Gov. Jim Justice today addressed his earlier comment that he might not welcome former President Barack Obama to West Virginia, saying he was referring to Obama’s energy policies rather than his race.
Justice made the comment near the end of a Wednesday news briefing, tossing out what seemed meant to be a throwaway line about the country’s first black president at the same time there are nationwide protests over systemic racism.
Today, Justice said his comment was not intended to have racial connotations but instead was a reference to how the energy policies of the Obama administration affected coal markets in states like West Virginia.
“President Obama as a person is welcome here. But President Obama’s war on coal is not welcome here,” Justice, a businessman with significant coal holdings, said today.
Justice said his intent was not racist, making general references to relationships with black people.
“I would surely hope and pray that anybody that knows me would know there’s not a racial bone in my body,” the governor said.
“And from the standpoint of people casting stones in that regard, that’s just terrible. It’s ridiculous because that’s just not me in any way. If people only knew my extended family and all the African-American people that I associate with and that I take care of, families that I take care of and people, individuals, kids that I take care of and that I’m in communication with every day almost.”
Justice, a high school girls basketball coach, sparked controversy earlier this year after a fracas with an opposing team when he called them “thugs.” The businessman whose holdings include The Greenbrier resort has contrasted his life more than once with Kunta Kinte, the slave character in “Roots.”
Justice generated an uproar at midweek by suggesting any president would be welcome in West Virginia but one.
The governor had taken a call from President Donald Trump in the middle of Wednesday’s briefing and was describing his efforts to pitch West Virginia as a replacement site for this year’s Republican National Convention.
“I wanted him to know just how welcome he is in West Virginia,” Justice said of Trump. “And any president, you know, we should absolutely welcome all but — maybe not Barack Obama. Nevertheless, we’ll welcome any president.”
The governor often describes his close relationship with Trump. Justice was first elected governor as a Democrat but then announced he was switching to be a Republican during a 2017 rally with Trump in West Virginia.
Not long after the governor first made the comment, his administration put out a statement that he was referring to the Obama administration’s coal policies. It questioned the intent of those offering criticism.
“After a few politically-motivated individuals began questioning the tone of the comment, Governor Justice provided clarification that the remark was made specifically in regard to the effect that the Obama Administration’s War on Coal had on the West Virginia economy from 2008-2016.”
In addition to a social media storm, Justice did draw criticism from other candidates in the upcoming election.
Mary Ann Claytor, an African-American running for state auditor, was among those who objected to Justice’s comments.
“I don’t always agree with your policies, but I would never tell you that you are not welcome in my home,” Claytor, a Democrat, said in comments directed at the governor.
“Whether your statement was made jokingly or not, it has ramifications to the young children that were inspired by President Obama’s election. It’s apparent that during these troubled times, we need a leader who stands for all of us, and not against us.”
Democrats vying to face Justice in the general election put out statements on social media, taking exception to Justice’s comment.
Candidate for governor Stephen Smith‘s statement on Jim Justice’s remarks: pic.twitter.com/rKFQnqAYBh
— WV Can’t Wait & Stephen Smith for Governor (@WVCantWait) June 3, 2020
At a time when West Virginians are looking for unity and leadership, yet again, Jim Justice demonstrated that he’s out of touch. Whether it’s calling student athletes thugs or singling out the first African-American president, one thing is clear: we need new leadership.
— Ben Salango (@BenSalango) June 3, 2020