West Virginia Democrats’ Best Hope Might Be This Billionaire Coal Magnate

Barry Talesnick/Globe Photos/ZUMA

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Over the last six years, West Virginia Democrats have seen their grip on state politics slip away in no small part due to their alleged collaboration with President Barack Obama’s “War on Coal.” The solution: put a coal kingpin on the ballot.

On Monday, Jim Justice, owner of Southern Coal Corp., announced he would run for governor as a Democrat in 2016, to replace the retiring incumbent Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Justice, the state’s richest citizen with an estimated net worth of $1.6 billion, is a political novice but a state icon. In 2009, he purchased the Greenbrier, a historic mountain resort that had fallen on hard times, and restored it into a first-class resort. During his gubernatorial campaign kickoff event, Justice drew a parallel between his state’s lackluster reputation, and the derelict condition of the White Sulphur Springs retreat. “[Times] were tough at the Greenbrier, too,” he said.

In Justice, Democrats have found a walking counterpoint to the war-on-coal attacks. (The attacks are also largely unfounded—under Tomblin the state has rolled back mine safety regulations.) In contrast to, say, frequent Greenbrier guest Don Blankenship, who as CEO of Massey Energy famously re-designed his property so he wouldn’t have to use his town’s polluted drinking water and is currently awaiting trial on conspiracy to violate mine-safety laws, Justice has always styled himself as a man of the people. A 2011 Washington Post profile began with a surprise sighting of Justice at an Applebee’s near his hometown. The richest man in the state, it turned out, was grabbing a late snack after coaching his hometown’s high school girls basketball team.

But Southern Coal Corp. isn’t without its issues. An NPR investigation last fall found that the company owed nearly $2 million in delinquent fines for federal mine safety violations. (After the report was published, Justice agreed to work out a payment plan.) And he may not have the Democratic field to himself, either; senate minority leader Jeff Kessler (D) filed his pre-candidacy papers in March. No Republicans have thrown their hats into the ring yet.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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