BLUEFIELD — Harrison County native Woody Thrasher had never run for political office until this year, declaring his candidacy to oppose fellow Republican Gov. Jim Justice for the GOP nomination in the 2020 election.
Justice is the man who appointed Thrasher to head the state Department of Commerce in 2017, but asked him to resign last year, which he did after 18 months on the job.
Justice cited the lack of progress in the department of commerce’s RISE flood recovery program as the reason he asked for Thrasher’s resignation. That program was created to use federal funds to rebuild homes destroyed by the flooding in the Greenbrier Valley in 2016.
But Thrasher said the request was for “political reasons” and since he left the RISE program fell into “total disarray.”
“I was taken from the position due to the RISE program and was blamed for it,” he said, adding that while he was there everyone in the department did an “excellent job, the best in many years.”
But while he was running the department, Thrasher said he did not like what he was seeing with the state’s leadership and decided a change is needed.
“My time in commerce showed me that we are not destined to be 50th,” he said. “We can absolutely do dramatically better than we are doing. We can create opportunities for young people to stay here if we have good leadership.”
West Virginia remains ranked 50th in best states to do business after three years of Justice’s leadership, he added, after the Governor “assured us we would be on a rocket ship.”
“It’s a lack of leadership at the highest level,” he said, referring to Justice. “That leadership has to be full time and solely focused on the state.”
Thrasher said Justice does not spend enough time in Charleston and fails to work with anybody, even with fellow Republicans.
A problem with Justice’s leadership was exemplified by the teacher pay issue that started three years ago and in early 2018 led to an 11-day strike, he said.
The Governor should have brought people together at the beginning, and sat down and worked out a compromise with all parties involved, he said, including teachers, union representatives and Senate and House leaders and reached a compromise that would have worked.
Thrasher said Justice is not on the Republican Party platform, and opposes right to work and school choice, and fails to create a team around him and focus on solutions.
“There is a real question of confidence in this Governor’s leadership,” he said.
“This year we lost 11,000 residents, the only state to lose people for 20 consecutive years,” and he sees very little from the Governor’s office to change that trend.
“I am a businessman,” he said of his background in starting Thrasher Engineering with his father in 1983, a company that is now the Thrasher Group and has 700 employees with 11 offices in seven states. “We need to apply the same solid financial business practices to state government.”
While Thrasher, a third-generation engineer and WVU graduate, did support Justice’s Roads to Prosperity program “in concept,” he said it is not working.
“A good idea is never enough,” he said. “Following through is the challenge. I was really concerned when he proposed the 30-year bond issue for routine maintenance.”
Thrasher said that is like taking out a second mortgage to clean gutters and do other maintenance.
Even the highway projects that are aimed toward growth, not just maintenance, have not met expectations, he added.
“What was advertised and what is being delivered are two separate things,” he said. “They are dramatically different than when they they were being promoted with the bond issue.”
A local example of that is the King Coal Highway project in Bluefield, an almost $60 million project to extend the highway 3.8 miles from the Christine West Bridge to Airport Road. But the connection will narrow down to two lanes after the bridge and most of the extension will be two lanes, not four.
Thrasher said it will it be a “bottleneck” that was an expectation not met, and projects are also going over budget. As a result, “we are not going to do as many projects.”
“The state is investing a lot of money and our kids are going to be paying for it,” he said, adding that those investments should bring a return. “We had better make sure that is good investment with a good rate of return.”
Economic diversity is needed to revitalize the state, he said, and that includes more dollars for tourism, a growing industry that needs to be “supercharged,” and the state has to stop throwing money in areas that will not grow.
“Nobody wants to make hard decisions,” he said. “They want to give everything to everybody.”
The state cannot afford to make “false promises. The key is to do what is in the best interest of the state.”
That includes helping build communities by investing in infrastructure, like broadband, initiatives he said he would push hard.
Small towns are the “heart and soul” of the state, he said, a big part of the state’s culture, and need to be focused on for revitalization.
Thrasher said there is no “magic silver bullet” for it, and some of it is about changing the image of the state and have mechanisms in place that attract businesses.
“We can shoot for the stars,” he said. “But we can swing and try to get on first base. Hitting a single for tourism is a great place to start to diversify our economy.”
The state is full of beauty and things to see and do, he added.
“Bluefield is a good example of that,” he said, praising the efforts of Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett and Mercer County Visitors and Convention Bureau Executive Director Jamie Null for their tourism efforts.
He also said border counties like Mercer have been hurt by state tax policies. “Border counties suffer to a much greater extent. They obviously lose business across the state line because of higher taxes. We have to find a replacement for the loss of those funds … we have to find ways to provide relief.”
Thrasher said he has a long track record of creating strong companies and jobs, adding that the Thrasher Group helps keep young people in the state and the average age in the company is 35.
The company also developed the White Oak Business Park in Bridgeport and that meant a $350 million investment that has put 3,000 people to work.
But in order to make sure they have the opportunity to stay, a lot of work has to be done, including an effort to restore pride in the state.
“We need to have leaders who people respect and look up to and present a positive image for the state,” he said. “I don’t believe our current Governor is any of those things. We need someone who comes to work every day and brings in really good talented, really smart people. We should be looking up to our leaders, not embarrassed by them.”
Thrasher said transparency also has become a problem under Justice’s leadership as information that could formerly be released at several different levels of government now has to be funneled through certain state sources first.
“When I was at Commerce, we were no longer allowed to talk to the press,” he said. “Not a single cabinet secretary had the liberty and latitude to talk to the press. We had to have it approved. Are you kidding me? These people are running huge organizations and you can’t trust them to talk to the press?”
Thrasher said that reveals that the “overall atmosphere with this administration is that they want to control the narrative.”
“Whenever you control the narrative, it tells me you don’t want the truth to get out,” he said. “What’s wrong with transparency? Truth is truth and they want to control what truth is. That’s not good for our state. It’s not going to get us where we want to go.”
Thrasher said his travels around the state over the years have given him the opportunity to be exposed to the topography, the people and the towns.
“I built my company driving 58,000 a year in West Virginia in every nook and cranny trying to generate work for the company,” he said. “I know West Virginia more than anybody you will ever meet or know,”
What he has seen with the economy and population loss has not been positive.
“If I look around the state only three communities have grown since I started my company,” he said. “Most are either stagnant or in decline. It’s troubling to see the direction the state is heading.”
Thrasher, who, as Justice did, recently switched from a Democrat to Republican, said the possibility of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) running against him, if both are nominated for their respective parties, does not concern him.
“It doesn’t make a bit of difference to me,” he said. “Joe Manchin is a really good politician and I have known him all of my adult life. But we did not see the state change dramatically for the good when he was Governor. He should’ve done the job when he was here.”
Although Thrasher has not yet started raising funds for his campaign, that will begin this fall.
“I am funding my own campaign right now,” he said, adding that he first wants to travel around the state and introduce himself to everyone.
“I want to show people I am a viable alternative, that I can win this office.”
Thrasher said he has been to a dozen GOP events so far but has not yet asked for the state GOP’s support.
“I think people are eager for somebody who going to represent their party,” he said.
After Thrasher finishes his tour of the state this summer, he will begin fundraising efforts.
In the meantime, it’s on to another stop, he said, introducing himself and getting out his messages.
One of those messages is that if anything is going to get accomplished, everyone has to work together.
“It’s a team effort,” he said. “It takes a village.”
Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org