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Dems furious, Northern Panhandle GOP shrugs at West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s party switch

By Ian Hicks

The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va.  — West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said it will take more than a party switch to repair the strained relationship between Gov. Jim Justice and the GOP-controlled Legislature.

West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio
(Photo by Perry Bennett, West Virginia Legislative Photography)

During President Donald Trump’s rally in Huntington, Justice announced he will change his party affiliation today from Democratic to Republican.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, welcomed Justice’s announcement, Ferns — whose public feud with Justice during this year’s legislative session included Justice referring to himself as a “grizzly bear” and to Ferns as a “poodle” — said only time will tell what the governor’s defection will mean for the state.

“If it doesn’t change his behavior, his policies that he promotes, and quite frankly his staff, he’ll be a Republican on paper only,” Ferns, R-Ohio, said of Justice.

News of Justice’s anticipated announcement broke Thursday afternoon while Ferns was on a plane to Charlotte, N.C. Ferns said after getting off the plane he turned on his cellphone to find numerous messages — but he wasn’t entirely surprised about Justice’s about-face, noting rumors had been swirling around Charleston for some time.

Ferns pointed to Justice’ push for as much as $450 million in higher annual tax revenue during this year’s session. Justice ultimately allowed the 2018 budget passed by the Legislature to become law without his signature — which included no major changes to the tax code but did increase Division of Motor Vehicles fees.

“He’s got a staff full of Democratic Party loyalists,” Ferns said of Justice. “His chief of staff is the former Democratic Party chairman, Nick Casey. … If he continues to promote the same big-government polices, his changing parties doesn’t mean anything other than he’s interested in his own self-preservation.”

Ferns has some experience with switching party affiliations.

He, too, made the switch from Democrat to Republican in November 2013 while a member of the House of Delegates. At the same time, he announced his ultimately successful bid for state Senate.

But that’s where the parallels stop, according to Ferns.

“I can say that I was always a conservative. Democrats and Republicans alike considered me a conservative. … They knew that despite my party registration, I had conservative values,”Ferns said. “When I changed parties, it didn’t change a lot for me.”

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said he’s not sure how much will change about the relationship between Justice and the Legislature after the governor’s party switch. But he said he does find the timing of his announcement distasteful.

“I would just say the portable circus in West Virginia continues,” Fluharty said. “While the Northern Panhandle is dealing with severe flooding and our entire state is suffering from an opioid crisis, we’re holding political rallies eight months after an election. There was a time when principles guided our leaders. Unfortunately, political wins seem to be guiding our leaders nowadays.”

Fluharty said he hadn’t heard rumblings about a potential switch, but noted he’s been more focused on local recovery efforts after flash flooding in the area on July 23 and again on July 28.

“At the end of the day we need to focus on doing our jobs without playing political games. I’m just tired of seeing the infighting from those who serve,” he said.

Delegate Pat McGeehan’s reaction to Justice’s announcement was simple: So what?

Like Ferns, McGeehan, R-Hancock, pointed to the various budget proposals that were floated during the session that would have increased taxes to balance the budget.

“I like to look at someone’s convictions and their beliefs, and sometimes there’s very little difference between the two political parties,” McGeehan said. “Both parties had no problem with taxing more of my constituents on a declining population with fewer and fewer businesses … so I really don’t care. It doesn’t change my beliefs or my thoughts one way or the other.”

As for whether he expected the switch, McGeehan said, “Nothing really surprises me much, anymore.”

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore called Justice’s party switch “a slap in the face to all of us who believed in what he was promising.”

“Jim Justice said he became a Democrat because Democrats care about people,” Biafore said. “I think we can all guess just who he cares about by his decision today and it’s not the people of West Virginia. … Jim Justice took advantage of Democrats by taking our money and our votes.”


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