The Greenbrier owner and billionaire Jim Justice on Monday announced his intentions to seek the Democratic nomination for governor in 2016.
After weeks of speculation, Justice, 63, formally declared his decision in front of a large crowd gathered at the White Sulphur Springs Civic Center.
"In all honesty, I would have never dreamed - never dreamed in lots of lots of ways - that I would ever be in front of you today, Justice said.
Justice said he decided to enter the race because he was tired of West Virginia being ranked last or near the bottom of lists ranking economic or public health. He told the crowd the state has too many natural and structural assets - including a good workforce, decent tax structure and natural beauty - to be near the bottom on so many lists.
He described a recent trip through the state's coalfields and the desolation he witnessed on people's faces. He said he entered the race because it was time for someone to turn that around.
"Our state and our people are hurting, and we need somebody to step forward that doesn't have a vested interest in trying to do something for themselves and do something, he said.
Justice said he didn't have any "magic potions to fix everything, but said he would start with focusing on creating jobs.
"This is all about one thing, and that's jobs, he said. "If you don't have a job, it all falls by the wayside.
Justice's announcement comes just more than three weeks after U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said on national television he would not be running for governor. A few days later, Justice expressed his interest in the race.
Although he's never held political office, Justice has developed strong relationships with many West Virginia's politicians, including Manchin, who awarded the billionaire with a Distinguished West Virginian award - the highest award a governor can bestow - in 2010.
Justice has reportedly met with political strategists in recent weeks, including Jefrey Pollock, a Democratic pollster and founding partner of Global Strategy Group, a New York-based research firm.
Prior to the senator's announcement last month, Pollock's firm released a poll that found that Manchin held a strong lead among possible gubernatorial candidates.
Despite his lack of political experience, The Greenbrier owner is expected to seek approval from voters by using his history of job creation and business acumen.
Justice took over Bluestone Industries Inc. and Bluestone Coal Corp. after the death of his father in 1993. A decade later, he formed James C. Justice Companies Inc. to acquire additional mining operations, a practice that he continues today.
The Justice family sold Bluestone Coal to Mechel OAO, Russia's largest producer of steelmaking coal for $436 million in 2009. In February, Justice announced that he was forming a new company, Bluestone Resources Inc., and repurchasing the McDowell and Wyoming county mining facility for $5 million - a move that he anticipates will create 150 new coal mining jobs.
Beyond his coal-related business, Justice bought the historic Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in 2009 for $20.1 million. He has since transformed the 10,000-acre complex into one with a casino, a tennis arena, the venue for an annual PGA golf tournament and a football facility that's home to the New Orleans Saints' training camp.
Justice's 80 companies employ about 5,000 people, he said in 2013. His net worth is estimated at $1.7 billion, according to Forbes.
But Justice's candidacy will also force him to face a level of scrutiny, as is common with politicians, that he has rarely experienced.
His opponents will call attention to the millions of dollars in tax breaks he has received over the years from the state, as well as several coal mining-related issues, including questions that arose following a 2014 NPR/Mine Safety and Health News analysis that found mines owned by Justice had nearly 4,000 safety violations. Justice has also faced lawsuits in recent years for not paying businesses owners for work they've done at his coal mines.
In his announcement, Justice acknowledged the partisan division in the state. He said there were enough people out of state criticizing West Virginia, he didn't understand why those in state needed to engage in mudslinging.
He said West Virginia needed a leader that wasn't interested in politics and making themselves look better, but someone who was rooted and invested in advancing the state.
"You need somebody that loves our state, and somebody that doesn't want a nickel for doing it, Justice said.
With his Monday announcement, Justice becomes the second Democrat to enter the gubernatorial race. In March, former state Senate President and current minority leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, changed his pre-candidacy papers to allow him to raise and spend money for the race.
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said in a statement party officials were "pleased and excited to have Justice enter the race.
"We've said all along that we would be fielding strong candidates and we will have a strong Democratic nominee coming out of the primary, Biafore said. "Jim Justice is a job creator and that is something that Republican leadership lacks here in West Virginia.
In a statement, Kessler welcomed Justice to the race, but also made sure to distinguish himself from the Greenbrier County billionaire. He highlighted the fact that Justice was a registered Republican for much of his life and only recently switched parties.
"I'm happy that he has finally decided to join the Democratic Party, but just because he's finally joined the congregation doesn't mean he can immediately become our minister, Kessler said.
Kessler said he had a "lifetime in the trenches standing with working families and that voters would need to decide if that meant more than Justice's "political conversion to seek elected office.
"The contrast between me and Jim are clear, and over the next year it will become very clear that I am the real Democrat in the Democratic Primary, Kessler said.
No Republican candidates have announced their candidacy, despite weeks of speculation and interest expressed by several members of the party, including Congressman David McKinley, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and state Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer. Late last week, Cole announced the formation of a campaign committee but did not declare which office he was seeking.
As Justice made his announcement, Morrisey issued a press release welcoming Justice to the race and saying he "looked forward to hearing his ideas about how we can improve our state.
"West Virginia needs bold, conservative leadership that is unafraid to push back against President Obama's and Hillary Clinton's liberal policies that hurt our citizens, Morrisey said. "We must successfully fight off illegal and radical EPA proposals, create a more dynamic education system, fix our infrastructure, lower income taxes, and champion other initiatives that promote job creation if we truly want the Mountain State to reach her potential.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
West Virginia billionaire businessman Jim Justice announces that he is running for governor as a Democrat in 2016 in White Sulphur Springs on Monday.
Contact writer Joel Ebert at 304-348-4843 or joel.ebert@dailymail wv.com. Follow him on twitter.com/joelebert29.
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