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Greenbrier owner Jim Justice enters WV governor’s race

Billionaire businessman Jim Justice announces his candidacy for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 2016 at a rally Monday in White Sulphur Springs.

Pitching himself as a candidate who won’t be influenced by special-interest groups, West Virginia billionaire businessman Jim Justice announced Monday he’s running for governor as a Democrat.

Justice, who owns The Greenbrier resort, serves as president and CEO of about 50 companies, but he’s never held a political office. Forbes magazine estimates Justice’s net worth at $1.6 billion.

“It’s time for somebody to serve with no hidden agendas,” Justice said. “It’s time for somebody to serve who doesn’t care about preserving themselves in that job.”

Justice said he’s tired of West Virginia finishing at the bottom of state-by-state rankings based on factors such as jobs and education.

“Things really have to change, and for crying out loud they need to change now,” he said. “You need somebody who loves our state, and somebody who doesn’t want a nickel for doing it.”

Justice announced his bid for governor Monday afternoon during a rally with supporters at the White Sulphur Springs Civic Center in Greenbrier County.

Justice becomes the second Democrat to enter the governor’s race. West Virginia Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has started a precandidacy campaign account to raise funds for next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

In response to Justice’s announcement Monday, Kessler promised a “spirited campaign.”

“I’m happy that he has finally decided to join the Democratic Party. But just because he’s finally joined the congregation doesn’t mean he can immediately become our minister,” Kessler said in a news release Monday. “The contrast between me and Jim are clear, and over the next year it will become very clear that I am the real Democrat in the Democratic primary.”

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin also has been mentioned as a possible Democratic contender.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is finishing a second term and isn’t eligible to run again.

Among Republicans, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, U.S. Rep. David McKinley and Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, have said they’re considering a gubernatorial run.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s decision to stay in Washington and forgo another run for governor cleared the way for Justice to enter the race. Manchin, who served as West Virginia governor from 2005 to 2010, and Justice are longtime friends.

Justice, a former registered Republican, has made little known about his political views in the weeks leading up to Monday’s expected announcement.

At the rally, Justice spoke about a trip he took through West Virginia’s southern coalfields on Sunday to visit his grandmother’s grave site in Jesse, Wyoming County.

“Our state and our people are hurting,” Justice said. “Somehow, some way, we have to get our coal miners back to work.”

Justice grew up in Raleigh County and now lives in Lewisburg. He made his fortune from coal mining, farming and timbering.

In 1977, Justice started Bluestone Farms, an agriculture operation that has grown to more than 50,000 acres of farmland in four states. Justice’s farms produce more grain than any other operation on the East Coast.

After his father died in 1993, Justice took control of Bluestone Coal Corp. In 2009, he sold some of his family’s coal operations to Mechel, a Russian coal conglomerate. Justice bought back his West Virginia mining operations from the Russian company earlier this year.

“We need a coal man who understands coal in the governor’s office,” said Mike Pauley, a retired coal miner who worked for Justice’s family for 38 years.

Numerous fines and violations have dogged Justice’s coal companies.

Last year, The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported that Justice’s mining operations had racked up dozens of reclamation fines in Kentucky, as well as in West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama. In Kentucky alone, Justice paid $1.5 million in fines.

At least nine contractors have sued Justice’s mines for not paying bills over the past three years, according to The Associated Press. Four of those nine legal claims, which in total exceed $1 million in alleged debts, have been settled for undisclosed amounts.

In 2009, Justice surprised many when he purchased The Greenbrier for $20.5 million, rescuing the iconic hotel from bankruptcy. Justice has since pumped tens of millions of dollars into the resort. The upgrades include a new casino, and a practice facility for the New Orleans Saints football team. Justice also spends about $6 million a year to host a PGA Tour golf tournament at The Greenbrier each summer.

The resort has more than 1,600 employees.

“Jim Justice is a job creator, and that is something that Republican leadership lacks here in West Virginia,” said Belinda Biafore, chairwoman the West Virginia Democratic Party.

Also part of Justice’s resort portfolio is the Resort at Glade Springs, in Raleigh County.

When he’s not running his companies, Justice coaches both the boys and girls basketball teams at Greenbrier East High School. He is the only coach at West Virginia’s AAA level who coaches both teams.

Many of Justice’s former and current players showed up at Monday’s rally to support his bid for governor.

At the close of Justice’s speech, he started a chant that could become a campaign slogan: “Why not? West Virginia!”

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com, 304-348-4869 or follow @ericeyre on Twitter.

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