WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Jim Justice, the billionaire coal mine operator and owner of The Greenbrier resort, will take over as West Virginia’s next governor come January.
The Democratic candidate, who was recruited to run for office last year by party leaders, defeated Republican Bill Cole, a car dealer and the current West Virginia Senate President in Tuesday’s general election.
Unofficial results from The Associated Press showed that, with 88 percent of precincts reporting, Justice had 49 percent of the vote to Cole’s 42 percent, or 309,380 votes to 269,126.
“Today is the first day of real healing for West Virginia,” Justice said, after starting off his victory speech by feigning a concession speech.
Justice celebrated his victory Tuesday night among a crowd of supporters, ice sculptures and bow-tied servers at the ritzy Greenbrier resort, which he took took over in 2009 and held up as an example of his business acumen.
“I am an absolute believer that we don’t have to divide business and labor,” Justice said. “We don’t have to be at odds with each other over whether you’re rich, poor, black, white, whatever it may be. We don’t need to be at odds with one another whether you be Republican, Democrat, independent. We’ve got too many people on the outside throwing rocks at us, and we have to bond together.”
Justice’s victory was announced even as West Virginia continued its recent trend of becoming more conservative.
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump easily won the Mountain State, and early voting totals indicated the state’s Republican party would maintain control of both branches of the West Virginia legislature.
But even with Trump carrying the state, Cole was unable to ride the billionaire real estate mogul and reality television star’s coattails.
With a hoarse voice after days of campaigning, Cole told a crowd gathered at Charleston’s Embassy Suites that he had given the election everything he had.
“Even though we came up a little bit short tonight, the issues we fought for should not, will not, cannot be given up on or forgotten,” Cole said. “I’ve always believed that public service is about doing what you think is right, and the reforms we advanced are right for West Virginia.”
The election loss means Cole will be leaving state government and the Republican-led legislature, which he has helped lead for the past two years as they passed union-opposed legislation, pro-corporate legal reform and a law that allows people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit.
“Before I came out here tonight, I called and congratulated Jim Justice,” Cole said. “We may have different views on how we can fix West Virginia’s problems, but all of us do share a common hope that we can once again become West Virginia proud and West Virginia strong.”
Facing an increasingly conservative leaning state, Justice ran a vague and conservative campaign, something he was criticized for by Mountain Party candidate Charlotte Pritt, who pulled in more liberal votes across the state.
Justice has shrugged off Republican criticisms that he is part of the “good ol’ boy” system by saying the West Virginia Democratic Party “never had Jim Justice.” On several occasions he pledged to take the state on a “jobs rocket ride” if he is elected governor.
In many ways, the two-major party candidates ran on similar policy platforms throughout the expensive and contentious campaign.
They both called for a crackdown on illegal drugs and expanded drug addiction treatment centers for West Virginians.
They both promised to somehow resurrect coal mining in Southern West Virginia, even though the industry is facing diminished seams of coal, increased competition with natural gas and a world population coming to terms with climate change.
And they both tried to closely align themselves with Trump, who promised economically depressed pockets of the country that he would save coal mining jobs, resurrect steel mills that have been closed for decades and somehow bring manufacturing jobs back.
Cole and Justice did differ on some issues, like the continuing state budget crisis, which is likely to leave Justice with another multimillion-dollar hole to fill next year.
Cole, a small government conservative who has attended retreats held by Republican financiers Charles and David Koch, wanted to “right size government,” by privatizing government programs and cutting agencies’ budgets.
Justice, who ran his campaign less on substance and more on folksy sayings, said during the second gubernatorial debate that he would not raise taxes or cut government programs — the only two ways to directly balance the state’s budget.
He reiterated that point Tuesday night during his speech.
“There are so many opportunities for jobs, jobs and more jobs,” he said. “We cannot possibly cut our way out of this mess, and you can’t tax our people more than they have today. We have got to grow our way out of this mess.”
He instead suggested that he will become the state’s “marketer in chief” and bring in thousands of new jobs to the state. The closest he got to actually explaining how he would do that was by suggesting that he will create more wood manufacturing jobs and attract some type of theme park to Southern West Virginia.
Now that Justice is governor, he will be tasked with finding solutions to the state’s growing list of problems, including underfunded school systems, one of the United States’ least educated populations, continued unemployment and the country’s worst drug overdose rate.
He will also have to answer for taxes that he and his companies have routinely been late in paying in West Virginia, including millions of dollars in coal severance taxes that an NPR report showed his companies were delinquent on.
Lagging severance taxes was one of the major reasons that tax revenues weren’t where they were projected to be last year.
“We don’t need to be 50th. We don’t need to be 50th,” Justice said. “We’re too blooming good.”
In his folksy fashion, Justice said the biggest winner of the election were the grouse, because he wouldn’t be able to hunt as much anymore.
“I’ve got a great bird dog and I sure hope to be able to go some. But the grouse are celebrating” Justice said. “And I hope that West Virginians are celebrating too.”