In a state with the nation’s highest unemployment rate, in the midst of round after round of major budget cuts and with a gaping hole in the health insurance fund for state employees, here are a couple ideas that the vast majority of West Virginians can probably get behind:
1. “I am an absolute believer that we don’t need any more taxes in West Virginia.”
2. “I think we can cut ourselves into oblivion. I think that people have been cut enough.”
Both thoughts come from Jim Justice, billionaire coal and farming executive, owner of The Greenbrier resort and a Democratic candidate for governor.
The ideas are also, alas, in conflict, a point Justice recognizes.
“The same question just reverberates over and over and over,” Justice said in an interview this week. “Where’s the money going to come from? Where’s the money going to come from? And, really and truly, if all we keep doing is coming to the same place, the money isn’t going to come.”
Justice, for now, doesn’t have answers to that reverberating question. He said he’ll lay out a jobs plan in about 60 days.
Justice’s campaign, to date, is about selling himself as a man of big ideas, a guy who knows how to get things done and bring new revenue to West Virginia.
The source of that revenue is still to be announced, but Justice stresses his successes in the past.
He brought The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy.
He’s won nearly 1,000 games coaching high school basketball, while never cutting a player.
He’s a seven-time national corn-growing champion and is among the biggest farm owners east of the Mississippi.
“How does that happen? It doesn’t happen just falling off a log guys, and sure, I have done it, and I do have big ideas,” Justice said. “Whether you believe it or don’t believe it, I can do it, I’ve got the ideas and I’ve got the passion and I’ve got the ability to lead the people.”
Justice’s campaign website contains no discussion of issues at all.
Until he announced his run for governor last spring, no one was even sure what party he belonged to. He said he’s been thinking about running for office for years and that no one from the state Democratic Party approached him to run.
His campaign has stressed his personal biography over policy discussions.
There is, for instance, an agriculture answer that can help provide big jobs in West Virginia, Justice said. “But you’ve got to have an ag guy that understands it, and then recruits ag input and here we go,” he said.
Why can’t West Virginia be known for some sort of crop or harvest, Justice asked, like Napa Valley is for wine? Why can’t we grow the world’s greatest tomatoes?
“I mean, it sounds bizarre, doesn’t it?” he said, “but that’s the kind of thinker I am, guys. That’s what I do.”
Another personal asset Justice said he would bring to the Governor’s Office — anybody will take his call.
“If Jim Justice calls them up and says, ‘Charlie, it’s Jim, and Charlie, I want to tell you about West Virginia,’” Justice said. “Well, Charlie will listen to Jim. Now, he may not do what Jim says to, but he’ll at least give us a fair shake.”
Justice’s most recent campaign ad echoes his call for an “ag guy” in office, but in the other industry he specializes in.
“We need a coal man running this state,” the ad says.
He said he sees a “real possibility” of coal jobs coming back in large numbers, despite recent industry forecasts that a coal boom is not around the corner.
“Anybody would be a fool to not think that coal is really struggling and we may never see coal in the presence that we saw in the past,” he said. “I’m not willing to just lay down and say it’s over.”
Justice denies the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity.
“There’s documentation that would give one concern, and I don’t think you should ignore that,” he said. “At the same time, I think there’s an awful lot of research that still should be done.
“I surely wouldn’t sit here and say I am a believer in global warming, but I wouldn’t sit here and say that I am not concerned.”
But he also stressed the importance of a diversified economy and said he’d support President Barack Obama’s POWER Plus plan, a multi-billion dollar proposal — with little support in the Republican-led Congress — to help coalfield communities move toward new industries.
“I’d say take the money,” Justice said, before hedging. “Does that mean that we transition away from coal — you know, we say we’re going to move away from coal and everything? I think that’s a real mistake.”
Asked about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which has brought health coverage to more than 170,000 West Virginians, Justice gave hesitant approval.
“We have improved the lives of a whole lot of people in West Virginia, we really have, and, from that standpoint, I’m happy,” he said. “A lot of the things that we’ve done, we’ve got to see and we’ve got to give them a fair chance to play out.”
The stories are fair, Justice said, but fail to tell the full story. It would be far easier, he said, to simply declare bankruptcy and walk away from his less-profitable companies than to pay his obligations.
“Just bankrupt those companies and life’s good and you just move on,” Justice said. “Wouldn’t that have been an easy fix? That isn’t what we did. That’s what a lot of people are doing.”
His recent tax debts in McDowell and Wyoming counties, which have been almost entirely paid off, were carried over from the Russian coal company Mechel. Justice had bought the mines from Mechel early this year, after selling the mines to the Russian company in 2009.
He used colorful metaphors to explain the debts.
While some people may change socks (or their focus) once or twice a day, Justice has dozens of companies and has to change his socks (his focus) constantly throughout the day.
Sometimes, he said, his socks will get mixed up or a business will fall behind on a debt.
“If you focus on that fact that — ‘Did you see Justice? He had a green sock and a blue sock. Doesn’t he have any sense at all?’ ” Justice said. “I’m going to make mistakes, and I’m the guy who can handle 500 pairs of socks in a day.”
To combat the negative press about him, Justice brought with him, to the interview, a large framed photograph.
The picture, about three feet across and two feet high, hangs in Justice’s office. It shows him wading through a Raleigh County creek, fly rod in hand, mossy rocks and blooming rhododendrons covering the banks.
Justice said he donated the land to the Nature Conservancy, to keep it from being mined.
“That’s me guys. That’s me right there. That’s me in West Virginia. Me caring about the environment,” Justice said. How can that be the same guy who’s fallen behind on environmental reclamation efforts and mine safety violations, Justice asked. “How could that guy, if he cared and he did that, be the guy that’s sometimes portrayed in not a very good way?”