Within a year of being forced out from the governor’s Cabinet, the former West Virginia secretary of commerce is mounting a primary challenge against his old boss.
Henry “Woody” Thrasher launched his 2020 gubernatorial campaign in the Republican primary Tuesday. In an interview after filing his pre-candidacy papers with the Secretary of State’s Office, he said his candidacy comes down to a lack of political leadership.
“I am very concerned about the direction that we’re going,” he said. “I do not believe the state is going in the right direction. I think that’s exhibited most clearly in the loss of over 10,000 people again this year, after 20 years of that happening. Unfortunately, the people we’re losing are the youngest, brightest folks that we should be keeping here. I think it’s clearly the reason they’re leaving, the lack of opportunity throughout the state, and I think that’s from the lack of leadership.”
Echoing a move made by the incumbent governor, Thrasher changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in March, state records show. He said he aligns with conservative values — specifically noting his support of charter schools and right-to-work legislation — but had been a Democrat because he hadn’t gotten around to changing it. He said he’s a “business person,” not a “political person.”
Before serving as commerce secretary, Thrasher served as president of The Thrasher Group, the largest engineering firm in the state. When Justice appointed Thrasher, he called him “the No. 1 guy I wanted to recruit” and said he was someone who “totally shares my vision.”
Thrasher left his post at the Department of Commerce in the midst of an unfolding scandal resulting from a stalled flood recovery program, and under the cloud of a potential ethics problem.
Justice requested and received Thrasher’s resignation in June 2018. He did so as outrage grew regarding the RISE West Virginia flood recovery effort. The program was essentially a $150 million transfer from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the state Development Office, which falls under the Department of Commerce, to help families in flood-ravaged communities rebuild.
The RISE program was halted by Justice’s office, which probed procurement issues on a consulting contract with the program that grew in size from $900,000 to nearly $18 million. However, internal and external communications problems and increasing public scrutiny contributed to a discord between Justice’s office and Commerce, ending in Thrasher’s ouster.
Justice has since put the West Virginia National Guard in charge of the program. Almost three years out from the June 2016 floods, RISE has led to the construction of 49 houses, as of Saturday.
While Thrasher did not speak publicly on the scandal as it unfurled, he said Tuesday that more details are to come. With the exception of purchasing protocol issues, he said, RISE was in the works to become a successful program until Justice froze it for “political reasons.”
“The RISE program was marching right down the tracks, doing exactly what we should be doing, and it was put to the side for what really were political reasons, and I think it was a huge mistake,” he said. “I think, instead of the 50 homes we have constructed, we would have dramatically more homes constructed.”
The RISE issues were unearthed when the Justice administration brought in outside counsel to probe a potential conflict of interest at Commerce. Specifically, whether one member of the state’s trade delegation on a deal with China Energy Investment Corp. — a deal that could bring $80 billion in foreign investments over 20 years to the state — was also seeking benefit to his private company.
The official, Stephen Hedrick, was asked to repay $23,000 in travel expenses. He complied.
On Tuesday, Thrasher said the program was successful in pairing young, private-sector executives with retired ones with more experience, and that the conflict concerns were overblown.
“That could not have been further from the truth,” he said. “Everybody signed conflict forms, we were very careful not to happen that [sic]. Truth of the matter, that was a really effective way of getting some effective things done at no expense to the state.”
Despite an apparent warmth between Justice and Thrasher in the past, the nascent campaign almost instantly took on an odious tone.
Thrasher’s campaign website criticizes Justice for his work ethic, noting his hard-to-pin-down reputation around Charleston and a lawsuit filed by a Democratic lawmaker challenging his decision not to live in the Governor’s Mansion, Charleston or Kanawha County.
At a media event on road repairs, Justice painted Thrasher as a political opportunist, jockeying for rank from the onset at the Department of Commerce.
“From the first day that [Thrasher] became the commerce secretary, he was running for something everyday,” he said. “Everyday, he was flying all over the place in the state plane and speaking to whoever would listen to him and everything. That’s what [Thrasher] wants to do. [Thrasher] needs that. That fuels [Thrasher]. I don’t need that. I don’t need ego and status.”
A Justice political aide with ties to President Donald Trump responded in kind.
“Mr. Thrasher used his appointed position to travel all over the world on the taxpayers’ dime to promote the private companies of his friends, and at the same time, forgot about the RISE flood relief program and all the West Virginians still recovering from the 2016 floods,” said Mike Lukach, who is running the incumbent governor’s campaign.