CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Governor Jim Justice signed on the line to officially become a Republican, but does he believe what they believe?
Justice was asked for his definition of Republican values during a news conference today before he signed the documents to make his party switch.
“I would hope that they are really good ones. And I would hope that the Democrats’ are really good ones,” Justice said.
“The net-net of the whole thing is just this: Jim isn’t changing. Jim is still going to be Jim. Jim is still going to be the person who stands up for the common, everyday family. That’s all there is to it.
He continued, speaking in the third person: “Jim is going to be rock solid behind the teachers and trying to help education. Jim is going to be exactly the same Jim that always was there. I’m just telling you with the process of what we have in this great thing, Jim can’t help West Virginia the way it is today. And Jim is not going to just come down here and take pictures and kiss babies and hang out.”
Justice, whose family has coal, agriculture and hospitality holdings, had been a Republican and an independent earlier in his life but switched his registration to Democrat before announcing he would run for governor in 2015.
He has frequently talked about the power of government to do everything possible to improve people’s lives. Republicans often talk about reducing government and staying out of the way to accomplish those goals.
Justice has expressed enthusiasm about two current policy goals. One is a proposed federal subsidy for eastern coal producers. The other is a proposed 5-percent fee on winning highways bids with the money diverted to fight opioid abuse.
House Speaker Tim Armstead sent out a statement shortly after the governor’s party switch, seeking assurances that the governor wants to pursue conservative principles.
“I chose to be a Republican because the CORE PRINCIPLES of the Republican Party were and remain the principles that were best for West Virginia and America,” stated Armstead, R-Kanawha.
“Today, Governor Jim Justice will change his registration to Republican,” Speaker Armstead said. “As he does so, it is my sincere hope that this change is not only a change on paper, but a change in direction and in the Governor’s core principles.”
Armstead went on to express doubt that Justice so far has demonstrated he shares values such as personal responsibility, limited government, a lower tax burden and giving people an opportunity to succeed through hard work and determination without having to rely on the government.
“During his first six months in office, and in his dealings with the Legislature before he was governor, Governor Justice simply has not advanced the core conservative Republican principles that the majority of West Virginians share. He has advanced proposals that increase the role of government, that seek to solve problems not by removing the roadblocks and burdens of government but by making West Virginians more reliant and dependent on government,” Armstead stated.
“He has sought to increase taxes and grow the size of government. He proposed the greatest tax increase in our state’s history to fund the largest budget in our history.”
Armstead continued to say that if Justice changes his priorities than Republicans can work with him.
“If Governor Justice truly embraces the core conservative principles that the Republicans in the House have been fighting for, I stand ready to work with him to make those goals a reality,” Armstead stated.
“If he continues to advance the tired and outdated Democrat policies our state has rejected, I and many members of the House will stand against those regardless of his party affiliation.”
Others were also trying to assess where the governor now stands on the political spectrum — or if that’s changed at all.
On Thursday, as rumors circulated that Justice would change parties, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia said that if the governor’s preferred policies don’t change then he won’t find support with that organization.
“Our thousands of activists across the state, frankly, do not care to which party the Governor belongs — we will continue to fight against any proposal from Gov. Justice or anyone else that seeks to increase taxes on struggling families in the Mountain State,” stated Jason Huffman, state director for the lower-tax advocating group.
The state AFL-CIO, which endorsed Justice in last year’s governor’s race, said it is watching what he’ll do as a Republican and withholding judgment for now.
“Governor Justice’s decision to switch political parties is unnerving. But given his vow to only pursue legislation that helps working families succeed, we are hopeful that he will use his position as the most powerful Republican state official to steer the Republican legislative leadership away from its current War on Working Families,” state AFL-CIO President Josh Sword stated.
U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., welcomed Justice to the party.
“As the lead Republican in West Virginia, I stand ready to work with him to grow the economy, fight for energy jobs, and create a stronger West Virginia,” Capito said in a statement sent out by her office on Thursday.
Capito had a similar description of Justice’s potential goals as she appeared Friday on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”
“I think he believes in lower taxes and growth. I think he believes also in the principle of taking care of folks you represent. But I think also that he’s a pragmatist at heart,” Capito said.
Capito said she takes the governor at his word that he shares values with the party he just joined. She said being assured of those values should make decision-making easier for Justice.
“I find as a political figure myself that if you can make decisions that are in tune with your core values, you’re going to be much more forceful and much more comfortable with your decisions.
“I think the governor decided he is much more comfortable with his core values in the Republican Party, where he is going to have much more like-mindedness.”
Justice said he first joined the Democratic Party because he felt an affinity with the basic goal of helping regular people.
But he has said over the past weeks — and in explaining his party-switch decision — that he felt betrayed by legislative Democrats over votes against his preferred revenue plan.
He said that plan would have accomplished many goals for Democratic constituents such as providing for teacher payraises and avoiding some of the program cuts that were present in the budget that wound up passing the Republican-controlled Legislature.
But Democrats objected to an aspect of his revenue plan that would have decreased personal income taxes while also increasing consumer sales taxes. They said lower- and middle-income wage earners would be unfairly burdened by the shift.
Democrats also worried about the potential for deeper holes in coming budget years created by the tax cuts.
And Democrats weren’t alone. House Republicans were critical of the plan and voted against it over and over and over.
Justice said he looks forward to working with the Republicans in the House anyway. He said he found Speaker Armstead more and more accepting of later incarnations of the revenue proposal.
“In the beginning I would have thought that Speaker Armstead was so dug in it was unbelievable,” Justice said.
“Speaker Armstead sat in my office and said this: ‘If you would have told me a year ago that I would be out trying to promote an increase in the consumer sales tax to 6.35, I’d have said ‘you’re crazy.’ But he was. He was. He was trying. He was really trying.”
Senate Republicans favored the plan because they wanted the income tax reductions. Without income tax changes, the Senate Republicans said, the alternative would have to be budget cuts — which is what wound up passing.
Justice said the Democrats, in the minority in both the House and Senate, take the blame because they didn’t recognize the upside of his proposals.
“The minority party can sit back and say ‘We’re in the minority. What can we do?’ That’s what they did, exactly,” Justice said.
“My point is just this. I’m not willing to go back through the same process again. I’m not willing to sit countless hours with the Senate and (President) Mitch Carmichael and Speaker Armstead and finally get enough support on that side and then go over to the Dems side when everything we were doing would have benefited the constituents of the Dems and have them just dive in the ditch.”
— Justice, in his news conference, said he had not spoken with state Republican Party chairman Conrad Lucas.
“I have not. In fact, if Conrad was sitting right here, I don’t know that I would know Conrad. I have not spoken with him.”
Lucas today acknowledged the frequency of Republican Party criticisms against Justice over the first six months of his term. He said the party will try to make the relationship work now.
“Obviously we’ll not be sending out any more of those. His transgressions were as a Democrat,” Lucas said on “Talkline.”
— Justice reiterated in his news conference that he wants to bring the Legislature back in for another special session.
“I want to call them back in, and I want to call them back in immediately,” he said.
There are two issues he wants to address. One is a state income tax exemption for military veterans living in West Virginia. There is broad support in the Legislature for that concept.
The other is a 5-percent fee on winning bids for highways contracts with the money diverted to programs to fight the opioid epidemic.
Legislators of both parties have expressed reservations about this plan. Some question the idea’s legality. And some suggest money meant for highways improvements would not go as far.
Justice said the Legislature will come to embrace it.
“I see no reason whatsoever that they wouldn’t be (interested) because the contractors, the people who pay the fee, they were all on board,” the governor said.
— Justice’s staff had been made up of veterans of Democratic Party politics. He said he chose them for their skills, rather than for partisan reasons, and that they are welcome to stay if they desire.
There’s plenty for the administration to be working on.
At the top of the list is working with the federal government to assure flood relief for disaster-struck residents in northern counties. Another is uncovering why the state has been late on required federal audits for three consecutive years and assuring it won’t happen for a fourth.
In the news conference, Justice said everything will be OK even if several staffers leave in short order.
“The train always seems to go on. Do we really believe that by losing a few key members, or really the engineer, me — the train always goes on. And what we’ve got to do is, sometimes it becomes difficult,” Justice said.
“I’m telling you, this train is going to move on and it’s going to go north.”
— Late this afternoon, Justice administration communications director Butch Antolini said any questions by reporters should come through him from now on.
The first contact for the Justice administration over the past few months has been Grant Herring, who came up through the ranks of the national Democratic Party.
There was speculation that Herring left the administration today, but no one was able to confirm immediately.