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Justice, Thrasher make pitches to West Virginia’s business community

Gov. Jim Justice welcomes attendees of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Annual Meeting. (Photo courtesy of the WV Governor’s Office)

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — While it wasn’t exactly like pitching the investors on the hit TV show “Shark Tank,” two Republican candidates for governor with two distinct business brands had an opportunity to pitch the state’s captains of industry on why they should be governor in 2020.

It was the 83rd year for the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Meeting, held traditionally at the Greenbrier Resort — the posh hotel purchased by Gov. Jim Justice a decade ago when rail company CSX was about the sell the historic property to Marriot.

Justice, who switched from Republican to Democrat and won election as governor in 2016, is the owner of well over 100 companies, from various resorts, agricultural enterprises, to coal mines coal support services. He is worth more than $1.4 billion dollars according to Forbes magazine.

Woody Thrasher, the former Commerce Department secretary who switched from Democrat to Republican last spring to challenge Justice in the Republican primary, co-founded the engineering firm the Thrasher Group with his dad 36 years ago. He took the millions he made from that company to start a new economic development project in the Clarksburg/Bridgeport area.

Both share a kinship with the members of the chamber, and while both stayed fairly unpolitical in their addresses during the Annual Meeting, Justice and Thrasher were both trying to impress a group of people whose support could be crucial going into the 2020 primary.

Businessman and Republican candidate for governor Woody Thrasher speaks during the CEO Spotlight during the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Annual Meeting. (Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce)

KNOW ME BY MY WORKS

Justice welcomed attendees to the Annual Meeting on Wednesday not by going into his business acumen. Instead, the governor chose to welcome the attendees.

“I thank you because you are the engines. You are the ones that really make it go,” Justice said.

There are plenty of stories out there about Justice’s business issues, including a federal investigation into what was once known as the Greenbrier Classic and the non-profit that runs the golf tournament. Justice’s companies have had to pay millions in back taxes in multiple states. There are also several state and federal civil cases filed by vendors and individuals accusing Justice’s companies of owing them money.

Justice didn’t specifically address these controversies but said attempts to throw his mistakes as a businessman back at him was the price he pays for serving as governor.

“Along the way it’s been mentioned that this job or these jobs of our political leaders are difficult. They are,” Justice said. “You can catch more vile than you can ever imagine.”

Instead, Justice turned to his job performance as governor. He takes credit for turning a nearly $500 million deficit when he took office in January 2017 to a $511 budget surplus at the end of fiscal year 2019.

“Along the way away after the inauguration, they hand me a set of books and they said, ‘governor, here’s where we are for six straight years, we’ve had cut budgets. We have an absolute deficit. It’s beyond belief.'”

Since then, the state has been able to invest more in tourism, education, and road construction. The state has seen the phase-out of taxes on veterans’ retirement, senior citizens, and the reduction of tax on coal used for electrical generation. Justice also appointed new conservative justices to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

Still, with all the good news about tax revenues, Justice left attendees with a note of caution.

“I would warn you that we can slip back. We ought to always be on the lookout,” Justice said. “Our July numbers didn’t come in very good. August is going to maybe be halfway, but it’s still struggling a little bit. We’ve got to really be businesspeople. We got to watch and that’s what I promise you that I will do.”

WE MEAN BUSINESS

Woody Thrasher addressed attendees the next day during a CEO Spotlight session. Calling his talk “Opportunity Abounds: It’s Not Rocket Science,” Thrasher focused on lessons learned from starting the Thrasher Group and the White Oaks Business Park in Bridgeport.

While Thrasher stayed above politics in his presentation, his statements to attendees paralleled with his comments about Justice in the campaign trail. Thrasher has criticized the governor’s last minute plans for secondary road maintenance to the new Downstream Jobs Task Force Justice announced Wednesday at the Annual Meeting.

“You have to have clear goals. What’s your vision of where you want to be and what do you want to achieve in life,” Thrasher said. “We should have a clear goal and it doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be fairly simplistic. I believe that goal should be something like let’s change our state into one that is respected by his peers, our neighboring states, and the people that live there.”

Speaking more specifically after his morning speech, Thrasher singled out Justice’s new task force, which will look at ways to bring natural gas crackers and the long talked about Appalachian Storage Hub to life. Thrasher said Justice was once again reacting instead of identifying natural gas as a priority early and creating a plan at the beginning of his term.

“I don’t think the governor has paid any attention to the oil and gas industry, and specifically the petrochemical industry which clearly was identified as the greatest opportunity West Virginia has going forward,” Thrasher said. “Unfortunately, I think it’s another knee jerk reaction that we see our governor demonstrate when he sees problems and a knee jerk reaction to address them. And I think this is just another and a continued series of those types of reactions.”

Thrasher said there is an easy way to distinguish between his business history and Justice’s. Thrasher and his father built their business from scratch to where it is today, versus Justice who inherited his wealth. The Thrasher Group employs more than 700 people, while White Oaks serves more than 3,000 workers.

“We started from nothing, and we did it by being entrepreneurial in the way we went about it. And if you look at my, my companies, we have started from nothing. I have never not had growing companies. I’ve never had companies that were in decline. We’ve established substantially good reputations as far as being able to keep people employed, to pay our bills and to do all the sorts of things that you expect successful businesses to do. So, I think there’s a significant contrast between the two.”

THE ART OF THE DEAL

The attendees couldn’t help but notice Justice and Thrasher’s brands during the three-day Annual Meeting. Walk the halls of the Greenbrier and you’ll see pictures of Justice and maybe even a cardboard cutout of the big-and-tall governor. Thrasher’s company was a gold sponsor of the annual state chamber event and was a physical presence the entire event.

It remains to be seen how much sway either candidate had, but Justice and Thrasher gave business leaders much to think about as the May 2020 primary looms closer.

Steven Allen Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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