, bills transferring funds or making supplemental appropriations, and the governor’s 2020 legislative agenda to date consists of two bills:
One would rename the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety as the Department of Homeland Security; the other would put $150 million of surplus Medicaid funds into a new reserve fund.
Earlier this session, when the Senate Finance Committee advanced one of the routine tax code bills, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha — not one usually given to flights of levity — called for a round of applause to congratulate Gov. Justice for successful passage of his legislative agenda.
It would certainly be nice to think that things are going so famously in the state that the governor’s legislative agenda could consist of just a couple of tweaks, but we all know that is not the reality.