With the 2020 election still a little less than two years away, Republican Gov. Jim Justice has announced he is running for re-election. The announcement, which came at a Monday event in White Sulphur Springs, was promoted by the state Republican Party through an email invitation to media and other interested parties.
Justice’s campaign began the announcement by showing a video outlining his administration’s accomplishments and other moments throughout the course of his term, which began in January 2017. The video appeared similar to other materials produced by the governor’s office and used at news conferences in recent months. A spokesperson for the governor’s office said no state resources were used to produce the video shown Monday in White Sulphur Springs.
Throughout a speech that lasted nearly half an hour, Justice looked back over his first two years in office.
“When we started down this journey, you know, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that it probably would be difficult to win when I wasn't a politician -- and I don’t want to be a politician. I've said it a thousand million times. I don't care if you're Democrat or Republican,” Justice said.
Justice also spent a portion of his speech detailing the state’s fiscal condition on whiteboards set up on the stage at the White Sulphur Springs Civic Center -- where he spoke to a crowd of roughly a hundred supporters. Slogans used on campaign materials read “Results Not Politics” and “Hope Delivered.”
“I am telling you -- this would be my prediction -- by year end, we will be $300 million above budget,” said Justice, as he noted revenue surpluses that have been reported throughout Fiscal Year 2019.
But data from the U.S. Census Bureau released in September show West Virginia’s poverty rate increased 1.2 percentage points from 2016 to 2017 — now standing at 19.1 percent.
Justice also said that public education has been, and will continue to be, a priority.
“West Virginia's image forever -- forever and a day -- had been not very good. It had been a place it was dingy and dark and backward and whatever it may be. People on the outside really believed we had to kill a deer every day to feed the kids at school,” he said. “Now, how do you expect somebody to come to West Virginia if that's our image? So, it had to change. The biggest thing that I thought we had to do was put our stake in the sand that we are absolutely committed to education.”
Justice described himself as an unselfish person with the ability to fix the state’s problems.
“I'm not sitting here tooting my horn in any way. Have we ever had someone ever it had the guts that was willing to step into the all the junk and take the toll and take the errors -- that had the experience and a creative mind and could think with the biggest ideas in the world?” Justice asked rhetorically.
According to the Secretary of State’s office, Gov. Justice had been scheduled to preside over a meeting of the Board of Public Works at a 2:30 p.m. meeting Monday. That meeting was canceled Friday. Following his re-election campaign announcement, Justice said he understood that the board was unable to establish a quorum -- or gather enough members to make the meeting official.
Elected in 2016 as a Democrat, Gov. Justice switched his political affiliation to Republican at a rally for President Donald Trump in Huntington, in August 2017.
As Justice -- whose family owns the historic Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs and companies involved in the coal industry -- campaigned for governor in 2016, the GOP was critical of the billionaire businessman-turned-politician’s debts to the state and private entities.
An October 2016 report from NPR, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Ohio Valley ReSource and Mine Safety & Health News found that Justice’s companies owed $15 million in taxes and fines in West Virginia and five other states, including Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. The original report from NPR showed those companies owed $4.71 million in West Virginia.
In August, Justice -- flanked by West Virginia revenue officials -- announced his debt obligations to the state had been cleared. However, Justice did not provide details about how much was paid. It is unknown if Justice has cleared tax obligations in other states.
More recently, a federal judge ruled that a coal company controlled by Gov. Jim Justice’s family must turn over financial information related to a case involving other debts. That ruling comes as the company has been fined $1.23 million for being in contempt of court for repeatedly failing to pay Virginia-based James River Equipment $150,000 for mining equipment, service and parts.
Despite these troubles, Justice seems to have won the favor of his new party. Just ahead of the 2018 midterm election, he gave a $20,000 donation to the state GOP.
On its website, the West Virginia Republican Party outlines various platforms that guide the organization.
In terms of campaigns and elections, the party calls for “[h]ealthy, positive, one-on-one debates as the best vehicle to discuss issues with the people during an election season. We strongly encourage a series of debates among all candidates for all elected offices.”
In an email to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, state Republican Party chair Melody Potter declined to answer questions about whether the party would welcome primary challengers to the race.
With the 2020 election still 22 months away, Justice’s campaign announcement is the second to come in the race for governor — and the first from a Republican.
Democrat and community organizer Stephen Smith kicked off his campaign in November before holding a series of events around the state in December. His campaign held a more formal announcement in Matewan on Saturday. According to the Secretary of State’s campaign finance reporting system, Smith has filed as an undeclared candidate, while Justice has yet to file preliminary paperwork.
Other possible gubernatorial hopefuls have yet to formally or informally declare their intention to run.