Jim Justice reminds us of Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff, you will recall, made appearances in several of Shakespeare’s plays. He was a comic character — fat, buffoonish and untrustworthy. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, for example, Falstaff spends most of his time blustering, drinking with petty criminals and being foolish with local women. But there was always something likable about Falstaff.
West Virginia’s own Falstaff has announced he is running for the U.S. Senate. This presents season ticket-holders for the theater of West Virginia politics with a hard choice: is this comedy or tragedy?
Call me old-fashioned, but I still hope the personal character of candidates for office matters to voters. Here are some aspects of character. Doing what you say you will do, without making excuses later about why you didn’t. Having some guiding moral and ethical principles, not just personal gain. Telling the truth, even when to do so is costly. Treating other people with respect, especially those less fortunate than you.
Justice switched political parties from Democrat to Republican at a Trump rally in 2017. A number of Democratic politicians have switched parties recently, especially in heavily red states. This suggests that the move is driven by a desire to be re-elected rather than a true philosophical conversion.
But the timing of Justice’s switch was remarkable. He had just been elected Governor as a Democrat, gladly accepting campaign contributions from supporters who were promised he would actually be a Democrat. A candidate with character would have made the switch in time for voters to assess what it meant for them.
Much has been written about the failure of Justice’s business ventures to pay their bills. In 2019, Forbes magazine called him “the deadbeat billionaire.” This disrespect is totally justified. Justice-owned companies have left a trail of unpaid workmen and contractors, mine reclamation obligations, mine safety fines and tax obligations. A federal judge has just found three companies controlled by the Justice family liable for six years of UMWA pension premiums.
Sure, there are other family members involved in the management of these companies. But a promise is a promise. If Big Jim wanted these promises to be kept, they would have been. That’s what happened when four Eastern Kentucky counties had to sue Justice companies for $2.4 million in back taxes — the bad publicity forced Justice to pay up.
Falstaff as Governor
In a stroke of campaign brilliance during his run for Governor in 2015, Justice’s billboards asked West Virginians this question: “Tired of Being 50th?” This referred to West Virginia’s perpetual dead last rating on measures of social well-being. Hell yes we’re tired of it, and lots of people voted for Justice for that very reason.
Sadly, West Virginia hasn’t changed much since Justice became Governor. Here are our rankings in 2023 on some important metrics: labor force participation (50th), drug overdose mortality rate (50th), average teacher pay (50th), obesity rate (50th), life expectancy at birth (50th), per capita income (49th), infant mortality (47th), availability of broadband internet (44th), teen pregnancy (42nd).
Justice doesn’t get all the blame. While he has been Governor the Republican Party has held a super-majority in the Legislature. They have no political excuse for failing to address these shameful numbers. Instead, they are more interested in protecting gun rights, launching school choice boondoggles that sap public school resources, and telling women what they can’t do with their own bodies.
The U.S. Senate
It is hard to have a more important job in this country than U.S. Senator. Issues of huge importance are decided in the Senate. It is presumed to be the legislative body possessing the mature judgment of the nation. Sometimes, but rarely, it has been the home of buffoons and grifters.
One colorful member of of both the House of Representatives and the Senate in the early republic was John Randolph of Roanoke. He was regarded as one of the more brilliant and formidable legislators of his time. Randolph was often accompanied on the House floor by a pack of hunting dogs.
If West Virginia and the nation have an ounce of good fortune left, Jim Justice will not have the opportunity to bring Baby Dog onto the floor of the United States Senate.