With Governor Jim Justice flipping political affiliations to the Republican Party, Democratic stalwarts are now calling for everything from a change in leadership within their party to putting out an all-points bulletin on finding the party’s identify.
What many in the party agree on is that there is a need for change. And recent elections would confirm that. In a state that was once controlled by Democrats, now, not only do Republicans own majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates, not only do they occupy all but one state constitutional office, not only do they own a 4-1 share of the congressional delegation, they also have the governor’s office.
West Virginia University Associate Professor R. Scott Crichlow, said in his view, the switch – announced by Justice at President Donald Trump’s Aug. 3 rally in Huntington – leaves the party leaderless and divided.
At the rally, Justice criticized Democrats, saying he felt they walked away from him during the special budget session this spring. At a press conference the next day, Justice said his decision to switch affiliation was a strategic move to advance interests of West Virginians.
Jeff Kessler and Booth Goodwin, who were handily beat by Justice in the Democratic gubernatorial primary a year ago, said they believe the party has turned away from itself and has since lacked direction and leadership.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley, however, said he doesn’t think the switch amounts to much in terms of defining the Democratic party. He said no one person defines a whole party.
Following Justice’s announcement, many Democrats expressed shock and disappointment in his decision. West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore called the switch a “slap in the face.” Some, like Goodwin and Kessler, criticized leadership under Biafore and called for a change.
According to The Associated Press, Paul Moya, a Democratic Party executive committee chairman from Greenbrier County announced his resignation on Facebook, saying Justice’s change was indicative of weak party leadership at the state level.
Crichlow said he wasn’t surprised Justice switched parties, but was surprised the change came so soon after being elected.
“The way people tend to work is, by the time you’re Justice’s age, you know yourself pretty well,” he said. “You have the values you have. To be in that position in life and switch parties, it’s not shocking that that didn’t stick.
“He had decades of life putting him in a certain mind frame,” Moya said. “It’s more his natural place to be, so that’s not surprising at all. What is surprising is to do it soon after he was elected. To do all the campaigning, to take money from the Democratic party, to act from a Democrat inside the Legislature and just so suddenly give up on it is fairly surprising.”
Crichlow said the West Virginia Democratic party has separated itself from the national party, pointing out that in the Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders handily won the state over Hillary Clinton.
“It leaves the party saying, ‘What are we?’ They’re not Republicans, but not national Democrats. So what does that mean? You have a lot of people trying to define that, but it’s hard to define what that is.
“Of course, you have some saying they should be like the national Democrats with the working class and economic messages,” Crichlow said. “Whatever the reason, they’re not gaining control of the party. …It leaves the party in a position where it is in a constant state of trying to find itself.”
He said he thinks the split in the party is here to stay.
“You have people in the party who are trying to maintain the Southern Democratic approach, but there are other people in the party looking toward Bernie Sanders, maybe not the whole thing but focusing on parts such as the working class, education for more people and focusing on parts to a more middle class populist message versus what is perceived to be a more old-fashioned message on their side.
“I can easily see the fight continue in the next few years,” Crichlow said. “It doesn’t seem like any faction is going away any time soon.”
Goodwin, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said he was not surprised by Justice’s decision, but said he felt it was unfair to voters.
“I was surprised it has taken as long as it had to switch back after having been a Republican shortly before he announced he would run for governor,” Goodwin said. “I do think it’s rather unfair to the voters who actually did vote and place their trust in him for him to turn around and do this.”
Goodwin said he thinks the party switch means something for the party as a whole and called for a change in leadership at the state level.
“Some have said it isn’t fair to blame leadership for Jim Justice and him switching parties,” Goodwin said. “I disagree. This is yet another in a long list of failures in the leadership team over the last dozen years. We lost the House. We lost the Senate. We lost all but one of the Board of Public Works and we’ve lost all but one of the congressional delegation. This is one in a long list of failures of the leadership team since Joe Manchin became really, the leader of the party when he took office as governor. The folks that have been installed and at the helm of the Democratic party has really permitted the party to atrophy.”
Goodwin said he believes a leadership team reflecting Democrat principles here within the state would help.
“I think that they have been out of touch and haven’t listened to what Democrats in this state are really crying out for and they’ve really taken what they know best — to move forward with what they believe rather than reflecting the will of the people and the Democrats in the state.”
He said he believes the party needs to embrace what it is. He said Democrats need to return to a message of embracing issues including employee safety, people having a living wage, closing wage gaps, and providing affordable health care.
“These are the sorts of things the Democratic party stood for and no one is articulating it,” Goodwin said. “They’re running from it, almost.”
Kessler, former West Virginia Senate President, said he feels like it’s time for a change in the top leadership of the party. He faulted leadership for the party losing seats in the Legislature and Congress.
“We are getting killed,” he said. “If WVU goes out and the head coach starts out with an 8-4 season and the next season goes to 6-8, and the next is 4-8, then the next 2-10 and then gets beat 50-0 and you lose to your rival Pitt at a home game, then it’s time to change that coach.
“I think it’s time for a whole different approach and different leadership to lead the party,” Kessler later added.
He said he felt that the Democratic party has run away from itself as well. He said he felt that voters didn’t turn away from Democrats because they didn’t like the message. He said the problem is he felt the Democrats didn’t have a message in the first place.
“We have run from Obama. We have bought into this war on coal. We have West Virginia Democrats which is Republican Lites,” Kessler said. “Republicans hate Obama, so well, we’ll hate him too. At the end of the day, under Obamacare, 200,000 people now have insurance that they didn’t before. Why are we not beating the drum reaching out to those 200,000, saying we’re the party that gave them health insurance and get them to the polls? If half show up, it’s hard to lose with a 100,000 lead.”
“But we ignore it,” he said. “We don’t even bring up Obamacare. We don’t even want to be identified as Democrats. We wonder why party affiliation and party support is declining? State leaders are refusing to stand with their party and embrace their identity and explain their platform. Instead, we run from it like a scolded dog.”
Miley, said he was not surprised in Justice’s decision nor was he offended by the party switch. He said he does not believe the switch does or should affect the party as a whole.
“When I hear people pinning their hopes and future on any political party — not just the Democratic party but any political party — on one person, then the problems are much deeper than any one person or a handful of people,” he said. “I think during this past legislative session, Justice proposed some policy matters that many of the Democratic party opposed but were forced to bite their tongues because they didn’t want to criticize a governor from their same party. I don’t believe anyone should expect such restraint going forward.”
Miley said he doesn’t necessarily see the Democratic party as split but more of a tent encompassing different views.
“Because we have such a diverse population in this country, we have a large diversity of issues and many of those issues fall under the Democratic tent,” he said.
“What the Democratic party can do, both at the state and national level, is focus primarily on those issues that affect the majority of people,” Miley said. “It appears as if too much attention is given to issues that affect an incredibly small percentage of people. The large percentages of people believe they’re being ignored.
“The Democratic party both at the state and national level need to help understand all people and issues being cared about by the party and some concerns serve as common threads among all people.”
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