CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With two key openings to fill after the previous officeholders were pushed out, Gov. Jim Justice turned to familiar legislative names.
The governor announced Senator Ed Gaunch as the new Secretary of Commerce, filling the role that opened when Woody Thrasher was forced to resign in June.
And the governor has appointed Delegate Jill Upson to lead the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs after the October firing of Bill White.
Gaunch, R-Kanawha, and Upson, R-Jefferson, were each defeated during the General Election.
In Gaunch’s case, the governor joked about his becoming available.
“We’ve looked for this a long time,” Justice said, “and thank goodness Ed lost the election.”
The state Democratic Party also took note that each lost election just weeks ago.
“West Virginians spoke loud and clear when Upson and Gaunch lost their elections and now West Virginians are footing the bill for their salaries,” stated Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore.
Gaunch, in an interview after the announcement, said the governor called and made the offer the day after the election.
“I said it was very flattering to me and I thought a lot about it, prayed a lot about it, and I’m excited to get started.”
Gaunch spent more than three decades in the insurance industry including 28 years at the Carson Agency in Charleston where he served as president and chief executive officer.
Speaking after the governor’s announcement, Gaunch said he needs to get his feet on the ground at the agency that leads West Virginia’s economic development efforts.
“I’m going to catch up first,” he said. “I’m going to go get the lay of the land, see who is there, what positions I need to fill, try to cast a vision everyone can get, make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction.”
He also needs some additional basic information.
“Two things I didn’t ask,” he said. “I didn’t ask what the pay is, and I didn’t ask when I start. I think it’s January 1, though.”
West Virginia’s Secretary of Commerce is statutorily set to make $95,000 a year.
The governor said Upson — who he introduced as “our next superstar” — has an opportunity to fill a role meant to uplift West Virginia’s minority population.
“Our minority communities within this state need help,” Justice said, “and we need to do something about it.”
Upson was the first Republican African-American woman to be elected to the House.
Upson said her work in the new role will be statewide. Like Gaunch, her first plan is to become familiar with the office.
“What I plan to do when I get in there is to look at the current goals and objectives of that have been laid out for the office and make sure they align with the needs of underserved communities in our state.”
Upson became involved with controversy during the General Election campaign.
The West Virginia NAACP called for her resignation from the House because of a controversial advertisement that was run by the political action committee Black Americans for the President’s Agenda.
The advertisement ran in Arkansas, where a state ethics complaint was filed. Upson was the national chairwoman for the PAC. She denounced the advertisement and asked that it be pulled.
After the Tuesday announcement, Upson again said she did not approve of the ad.
She said that during the period the ad ran, she was running a campaign and also had personal challenges such as the deaths of her father and her nephew.
“I was not involved in the day-to-day activities of the PAC when this particular ad was produced and run in this other state,” she said.
Asked if relationships need to be mended with the NAACP, Upson said, “I’m going to be professional. I’m going to work with anyone.
“I’m going to do what I have to do to ensure the communities in our states are receiving the services and the help they need from this office. I’m certainly willing to work with the NAACP and I would expect they would be able to put the past aside and to do what they have to do to advance underserved communities.”
When the governor was asked the relationship with the NAACP, he said “we want harmony” and then went on to describe breaking down political barriers.
“We don’t need this to be a political badminton thing. And the reason I say that is just this: Sometimes organizations get set on the fact that no matter what in the world is done we’re going to stand behind the Democrats or the Republicans.”
He continued, “You’ve got people in political life that have trapped people. Trapped them. Those people are dependent. And those people then have to give their vote.
“We’ve got to get out of that. We’ve got to give these people a chance in life. We’ve got to give people a chance whether they be black or green or white or yellow or whatever it may be.”
Justice said Upson is the right person for a vital job.
“We’ve looked to find not only the one who is most qualified,” he said, “but the lady with fire in her belly, with the drive to do really good work.”