CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia teachers want Gov. Jim Justice to know they are not dumb bunnies.
“He underestimates us. He underestimates us. He doesn’t think we’re as smart as we are,” said Melissa Turley, a middle school teacher in Logan County. “To refer to us as dumb bunnies just shows us that he’s not very smart.”
At recent rallies at the Capitol, teachers from all over the state have worn bunny ears. This past Friday, someone wore a full-on bunny costume.
It’s all a reference to a comment that Justice made during a Feb. 6 town hall event in Logan County, when he was addressing educators and trying to encourage them to stay in classrooms and not strike.
Justice had described changes meant to stabilize the Public Employees Insurance Agency. And he said teachers should be patient, accept a pay raise averaging 1 or 2 percent and believe West Virginia’s economic picture will turn around.
At the end of his introductory remarks, Justice said he has made public education a centerpiece of his administration and noted that he has a teaching certificate.
“I am absolutely all in on education. All in,” Justice said. “I’ve been there, I’ve shown it, I’ve said judge me by my deeds.
“Now if you choose to respond to somebody that’s a politician that’s running through the streets that didn’t stand with you any more than I can fly through the sky then you’re being dumb bunnies. If you stand with somebody who absolutely has shown how much he loves you, I won’t let you down.”
“Dumb bunny” is part of Justice’s vocabulary. He called himself a dumb bunny during his most recent State of the State address when he realized forgot to introduce Supreme Court justices.
“And I — just as I glanced this way, I just — I thought, well, how — what a dumb bunny am I? We’ve got all of our Justices here,” Justice said.
The phrase also came up last year as he campaigned for a road bond package.
“If you don’t pass this roads thing, we will be cursed forever as being dumb bunnies,” Justice told a crowd just a couple of days before the statewide vote on the road bond.
The dumb bunnies theme has taken on a life of its own during the teachers strike, though. A whole section of the crowd at a statewide rally outside the Capitol last Saturday was dressed as bunnies.
“We’re voters and he needs to see that we mean business and this is to show who the real dumb bunny is for not supporting PEIA,” said Danielle Harris, a Fayette County teacher who rallied at the Capitol with a sign that featured an image of Justice with bunny ears.
One day at the Capitol last week, someone even brought a dog with bunny ears. And a costumed bunny was at the front of the Senate chamber on Friday, rallying with chanting teachers. A companion costumed figure was dressed as a bear, a reference to Justice’s occasional description of himself as a grizzly bear.
Last week, several teachers from Logan County — where Justice made his comment at the town hall — were dressed in T-shirts describing themselves as “Dumb Bunny Club.” They also wore the signature bunny ears.
“Who wants to be called dumb bunnies?” said Brittany Slazo, a middle school teacher in Logan County.
At least 5,100 teachers poured into the Capitol last Thursday. About 4,000 were estimated to have been inside the Capitol on Friday.
West Virginia teachers and service personnel have called for the statewide walkout to continue this Monday, so more large crowds are expected at the Capitol. Others will be protesting outside their local schools.
“I participated in the strike in 1990, and at that time we stayed out until it was solved — although I was anticipating the rolling walkout, which I’m fine with as well,” said Machelle Seibert, a teacher in Randolph County.
“It’s very hard for teachers to not be with their kids in the classroom. We wouldn’t be doing this if it were not crucial.”
Justice was elected as a Democrat in 2016 with solid support from teachers unions.
That affinity seems to have worn off.
“Because he’s a liar, a backstabber,” said Turley, one of the teachers who wore bunny ears last week. “He won’t be in office again.”