Jim Justice, Mitch Carmichael, and bad blood

There was a time when it was believed that Gov. Jim Justice and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, were close. After last week, I’d say those days are very much over. How that plays out for the Republican Party’s control of most of state government in 2020 remains to be seen.

Both are at odds with one another over disagreements with the state Senate’s Student Success Act that passed the Senate on June 3. The new education reform bill includes a broad public charter school provision, which Justice has not expressed support for in the past. The Senate also passed an education savings account bill, which Justice doesn’t like either.

That grew into Justice criticizing Carmichael at a town hall and leaving him off the list of special guests for his June 20 West Virginia Day re-election fundraiser with Donald Trump Jr. Carmichael pushed back, accusing Justice of being an absentee governor and not involved in the legislative process.

There has been a civil war brewing between Justice and Carmichael, slowly building over the last year, erupting into open verbal sparring the Sunday before the Student Success Act vote. Justice caucused with both the Senate Republicans and Democrats.

According to West Virginia MetroNews statewide correspondent Brad McElhinny, Justice expressed frustration at the return of an unlimited charter school proposal, proposed changes to hiring and firing processes for teachers, and the anti-strike provisions (including canceling extracurricular activities, which would impact Justice being able to coach high school basketball).

Responding to the governor’s visits with the caucus and view that the special session was becoming a repeat of Senate Bill 451, the first Senate education omnibus bill that died in February over disagreements over charters and ESA’s, Carmichael had this to say:

“We appreciate the governor’s perspective, no matter how late it’s given in the process,” Carmichael said during a press conference June 3. “People can come late to the game and express an opinion on it that may be perhaps more appropriate early on.”

Speaking with Carmichael further about this Thursday night for another story I was working on, I asked why Justice didn’t just present his own education package if he was worried about the special session falling apart much like SB 451 did.

“He didn’t and he hasn’t pursued any legislation ever,” Carmichael said. “He’s never had a real agenda item other than raising taxes the first year.”

It’s funny that Carmichael brought up the 2017 budget battle, because I largely consider that was when he started to become friendly with Justice. The tax revenue estimates were so bad when Justice took office that he proposed a budget with $450 million in tax increases. As time went on during the 2017 regular session, Justice reduced that number, but it still included numerous tax increases.

The Senate and the House of Delegates were not about raising taxes, instead opting to cut programs. The last night of session, Justice and Senate Republicans led by Carmichael were able to come to a compromise budget that included budget cuts and tax increases. Justice expected Senate Democrats to support his plan. After all, Justice was a Democrat, too, at the time. Instead, they voted against the compromise.

Justice ended up vetoing that budget bill, which he unveiled on a silver platter with cow dung. Two months later, lawmakers crafted a new budget during a special session, which Justice allowed to become law without his signature. He didn’t have many pleasant things to say about Republican lawmakers during the process, but he was always seemed more hurt that Democrats in the Legislature left him hanging as well.

The 2017 budget battle was one of the things that kickstarted Justice’s eventual switch from Democrat to Republican a few months later in August 2017 on the stage of a rally in Huntington with President Donald Trump at his side. He was welcomed with open arms by Carmichael.

“We’re eager to work with Gov. Justice to apply our team’s conservative principles to the executive branch and make a clean break from the status quo that has dominated the previous two administrations,” Carmichael said in an Associated Press article.

Now, I’m going to offer some speculation as to why this relationship has begun to sour between Carmichael and Justice. There were a couple of times when Capitol dwellers believed there was a real possibility that Justice might resign. The first time would have been had the October 2017 Roads to Prosperity bond special election failed. Rumors were Justice would have resigned, seeing that rejection as a referendum.

Carmichael, as lieutenant governor and next in line of succession, would have become the acting governor (oddly enough, lieutenant governor is just an honorary title. There is no mechanism for the next in line of succession to become the governor. He can only act as governor until a special election is held or the next regular election, but he cannot take the actual title).

Speaking of succession, if Justice were to resign for health issues (he has those) or to return to his companies (which appear to be on fire), that would also trigger Carmichael coming downstairs from the Senate to serve as the “Senate President Acting as Governor” (again, he can’t call himself governor. He can’t even legally call himself “acting governor”). Neither of those two scenarios happened, with Justice running a full re-election campaign and dashing any chance of Carmichael getting into the governor’s chair early.

Does Carmichael have any interest in running for governor? I guess we will see, but I would imagine that would strain a friendship with Justice as well.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

COMMENTS