By Sarah Mansheim
The Greenbrier resort owner and gubernatorial candidate never stops moving. Earlier this week, he called the Mountain Messenger from the seat of a corn chopper as he cut crops on one of his Lewisburg farms. His television advertising campaign began a week before, and he had just held his first big-money fundraiser. The Justice for Governor campaign is in gear, but Justice clarified that he’s been “in” all along.
“I’m completely committed and I’m committed for the right reasons,” Justice said, continuing that he doesn’t need the governor’s chair for the money or for his ego.
“It’ll be hard on my family. I love nature. I love to hunt and fish and coach my basketball teams and play a little golf. I try to run The Greenbrier. But, I am truly a lover of our people and our state and I can’t stand that we are the blunt end of a lot of bad jokes,” he declared.
Justice has said this type of thing for years: that The Greenbrier Classic golf tournament was “for the people of West Virginia.” Ditto the Greenbrier’s casino and the new purchase of Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur. According to Justice, no one loves West Virginia more than he does, and he’s been called by God to make a difference in the lives and reputations of those living in the Mountain State.
His belief in this can at once be inspiring and seem like good old-fashioned hucksterism. But, it doesn’t matter to Justice what people think of him, he just wants their vote.
Justice, like most West Virginia candidates for public office, is running on the platform of jobs and coal, specifically, as he told his guests at last week’s Beckley fundraiser, “getting miners back to work.”
But, really, is that possible? Or, as the Mountain Messenger asked Justice, isn’t coal dying?
“Look. You have to play to your strengths. West Virginia abounds in natural resources: coal, timber and natural gas. I do not think this is the end of coal. Coal plays a vital part in our interest in this country,” he said.
But, he said, innovation and out-of-the box thinking will be the future of coal mining. He pointed to technology that uses coal to produce jet fuel and oil lubricants, an untapped industry that he said can be done with zero emissions.
Justice also expressed interest in exploring wood and coal fired power plants, smaller ones, he said, that could support an area such as, say, Oceana.
“Think about it. You put a circle around Oceana, you never cut more trees than the growth, and you run a coal plant that powers the area. It’s self-sustaining, small. It’s almost like a deconsolidation of energy. The problem with wood-powered electric plants is the huge transportation cost, but if the timber was cut locally, it wouldn’t be a problem. It could be owned privately, or it could be owned by AEP. If we don’t become innovative, it will be the end of coal,” he said.
“We can’t put them all back to work, but we can put a pot full of them back to work.”
As far as the rest of the furloughed workers? Justice sees them returning to work in new industries.
“We need to explore all the other renewable energy, wind, solar, everything. We need a comprehensive plan” he said. But, the fact is, Justice just does not see a future in West Virginia without a little bit of coal-fired economics.
“We have coal in McDowell County. And, I got beat up on this last week,” Justice said.
He was referring to widespread media reports that some of his own coal companies owe several counties in eastern Kentucky, and McDowell County in West Virginia, millions of dollars in back taxes.
“The Russians were delinquent, not Jim,” he insisted. “They owed $2 million in taxes in McDowell County and there wasn’t a Chinaman’s chance on God’s green earth that they would have paid it.” Last February, Justice bought back some coal mines that he’d sold to Russian company Mechel OAO for a reported $4 billion in 2009.
Justice said he bought the mines back because Mechel wasn’t paying him either.
“The Russians weren’t paying me. They were stiffing the vendors. They were stiffing the state,” Justice said.
So, he said, he decided to buy the mines, and their debts, back.
“When the Russians owed the debt, no one said a word. But when Jim bought it, they started making noise, just because the tax debt wasn’t paid in full. (The Justice-owned coal companies) might get a little late paying it, but they’re paying it. There’s no use kicking them in the teeth, especially in this coal market,” he said.
Justice does see other economic drivers in the state beyond energy. While most people think of Justice as a coal man, he also owns farms up and down the East Coast.
“I’m the biggest farmer east of the Mississippi,” he said.
Agriculture has never been tapped in West Virginia, he said, and factory-scale vegetable, flower and livestock farms are as crucial to the West Virginia economy as energy. Another untapped economic driver is education.
“Our universities could be huge economic drivers if we’d just get out of educators’ way.”
For the record, Justice does believe teachers in this state deserve a raise.
“Absolutely. Teachers are the single most important component in our economic system,” he said.
“I just keep asking, why are we last in everything? The only things we are first in is obesity and vehicular accidents with deer. We can do better than that.”