The Billionaire Democratic Governor Who Hunts With the Trumps
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he could be the change the beleaguered state of West Virginia needs.
With his weighty 6′7″ frame hunched over, Jim Justice pulls out his flip phone, cuing the self-deprecating Luddite jokes. He scans the old-school device until he settles on sharing a single text: a response to a birthday message he sent to Eric Trump, a regular hunting buddy and Donald Trump’s second son.
This isn’t the first time West Virginia’s new governor has made clear the ties that bind him to his doppelgänger five interstate hours away and down Pennsylvania Avenue. A little over a week after the historically divisive election in November, the Justice team sent out a press release extolling a 15-minute congratulatory phone call between the two billionaires. “I have a pathway to the White House, and it’s really unusual for West Virginia,” Justice tells OZY. The 65-year-old billionaire, who made his money in coal, farming and — wait for it — real estate, is well aware of the easy-bake comparisons to President Trump, although Justice notes with a chuckle, “Donald is probably a little bit more egotistical than I am.”
— Eyewitness News (@wchs8fox11) November 20, 2016
Justice’s cheery, aw-shucks campaign is a key part of his mission to put the Mountain State back on the map after an election in which the national media focused mostly on its declining coal jobs and rise in opioid addicts — or related deaths. “We have our unemployment, our struggles, our poverty,” Justice says, before adding that his state is also full of “craftsmen, faith-based, appreciative and good people.” Like Trump, Justice was long apolitical, switching parties (in his case, from red to blue) shortly before announcing his run for office in May 2015. The decision, one political scientist tells OZY, was both practical — his opponent, Bill Cole, was already pegged for the Republican nomination — and inspired by the influence of Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose staff populate Justice’s campaign and, now, administration. (A spokesman for Justice said the Governor is non-partisan, “just wants to transform West Virginia” and “is the furthest thing from a political ideologue.”) Both billionaires also campaigned as outsiders who espoused contrary opinions and were critiqued as being full of thematic points and yet thin on specific policy proposals.
But there were some key differences with their approaches too. Justice rarely muddied himself with insults, nor was he plagued by the ghosts of previously spoken lewd remarks or fresh allegations of sexual assault — you won’t see him tweeting against enemies, real or perceived. The multi-industry mogul’s pitch is as a sunny, unsullied dealmaker (he has claims to around 50 businesses now and ran over 100 companies before he was sworn in) who’s able to champion West Virginians powerfully. His willingness to consider new tactics has some local influencers optimistic. “He’s going to throw long balls,” says E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, the largest employer in the state thanks, in part, to its hospital system. “Rather than doing the typical government thing — you come in, you cut budgets — he’s thinking about an investment strategy.”
Key to understanding Justice’s Hail Mary policy agenda is knowing that branding is essential. He sees a national reputation tarnished — beset by job loss, languishing life expectancy and substandard technological infrastructure. But Justice also sees opportunity in the state’s expansive natural resources; it’s the third-most-forested state in the nation, has natural gas ready to be tapped through fracking in the Marcellus Formation and it’s in relative proximity to major cities such as Pittsburgh, New York City, Chicago and, of course, Washington D.C. “Two-thirds of the nation is within a stone’s throw of us,” Justice says. He wants to boost agriculture by transforming closed mines into farm lands and then discovering (and marketing) a “niche crop” for the Mountain State — as Georgia did with Vidalia onions or Idaho with potatoes. Another potential bonanza? Loggers could form an epicenter for furniture manufacturing rather than shipping “our valuable woods to factories in Mexico and China,” Justice says with Trump-like flair.
To assess how Justice plans to govern, it helps to examine the seeds of his political career, which began in earnest when he purchased a statewide point of pride that had fallen into disrepute.
At times, it seems like Justice takes cues from Trump’s playbook, relying on a strong ad campaign to denote (or, critics would contend, substitute for) quality. The second plank on his plan to increase agricultural jobs is to promote “Almost Heaven” products — a marketing ploy playing off a famous lyric describing West Virginia by folk singer John Denver — aimed at getting consumers to think of the state’s products as “pristine and clean.” To assess how Justice plans to govern, it helps to examine the seeds of his political career, which began in earnest when he purchased the bankrupt Greenbrier Resort for $20 million in 2009. The statewide point of pride had fallen into disrepute, but Justice used his connections and capital to renew it, and he brought additional business by having it host sporting events, including a summer training camp for the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA. He used the national spotlight of events like the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic to speak loquaciously about the Mountain State’s merits in television spots – boosting the profile of the state and himself. Looking back, he recalls the time an 87-year-old man approached him at the golf tournament a few years ago. “Big tears running down his face, he says, ‘Thank you for making me feel proud of who I am: being a West Virginian.’ ”
Of course, that folksiness has invited criticisms of oversimplifying complex problems. “He was running as a cheerleader of the state,” says Scott Crichlow, chair of the political science department of West Virginia, “but it’s a fairly weak governor position.” The West Virginia legislature only needs a simple majority to overturn vetoes, and Justice’s biggest challenge will be harnessing his break-the-system rhetoric into effective policy. Yet the task of crafting white papers and position platforms was largely outsourced to WVU thinkers after Justice’s victory in November. Then there’s a comparison to Trump that Justice is less keen on: that he, too, has been accused of stiffing his contractors. “I don’t think he’s the businessman people make him out to be,” says Elkview native Katelyn Campbell, a Truman scholar and community activist. “He doesn’t pay his debts and he’s probably going to get away with it because it’s not politically salient to try to collect from your governor.” (A spokesman for Justice said “of course he wanted experts from WV’s colleges and universities to submit ideas” and that he wouldn’t comment about allegations from contractors, noting they “had been addressed during the campaign.”)
On one of his rare nights off, which tonight happens to be at Greenbrier East High School in Lewisberg, Justice holds court with a girls’ basketball team he has led since 2000 (he recently won his 1,000th game and plans to continue coaching through the state playoffs). During timeouts, he wheels his rolling chair onto the court, wearing an all-blue suit jacket over a blue dress shirt. A well-meaning parent tries to hand him a water bottle with a minute left and the score close, but Justice hurriedly waves it off: “No, no, I’m good.” Justice says his experience coaching basketball informs his politics too: “Really and truly, you play to your strengths and stay away from your weaknesses.”
But speaking in the locker room after the win, it’s another story that seems even more elemental to Justice’s mindset. When he was 18, his father called him into his office after a job went sour. “Dad, there wasn’t anything I could do,” he said. Suddenly, Justice remembers, the “entire desk exploded” — and his father, an agriculture scion, lunged and grabbed Jim by his shirt. As a now-white-haired Justice tells the story, he doesn’t seem disturbed by the jarring act, especially following an optimistic political campaign that, at times, verged on saccharine. Instead, he speaks admiringly about his father while repeating the man’s words from that day: “There’s always something you can do, and you better damn well always remember that.”