Gov. Jim Justice isn’t sure if he will debate his opponents about who would be the best governor.
Asked during a Friday news briefing about a possible debate, Justice said he has been busy responding to health and economic issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t really know,” Justice said.
“To be perfectly honest, I hate to say it, but we’ve just not done much work, you know, in regards to the campaign stuff. I’ve got a headquarters downtown. I’ve never been there. You know, I just haven’t done any work as far as the campaign.”
He acknowledged that his campaign has put out commercials, but said “I’ve had very little dialogue with them and everything. And like I’ve said over and over, whether you like to hear it or don’t like to hear it, my job is this pandemic and looking out for West Virginia, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
West Virginia’s Primary Election Day is June 9. The incumbent governor is among nine Republicans registered to run in West Virginia’s Primary Election.
Justice has been having daily, one-hour video briefings to describe his administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Justice, running as a Democrat in 2016, participated in one primary debate against opponents Jeff Kessler, a former state Senate president, and Booth Goodwin, a former U.S. attorney.
Justice also took criticism then for skipping some debate opportunities.
“If you want to be the leader of this state, you ought to have the guts to stand on a stage before the people of this state on a multitude of times and tell them why your ideas and visions are the best for the state of West Virginia,” Kessler said in 2016.
Justice twice debated former Senate President Bill Cole, the Republican nominee for governor in 2016.
Today, Justice took renewed criticism from Republican opponents about debating.
“Absolutely I think it’s important to the voters to have a debate. I think the three main people should be on stage,” said Mike Folk, a former Republican delegate from Berkeley County who is among the candidates running for governor.
Folk said he understands the state’s chief executive needs to be attentive to the coronavirus response.
But he also said the way the chief executive handles that response is an issue that should be up for public consideration.
Folk said the main reasons for Justice’s stay-at-home order were to “flatten the curve” of virus spread and to be sure hospitals would not be overrun.
In recent weeks, Justice has switched to a “Safer-at-Home” order, which has led to incrementally easing restrictions. But Folk contends the original premise has gotten lost.
“So if the premise for closing down everything was don’t let the hospital get overrun, why don’t we open up? Why do we continue to violate people’s property rights?” Folk said in a telephone interview. “I think we’ve gone too far.”
Folk also has objected to the way Justice and his advisors have sometimes described the virus.
“I just don’t think fear is a good way to get people to do the responsible thing,” Folk said. “And I think the governor has used way too much fear.”
Woody Thrasher, a businessman and former state Commerce Secretary in the Justice administration, also said the governor should be willing to defend policies to other candidates.
Thrasher said his campaign asked Justice to participate in three debates in a Feb. 7 letter, before the campaign really hit. Folk was also invited and accepted.
“This pandemic has rightly taken Gov. Justice’s focus from some of his personal dealings, but if he had responded to my Feb. 10 letter asking to participate in a series of debates, this wouldn’t be an issue today,” Thrasher said today.
“He touts transparency while muzzling our press every day. What else is he hiding? West Virginians deserve a true debate among the candidates to hear firsthand why we just can’t trust Jim Justice to stick to his word, play by the rules and put our state first.”