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Justice reframes remarks made about former president Obama

CHARLESTON — Casual remarks made by Gov. Jim Justice about whether former president Barack Obama would be welcome in West Virginia continued to reverberate Thursday as the governor attempted to clarify his comment.

Justice spoke Thursday about remarks he made after President Donald Trump called him in the middle of his Wednesday coronavirus briefing, which caused a social media uproar and caused him to walk back his comment Wednesday night.

“I would surely hope that anyone who knows me knows that there’s not a racial bone in my body,” Justice said Thursday morning. “From the standpoint of people casting stones in that regard, that’s just terrible.”

Wednesday morning, Justice was giving his daily coronavirus virtual briefing with reporters when Trump called. Justice took the call while Dr. Clay Marsh, the state coronavirus czar, answered another reporter’s question. Later in the briefing, Justice was asked why Trump called.

While Justice couldn’t comment on all the contents of the call, part of the call was letting the state know that it likely wouldn’t be the next site for the summer Republican National Convention. Trump and Republican officials are considering moving the convention to another state, such as Florida, Texas or Georgia. The original site of the convention in Charlotte, N.C., likely won’t happen due to coronavirus limitations put in place by the state.

Justice said he just wanted to make sure Trump knew he was welcome in West Virginia. Trump has visited the state several times during his first term, including six times in 2018. Trump family members have also visited the state on several occasions. According to Morning Consult, Trump’s approval rating in the state as of February was 61 percent.

“He wanted to call me and let me know it looks like we’ll go another way, but I wanted West Virginia to at least be on the radar,” Justice said. “I wanted him to always know just how welcome he is in West Virginia. And any president we should absolutely welcome all, but probably not Barack Obama.”

Justice laughed after saying that, but for some it was no laughing matter.

Social media quickly grasped onto the comment, which some said was poorly timed in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man, after a Minneapolis police officer allegedly held his knee against Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, has since been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter while three other officers were charged with aiding and abetting. Since Floyd’s death, the country has erupted into peaceful protests and violent riots.

“At a time when our nation is facing increased tensions due to ongoing discrimination against fellow Americans, it is unacceptable for Gov. Justice to suggest that (Obama) is unwelcome in the Mountain State,” said Belinda Biafore, chairwoman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, in a statement.”

Obama, the nation’s first black president, was elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, though not with the help of West Virginia. He lost both the 2008 Democratic primary and general election in West Virginia, first to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, then to the late U.S. Sen. John McCain.

In 2012, Obama won the Democratic primary, but lost 40 percent of the vote to Keith Judd who ran from his Texas prison cell after getting on the West Virginia primary ballot. Obama lost West Virginia in the general election to current U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Obama’s approval ratings in West Virginia were frequently some of the worst in the country, according to Gallup.

According to 2008 Democratic primary exit polling by The New York Times, two in 10 white voters said race was a factor in their decision to vote against Obama. But Obama was also hurt in West Virginia by his Environmental Protection Agency’s stricter regulations on the use of coal for electrical generation, often simplified as the war on coal.

Justice, speaking Thursday, said his comments about Obama were not because of his race, but because of Obama’s policies toward coal. A coal operator himself, Justice said Obama’s coal regulations nearly put the state out of business.

“My comments about President Obama had nothing to do with the man. The policies of the Obama administration nearly destroyed West Virginia,” Justice said. “If I can’t be critical of that, then we’re not being fair. I have no problem whatsoever with the man. My comments had nothing to do in any way with skin color. My comments had everything to do with policies.”

Earlier this week, Justice decried the death of George Floyd and expressed his support for the multiple peaceful protests in cities across the state. One large protest being planned for Sunday at the Capitol has Justice’s blessing, though he encouraged participants to maintain social distancing if possible and wear masks.

“I absolutely welcome their voice being heard,” Justice said. “We want people to show and have their rights of free speech.”

Justice received criticism earlier this year after he called members of the predominantly black Woodrow Wilson High School girls basketball team “thugs” after a fight broke out between an assistant coach for Woodrow and a fan of the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team. Justice, the coach for Greenbrier East, made the comment in an interview after the game that had multiple foul calls and resulted in the Woodrow team leaving the bench.

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