By Stephen Smoot
Over the next several months, statewide media will receive a merciless carpet bombing of political advertisements from individuals vying for various Republican nominations.
Chief among them will be the GOP race for the privilege of challenging Joe Manchin (as of now) for his current seat.
The race pits Congressman Alex Mooney against Governor Jim Justice.
Love him or hate him, and the man inspires a lot of emotions running in either direction, one cannot dispute Jim Justice’s effectiveness as Governor. Few today remember the horrendous chain of holders of that office who ranged from ineffectual to almost criminal. In the pantheon of chief executives over the past century, he sits in the top tier.
Justice’s chief skill set starts with his personal brand. Outside of A. James Manchin, Arch Moore, and Robert C. Byrd, no Mountain State politician has successfully branded themself as effectively as Justice. And none of them ever created a mascot to tag along to each public event.
Justice wields his brand and personal popularity like a sledgehammer to achieve his political goals. He uses an Andy Griffith style to mobilize his base against whatever state legislator or other problem gets in his way. Few have ever used the state bully pulpit so well while using the “aw shucks, we’re trying our best to get it done” approach.
In his time and place, Governor Jim Justice has used his talents to achieve nearly everything he has tried, his signature victory being the Roads to Prosperity billion dollar road bond.
With that all in mind, many currently support him for the US Senate. But is he the best choice?
In 1972, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain brought the Los Angeles Lakers their first world championship. West had proven himself the best guard in the history of the game to that point. “Mr. Clutch” could hit shots from anywhere on the court and defend as doggedly as he scored.
Chamberlain had played most of his career for different Philadelphia squads and still holds the record for most points scored in a game. His 7 foot frame towered over others and he ruled the paint like no other.
As great as both players were, both in their time and in the history of the sport, they still had limitations. You could not put the 6’3 West on the blocks and expect him to perform as well as Chamberlain. Similarly, the grace and power of Chamberlain would be wasted by playing him on the perimeter.
The legislative branch of government is Alex Mooney’s natural habitat. The son and grandson of Cubans imprisoned by Fidel Castro, he represents the beliefs of conservative voters of West Virginia almost perfectly, which is his personal preferred selling point, but not his best one.
Senator Byrd named the secret of his effectiveness in the US Senate, saying in 2005 “I’ve forgotten more about the rules and procedures than most people will ever know.” Above and beyond that, experience and intuition about the different personalities, ambitions, goals, and other characteristics of colleagues helps to elevate a legislator in terms of what he or she can accomplish. Mooney knows the rules and procedures, as well as how to use them.
Mooney understands when to stick to principles, but puts the needs of West Virginia first. In 2015, he broke from his Freedom Caucus colleagues to support the federal highway bill, in part because the funds would help to advance work on Corridor H. Later, he reached across the aisle effectively to craft a bill that removed incentives for doctors to overprescribe pain medication. Through his years of experience working in legislative bodies, he grasps intuitively how to work with others and how to get things done.
In short, Mooney already has the necessary skill set to function in the US Senate and represent West Virginia well.
The Governor has worked very effectively in his role, which is not too different from running a large scale business. The boss wants something done; the boss makes it happen. Working with 100 others in a collegial forum, however, requires different skills, different experiences, and a different mindset.
Could Justice develop these skills as a senator? Certainly so.
But Mooney has already mastered them in the office he has held since 2015.
The best news overall for West Virginia is that no matter who prevails in the primary and general, each major candidate does bring something tangible to the table. Each voter, however, must decide which characteristics and considerations that he or she values above others.
Full disclosure: I worked as Director of Academic Programs under Alex Mooney at National Journalism Center starting in 2011, then as Eastern Panhandle Regional Director for his congressional office from 2015 to 2018.