CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice said Friday that he switched political parties because the Democrats “walked away” from him.
He said West Virginia House Democrats failed to support a tax overhaul he says would have increased the budget and helped veterans, poorer earners, seniors, teachers, miners and people struggling with addiction.
Justice announced his switch from Democrat to the GOP alongside Republican President Donald Trump at a rally Thursday evening in Huntington. Justice said Friday he believes the change also will help him at the White House, where he recently presented proposals for an environmental subsidy for West Virginia’s hardwood forests and a homeland security incentive for Eastern coal mines.
He rejected criticism from Democratic Party officials that he betrayed the party. Democrats once dominated state politics but have lost control of both houses of the Legislature, all three congressional seats and most other statewide elected offices in the past few years.
Justice said it was the 36-member House of Delegates Democratic Caucus whose members turned their backs on him and the people they should have helped.
“I ran as a Democrat and I was real proud of it. And I came here to help. I came here to get something done,” Justice told reporters. “And when it came right to crunch time, the nitty gritty, it was real simple. The Democrats walked away from me.”
Justice said they had enough votes in the Senate and enough Republican votes in the House to pass the budget and tax overhaul but needed the Democrats’ support. The Democrats didn’t like it because it was a Republican idea, he said.
“I can’t move this state forward continuing to run the same play,” Justice said.
Tim Miley, an attorney and leader of West Virginia’s House Democrats, called the governor’s version of events a “myth.” Justice and the majority Republicans in the House and Senate can pass any legislation they wish, he said.
“I would prefer the governor to be honest and simply admit that he likes, he has this weird fascination with, Donald Trump and his family,” Miley said. “He likes them. He wants them to like him. And in order to make that happen he’s trying to be like him.”
Elected as a Democrat last year, the 66-year-old businessman said he received no commitment to enact his two proposals, though the Trump administration has been receptive. Switching parties wasn’t a condition for the positive reception, he said.
“I’ve got the ear of the White House,” Justice said, noting he’d been there twice recently and met with Trump and West Wing staff. “I truly believe being Republican will help me there as well,” he said.
He told Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin the day before the announcement, which the governor kept secret in advance from his own staff, he said. Justice “isn’t changing” and he’s “still going to stand for the common everyday family,” he said.
Justice said he wouldn’t join the Trump administration.
The change leaves Manchin, who faces re-election next year, as one of only two Democratic statewide elected officials in West Virginia, which overwhelmingly voted for Trump. He already faces announced challenges from Republican Congressman Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for his Senate seat.
Manchin, a former governor who endorsed Justice for the office, said he was disappointed by the switch and himself will remain a Democrat.