Trump looms large as West Virginia GOP leaders squabble
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — In a state where President Donald Trump’s name is still gold, Republican leaders are fighting in a public and caustic way over who’s his best friend.
On one side, Gov. Jim Justice says he and Trump are “bound at the hip.” On the other, Senate Republican leaders argue the governor has sided with teachers’ unions and against Trump.
At stake, in addition to political clout, is a multifaceted education bill that promotes charter schools, among other things. GOP Senate leaders are backing it and Trump’s education secretary has enthusiastically endorsed it, but support from Justice has flagged in the face of teacher unhappiness.
The fight over who can out-Trump the other in a state where the president enjoys widespread support has led to damaging criticism, infighting and a call by one GOP lawmaker for Justice to resign.
“The governor is just on the wrong page with this and he’s making a fool out of himself by trying to get the Trump administration to say they’re not for things and policy initiatives that they’ve been for in every other state,” said Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael.
Justice said he wants to steer clear of any drama but maintains that Trump will have his back.
“For President Carmichael to suggest in any way that the president of the United States, President Trump, is going to side with the Senate versus siding with me no matter what we come up with is preposterous,” said Justice.
Carmichael’s push for charter schools and, in a separate bill, education vouchers has caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has pressed for such measures. Carmichael said DeVos cold-called him to ask what she or Trump could do to help advance the policies. A day or two after the conversation, she fired off a tweet urging the state’s top officials to pass the bill.
“West Virginia has an opportunity to improve education for all & put the needs of students first. Looking forward to seeing bold moves to offer robust options like charter schools & ESAs and support great teachers. Let’s get it done @WVGovernor, @SenCarmichaelWV & @SpeakerHanshaw!,” she tweeted on May 31.
While bolstering the bill’s supporters, the tweet also drew criticism from opponents who decried what they saw as interference from outside the state.
For Justice, whose reelection campaign is being led by current and former Trump staffers, DeVos went “way over her skis.” He said the tweet came as a shock to both him and, likely, the president, despite her well-known stance on such proposals and Trump’s public support for similar measures in other states.
The proposal has drawn strong opposition from teachers’ unions and recently brought dozens of educators to the Capitol in protest as the Senate worked through the bill in a special legislative session. The governor has said Senate leaders misled him by suggesting the bill had bipartisan support.
Sen. Craig Blair, a Republican who chairs the chamber’s powerful finance committee, called for Justice to step down in a newspaper piece titled “Jim Justice is Neither Democrat nor Republican - He’s a Narcissistic Opportunist.”
“Our state deserves a leader who will improve our schools, fix our roads, and work with President Trump’s administration to grow our state’s economy,” Blair wrote. In an interview, he said he plans to introduce a resolution of no confidence in the governor, a step some GOP committees in the state have also approved.
“He’s doing a disservice across the board,” Blair said.
Justice was elected as a Democrat in 2016 but announced he was switching his party affiliation at a Trump rally the following year. He said Democrats “walked away” from him and argued that the change would help him at the White House. Trump carried West Virginia by a whopping 42 percentage points in 2016.
The feud between Republicans comes at a particularly complicated moment for Justice.
Last month, the U.S. government sued nearly two dozen of the governor’s coal businesses over roughly $4.8 million in unpaid mine safety fines. Separately, three federal subpoenas sent to Justice’s administration have recently become public.
The first subpoena to emerge was sent to the state Department of Commerce for documents about a posh resort owned by the governor. Two other subpoenas sought records from the state tax and revenue departments about the governor’s businesses.
Democrats in the House of Delegates, which is set to reconvene next week to debate education, have called for the special session to end. House Minority Leader Tim Miley this week left a letter at the governor’s office saying the process “has turned into chaos.”
Justice said he doesn’t want to abruptly end the session because he wants lawmakers to approve a pay raise for teachers.