CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Governor-elect Jim Justice is excited about the efforts of the West Virginians on his transition team, hasn’t yet settled on a path to filling an estimated $400 million budget gap and says he can be trusted to separate his vast business interests from those of state government.
But most of all, in a broad discussion with reporters on Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center, Justice said it’s important not to rush into decisions.
While sitting and speaking before TV cameras and microphones, the newly-elected governor told a parable about a rattlesnake to make his point:
“The best analogy I can give you is, I’m walking through the woods, and there’s a rattlesnake and it’s right over there, 10 foot away. What do you do? You best better stand still and not take off running left, right or behind you. You better stand still and look left, right or behind you and decide which way to go because they probably have a buddy with ’em. And so that’s what I do. I do. You know, you’ve got the rattlesnake there. I’m going to look and listen and learn, and then I’m going to plot a course and go.”
Justice was speaking during a lunch break for his transition committees, whose dozens of members with expertise in areas like public education and healthcare had been breaking out in groups to shape Justice’s staffing and policies.
Addressing that group as a whole, he used another anecdote to demonstrate his appreciation for how their leadership helps his.
“If you were on an airliner, and it’s a clear night and you look as far as you can see and there’s lights everywhere — especially if you’re close to a city or cities. And you think, all that is West Virginia, and all those lights are us. And you have the ability through me leading — you have the ability to impact and touch all those lights and lives.
“I thank you for all those lights. I thank you for me. Now let’s get it done. Let’s go somewhere.”
Justice’s Inauguration as the new governor takes place Jan. 16.
Here’s what else Justice had to say to reporters, rearranged from their original order to group topics together:
How can West Virginia fill an impending budget hole, estimated last week by current Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss to be at least $400 million?
“We’ve got to scrub all the financials and see really where we stand. Now I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. Then, that will lead us to where we need to go. You can’t get out of the hole until you know where you are in the hole. I’ve said many times that coal severance taxes are genuinely going to improve and improve significantly and improve quickly. But you’re still going to have a hole in the bucket.
“We’ve got to figure a way. Now, I want to figure out a way without laying additional taxation on our people or trying to just move in and cut, cut, cut. I want to find a way, so sincerely, but we have to find a way.”
How does he view what Kiss referred to as a “structural hole in the budget?”
“Anybody and everybody, they’re looking for a way. That’s what it really means. It’s people that are thinking outside the box. I don’t want to take credit for things, but I’m an outside-the-box guy. I’ve got people motivated to think differently than they have before.”
Does he still believe the budget can be balanced without cutting taxes?
“You never say never, no matter what the situation might be. But I believe with all my soul, yes, I can do it.”
Would he accept or welcome another round of budget cuts by current Governor Earl Ray Tomblin?
“I think that’s entirely up to Governor Tomblin. I’m not privy to that whatsoever. The only thing I would say is our people are hurting. For crying out loud. I don’t know that we can stand any more.”
Has he spoken yet with new Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead?
“I have not talked directly to Mitch. I have talked through different people with Mitch. I have left Mitch a voicemail. But I have not talked with Mitch. I have talked with Tim Armstead at length, and everything on different issues, yes I have.”
How would he compare himself to two previous Democratic governors, Joe Manchin and Gaston Caperton?
“Both Senator Manchin and Governor Caperton have been great. Governor Caperton brings the business aspect and Senator Manchin does as well. There could be some real similarities there. I promise you I will bring to the table ideas that no one has thought about before. They won’t all be perfect, and there’ll be mistakes. And we’ll have to address those and vet those.
“I’m one, and this is so simple — I’m easy to read — I’ll bring the brightest and the best and listen. That’s what I do. I listen, and then I try to formulate the best course, and then I go. The best analogy I can give you is, I’m walking through the woods, and there’s a rattlesnake and it’s right over there 10 foot away. What do you do? You best better stand still and not take off running left, right or behind you. You better stand still and look left, right or behind you and decide which way to go because they probably have a buddy with ’em. And so that’s what I do. I do. You know, you’ve got the rattlesnake there. I’m going to look and listen and learn, and then I’m going to plot a course and go.”
How is the transition going?
“I think it’s going very well. To me, I’m demanding in that I want to really make sure, as sure as you can possibly be — and then nothing is ever perfect — I want to make as sure as I can possibly be to select the right people and their right motivation, that’s just it.”
What was the selection process for members of the transition committee?
“I had recommendations from a lot of different people, but I reviewed the entire list of everybody. I took a lot of recommendations from a lot of people, but I reviewed every name. These people are leaders in every facet of what they do all over the state. These people can really get it done, and these people will deliver great ideas.”
Is hiring for state government similar to hiring for The Greenbrier, which Justice owns?
“Sure it is. Picking the right people for the right positions is just as simple as just this — the right person for the right job and seeing they’re motivated. I’ve said it over and over and over. They’ve got to work and blend with me. That’s going to be a little difficult to do. Because I’m not your normal bird as far as I do think aggressively, I’m impatient with what I do, I demand performance and I demand accomplishment. But I am a guy who wants to hold the rope with them and run across the finish line with them. I’m not a guy that leads from a podium or whatever.
“But finding those people, that’s the biggest and most important thing that I can do. That’s why this process is taking a little bit longer, and I’m soliciting all the brain power I can solicit to bring me ideas. It doesn’t matter. I’ve said it many times. Republican, independent, Democrat. It does not matter to me. What we want to do is do the best for West Virginia and get ourselves out of this mess and get ourselves to where we ought to be, and in my opinion that ought to be first.”
Does he think it’s appropriate to have people who represent his own businesses on the transition team?
“I do. I do. Because they’re very knowledgeable. My businesses are wide-reaching. I want you to know this. I want you to know loud and clear. I ran for this office for nothing for me. And it will remain that way always. You can continue to nitpick and say this is going to help this. I want our businesses that we have to function and function the best we can. I’m going to try to remove myself completely — in fact, I’m going to remove myself completely from the daily decisions that they make.
“But I want you to realize just this. What is the alternative? Is it best to just close the businesses that I have? They generate tens and tens of millions of dollars to our state. It would be frivolous to do that. It would be absolutely the stupidest thing in the world to do. But with my businesses being far-reaching comes knowledge that can help all of us. I don’t want a thing. Absolutely, I want to underline that. You can’t bring me anything to my business that’s going to be beneficial for me in any way. I don’t want a thing. All I want is goodness for our people and goodness for West Virginia.”
Is he already making calls to businesses that could invest in West Virginia?
“I am making calls. And I am receiving calls. I can’t say I’ve saved a thousand jobs like President-elect Trump quite yet. But at the same time, the whole thing, guys, no matter how we look at it, we have got to generate revenue. We’ve got to have jobs. We’ve got to have opportunities for our people.
“I’ve said it before, Aunt Edith wants to have a picnic, for crying out loud, and her grandkids are in Atlanta and Denver and Charlotte and everywhere. The family’s even dysfunctional. We’ve got to have jobs any way you cut it.
“For good or for bad, I have a real pathway to the presidency now from the standpoint of picking up the phone, calling the Trump family, talking to them and asking them for help and everything. And they’ll answer the phone. So, all that being said, I think we’re going to get help from the federal government. West Virginia has so many possibilities it’s unbelievable. We have a situation right in front of us that we can really do some good.”
Are some of his own coal mines reopening?
“We’re reopening a coal mine right across the state line in Kentucky. We’re opening back our surface mine and three deep mines that are in McDowell County. We had to do some maintenance for equipment and we closed for three or four days and we’re back full-throttle at our Coal Mountain operation, which is really close to Wayne County.”
The transition team includes representatives from higher education, and he had a recent meeting with Marshall President Jerome Gilbert. What was said?
“We talked about a lot of things. The pathway to Marshall and everything. Good stuff. I’m a Marshall graduate, and I want greatness for Marshall, and I want greatness for WVU, and I want greatness for the state of West Virginia. That’s all there is to it. Marshall’s got some issues right now and everything, but all that being said I’m concerned but at the same time I just want goodness.”
Would he like to see Marshall and West Virginia University resume their football series?
“Right now, Marshall’s got some real issues athletically. And we’ve got to get that back on balance, first and foremost. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Two recent West Virginia news stories have dealt with racial issues. One was the shooting of a black teenager by a 62-year-old white man on Charleston’s East End. The other was the director of the Clay County Development Corp. using a post on Facebook to compare first lady Michelle Obama to an “ape in heels.” What are his thoughts on those kinds of issues?
“There’s no excuse. There’s no words that I could ever come up with to say how despicable all that is. If you know me and know my heart, you just know that. And the other thing is, I don’t know exactly what all could come to me but there is no place in society for racial issues today. There’s just no place.”
It seems the director of the Clay Development Corp. may be set to resume to her job later this month. Do you think she should return?
“I don’t know all the particulars about her job. If I were to say, I would say no. I just think it’s just outrageous. That situation is just outrageous.”