- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) - Surrounded by employees from his resort, his family and the youth basketball players he coaches, billionaire businessman Jim Justice kicked off a Democratic campaign Monday for governor of West Virginia.

With plenty of anecdotes and few policy specifics, the coal executive and owner of The Greenbrier resort announced his 2016 bid at a packed White Sulphur Springs Civic Center gymnasium. His campaign starts three weeks after Democratic U.S. Sen Joe Manchin said he would seek another Senate term in 2018 rather than make a return run at governor.

Justice said Monday that he wanted to put aside partisan politics. He has changed his party registration multiple times, but he told reporters he’s “more suited” to be a Democrat because he’s the type to “take up for the little guy.”

In terms of policy positions, Justice said “it’s all premature for me” and said he wants to run his ideas by consultants. He called both the state’s infrastructure and tax setup “decent.”

“It’s time for somebody to serve with no hidden agendas,” Justice said. “It’s time for somebody to serve that really doesn’t care about preserving themselves in that job.”

The 64-year-old Justice amassed his $1.7 billion worth in coal and agriculture, according to Forbes.com. He said he would probably take a $1 salary for the governorship.

In 2009, he bought The Greenbrier resort out of bankruptcy for $20 million, and a year later, the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic debuted at the resort in White Sulphur Springs.

He spent millions more adding a casino, a medical institute, a football practice facility for NFL and college teams and other amenities at The Greenbrier.

Justice, who owns coal mines in five states, is revered by some in West Virginia for creating jobs and trying to better the lives of children in sports.

He also has drawn staunch critics - including Republicans and environmentalists.

Last August, Justice reached a $1.5 million settlement with Kentucky officials over dozens of violations at several coal mines. A month later, a federal judge in Virginia sided with about 100 miners who said they were fired in May 2013 from a mine owned by Justice without first receiving a federally required 60-day warning. The judge ordered attorneys to come up with a settlement amount to be paid to the ex-workers.

A National Public Radio report last year found Justice’s mines have racked up almost $2 million in unpaid federal fines.

Justice said Monday he was working on a payment plan with federal mining regulators.

In addition, business owners have filed numerous lawsuits that they were not being paid for work at Justice mines, while still others indicated they were owed money but hadn’t yet sued.

Over the winter, Justice sold the Wintergreen Resort in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. In February, he completed a $5 million buyback of West Virginia coal operation Mechel Bluestone Inc. from Mechel OAO with plans to reopen the company as Bluestone Resources and create 150 jobs.

Justice has never held office, but he’s hardly a novice at political jockeying. He has donated heavily to Democrats in West Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere, but also has contributed to Republicans to a lesser degree. He says he has changed his party affiliation multiple times.

Justice successfully lobbied state officials to help his business ventures at The Greenbrier, including almost $8.4 million in state sponsorship money since 2011 for the PGA golf tournament, and tax breaks for his medical institute and New Orleans Saints training camp.

His top lobbyist, Larry Puccio, was chief of staff for Manchin as governor and is an ex-West Virginia Democratic Party chairman.

Justice grew up in Raleigh County and lives in Lewisburg. He is the longtime president of the Beckley Little League, and coaches the boys and girls basketball teams at nearby Greenbrier East High School. Both teams advanced to the state Class AAA tournament in Charleston in March.

Justice is the second Democrat to make an official move toward running.

State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, who opened a pre-candidacy account to raise funds for the race, said it will become clear that he is the real Democrat in the race.

The main possible Republican contenders are state Senate President Bill Cole, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Congressman David McKinley.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin can’t run for re-election because he is finishing his second consecutive term.


Raby reported from Charleston, West Virginia.

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