Out of the driver’s seat of the Suburban with the ‘‘Coal 3’’ license plate emerged Gov. Jim Justice, Big Jim as they call him, looming over everyone who had been waiting for the past hour and a half.
He had come to a gravel patch in the hills of West Virginia for another groundbreaking, this one part of a multibillion dollar road program. Perched on his personalized wooden stool, the governor waxed folksy on the importance of highways, his dad’s musings on effort and how fast he had driven to get here.
Then he introduced his dog.
“Come on, girl,” he cooed. An English bulldog the governor has described as a “60-pound brown watermelon” plopped out of the Suburban to a sprinkling of warm applause. Elsewhere in the state, critical functions — foster care, prisons, the flagship public university — were buckling under financial strain and staffing shortages. Here, all eyes were on Babydog, hoisted by the captain of the governor’s security detail into the camp chair set up, as always, right beside the governor.
“If you want to come up and say ‘Hi’ to Babydog, feel free to do so,” Mr. Justice told the crowd. Soon, county officials, local journalists and workers in hard hats were all in line.
It is a time of bewildering possibilities in American politics, not least among them that Mr. Justice, a debt-ridden coal magnate and Republican-turned-Democrat-turned-Republican governor, could soon play a decisive role in the country’s direction. His political style has an air of familiarity — a populist tycoon with a flair for showmanship and an indifference to governing norms — and it has proved particularly magnetic in West Virginia, where the standard left-right partisan compass can behave in strange ways.
Already one of the country’s most popular governors, Mr. Justice, 72, is running for a U.S. Senate seat in 2024, when party control could come down to the race in West Virginia. In a state that Donald Trump won by huge margins, just about any Republican would have good odds. This is likely true even if the Democratic opponent is the incumbent, Joe Manchin. Mr. Manchin, 76, is a longtime powerhouse in West Virginia, but it is not even clear that he will run for re-election.
Some in Charleston, the state capital, insist that the Republican primary next spring is the race to watch, a test of whether West Virginia has held onto its populist idiosyncrasies or, like most states to its south, hardened into a bastion of Republican orthodoxy. Mr. Justice will be facing U.S. Representative Alex Mooney, a doctrinaire conservative who has bashed the governor for supporting the federal infrastructure bill and issuing stay-at-home orders and mask mandates early in the pandemic.
Though Mr. Justice has long sung from the old conservative hymnbook on matters like guns and coal, he has in recent months been playing the very latest right-wing hits: bashing President Biden, pledging an “America First agenda” and in July, accompanied by Babydog, sending off 50 members of the National Guard to Texas to address “what’s going on at our southern border.”
The governor’s primary motivation, said Eric Tarr, a Republican state senator who has been a vocal critic, “is that he wants people to like him.” And, Mr. Tarr added: He is very good at it. “Whether he’s marketing the truth or not doesn’t matter,” Mr. Tarr said with a resignation common among critics all too aware of the governor’s enviable standing in the polls. “He can sell.”
In his seven years in office, Mr. Justice has been criticized and even sued for spending little time in Charleston; lawmakers have grumbled about his devotion to coaching high school basketball while running a poor, shrinking state with no end to chronic challenges.
Reporters have traced the blurred lines between Mr. Justice’s public endeavors and private family empire while also chronicling the empire’s perpetual delinquency: pursued for hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid fines, judgments and other obligations by retired coal miners, multinational banks, neighboring states and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Banks have sought to have the governor’s salary garnished; in court filings, creditors have accused his companies of fraud; and the state auditor’s office has auctioned off dozens of his tax-delinquent properties.
Mr. Justice, whose office did not reply to several requests for a response or an interview, has said he turned control of his 100-plus business interests over to his children and that his public service record — roads, jobs and tax cuts — should be the focus of attention, not his private businesses.
For many voters, though, little of this seems to matter. They just seem to like him.
“People might say he’s wrong for not paying things, is just a bad person or whatever,” said Josh Lilly, 33, an equipment operator who used to work in Justice-owned coal mines. Yes, paychecks would come late and yes, the equipment was often outdated, Mr. Lilly said, but Mr. Justice would show up at the mines in person. Mr. Lilly would prefer a family business that was rough around the edges over a faceless corporation. “I don’t know if that’ll work for the whole country,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it’ll work for the state.”
When Mr. Justice ran for governor in 2016, Forbes magazine recognized him as a billionaire and the richest person in West Virginia. He had grown the coal business he inherited from his father to include agricultural holdings and, most notably, the Greenbrier, the luxury retreat that he bought out of bankruptcy in 2009.
A registered Republican, Mr. Justice switched to the Democratic Party before launching his first campaign for governor, a turnabout that was, apparently, perfectly fine for the Democratic establishment, and, more critically, for Mr. Manchin. “The sense was you had to have a big war chest, a kind of a lifeboat for the Democratic Party,” said Booth Goodwin, a former U.S. attorney who was one of Mr. Justice’s opponents in the Democratic primary. “He more or less promised the moon, as he often does.”
In his first months in office, Mr. Justice was hands-off in day-to-day governance, former administration officials said, more interested in big projects, like the road construction package, and big stunts, as when he presented lawmakers with a plate of manure in response to their budget proposal. Seven months into his term, Mr. Justice pulled off his biggest stunt yet: Onstage at a Trump rally, he declared to a cheering crowd that he was — once again — becoming a Republican.
Mr. Justice was openly fond of Mr. Trump, and in a state that was moving rapidly rightward, he was going with the tide. Still, the announcement was met with bipartisan shock in Charleston. Democrats felt betrayed. Republicans, wary of his loyalties and spending habits, were dubious.
“That was the first thing out of everyone’s mouth,” said Carolyn Stricklen, at the time the chair of the Republican Executive Committee in Kanawha County, who heard the news at a party picnic. “‘Well, now there’s a Republican in the governor’s mansion. But is this really what we want?’”
The switch set off an exodus of officials, many of whom had come from Mr. Manchin’s orbit, though Mr. Manchin’s wife, Gayle, stayed on as secretary of education and the arts — that is, until March 2018, when, after she publicly objected to a bill that would scrap her department, Mr. Justice fired her.
Then Covid hit.
For many politicians, the pandemic was an unending series of no-win decisions that endangered or enraged various constituencies. The politics seemed particularly thorny in West Virginia, a conservative state but with a population sicker and older than the national average.
But after the governor began regular televised Covid briefings, it was obvious he had found his métier. He could talk to viewers in rambling, sunny monologues punctuated by sayings from his father and obscure folk wisdom (“If you’re not proud of your own pond, then you’re really not much of a frog”). Reporters bristled that the format allowed him to choose his questioners. But the public seemed to eat it up: The primary ended in a blowout for Mr. Justice, and he cruised to re-election.
Whether Mr. Justice had many friends in state politics now mattered little; he had a dog — a Christmas gift in 2019 — and a mandate. In 2021 he announced the “Do It for Babydog” sweepstakes, giving away trucks, guns and other prizes to induce people to get Covid shots. The sweepstakes cost more than $20 million in federal Covid funds and attracted official scrutiny, as did other some other expenditures, such as the transfer of $28 million in unspent federal Covid funds to the governor’s discretionary fund, which in turn spent millions on things like a new baseball stadium at Marshall University, Mr. Justice’s alma mater.
Still, with a post-pandemic boom in the energy markets, billions of federal Covid-related stimulus dollars pouring in and years of austere budgets, revenues appeared robust. Mr. Justice lured companies with multimillion-dollar enticements and signed the biggest tax cut in state history. And Republican lawmakers, though they did not particularly need the governor given their supermajorities, were getting what they wanted: Along with the tax cut, they passed an expansion of private school vouchers and an abortion ban.
“Absolutely too many people doubted us,” Mr. Justice said in his 2022 State of the State speech. “They never believed in West Virginia, that we could do it.” And then, lifting Babydog up and turning her rear end to the audience, he closed with a message to the state’s critics: “Kiss her heinie.”
In recent months, energy prices have dropped. Tax revenues have since been uneven, with steep fiscal drop-offs forecast once the big tax cut takes full effect. And the bills for years of deferred maintenance on the unglamorous machinery of state government are coming due, said Seth DiStefano, the policy outreach director at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a nonprofit.
The governor is facing federal lawsuits over “inhumane living conditions” in state prisons and “chronic and systemwide failures” in the state’s overwhelmed foster care system. Nearly a quarter of jobs in the Department of Health and Human Resources are unfilled, and vendors owed millions have been kept waiting for months. Alone among states, West Virginia’s child poverty rate grew substantially in the most recent figures. West Virginia University, facing a $45 million deficit, is cutting dozens of programs and more than 140 faculty positions.
“Justice’s strategy at this point is to hold the state together with a piece of Scotch tape and pray for the best,” Mr. DiStefano said.
The Justice family businesses are not in great shape either. He is no longer a billionaire nor the state’s richest person, according to Forbes. While the financial disclosure form filed for his Senate campaign listed at least $1.2 billion in assets, only a tiny fraction of that was liquid, and his list of liabilities ran well into the tens of millions. The collection efforts of his creditors are growing more aggressive, with the Justice companies’ own lawyers having to explain missed deadlines as “the result of institutional dysfunction and negligence.”
“We don’t have a whole lot of money,” Summer Deane, a vice president in one of the Justice companies, said in a deposition taken last year. “It’s just one of those things where you start the month out with not much money, you have all these transactions and money is gone-as-soon-as-we-get-it-type thing.”
“We’re just surviving,” she added.
A Senate campaign is likely to just complicate things, drawing a new level of scrutiny to the state’s problems and providing leverage to Mr. Justice’s hungry creditors. And if he wins, Mr. Justice would just be a rookie in a crowd of 100 rather than his state’s chief executive.
“He would be even more frustrated at being trapped in the Senate Republican caucus than Joe Manchin has been trapped in the Democratic Senate caucus,” said Sam Petsonk, a vice chair of the state Democratic Party. The Jim Justice that many voters had grown to like, Mr. Petsonk said, would have to be much more predictably partisan “in order to be relevant.”
At a briefing in early October, Mr. Justice parried questions about his family businesses, acknowledging that “sometimes they’re a little late on a bill here and there and everything, but we pay them, don’t we?”
“At the end of the day, I am committed to do this job,” he said. “And who knows if we have the opportunity to do the next job, but, you know, I am very proud of what we’re doing right here and nobody’s going to take that away from me.”
That same day, in a federal case involving a creditor who was owed more than $8 million, a court ordered U.S. marshals to seize a Justice company helicopter.
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