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Meet Jim Justice, West Virginia's Answer to Donald Trump

The businessman is running for governor on the Democratic ticket as a charismatic outsider who's campaign is based on restoring pride and fixing a broken economy. And he might win.

by Donovan Farley
Aug 18 2016, 5:30pm

Jim Justice is presenting himself as a break from politics as usual in West Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Jim Justice wants to make West Virginia great again. The six-foot-seven, 300-pound businessman is the state's version of Donald Trump, an outsider who stormed through the Democratic gubernatorial primaries, speaks with the cadence of a Southern preacher, and talks about broad themes that go well beyond ordinary politics. He's a huge figure, both literally and metaphorically, and appears to have a very good chance of becoming the governor of what's probably the most embattled state in the union.

This is Justice's narrative, which is hard to argue with: West Virginia is experiencing a crisis of spirit. Drug addiction is rampant. The risks of contracting hepatitis C and HIV have spiked. Around a quarter of the state's children live below the poverty line. The coal-based economy has been in free-fall for years, and recently the state has been hit by devastating floods and vicious political squabbling in the legislature. National politicians habitually ignore the state and are seen as being out of touch—a relatively unknown protest candidate took 9 percent of the Democratic primary vote—so it's unsurprising that Justice's campaign has been less about specific policies and more about restoring West Virginia's damaged sense of hard-nosed pride.

"I'll tell you the story of a man named Bob I met at the Greenbrier," Justice tells VICE, referring to a resort he owns. "He grabbed ahold of my hands with tears running down his face and said, 'I'm 87 years old, and I just wanted to thank you Mr. Justice, for making me feel proud to be a West Virginian again.' It's just like we've been depressed and beat down and are expected to know our place—which is 50th in the nation in everything coming or going. I don't buy that! The people here are too good, and there are too many opportunities."

Justice runs upward of 50 companies, and mostly made his fortune in coal, but his most impressive and visible accomplishment is arguably the revamping of the Greenbrier Resort, which he purchased after it filed for bankruptcy in 2009. At the time, it listed its debts at more than $500 million, with assets of just $100 million. Justice rehired around 650 resort employees laid off by the previous owners, gave them vacation and health benefits, and offered a 10 percent raise across the board if the hotel regained its fifth star—and the Greenbrier is, by all accounts, now a world-class resort. Justice opened the Greenbrier's doors to the people affected by the recent floods, providing free shelter and food; he points to the Greenbrier as a point of pride for the state, which he says should get far more tourism than it does.

"I believe our state spends just a fraction on the promotion of tourism that we should," Justice says. "We have so many activities for tourism where people could just flock to West Virginia. But we have to fix our roads; we have to promote ourselves better... Why in the world couldn't the next Dollywood or Disney World be in West Virginia?" As governor, he says, "I would be working to land the next theme park... or to have people come down to Harper's Ferry or the Hatfield and McCoy trail or the four-wheeler trails. People in Philadelphia and New York and Chicago—they don't have a clue what West Virginia is all about."

For now, however, the coal industry unquestionably reigns supreme in the state. The fossil fuel has long been derided by Democrats and the left as a toxic pollutant, but it's also been the backbone of the West Virginian economy. Justice, given his background and politics of the state, is not "ready to throw in the towel" on coal, but he admits the state needs to diversify its energy strategy. Natural gas, timber, and water could and need to play a bigger role in the state, and Justice thinks West Virginia could use its abundance of each to become an energy hub. (Justice has previously said that the state would mine "more coal than has ever been mined before," but he seems to have backed off that utterly ridiculous stance.)

When I spoke with him, Justice sounded the usual Democratic notes on energy policy, but in an interview with the Register-Herald, a newspaper based in Beckley, he seemed to be flirting with outright climate change denialism, saying that until we have "accurate data there's no need to blow our legs off on a concept" and that "a lot of scientists" say climate change is "smoke and mirrors." While it's not surprising a West Virginian coal baron would say something like that, those statements are still troubling.

Justice's campaign is short on science, but long on economics. To hear Justice tell it, there's nothing that can't be solved by a rising West Virginian economy. He wants to "get our coal miners back to work" while exploiting the state's other natural resources like gas, oil, timber, and water. He thinks that the state's rampant drug problem would be lessened if more people had jobs and the confidence, hope, and pride that would come with them. This is his "care theory," the feel-good-y idea that if believes in and invests in his constituents, they'll believe and invest in each other.

"You know, the boss has got to really care for the employees, and then it starts to get a little tougher," he says. "The employees really have to buy in and care for the boss, and then it goes one step even further and works to start to make it mandatory that the employees care for one another.... You got to have somebody at the top who really believes in and loves our state. And then you've got to have everyone buy in."

Justice has been criticized for being delinquent on his taxes and being sued by many people he owes money to, charges that he waves aside just as Donald Trump has done with similar allegations. Justice has also been involved with fights with environmental regulators over the state of some of his mines. But none of this has slowed him down—there isn't much reliable polling in his race against his Republican opponent, the state Senate president Bill Cole, but one Justice campaign–financed poll gave the businessman a ten-point lead.

It's a bit surprising that a Democrat would be in the lead in West Virginia, a state Trump is expected to win easily. But Justice shows what it takes to win over voters here—when they don't trust politicians, the only way to attract them is to come from outside the system.

"If at the end of the day what happens is it doesn't work out and I happen to lose, I'll of course be sad—but I'll be OK," Justice says. "But our state won't [be OK] if we continue down the path of electing politicians; we will all die ranked 50th. I 100 percent believe that."

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