In the short time Jim Justice has been Governor we have learned this about him: He says what’s on his mind. That’s refreshing at a time when political speak is often carefully calculated (President Trump being a notable exception).
Justice’s lack of a filter makes for “good copy,” as we say in the news business. This is particularly true when the Governor goes after the Legislature.
During one speech at the Capitol, Justice called lawmakers who oppose his road plan “knuckleheads.” While pitching his plan this week he called opponents “blockheads.” He famously singled out Republican Majority Leader Ryan Ferns (R-Ohio) who had tweeted a criticism of Justice, calling Ferns a “poodle” who might get chewed up by a grizzly bear (Justice).
One could argue that’s Justice being Justice—unscripted, colorful, and oblivious to the impact of his words. Also, as the Governor takes his budget and jobs plan to the people, he knows many hold politicians—in this case the Legislature—in low regard.
I conducted an unscientific on-line poll asking my Twitter followers about Justice’s pejorative comments. Of the 465 followers who had responded, 37 percent said they were “accurate,” 30 percent said “inappropriate,” 19 percent said “disrespectful” and 14 percent said they were “funny.” (One e-mailer asked why I did not include an “all of the above” category).
Justice’s folksy taunts play better on the stump than they do at the Capitol. Republicans, who are the target of the insults, are clearly growing weary of the barbs. As one Republican staffer told me, “The folksiness has lost its sheen.”
House Finance Committee chairman Eric Nelson (R-Kanawha) was fuming after Justice’s appearance on Talkline last Friday, where the Governor unveiled his new plan to balance this year’s budget by sweeping $120 million from existing state accounts. Nelson had just met with Justice administration officials the day before to go over the Republican plan for sweeping accounts and he believed the Governor co-opted an idea the GOP has been pushing for two years. (A Justice official said they did not.)
The slights add up, each one making it just a little less likely Republican leaders will support Justice’s proposals. Even one Justice loyalist conceded privately that “it doesn’t help.”
Granted, Justice was elected in part because he is different, that he does not follow the traditional political script. For the past several weeks he has been taking his proposals to the people to try to get voters to put pressure on lawmakers to support his plan or come up with an alternative.
But Justice needs to remember two numbers–63 and 22. Republicans hold 63 seats in the 100 member House of Delegates and 22 of the 34 seats in the Senate, significant majorities that can override gubernatorial vetoes with a simple majority and come within a few votes of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto of a budget bill.
Even knuckleheads and blockheads understand the implications of those numbers.