West Virginia voters may swap one coal boss for an even bigger one.
Republican Gov. Jim Justice jumped into the race Thursday to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, setting up a potential collision between two politicians with deep connections to the state’s coal industry.
Justice, who was included on Forbes’ billionaires list as recently as 2020, has profited from family businesses in the fossil fuel industry across Appalachia. Recent polling shows he is the strongest candidate vying for the Republican nomination to challenge Manchin.
His entrance catapults the race into one of the highest-profile political battles of 2024, with the possibility of showcasing both men’s personal ties to an energy industry that President Joe Biden and other world leaders have promised to largely replace with renewable power.
Manchin, perhaps the most vulnerable Senate Democrat, confounded members of his party by stalling major legislation aimed at reducing fossil fuel use. But by ultimately voting for the Inflation Reduction Act, which pours hundreds of billions of dollars into clean energy, he risks losing support among voters with ties to coal.
Both men have earned millions from their families’ fossil fuel businesses.
Over the years, Justice’s family coal businesses have collected millions of dollars in state and federal fines for pollution and public safety violations. The businesses have a long history of ignoring those fines or paying them after years of protracted legal efforts.
Manchin’s political position has benefited his business interests, which include a family company that trucks discarded coal to a high-emitting power plant near his hometown. The facility is the only plant in West Virginia that still uses waste coal to generate electricity.
Accusations around conflicts of interest have followed Justice, 72, and Manchin, 75, through much of their careers. But that has not slowed their political rise in West Virginia, said Rob Cornelius, the former chair of the Wood County Republican Executive Committee and a critic of Justice, whom he described as “Teflon as hell.”
“We expect our leaders to be a little dirty, I guess is the nice way of putting it,” Cornelius said. “No one here cares about what I would call government and business corruption, and that’s probably an indictment of our voters.”
A spokesperson for Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
Manchin has said he will not make a decision about his political future until the end of the year. That could include running for reelection, launching an independent bid for president or retiring. Manchin has been increasingly critical of the Biden administration and his fellow Democrats in recent months, particularly over energy issues.
“Senator Manchin continues to consider the best way he can serve his state and country,” Sam Runyon, a Manchin spokesperson, said in a statement. “But make no mistake, he will win whatever race he enters.”
West Virginia remains almost entirely reliant on coal for its power, even as other states move toward cheaper renewables and natural gas. The state gets 90 percent of its power from coal, compared with about 20 percent nationally (Greenwire, Jan. 26). In recent months, Justice has fought to keep the state’s largest coal-fired power plant from closing — a move that could cost ratepayers more than $30 million in additional monthly costs.
Justice’s financial disclosures show that his family’s sprawling business empire extends to more than a hundred businesses, including in energy, hospitality, health care, resorts and timber. Justice’s family owns dozens of coal-related businesses based in West Virginia, Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere, his financial disclosures show.
Those companies, many of which operate mines, have faced millions of dollars in fines for air pollution and unsafe working conditions. They have missed numerous deadlines to pay those fines after being sued by the U.S. attorney’s office and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Justice has also faced liabilities related to land reclamation on the surface mines owned by his companies. At one time, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy estimated that the companies had about $200 million in such liabilities.
Recently, the Bluestone Coke facility in Alabama, which is owned by Justice’s family, had to pay a fine of almost $1 million for releasing an excessive amount of toxic air pollution that affected a Black neighborhood for years, a ProPublica investigation revealed. The Birmingham facility repeatedly ignored public health concerns, resulting in the largest fine being proposed in the history of the Jefferson County Board of Health.
Justice’s family is considering a sale of Bluestone, The Wall Street Journal reported last month.
In 2009, Justice bought the 6,500-acre Greenbrier luxury resort in White Sulphur Springs and then built a casino underneath it. The resort was home to a secret congressional bunker that has since been decommissioned. He spoke there Thursday evening as he officially announced his candidacy.
The personal ties that Justice and Manchin have to the coal industry may raise questions in such a high-profile race, but that is “not new information for people in West Virginia,” said Conrad Lucas, a former chair of the West Virginia Republican Party.
He said voters have looked at those entanglements and repeatedly elected both men.
Justice, despite his wealth, has cultivated the image of someone who is approachable to the average West Virginian, Lucas said, “despite him being a figure who owns the Greenbrier.”
“He has an ability to connect with voters that you wouldn’t think an incredibly wealthy person would, but voters have found him incredibly relatable,” Lucas said.
Justice is one of the most popular governors in the country. A Morning Consult poll conducted in January found that Justice was the fifth-most-liked governor, with a 64 percent approval rating.
Justice leads Manchin 52 percent to 42 percent among likely voters, according to a poll from the Senate Leadership Fund, the super political action committee aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The only other declared candidate in the race, Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.), trails Manchin by 15 percentage points, the poll showed.
West Virginia is among the reddest states in the country. Former President Donald Trump, who could once again be at the top of the ticket, won the state by almost 40 percentage points in 2020. The Senate race, and especially the Republican primary, are widely expected to be the most expensive in state history. A poll released earlier this month by National Public Affairs showed Justice outpacing Mooney by 31 points.
Mooney “looks forward to a robust debate of the issues important to all West Virginians including Justice’s record,” his campaign manager, John Findlay, said in a statement before the governor entered the race.
If he wins, Justice would arrive in Washington not as a power broker, as Manchin has been in the closely divided Senate, but as a backbench Republican. His personal wealth and potential for raising campaign contributions could elevate his standing within the Republican Party, but he wouldn’t be the decisive vote on major legislation.
But there are similarities between Justice and Manchin that go beyond making money on coal. Manchin’s close friend and former chief of staff, Larry Puccio, has worked for both men’s campaigns.
At the federal level, Puccio has leveraged his friendship with Manchin to receive lucrative lobbying contracts, as POLITICO’s E&E News has reported. In Charleston, Puccio works as a lobbyist for multiple businesses owned by Justice, including the Greenbrier and Bluestone. Puccio has also worked as chair of Justice’s transition team — as he did for Manchin.
Justice’s extensive business holdings won’t necessarily make him stand out in Congress, said Craig Holman, who lobbies on ethics and campaign finance issues for Public Citizen, the progressive consumer rights group founded by Ralph Nader.
“Lawmakers here in Congress do have very strong conflicts of interest and business interests, and they’re not expected to recuse themselves from votes that affect those interests,” he said. “And it is a conflict of interest, an obvious one, and it’s rather prevalent throughout Congress and not really subject to regulation.”