Reporter’s Notebook: The Commerce hot potato

With Woody Thrasher gone and Clayton Burch sitting as interim boss, all eyes are on the West Virginia Department of Commerce and who might permanently take the helm.

The question, however, is who really wants that hassle right now?

Maj. Gen. James Hoyer is cleaning up the mess at RISE West Virginia the best he can, but the next commerce secretary is going to have to help lift that load. President Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods kicked in Friday and the next secretary will need to salvage the $84 billion deal with China Energy. Plus, there is a whole litany of projects that commerce has left hanging in the wind.

Whoever gets the nod for commerce secretary will have just over two years to turn that department around. It remains to be seen if Gov. Jim Justice will run for re-election in 2020 (or if he can win, considering the most recent numbers from Democrat polling firm Public Policy Polling show the governor with a 47 percent unfavorability rating).

It’s a tall task for anyone, but there are a few names being spread around as possible candidates. Let’s go through a few of them.

Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association and chairman of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council, is one name out there. He has certainly been front and center at the Capitol and around the state pushing legislation to make West Virginia more business friendly. His organization, BIC, has spent time and money trying to get business-friendly candidates elected to the Legislature. His work with both groups gives him a well-rounded portfolio.

But some see Hamilton as a bad influence on Republican leaders. Some blame him for the loss of former Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, who ran for governor in 2016 and lost to Justice. BIC’s support for the road bond amendment is another point of contention among conservative Republicans.

Another possible choice is Tom Willis. If that name sounds familiar to you, he came in fourth in the 2018 primary for U.S. Senate. That’s not bad for a first-time candidate, freshly retired from the West Virginia National Guard with the rank of Major in December 2017. He also gained notoriety when Don Blankenship wore a “Tom Willis for Senate” hat at a debate when Willis missed the threshold for making the debate.

Willis is a businessman, co-owning the Glen Farris Inn in Fayette County. On top of that, Willis has spent the last 20 years as a venture capitalist and real estate developer. He even has experience as a tax attorney. These experiences give him a great deal of knowledge to use when recruiting businesses to West Virginia. Also, being retired from the National Guard, he has worked with Hoyer before, which could come in handy with making RISE work for communities still dealing with homes destroyed by the floods of 2016. Lastly, taking the commerce job would give him valuable state government experience and keep his name in the press should he run for another office down the road.

Speaking of Hoyer, why not him? He’s already acted, in essence, as the commerce secretary. He has decades of experience leading people and running large bureaucracies. He has already made great strides turning the RISE program around. Rumor has it he has considered retirement. I’m told he has even given thought to a run for governor, though I couldn’t tell you what party he is right off.

Finally, another name mentioned for commerce secretary is Bray Cary, senior adviser to Justice and formerly a media mogul in West Virginia. He was president and CEO of West Virginia Media Holdings from 2001 to 2016, when he sold his TV stations to Nexstar Broadcasting and his business newspaper to NCWV Media.

Obviously retirement didn’t suit him. Despite using his Sunday public affairs show to attack Justice during the 2016 campaign and donating to the state Republican Party, he become an unpaid volunteer (or “intern” as Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, dubbed him), then later a part-time employee of the governor’s office.

Even though Justice already has a chief of staff in former state Sen. Mike Hall, Cary appears to be making all the decisions, including firing staff members. I don’t think Cary will take such a public position though. Cary enjoys his position as adviser, which gives him a good deal of power, but a certain amount of anonymity. It’s good to be king, but sometimes better to be the guy who whispers in the king’s ear.

Justice will need to pick someone soon, so that projects and opportunities don’t fall through the cracks.

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