MINERAL WELLS — It started as a town hall for Gov. Jim Justice to build GOP unity behind his re-election bid.
He criticized those who malign him for “not being Republican enough.” He called on them not to cast stones.
He then proceeded to bash the Senate president for his charge to bring charter schools and education savings accounts into West Virginia, which he compared to “causing a ruckus” and throwing a Hail Mary.
“I have pleaded with our Senate president saying, ‘Listen, you are imploding yourself,’” Justice said. “‘You are imploding the Senate.’”
Throughout the town hall Tuesday, Justice sought a balance between building Republican political support and distancing himself from Senate Republicans’ ongoing push to introduce charter schools and education savings accounts in the state. That legislation would also say public worker strikes are unlawful, that school workers may be fired for them, and that their pay may be withheld during a strike.
As he did after the Senate advanced its bill Sunday, Justice cited a poll his campaign “through the Trump people” ran, which found that 77 percent of West Virginians “aren’t real crazy about charter schools,” and 70 to 75 percent of Republicans think it’s a good idea for Justice to talk to unions and all parties in debates.
Mike Lukach, Justice’s campaign manager, declined to provide the poll data.
While U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expressed support for the Senate GOP’s charter school efforts in a social media post, Justice brushed the comments aside.
“I don’t think we’ll hear from Betsy DeVos anymore, and the reason I don’t is because there are a lot of people at the White House that probably aren’t real happy with Betsy DeVos,” he said.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 50 in a reliably Republican pocket of the state, Justice touted his relationship with President Donald Trump; he dubbed himself “instrumental” in adding anti-abortion language to the state’s constitution; and he warned that as West Virginia prospers, a “super-liberal” mayor might establish sanctuary cities because illegal immigrants will “target” the state. West Virginia has no sanctuary cities and among the lowest immigrant populations compared to other states.
Even still, Justice — who registered as a Democrat in 2001, then a Republican in 2008, then a Democrat in 2015, and back to a Republican in 2017 — dismissed any allegation that he’s not a “real Republican,” as he characterized it.
“It’s garbage,” he said.
In an interview, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, confirmed the gist of the conversation Justice mentioned.
“Here’s what he said to me: That he feels I’m responsible for the destruction of the Republican party in West Virginia,” he said. “To which I replied, look, if standing up for students, parents and teachers and moving our education forward, if he views that as a negative, then he’s in the wrong line of work.”
Carmichael said Justice doesn’t understand the hard work that goes into legislating, and described Justice as swooping in at the last minute to claim credit or point fingers, depending on the outcome.
As for his tack of campaigning as a Republican by attacking other Republicans, Carmichael said he can’t support someone politically who’s just “shifting blame and not showing any leadership” in a primary.
“If that’s the direction he’s going in a Republican primary, he’s barking up the wrong tree,” he said.
The courts — both civil and criminal — have been bearing down on Justice. On Wednesday, his lawyers appeared in circuit court to argue to dismiss a claim that he flouts constitutional and statutory requirements that he live in Charleston. That same day, a U.S. attorney asked a federal court to pierce the corporate veil and hold Justice and his son personally liable for a $1.23 million in court ordered sanctions his business (a “shell company” as alleged in court filings) faces.
This all comes on top of a multi-million spread of civil lawsuits and fines against his private businesses and the U.S. Department of Justice issuing subpoenas for records dealing with how his businesses interact with the state.
Unfazed, Justice cleared himself of all wrongdoing Tuesday. He mentioned the DOJ probe, unprompted, saying there is always “envy” and “jealousy” out there, but questioned what he could have done.
“If the investigation is trying to find something that I have done for the betterment of me, knowingly, there’s no possibility,” he said.
When he discovered the DOJ’s interest in Old White Charities — a nonprofit his family operates that hosts A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, a PGA tournament at the resort his family owns — he said he hired a forensic accountant to pore through the books. The CPA, he said, discovered substantial personal losses.
“I put into it $133 million, and eight went out,” he said.
As supporters filtered out of Tuesday’s events, campaign staff gave out fliers listing Justice’s accomplishments.
The governor, ever the proponent of theatrics and props at public events, included things like “$8 E-Zpass” and “Cut regulations.” Citing preceding governors Earl Ray Tomblin and Joe Manchin, he claimed an out-performance of them both.
“Where is Earl Ray’s sheet? Where is Manchin’s? Where are the sheets?” he asked.