CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Businessman Bray Cary has gone from being on of the most prominent critics of Jim Justice to one of the governor’s inner circle.
It’s been a remarkable transition.
On July 22, 2016, back when Justice was running for governor as a Democrat, Cary was blasted by Democrats for making a $250,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association, which was backing Justice’s opponent, Bill Cole.
On the “Decision Makers” program Cary hosted on his West Virginia Media stations, Cary went after Justice for the unpaid taxes of his coal companies. “These bills go back years. It’s willful, and it’s wrong,” Cary said the weekend before last year’s election.
“Now I know a lot of you think I go too far voicing my opinion. I’m not trying to be partisan. But let’s be clear: There are good Democrats, and there are good Republicans. What’s important is we elect officials who will play by the rules and bring real and meaningful change to West Virginia.”
By this Nov. 3, a few months after Justice had switched parties to become a Republican, Cary had something different to say.
The headline of an op-ed column he offered to West Virginia newspapers ran with the headline “Justice shows greatest example of vision leadership in state’s history.”
He gave Justice credit for bringing an outsider’s perspective to the Governor’s office and for leading the charge in support of statewide passage of an ambitious road bond package.
“There have been some terrific governors in our state’s history, but the facts are that Gov. Jim Justice has forever changed the future of our great state and its wonderful people,” Cary wrote.
Now Cary’s transition is somewhere between symbolic and official.
He is serving in a role of “citizen volunteer” in the governor’s office — a position with no precedent but one that comes with a reserved parking spot, a swipe card for 24-7 access to the Capitol and the ear of the governor.
That role has drawn scrutiny because of the other hat Cary wears as a board member for the oil and natural gas giant EQT Corporation.
But it’s also notable as a major turnaround for politics and interpersonal relationships.
Charlotte Pritt, who became familiar with both men as she ran for governor last year on the Mountain Party ticket, says she’s not surprised they found common ground.
Pritt says both have an interest in seeing corporations succeed.
“For Democratic corporatists, they’re no different from neocon Republicans. It’s very easy for them to move from Democrat to Republican,” Pritt said in a telephone interview. “They’re for the same thing. They’re looking for the corporate interests, rather than the people interest.”
Pritt had a front-row seat to one battle involving Justice and Cary last year.
The matter came up after Pritt appeared on Cary’s “Decision Makers.” Cary asked her if she was surprised that Justice, the businessman who was then the Democratic Party’s gubernatorial candidate, was not supporting Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president.
“He’s a Republican,” Pritt responded.
That exchange was cited in a letter sent out by the state Democratic Party: “Bray Cary — a Cole mega donor and GOP shill — put Pritt on his show this week. The West Virginia GOP is betting the farm on Pritt taking enough votes from Jim Justice so Cole can sneak in.”
Pritt is still miffed about that.
She says the whole turnaround shows the inordinate value people place on party labels.
Pritt illustrated her point with a story about something her great grandmother told her. When Pritt was old enough to start dating, she says her great grandmother told her, “Don’t you pay one lick of attention to what they say. You see how they treat their mawmaws.”
“People will tell you anything to get into whatever position they want to be in. This doesn’t surprise me with the kind of insider things.”
Cary was frequently at the Statehouse during the last regular session, offering advice to Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.
As Carmichael and Justice found common ground on the state budget, Cary was sometimes around.
Then in July, Justice announced his major move of switching parties. At that point, as Democrats on the governor’s staff were moving out and Republicans were moving in, Cary was rumored as a candidate for chief of staff or for a communications role.
Called by MetroNews at that time, Cary said: “I just don’t comment on all that. I have nothing to say about any of it.”
Justice, at the time, acknowledged past differences but said he’d gotten over it. Asked about rumors of Cary joining his administration, though, the governor cast doubt.
“Bray beat on me every day in the world, but I don’t harbor bad feelings like that. I like Bray,” Justice said on Aug. 20. “I don’t feel like anything is going to happen there at all. If Bray can contribute or if anybody can contribute I’d welcome anybody’s contribution. All I want to do is just get something done.”
By the time the governor was revving up the campaign to pass the road bond in October, Cary was among those in meetings to outline strategy and support.
Carmichael, speaking in a telephone interview this week, said as the two men have spent time together they have learned they share a vision of improving West Virginia’s economy.
“I was in some of those initial meetings after the campaign between Bray and the governor. To both men’s credit, they put the state of West Virginia and its people first and said that’s our primary objective,” Carmichael said. “Any personal differences and animosity they put that behind them and like people of goodwill, move forward.”
Carmichael acknowledged political differences between Cary and the Justice campaign. Carmichael, who was Cole’s majority leader, said he’d campaigned against Justice too.
“People pick sides during campaigns. And Bray was on the other side, as was I,” Carmichael said.
He said the fact that Cary was on the opposite side of Justice politically during the campaign has contributed to the abstract role he currently has in the governor’s office.
“The fact the two were on opposite sides in the beginning, it’s developed and shaped in this direction,” he said.
Not everyone is a fan of the situation. House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, is said to have serious reservations about Cary’s role in the governor’s office — particularly its lack of definition along with Cary’s prominent role on EQT’s board.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, has questioned several aspects of Cary’s role, starting with the political turnabout.
“I think there’s an even greater hypocritical element to this situation, and that is we have a fella in the Governor’s Office who spent a year or more trashing him and propping up reasons why this gentleman, Jim Justice, wasn’t qualified to be governor — primarily because he didn’t pay taxes and didn’t pay his bills.
“And that was a bad thing when he was a Democrat but now that he’s a Republican you don’t hear Bray Cary saying a thing about that. And instead, Jim Justice, the man who was attacked mercilessly by Bray Cary, brings him on as some internal consultant.”