Jim Justice—6 feet 7 inches, 375 pounds, rumpled in the extreme—has the friendly, shambling demeanor of a high school basketball coach, which he’s been for decades. He’s also the richest man in West Virginia, with holdings in coal, timber, and tourism.
This year he decided to run for governor—his second race for political office after a successful bid 17 years ago for a county school board seat. He ran as a Democrat, but kept his distance from Hillary Clinton and boasted of his friendship with Donald Trump.
Justice and Trump have similarities beyond their reputations as iconoclastic billionaires: Both own real estate that’s part of an intricate web of businesses run with assistance from adult children. Both refused to disclose their tax returns. And both vowed they’d somehow revive West Virginia’s slumping coal industry.
At a typically raucous rally in May in Charleston, the state capital, Trump donned a white miner’s helmet and told an audience filled with men who wear such headgear in real life: “Get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off!” In a radio interview around the same time, Justice said miners would soon be producing “more coal in West Virginia than has ever been mined before.”
Then, in the final days before the November election, Justice did what only an actual coal baron could do: He announced he’d reopen four small mines in economically devastated southern West Virginia and resuscitate 375 jobs. “It makes me feel so good just to see our people get their dinner buckets and get back to work,” he told local reporters on Nov. 4.
His outmaneuvered opponent, Republican Bill Cole, the state Senate president, accused Justice of using a ploy “just to gain votes,” as if that weren’t obvious. “Any new coal mining job is good for West Virginia and the families employed,” Cole had to admit, before he accused Justice of cutting corners on safety and stiffing the state on coal taxes. “But Jim Justice has proven he can’t be trusted.”
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