Governor Jim Justice’s frustration with his search for a new Commerce secretary was evident during an appearance with me on MetroNews Talkline last week.
“We’re probably not as close and I’d like to be,” Justice said. “To tell you the truth, if you would be interested, I’d surely love to sit down and talk with you about it. But if you are not, if you could send me a couple of names of people that are out there in your listening audience today, I’m looking for a really good person.”
OK, so the governor was joking about offering me the job, and perhaps he was only semi-serious about his on-air advertisement for the position, but those comments are insights into the ongoing issues at Commerce.
As Brad McElhinny reports, the agency, which is responsible for business recruitment and development in West Virginia, has been in upheaval for several months. When Justice took office in January 2017, he hired Woody Thrasher as secretary. Thrasher, who ran a successful engineering firm, brought significant private sector experience to the position.
However, his relationship with Justice soured and Justice forced him out last June. The governor has been unable to find a replacement, and that’s not the only top job that is open at Commerce. The positions of deputy secretary, executive director of the Development Office, director of the Small Business Development Center and director for Community Advancement and Development are all vacant.
Clayton Burch is filling in as acting secretary of Commerce, but he is only on loan from the Department of Education. Economic development is not his area of expertise.
Former Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said on Talkline, “They’ve got a lot of holes to fill. There’s a reason those positions exist. It knits it all together to create a team to get the job done.”
There are also reports of low morale at Commerce attributed to the high turnover and a strained relationship with the Governor’s Office. Bray Cary, who has taken over increased responsibilities for the day-to-day operations in the Justice administration, has inserted himself more directly into the functions of Commerce.
It can be argued that is reasonable since Justice has put a priority on economic growth, and he would want his right hand man riding herd on Commerce. But we have also heard that the experienced executives remaining at the department feel constricted by Cary acting as an overlord.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, a frequent critic of the Justice administration, blamed the governor and Cary for the leadership issues at Commerce.
“That doesn’t create an environment that’s going to attract anyone to come in and serve as Commerce director,” he said. “Why would you give up a good position you have in the private sector to come work for this dysfunctional group?”
The fear is that the dysfunction means West Virginia may be missing out on business opportunities at a time when the state and national economies are growing. To fully capitalize on those opportunities, the Commerce department needs to be fully staffed with qualified, energetic advocates for West Virginia who have leadership from the top, but also enough autonomy to recruit and develop business leads for the state.
Justice has pitched himself as a guy who could hit economic home runs for West Virginia, and the state’s economy is improving under his watch, but when it comes to the state Commerce department, he’s been challenged to field a team.