HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, who often takes pride in breaking with tradition, announced his switch to be a Republican in some notably unorthodox ways.
His party changeover was announced by the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who in introducing the governor near the beginning of a rally acknowledged it’s unusual for a high-profile political figure to make such a move. “He showed that our country rises above party,” Trump said.
“Having Big Jim as a Republican is such an honor,” Trump said to the crowd. “Fantastic man, fantastic guy.”
The governor’s decision was broken by the New York Times after Trump told Washington, D.C., media, with whom he feuds, that something exciting would be announced in West Virginia. The governor’s own staff — many of them veterans of Democratic politics — said privately that they had not been told.
“With lots of prayers and lots of thoughts, today I tell you as West Virginians I can’t help you any more being a Democratic governor,” Justice announced to cheers. “So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
HOPPY KERCHEVAL: Justice’s Big Flip
As Justice spoke behind the podium, he described disappointing results in his first dealings with the state Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, many of whom were in the Trump audience.
He expressed sorrow that so much had been left undone — mostly programs he’d hoped to bolster through stable or increased spending, though legislative Republicans had believed the state’s fiscal situation required cuts.
While the governor delivered his message, security at the Big Sandy arena removed a protester from the upper seating just behind him. Some members of the crowd booed and yelled “Get him out of here.” At one point, Justice paused his remarks.
Speaking before governor actually made his announcement, Republicans welcomed him — with several saying they hope he is joining the party because he believes in its principles.
The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity put out a news release keeping the governor at arm’s length:
“While this announcement will make for great political theatre, it does not change the fact that Gov. Justice proposed the largest tax increase in West Virginia’s history earlier this year.”
The West Virginia GOP website is topheavy with news releases critical of Justice, particularly over the unpaid taxes of his family’s private coal companies. But party chairman Conrad Lucas put out a statement saying those bones were picked while Justice was still a Democrat:
“Jim Justice’s past differences with our Party and our Party’s platform came while he was a Democrat. We look forward to a new beginning as the Governor now embraces the Republican Party,” Lucas stated.
Justice has spent the weeks following the special session on the budget criticizing the Legislature, dominated by Republicans, through his official social media account and in public appearances.
Justice, though, said the experiences during the most recent legislative session were among those that drove him to his party switch. Justice blamed Democrats, the minority party in both West Virginia’s House and Senate.
“Let me just say it as bluntly as I can say it. West Virginia, at the altar when we had it done — like it or not like it — the Democrats walked away from me,” he said, referring to Democratic objections to a Justice-backed proposal that would have reduced personal income taxes while raising sales taxes.
He said lack of legislative willpower led to letting down several areas of West Virginia society. Republicans in the Legislature had said the state could spend no more revenue than was coming in, with most saying they could not justify raising taxes.
“We hurt a lot of people,” Justice said. “We hurt our vets and our teachers and our disabled and our weak, and we walked away from the old. Now I can promise you just this. I came to only get something done.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, whom Justice criticized publicly and with consistency during the past six months, was among those who expressed hope that the governor shares the values of the party.
“Certainly we would welcome him to the party, but we certainly hope he would embrace the principles of our party — and if he does we look forward to working with him.
“I would hope we will have a better working relationship. I hope we are able to work together. As I said, Republican principles are smaller government, more efficient government, lower taxes. I hope if he becomes a member of our party he will embrace those principles.”
Justice had been registered as a Republican in years prior, during his days as a businessman with growing agriculture, coal and hospitality properties.
He announced in May 2015, that he would run for governor as a Democrat, saying it seemed a better fit. As he did so, the state Republican Party immediately fired back: “Liberal billionaire wants to buy the W.Va. Governor’s mansion.”
On stage in Huntington, Justice said his parents had been Republicans, admirers of Ronald Reagan.
“No doubt in my mind, my mom and dad are in heaven right now, both saying the same thing — but my mom is saying it more profoundly: ‘Jimmy, it’s about damn time you came to your senses.'”
The state Democratic Party put out a news release saying Justice had dropped his promises.
“Jim Justice said he became a Democrat because Democrats care about people,” Democratic chairwoman Belinda Biafore stated in the news release. “I think we can all guess just who he cares about by his decision today and it’s not the people of West Virginia.
“During his campaign for governor, Jim Justice said he would never lie to the public; he said he would never be a politician and he would definitely be a full-time governor. None of those promises were kept.”
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has sometimes been rumored to have considered a party switch himself, expressed disappointment with Justice’s decision.
“I have been and always will be a proud West Virginia Democrat. I am disappointed by Governor Justice’s decision to switch parties,” Manchin stated in a release.
Many of the state Republican leaders who gathered in Huntington to attend the Trump rally were still gathering their thoughts about how to welcome Justice to the party.
“Absolutely I’m surprised,” said Delegate Jim Butler, a Republican from Mason County. “In a joking way, I’ll say maybe I’ll have to become a Democrat now.”
Butler said he hopes Justice will return to becoming the guy who said West Virginians can’t handle any more tax burden.
“I’d say we’ll welcome him. I think at the beginning of his term he said he was for low taxes, wasn’t going to raise taxes and I think we were all hopeful. So I think maybe after the legislative session we had, maybe he’s coming around to our way of thinking and he’ll be a more fiscally-conservative governor now.”
Congressman Evan Jenkins, who was having a gathering prior to Trump’s to promote his candidacy for U.S. Senate, said he can understand how the Republican Party is appealing to Justice. Jenkins made his own switch from a Democratic state senator to run for Congress as a Republican.
“I would welcome him to the Republican Party,” Jenkins said. “I served as a Democrat in the West Virginia Legislature. The direction of the Democratic Party both nationally and in the state were simply wrong for West Virginia, wrong for my values and what I think many West Virginians’ values are.
“If Jim Justice is the next one to do that, I welcome him to the Republican Party.”
Jenkins’ opponent in the Republican primary for Senate, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, briefly said he too would welcome Justice to the party. As a member of the state Board of Public Works and as the chief lawyer for the state, Morrisey’s role is already to cooperate with the governor.
“I welcome Jim Justice to the Republican Party. I look forward to working with him to advance economic opportunity and conservative values. That’s our statement,” Morrisey said.
Another member of the state Board of Public Works, Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt, said he has already been working with Justice in many ways. Justice takes pride in his background in the agriculture industry.
“If somebody wants to become a Republican and work with me on agriculture, I’m all for it,” Leonhardt said. “Obviously he’s a longtime farmer, I’m a longtime farmer.”