The only real political outsider in the governor’s race this year, Jim Justice might also have the most statewide name recognition. Outside the political arena, Justice has built empires in coal, agriculture and tourism, and with that, a reputation for getting things done.
Worth more than $1.5 billion, Justice has become a household name in the region after his 2009 purchase of The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs. Justice’s investment there, $20.1 million, seemed to be at once a bargain and an instantaneous boondoggle when he began losing more than $1 million a week at the historic property.
But from the The Greenbrier Classic PGA tournament and its complementary concerts to the sporting complex that hosts the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Pelicans to his newest venture, a U.S. Open-worthy mountaintop golf course built with the help of golf legends Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Justice has hauled The Greenbrier out of near-bankruptcy into a balance sheet of black ink.
For Justice, 65, it’s go big or go home, and so far, he isn’t thinking about going home. He won’t make many predictions about this year’s political races, but he does have one, perhaps unsurprising prophecy.
“I’m the only one that can beat Bill Cole (the lone Republican candidate for governor),” Justice said. “No matter how much you would like Booth (Goodwin) or Jeff (Kessler), they can’t win.”
His 6’ 7” frame is constantly moving. Justice talks with those large hands in wide and sweeping motions. His mind works much the same way—wide, sweeping ideas that encompass a good deal of reality and a measure of possibility. He is plain-spoken, given to Appalachian metaphors like “18-carat dog mess” and homespun stories that explain, if not define, his love for West Virginia.
It’s a somewhat unrequited love, though. The people who love Jim Justice do so out of friendship and loyalty. His detractors are just as entrenched, pointing out his record of late tax payments and fines in arrears for mining violations.
Justice said he has no plans to default on any of his obligations.
“There’s times I may be a little late getting to the altar, but I will always get there. I’ve never taken bankruptcy, I won’t take bankruptcy,” he said.
Specifics in plan
He’s also been criticized for his lack of specifics in plan and policy on the campaign trail.
Justice’s plan is to play to the state’s strengths, and he says that means coal. The idea he laid out for The Register-Herald editorial board is detailed, fairly simple in its concept, extremely complicated in execution.
The first phase of his idea is to convince the Environmental Protection Agency to give the state a cumulative, weighted limit for carbon emissions, instead of an individual limit for each power plant. Next, he’ll demand that state power plants burn West Virginia coal, and he’ll build four new, smaller coal-fired power plants, along with wood chip plants, in areas where coal and timber will be available into perpetuity and the plants would have no transportation costs. After that, he says he’ll convince utility companies to lower West Virginia rates by 10 percent across the board, while allowing companies to charge what the market will bear for electricity they sell to other states.
And when he, as governor, markets West Virginia as having lower utility costs by 10 percent, he says that businesses will flock to the Mountain State.
“They’d run over top of us to get here,” he said.
Building those four power plants at a cost of $1 billion each and funded through public-private partnerships will put 15,000 people to work, he said.
It’s an idea that addresses some of the state’s other pressing issues — workforce participation, unemployment and perhaps an issue that particularly worries him, drug addiction.
“You’ve got to have treatment facilities,” he said. “You’ve got to give people hope and get them back into the workforce.” Justice said he believes that drug addiction should be treated as an illness, not a crime, but that out-of-state drug traffickers should be punished.
Much of his advertising campaign is a vow that he “won’t give up on coal,” which has been the target of EPA regulations bent on reducing carbon emissions, low market prices and a glut of cleaner-burning natural gas.
“We have to find something about Central App(alachian) coal that makes it environmentally better, then we’ve got to some way convince the EPA and lobby our product back into the marketplace,” he said. He speculates that Central App coal is about one-third as chlorine-heavy as coal from the Illinois basin.
“We need to convince the EPA that chlorine is a pollutant and it’s corrosive as the dickens,” he said. Then the EPA would have to order that chlorine emissions would be held to a level that would mean power plants would have to use more Central App coal in their mix, he said. “We just need them to take a little bit of ours and four-fifths of somebody else’s,” he said.
If Justice has a passion outside of his many business interests it’s coaching Greenbrier East boys and girls basketball teams in his spare time.
Brittany Parker, now 23, played starting forward on Justice’s Lady Spartans 2011 team that made it to the state tournament. Parker, an RN studying for her master’s degree through West Virginia University, said her former coach has always been “a friend and a mentor.”
“He’s never cut a player,” she said. “He thinks everyone deserves a chance — didn’t matter if you were the star of the team or a JV player, he treated everyone with respect.”
Each practice began with teammates sitting down for a conversation. Parker said during those moments Justice tried to instill a sense of responsibility and an ability to look at the future.
“He would teach us something,” she said.
“He said you’ll always have problems, but it’s how you carry yourself and how you deal with them, you can’t feel sorry for yourself,” Parker continued. “I still think back on that today.”
A Republican until early 2015, Justice is a stand-alone candidate who draws support from both major political parties. As a Democrat, he said he won’t campaign with Hillary Clinton, the party’s likely nominee for president.
“I won’t campaign with anybody, especially not someone who is not a proponent of West Virginia in every way,” he said.
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Born: Raleigh County, 1951
Education: BA, MBA, Marshall College (now Marshall University)
Family: Wife, Cathy; son, Jay, 35, daughter, Jill, 31
On the Issues
Budget: “There’s a lot of intricacies going on there that I may not know because I’m not in the inner circle today. But I would tell you just this, one thing we have got to do, you may have to pull money out of the Rainy Day Fund, you may have to cut wherever you can possibly cut, you have to figure out something. This state, for all practical purposes is DOA right now. It’s not in a recession, we’re in a full-fledged depression in a lot of areas in our state. We cannot no matter what anybody says in the world, we cannot cut our way out of this, there’s no way. And I honestly don’t believe, no matter how logical it seems, that we need to tax our people more. I’m so committed I’d find a way. We can’t wait around forevermore for coal to come back, we’ve got to find a stopgap that bridges us to be able to give us a short term amount of time and get those people coming back and doing what I think we ought to do. The whole bottom line to everything is just this...you’re going to have to find a way to grow revenue in this state or we’re going to drift. We’re going to drift more in education, we’re going to drift more in families fragmented all over kingdom come to find jobs. We’re going to drift darker and sadder.”
Running government like a business: “It’s absolutely the same thing. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to get everybody pulling the rope together—Democrats, Republicans, Independents and everything else. I’m a motivator. I don’t believe there’s a mountain of house leaders or senate leaders that are sitting down there that are obstructionists. I believe they want goodness for our state, I just believe they don’t have a clue how to get there, and I believe if you bring to them logical, sound, tested, vetted real proposals, and then ask them to be in the process, then all of us join hands and run across the finish line together and be something. It’s not hard because it’s government.”
The 2016 legislative session: “Tee-total crazy. You’re down there working like crazy to figure out how to have raw milk. It’s nuts. I’m not a believer in passing a right to work law, and the reason I’m not in favor of that is just this, I believe it’s a political bush. It’s not addressing the cancer, it’s not addressing the problem, it’s just a bush. I’m not in favor of doing away with prevailing wage. For crying out loud, why do we need to just continue to take from our people? ... To me it’s political show time, that’s all it is.”
Social Issues: “From a nuts and bolts standpoint, we see exactly what’s happened in Indiana and North Carolina and ... (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) would have been very damaging to our economy. We don’t need to discriminate against anyone for how they feel, for their preference for their beliefs or the way they are. We’ve got enough problems we don’t need to be doin’ that. That’s back to raw milk. That’s crazy to me.”
Tourism: “We have got to diversify, we have got to have a lot more. We have to use the fact we are where we are – 600 miles away. I don’t know why we can’t have the next Dollywood here. Instead of celebrating those two airboat jobs that we get down on the New River, which is great, don’t get me wrong, we’ve got to think giant-sized. And then you’ve got to have somebody that can go out and market that to investors.”
Medical or Retal Marijuana: “I really probably don’t, because I really think from a prescription drug standpoint, it’s really out of control and I worry so much that we best better get that under control before we add another thing to the plate.”
Climate change: “Until we have really accurate data to prove (that humans contribute) I don’t think we need to blow our legs off on a concept. I welcome the scientific approach to it and the knowledge. I would not sit here and say, ‘absolutely now, there’s no such thing’ or I would no way on Earth say there is such a thing. I believe there’s an awful lot of scientist that say, ‘no, no, no, this is just smoke and mirrors.’ I welcome the discussion, but I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
Environment: “We should do every prudent thing we could possibly do to ensure we have clean and plentiful water. We are the second most forested state in the country. I think we need to do any and everything we possibly can, within the realm of prudent good judgment to protect our waters and to protect their cleanliness and their abundance.”
Broadband: “From a broadband standpoint ... everybody is dialed into middle mile. I think we’ve got to dial into last mile, because last mile is really what will make the difference and drive jobs and drive opportunity and people have to have the opportunity. In three words, the buzz words, ‘high-speed connectivity.’ Those are the words that matter.
On governing: “We’ve got to quit trying to look after our own special interests and quit beatin’ on one another. For cryin’ out loud there’s enough people on the outside beatin’ on us. We’re in a real mess and we’d all better get behind the car and be pullin’ the car. And I’d be right down in the mud with ‘em, and pullin’ the car, and that’s how I would lead.”