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An English bulldog named Babydog makes a surprise appearance in a mural on West Virginia history

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The English bulldog had never been featured prominently in West Virginia history. It has now.

Gov. Jim Justice’s 4-year-old pure breed Babydog joined the ranks of Abraham Lincoln, Civil War soldiers and odes to Appalachian folk music in new murals under the golden dome of the state Capitol last week, alongside other state cultural symbols. Tucked into a mural about artistic traditions, the dog sits placidly between a banjo player and an artist painting the Seneca Rocks, one of the state’s best-known natural landmarks, in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.

Babydog made another memorable appearance at the Capitol in 2022, when the governor hoisted her up during his State of the State address and pointed her rear end at the camera. Days earlier, singer and actress Bette Midler, on what was then Twitter, had called West Virginians “poor, illiterate and strung out” after U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., refused to support a bill promoted by President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress.

“Babydog tells Bette Midler and all those out there: Kiss her heinie,” Justice said to a standing ovation from the crowd, which included state Supreme Court justices and members of the Legislature.

Justice, a Republican now running to succeed Manchin, has made Babydog a minor celebrity in West Virginia during his two terms as governor.

The star of the governor’s “Do it for Babydog” COVID-19 vaccination campaign, the dog was a gift from Justice’s children in 2019. Referring to her lovingly as a “60-pound brown watermelon,” Justice has taken the dog on gubernatorial trips across the state ever since. He extols Babydog’s ability to bring people joy and he raves about her fondness for Wendy’s chicken nuggets. The dog, more often than not, sits panting quietly beside him in her signature chair.

So far, Justice has been playing innocent about Babydog’s appearance in the murals, which were commissioned as part of an effort to finish work inside the Capitol that started and then stopped during the Great Depression.

“I was just as surprised, in my ways, as anyone,” he said Wednesday during a news briefing. “Really and truly, I wasn’t a party to … putting Babydog in the mural.”

Justice said a committee led by Randall Reid-Smith, secretary of the Department of Arts, Culture and History, made the call.

“They wanted to put a dog in and, well, had to pick some kind of dog, you know, so they picked an English bulldog,” the governor said. “A long, long, long time ago and everything before we ever really became a country, the English were in charge, and everything seemed kind of fitting, you know?”

Justice told reporters that Reid-Smith told him the dog in the mural was not necessarily Babydog, but her “20th grandma.”

The owner of the posh Greenbrier Resort and more than 100 other businesses, the billionaire was first elected governor in 2016 as a Democrat. The next year, at a rally with then-President Donald Trump, Justice announced he was switching parties.

In May, Justice easily beat U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney in the Republican Senate primary. Justice’s campaign has included the sale of merchandise emblazoned with his dog’s face, such as “Paw-litical Strategist” beverage coolers and “Re-Pup-Lican for Justice.”

His Democratic opponent in November, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott, does not find Babydog all that funny. Elliott said he saw Justice later on the day the mural was unveiled, at another arts event to celebrate a new statue of the state’s first governor, Arthur Boreman, in Wheeling.

“In his remarks, he spoke at length about his own dog and said nothing about Governor Boreman,” Elliott wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “This total lack of respect for anything beyond himself is why he is wholly unfit to represent West Virginia in the United States Senate.”

Asked about Elliott’s criticism, Justice had this to say: “Tell Glenn to get a life.”

West Virginia’s limestone state Capitol was designed by the renowned Cass Gilbert, the architect behind the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington. Gilbert’s original design for the interior of the West Virginia Capitol, left incomplete because of limited funds, included murals that he said should “be historical and allegorical.”

The “Shiveree of Seneca Rock” piece featuring Babydog depicts Seneca Rocks, a majestic 900-foot Tuscarora quartzite formation, along with important aspects of West Virginia industry and culture, including glass blowing, craftwork, music, dancing, painting and wildlife.

The tiny image of the dog was not included in initial designs shared with the public, nor was it mentioned at the dedication. Babydog did attend the June 20 event, where she sat on a camper chair after being hoisted up by Justice staffers.

It was not until afterward that people started noticing the bulldog in shots of the murals shared on social media. And there was not much debate about whose dog it was.

Reid-Smith said at a news briefing this past week that he had been working for years to get a governor to invest in completing Gilbert’s vision and that Justice was the one who finally made it happen. So far almost $350,000 in state money has been paid to Connecticut-based installers John Canning & Co. for the first four murals, with four more scheduled to be installed this fall.

“The only involvement that Jim Justice had in these murals is he gave us the money to pay for these murals that had not been done in 92 years,” Reid-Smith said Wednesday.

Babydog’s ancestor was not the only addition to the painting after the artists’ designs had been shared with the public.

The murals originally did not contain any African Americans, and Reid-Smith and the rest of the mural committee, mostly Justice administration staffers, decided that needed to be rectified. They added a depiction of a Black man talking to a Union soldier and tweaked the initial renderings to make more visible the Harper’s Ferry Armory, where the abolitionist John Brown took refuge during his raid on the town in 1859 after inciting an anti-slavery revolt.

Reid-Smith said an elk, a cardinal and other animals were also added to the murals.

Leah Willingham, The Associated Press