Has West Virginia ever had a Governor like Jim Justice? Maybe back at an earlier time in statehood—we can’t say for sure—but certainly not in the modern era.
If you watched and listened to Justice’s third state of the state address last night then you know what I mean. He can be many things—tough executive, dreamer, public relations man, coach, loving uncle or crazy uncle.
Whatever he is, and perhaps he’s a little of each, Jim Justice is comfortable in his considerable skin. Who else in today’s political environment would deliver the state of the state address propped on a stool, waxing, lecturing, pleading, promising, rambling, joking.
If you allowed yourself to forget the forum you would swear Justice was just sitting at the head of the dinner table talking with family and friends. But that’s the way he wants it because that’s who he is.
Justice is one of the few people in public life in West Virginia who can say, almost in the same breath, that he’s made enough mistakes to fill the chamber, but also say of himself, without a hint of embarrassment, that he has “a tremendous amount of wisdom.”
We have learned over the first two years of his term that the Governor is given to hyperbole. Members of his cabinet who he singles out are “superstars” and initiatives like the Roads to Prosperity program aren’t just successful, they are “grand slams.” He equated West Virginia’s pending budget deficit when he took office to “bankruptcy.”
But over time I think we have learned that’s just how he talks and, in most cases, he cannot and should not be taken quite so literally.
Specific policy details are not his strength, though he has at times—not last night—made points using a whiteboard and marker. He’s at his best when riffing from the heart. There were two examples last night.
The first was when he explained his JIM’S Dream Program (Jobs In Making You Successful) to provide more treatment and training for people trying to kick drug addiction. Justice sees wasted lives and missed opportunities for the thousands of drug addicted West Virginians.
When Justice says, “Just give me a chance to fix it. I can get it done,” you don’t know whether to admire his optimism and get on board or give him a reality check of just how difficult that is going to be.
The second was at the very end when he explained his decision to continue the search for three people who illegally entered a southern West Virginia coal mine and got lost. They were eventually rescued. The Governor said several times that they should not have been in the mine, but it was evident that the thought of leaving them in there was untenable.
Justice wrapped up by saying, “All I’ve ever really wanted for this state is goodness for its people. I love you.”
Some will recoil at that, chalking Justice’s mawkishness up to a craven political ploy. Others are more interested in the Governor being a more hands-on chief executive who is skilled at management and the use of political power.
But others may actually welcome Justice’s warm embrace, drawing comfort from knowing their Governor loves the state just as much or more than they do.