Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Loved & hated: The paradox of Jim Justice

Jim Justice is in the news in West Virginia about every day.

What the state’s governor does and says is typically newsworthy, and Justice is very quotable. He is running for the U.S. Senate, so his candidacy makes news. In addition, there is often news about one or more of his family companies not paying or slow paying their bills.

Frankly, after a while, you get so used to the stories they just don’t register as they would if you were hearing them for the first time. So, it is always interesting to read an outsider’s perspective of all things Jim Justice.

Reporters Julie Steinberg and Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal wrote an in-depth profile of Justice. They addressed the issues we in the state talk and write about nearly every day, but with a fresh set of eyes, and it was helpful to have that view.

Here was their lede: “Jim Justice is arguably West Virginia’s most popular politician and most prominent businessman. The dual feat is all the more impressive given how many people he owes money to.”

Those two simple sentences accurately identify the paradox that is Jim Justice.

He is well-liked by many, and even beloved by some. A Morning Consult poll released last week gave him a 60% approval rating with only 33% disapproving. That makes him the 14th most popular governor in the country.

I believe one of the reasons for Justice’s popularity is his unconditional love for West Virginia and its people. That affection is real, and it is powerful stuff, especially for a state that has suffered so much hardship, disrespect and disappointment.

That is also one of the reasons — but not the only one — why his pattern of not paying bills on time does not seem to impact his popularity. It is human nature to give a wider berth to people we like.

In addition, from a gut-level public perspective, owing a bank $300 million isn’t nearly as bad as if Justice had stiffed the pizza delivery guy for 30 bucks.

But most people are not owed money by Justice. Those who are — Justice business creditors — have a different perspective. The Journal interviewed Ernie Thrasher, chief executive of XCoal Energy and Resources, a coal marketing and logistics company that has been in a contract dispute with Justice for years.

“If you meet him and get to know him as a friend, he’s one of the nicest people in the world,” Thrasher told the Journal. “The moment you do business with him, he’s a totally different person.”

So, both things can be true: Justice can be, and usually is, a warm, friendly bear of a man that you enjoy spending time with. But he can also be the obstinate business operator who can justify treating his debts as though they were inconveniences rather than obligations.

These two dominating characteristics would seem to be at odds with each other, but after a lifetime in business and seven years as governor, we now know this is who Jim Justice is.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.