My Millionaire Can Beat Up Your Billionaire

Over the next 12 months, expect to see a pretty epic race between Gov. Jim Justice and former Department of Commerce secretary Woody Thrasher.

I predicted in December that Thrasher was thinking about getting in, though I had no way of knowing which party he’d pick. I knew he was a Democrat and thought that maybe he was being recruited by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who’s people largely control the state Democratic Party.

It appears that the Thrasher campaign is bringing together some unlikely allies. Acting as advisors for Thrasher are Tom Susman, the president of TSG Consulting, a former Democratic Party lawmaker, and official in the administration of former Gov. Bob Wise; and Conrad Lucas, a lobbyist, the former state Republican Party chairman, and two-time failed candidate for U.S. House of Representatives.

Thrasher might appear as a breath of fresh air to some. He’s a businessman like Justice, and though he may not have Justice’s billions, it’s probably safe to say that Thrasher has made millions since he co-founded the company with his father in the 1980s. As near as I can tell from what research I’ve done, Thrasher doesn’t have the same reputation for not paying vendors or fines, unlike Justice.

Yet, Thrasher shares a few of Justice’s handicaps, including the sudden switching of political parties. Justice ran for governor in 2016 as a Democrat, then switched to the Republican Party in 2017 at the behest of President Donald Trump. With the recent handful of no confidence votes by county Republican executive committees and the college Republicans, Justice still hasn’t convinced some Republicans he’s on their side.

Thrasher, however, also just switched parties from Democrat to Republican in March. There isn’t much evidence that Thrasher has done anything but support Democrats. I get it.

As much as some progressives like to label big businesses and corporations as conservative or right-leaning, businesses tend to be more pragmatic. Democrats had control of the state for much of the last 100 years, so naturally it made sense for business leaders to court Democrats. The tables have turned, so many of those same business leaders have had to cozy up to Republicans now.

But if Justice is having trouble convincing some of the state’s Republican activists, volunteers, and operatives that he’s the real deal, Thrasher will have the same problem, especially with switching parties so quickly before filing.

Thrasher is saying the right things Republicans like to hear, such as supporting the state Right to Work law and legislation to start charter schools (coincidentally the very issues that spawned the no confidence votes in Justice, even though he hasn’t tried to stop the Right to Work case before the state Supreme Court and he has expressed support for a charter school pilot project). But he still has a long way to go toward convincing Republicans that he is the right guy for governor.

Luckily, he has a lot of time to work on his image. Calling into statewide talk radio by speaker phone didn’t leave listeners with a good impression. Same goes for his interview on the Tom Roten Morning Show in the Huntington area. He says he’s not a politician, but he had better become one quick.

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Another issue for Thrasher will be his handling of the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program (that’s a different matter from the FEMA grant abuse that’s also going on right now). Thrasher, as leader of the Department of Commerce, was in charge when the contracts with the consultants and construction firms came under scrutiny, causing the pause.

Thrasher, when asked at the Charleston press conference for his campaign, didn’t see any problems and believes that if Justice hadn’t paused the program, we’d have more rebuilt and renovated homes than we do right now. Yet, various audits found those contracts were all illegally entered into.

I’ll be speaking to Thrasher at some point this week about RISE, so I’m looking forward to getting answers on these issues.

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With the two wealthy party-switchers in the Republican race, that leaves former Berkeley County delegate Mike Folk as the only pure-blood Republican in the race. There’s still plenty of time for another candidate with Republican bona fides to get in the race, but this distinction gives Folk an advantage that Justice and Thrasher can never have.

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