With Similar Policy Stances, Folksy Appeal is What Sets Justice Apart from Republican Rival
When it comes to traditional Democratic politicians, Jim Justice is likely not the first person who comes to mind for many.
The billionaire businessman and coal operator changed his Republican party affiliation shortly before announcing he’d run for governor in May of 2015.
“I am much more suited to be a Democratic because I truly want to take care of the little guy,” Justice said after his campaign announcement in White Sulphur Springs.
Justice's Broad Policy Promises
Eighteen months later, after defeating a former Senate President and U.S. Attorney in the primary, there is little doubt that the Democratic front runner has the full backing of his party in the state, even though his platform parallels that of his Republican rival.
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s only Democratic member of Congress, endorsed Justice in March, but Manchin’s team of political insiders has been working with the Democratic gubernatorial candidate since long before the endorsement including Larry Puccio, Manchin’s former chief of staff, who works as a consultant on the campaign.
“He’s been able to do great things. He thinks big. He thinks on a different level,” Puccio said on MetroNews's Talkline in October.
It's a message that Justice himself has traveled the state touting, but the candidate has been criticized for speaking too broadly about his plans for West Virginia’s future, not giving the voters specific ideas about how he’ll create jobs, diversify the state’s economy, and deal with shrinking tax revenues—three of the biggest issues in the race.
“We’re dying on the vine. We’ve proven how to die. We’ve got to think big and we’ve got to move forward,” Justice said during a televised debate in October, a broad statement he's made several times.
During the second of two televised debates, Justice did share some economic plans, like calling on Congress to credit the state for its large acreage of forested land or attracting the next Dollywood to West Virginia.
Professor of Political Science at West Virginia Wesleyan College Dr. Robert Rupp said those big ideas and the way Justice conveys them, that’s part of who his is as a candidate- a down-home, folksy guy.
“That ensures that he can connect with the voters, but the difficulty is can he convince the voters that he will be a good governor,” he said.
Rupp, a former Republican member of the State Election Commission, said throughout the campaign Justice has had to work harder to convey an image of leadership than his Republican opponent, Senate President Bill Cole, but all of the polls, even those paid for by the state GOP, show Justice is up in the race, by as much as double digits in some cases. That lead has left him open to attacks.
National Party Politics
The Republican Governor’s Association has spent nearly a million dollars on the race, largely on television ads that attempt to link Justice to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president who is widely unpopular in the state.
Some center on donations he and his family made in 2011 to the Democratic National Committee.
The Justice family donated more than $120,000 to the DNC during the 2012 election cycle, but Jim Justice has said those dollars were in support of Steve Beshear, Kentucky’s former Democratic governor.
“It’s preposterous for a coal man to be a supporter of Hillary Clinton. I don’t know why we continue with those lies and they’re just absolute lies,” Justice said during a debate with Republican Cole.
But it’s Justice’s reputation of being a coal man that news outlets have scrutinized during the race.
Justice's Business Practices
An NPR investigation in October found Justice companies owed $15 million in unpaid local, state and federal taxes as well as delinquent mine safety fines.
In West Virginia, Justice owed $3 million in unpaid severance taxes on coal, an area of decline in tax revenues that’s caused significant financial hardship for the state.
Justice responded to the report during an October 11 debate, saying yes, he owes the taxes and fines, but he is working through a difficult time in the coal industry and unlike many other companies, hasn’t filed for bankruptcy.
“If we would’ve given up, what would have happened? Those good people, men and women that were working, they would have gone home," Justice said. "They wouldn’t have had their jobs and I won’t feel bad for one second for trying to keep those people in their jobs.”
So if his business record, his party’s national politics, and his broad policy ideas haven’t knocked Justice out of the front runner position, less than a week from Election Day, some say maybe nothing can.
There is one other factor in the race though— Mountain Party candidate Charlotte Pritt.
Pritt was the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor in 1996 and today, is collecting the party’s protest votes—left-leaning West Virginia Democrats who are less than satisfied with conservative Justice’s campaign.
Pritt has polled as high as 8 percent in the race, but is her Democratic support enough to sway the race away from Justice?
West Virginians will find out on November 8.