CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, 34 years old and a physical therapist who owns a gym bearing his own name, is likely unaccustomed to being called a poodle.
It happened Friday morning.
He was called that by the governor of the state of West Virginia, a 6-foot-7, 400-pound billionaire who compared himself to a grizzly bear.
While appearing on a special Town Hall version of “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval, Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat, was asked to respond to some legislative criticism. Kercheval read aloud a statement by Ferns, a Republican, from Twitter.
— Ryan Ferns (@RyanFernsWV) February 16, 2017
“Senator Ferns, you know, he’s been tweeting and doing this forevermore and to be perfectly honest if that’s what he wants to do that’s what he wants to do,” Justice began to respond.
“I hate to say this, but it’s just the fact. I’ve done more in my little finger for West Virginia and West Virginians than Ryan Ferns has done. I know he’s ambitious about his political career. I don’t need to be ambitious about my political career. I don’t need to be sending out tweets.”
Then it was on.
With a metaphor.
“It’s almost like a grizzly bear walking through the woods and then a poodle walking behind him, barking and nipping and all this kind of stuff, for nothing,” Justice said. “And basically, at some point in time, if I’m the poodle I’m concerned that the grizzly bear is going to get tired of all the tweeting and the little crap that’s going on and turn around and eat your ass.”
You can imagine how that went over with the Republican majority in the Legislature.
It had been exactly a week since Justice told a crowd of highways workers that he needs their help persuading “knuckleheads” to embrace his plan for increasing the gas tax and DMV fees as a funding source for bonds to pay for roads projects.
Legislators who have been skeptical of Justice’s proposals felt certain they were the knuckleheads being referenced.
The fallout lasted through the rest of this week, culminating on Wednesday when several legislators made floor speeches objecting to the governor’s tone and referencing the word “knuckleheads.”
This Friday morning, Ferns, who represents Ohio County, said he was in a committee meeting to confirm some of the appointees to Justice’s administration when he started hearing about the poodle comment.
No time for the Gov’s school yard threats. I’m busy airing out the gross conflicts of interest with his appointees.
— Ryan Ferns (@RyanFernsWV) February 24, 2017
From there, Ferns went to the Senate floor session and spent the afternoon in more committee meetings. He was wrapping up a meeting of the Senate’s Select Committee on Tax Reform when he took a minute to respond to what the governor said.
“It’s my understanding that the governor’s statements about me were in response to things I had put out on social media,” Ferns said. “I don’t think anything I’ve put out on social media is anything short of factual or just directly to the point of concerns that I have. I’ve never felt like I’ve crossed the lines and been disrespectful toward the governor.
“To have a governor make comments like that is embarrassing for our state. I almost feel bad that the people to have that representation of a governor.”
Ferns contends that the governor has been short on detail from the election cycle to the current moment.
“To me, it’s just a sign that he’s out of ideas,” Ferns said. “One of the things I’ve been critical of him on is his lack of substance when he talks to the media, when he talks to us in the Legislature. One of my comments via social media is when you come and caucus with the Republicans in the Senate, come prepared to talk about things of substance.
“I feel like a lot of times when you all interview him, despite your best efforts to get real statements from him, he takes an end-around every time and just talks in generalities. He’s often referred to as folksy. He sort of gets away with that. He got away with it all the way through the campaign. Now that he’s governor, the time for that is over.”
There’s a humorous element to the “knucklehead” and “poodle” comments, but Ferns said the governor and the Legislature will need a respectful working relationship if they hope to resolve big differences like their approach to the state’s half-billion dollar budget gap.
“Having a working relationship is important,” Ferns said. “If we’re not able to communicate, not able to talk, when we get to a point where we’re trying to work out our differences it’s going to make that really challenging.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he would urge both sides to take the high road. Carmichael made his comments after stepping outside the Select Committee on Tax Reform, where he had been an observer.
“I think we need to and should hold ourselves to a completely high standard. The name-calling and the folksy kind of demeanor of the chief executive is just, frankly, his style. It’s unfortunate that he’s taken the approach of bringing that into this element,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson.
“We want to work with this governor. We want to advance the cause of West Virginia and make us the bright, shining star that people throughout the nation have respect for us and the manner in which we conduct ourselves. I don’t believe those comments are helpful. I will convey upon the caucus that I lead that we will take the high road and be respectful and be forceful in presenting our positions that are right for the people of West Virginia.”
Meanwhile, by Saturday morning, Ferns had tweeted again in reference to the governor’s remarks.
Sometimes things don't work out exactly the way the bear imagined they would… pic.twitter.com/aStODDc01l
— Ryan Ferns (@RyanFernsWV) February 25, 2017