Gov. Justice, Thrasher Spar Over Lack of Debates, Release of Inmates
CHARLESTON — With the primary election less than two weeks away, the campaigns of Gov. Jim Justice and former Commerce Department Secretary Woody Thrasher heated up Tuesday over the issue of debates and over TV ads critical of the state’s release of several inmates over coronavirus concerns.
Justice, during his Tuesday coronavirus briefing at the State Capitol Building, was asked by the Associated Press about why he has resisted calls for debates with Thrasher and other Republican primary challengers. Justice said his focus has been on the state’s coronavirus response.
“It’s not a matter of resisting,” Justice said. “With all the stuff I am doing every day, why in the world would I be taking time away from what I’m trying to take care of here considering all those facts and do something political? I don’t even know where my political office is downtown right now. All I am trying to do right now is take care of West Virginia. If that’s not good enough, it’s not good enough, but I think it’s a waste of time.”
Justice has been leading the daily coronavirus briefings with reporters and live-streamed to the public since March 11, leaving the election in the hands of his campaign staff. Ads and mailers have focused on his Roads to Prosperity highway construction program, growth in employment pre-coronavirus, support of gun rights and pro-life stance, appointing a conservative state Supreme Court, and his friendship and endorsement by President Donald Trump.
Justice said Tuesday that any debate with Thrasher or any of his Republican opponents in the race would hurt Republican chances for elections in November and keeping the majorities in the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates.
“The only thing that can happen from a debate is damage the Republican Party, damage us in a situation where we are going to be running in a general election to win and keep the majority in the Republican Party,” Justice said.
Ann Ali, campaign manager for Thrasher, accused Justice of ducking debates to avoid having to explain his record over the last three years since Justice took office in 2017.
“Where I come from, we take responsibility for our actions and we fight our own fights directly,” Ali said. “We welcome the opportunity for Woody Thrasher to stand on a debate stage and directly address the reality of what’s happened to West Virginia since Gov. Justice took office. Facts don’t lie, but Jim Justice does.”
Justice, the coal magnate and owner of the Greenbrier Resort, is seeking a second term after winning in 2016 as a Democrat. He switched parties to Republican in 2017 at the urging of Trump. Thrasher, an entrepreneur and engineer, co-founded the Thrasher Group in the 1980s with his father. Thrasher served as Justice’s Commerce Secretary until forced to resign in 2018. Switching his party registration to Republican, Thrasher filed to challenge Justice for the Republican primary in March 2019.
Thrasher has recently hit Justice with TV ads critical of the release of nearly 70 inmates in March by the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety to ease overcrowding in prison to avoid a spread of the coronavirus. Inmates released included parolees serving short sentences due to parole violations and work-release inmates already eligible for weekend furloughs which were extended by two weeks.
Justice said Tuesday that his campaign filed an election complaint with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office regarding the ad, which states that he approved the release of a convicted murderer. According to state code, it is a crime for a person to make or publish any false statements regarding any candidate that would affect the results of an election. If convicted, punishment includes up to $10,000 or up to one year in jail or a combination of both. The Secretary of State’s Office is prohibited by law of confirming or denying any complaint or investigation.
“My opponent is running an ad right now that is a bald-faced lie,” Justice said. “We’re entering a complaint today that is a criminal complaint. We knowingly know that they know that they’re running an ad saying I’m releasing prisoners and stuff who are criminals. It’s the God-awfulist lie in the history of the world.”
One of the parole violators released in March was Michael David Day, who was convicted in 2003 as a 17-year-old of first-degree murder and conspiracy in the death of Gerald King, Jr. in Cabell County in 2002. He was released on parole on Jan. 22, 2018 and reincarcerated on Jan. 27 for a parole violation. He was released on March 27 after serving on graduated sanctions after 60-day for first-offense parole violation.
However, according to records released by DMAPS, Day had previously been incarcerated twice for parole violations. He served 106 days at the Western Regional Jail starting Dec. 19, 2018, after violating parole. He served another 28 days starting July 19, 2019 for his second parole violation, making his Jan. 27 incarceration his third time in jail for parole violations.
According to a clarification from DMAPS, Day’s first incarceration for parole was not part of the graduated sanctions due to pending charges in Ohio for drug possession and possession of a firearm. After the charges were dismissed, Day’s original parole was reinstated. Day’s second parole violation for 60 days was reduced to 28 days for good behavior. His third parole violation for 120 days was reduced to 60 days for good behavior.
Day’s name was originally included on a list of prisoners released as part of the coronavirus de-crowding of prisons and jails, though DMAPS has said Day’s name was included by accident. Speaking by phone Tuesday afternoon, Thrasher said the fact that this wasn’t Day’s first time in jail for parole violations confirms the validity of their ad.
“It totally contradicts it,” Thrasher said. “it almost makes you wonder if they’ve gone in and tried to cover up the real records…when they say that everyone was going to be released anyway and it was an accident, he was put in there, they’re not telling the truth.”