The scene is a deserted Great Hall of the State Capitol. Governor Jim Justice and Senator Joe Manchin slowly approach each other from opposite ends.
Anxious Capitol employees warily sneak a glimpse from the side entrances to the hall. The only noise is the footsteps of Justice and Manchin. They stop, just a few feet from each other, eyes fixed, until Manchin breaks the silence.
“I’m surprised to see you at the Capitol. You should come here more often,” the Senator says, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
Justice pauses for what feels like an eternity and finally responds: “Now Joe, Little Jimmy is in charge now and I’m just tryin’ like the dickens to clean up your dog mess.”
Then both Justice and Manchin say simultaneously, “This state ain’t big enough for both of us.”
(Fade to black. Find out what happens in episode two on Netflix.)
Justice and Manchin are big men — literally and figuratively. They dominate state politics. And, although they once played on the same team and enjoyed each other’s support, they are now rivals, set on a potential collision course in 2020.
Manchin has a list of grievances with Justice: Manchin backed him for Governor and then, after the election, Justice switched his party registration from Democrat to Republican. Justice fired Manchin’s wife, Gayle, as Secretary of Education and the Arts. Justice refuses to live in the Governor’s Mansion, opting instead to commute from his home in Greenbrier County.
But Manchin is most upset over what he perceives as Justice’s unwillingness to dedicate as much time and effort as he did to being governor. “He just won’t work,” Manchin said recently on Talkline. “Doesn’t show up for work. You can’t run the state from The Greenbrier. That’s just not the way it works, and you lead by example.”
Manchin’s most recent criticism was triggered by Justice laying blame for the horrible condition of the state’s roads on Manchin’s tenure as Governor. “Back in the Manchin administration we disarmed ourselves,” Justice said, referencing Manchin’s decision to sell off Department of Highways equipment and contract the work out to private companies.
Then during an appearance on Talkline, Justice delivered what is the ultimate slight to any elected official—he called Manchin a slippery politician. “I’m not a politician. You know that,” Justice said. “For crying out loud, Senator Manchin is the slickest guy in the history of the universe. He can give you all this slick stuff. I can’t do that.”
Manchin is working behind the scenes to oust Justice in the 2020 election. That could be in the form of a challenge from Manchin himself. He loved being Governor and believes he can make more of a difference in Charleston than in Washington. But he is also shopping around to see if there are other viable candidates to take on Justice.
West Virginia is a small state, and there are only a handful of real political players. Often those players dodge public disputes. Unspoken political truces avoid a high stakes game where there are winners and losers.
However, the gauntlet has been thrown down between Manchin and Justice, and just like those showdowns in old western movies, there’s no backing down now.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.