I met West Virginia billionaire, coal magnate and Greenbrier resort owner Jim Justice for the first time in August 2015. I doubt he remembers it. I was a reporter for the Herald-Dispatch who would soon be running the newsroom there. Justice was in town as a relatively new gubernatorial candidate.
Justice was in a conference room at a hotel with former West Virginia University football coach Don Nehlen, former Marshall football coach Bobby Pruett and collegiate Hall-of-Famer Tex Williams. They were announcing an initiative called "Coaches for Jim." A nebulous explanation of what that meant was given. I didn't really understand it at the time. I still don't. Was he building a coalition of coaches to stump for him? Was it some kind of endorsement?
I, along with the other two or three media people who were there, asked some of these questions with an ample amount of modesty. The next thing I know, Tex Williams is screaming at us that people are going to be saying bad things about Jim Justice, and he needs people around him to defend him. I thought launching a campaign initiative on defense was a little strange, but hey, maybe the coaches, and the billionaire, knew more than I did.
Fast forward a year and a few months, and I'm getting yelled at by another West Virginia legend. This time, it's veteran Gazette-Mail outdoors reporter John McCoy. And he wasn't really yelling at me, but he was frustrated. I had taken over as the city editor at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in October 2016. It was now January 2017, and Jim Justice was the state's new Democrat governor.
I'm not sure I had even talked to John McCoy before this encounter. The guy is an institution, and he certainly didn't need me telling him how to cover elk repopulation efforts or regulations on how many deer you could bag during gun season. John was miffed because he was trying to get information he got every year from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (I think it was something to do with trout stocking, but I'm not entirely sure), and the DNR had blown him off, telling him he had to go through the Governor's Office.
This rang a bell, as veteran Statehouse reporter Phil Kabler had recently complained that getting toll revenue from holiday travel, usually a very unexciting and routine process, also had been denied and redirected to the governor.
More and more pieces started coming together, and we realized that we were essentially in a communications blackout. I don't know if it was just a Gazette-Mail blackout or if it extended to other news outlets. It was the first time I had experienced such a thing, and I thought it highly weird.
Apparently, Joe Manchin had tried something similar during his first term as governor, but his communications team became so overwhelmed that they eventually let state agencies speak for themselves.
It was never that easy with Justice. There was always a push and pull, and you could tell that, with this governor, it was personal. If he felt he was being slighted, he withdrew, not without plenty of complaining. Even direct efforts through news outlets, including mine, to placate him were never enough. He now only answers questions from news organizations or reporters he doesn't like if he has to, and, even then, he'll look for a way to exclude them.
Jim Justice is thin-skinned, and he needs people around him to sing his praises. In any situation where that might not be the case, he tries to mitigate it as best he can. That's why he wanted ex-coaches with him at a campaign stop in Huntington. That's why he switched to the Republican Party after less than a year in office. And that's why he plays games with the news media.
The accountability that comes with the governor's mantle doesn't mesh well with such insecurity and pettiness, but Justice has made that work for him by barely doing the job at all. His only communication to the people of West Virginia these days is through carefully controlled pandemic briefings where he holds court.
That's what it's really all about for him. Justice is an artful dodger, who would rather not talk about all his business conflicts, hundreds of lawsuits and stiffed vendors. A guy who wants to make it hard for someone to find out information on stocking trout is hiding bigger things, and not even hiding them very well. No wonder he's so defensive.