CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Billionaire Democrat Jim Justice declared victory in West Virginia’s governor’s race over Republican Bill Cole.
With “Country Roads” playing in the background, Justice made his victory speech about 10 p.m. Tuesday from The Greenbrier resort, which he owns. The Associated Press and MetroNews called the race for Justice before 9:30 p.m.
He jokingly began by pretending he was giving a concession. “No, wait. That’s the wrong speech! We won!”
“I will use that ability to smile and to laugh,” Justice told the crowd, exhorting West Virginia’s potential. “We don’t need to be 50th. We’re too good,” he said.
With a hoarse voice, Cole offered his concession speech at Embassy Suites in Charleston
“I end this race with a new appreciation for our state,” Cole said. He then described accomplishments from his two years as state Senate president, including the repeal of prevailing wage and the passage of right-to-work.
“This was the first race for governor by two viable parties in almost a generation in West Virginia.”
Cole said he had called Justice to congratulate him.
This was the race that had caused Politico to wonder, “Is West Virginia holding America’s weirdest election?”
That was because of a dynamic where Cole, tried his best to tie his campaign to Donald Trump but Justice did everything possible to distance himself from Hillary Clinton.
Justice avoided going to the Democratic National Convention and, during a gubernatorial debate, said he would be leaving the presidential race blank on his own ballot this year.
A third-party gubernatorial candidate, Charlotte Pritt of the Mountain Party, had called both candidates Republicans.
Both Cole and Justice are successful West Virginia businessmen. Justice, called West Virginia’s richest man by Forbes, provided his campaign more than $4 million in self-contributions and loans.
Cole, who owns a series of automobile dealerships, and Justice, who has a coal and agriculture empire and The Greenbrier resort, expressed desire for economic growth and to bring back the coal industry in West Virginia.
Cole touted actions the state Senate had taken in his two years as Senate president: tort reform, the repeal of prevailing wage for public construction projects and the passage of right-to-work. He said he would cut out waste in government if he were elected governor.
Justice had described himself as a marketer-in-chief, offering a vision of a West Virginia theme park like Dollywood, a niche crop, federal subsidies for West Virginia’s timber industry and a rebound for metallurgical coal.
Weeks before the election, Justice was the subject of a critical story by National Public Radio saying his companies owe $15 million in taxes and fines. The NPR analysis of federal data showed that Justice is the nation’s top mine safety delinquent.
Justice’s defense for the debts was that economics have gotten very tough for the coal industry and he had kept his mines open, rather than declaring bankruptcy, in an attempt to spare miners’ jobs. He said he would pay the taxes and fines as he could.
West Virginia’s governor position pays a yearly salary of $150,000. Justice has said he doesn’t want to take the salary, though the state constitution states the officeholder should receive the pay.
Inauguration day for the new governor is Jan. 16, 2017.