The Progressive Running to End the Dominance of Coal in West Virginia

In January, Shrewsbury happened to be in the office of the West Virginia secretary of state, amending some of his campaign filings, when Blankenship arrived to file his own paperwork for another Senate bid. This time, though, he’s running as a Democrat. Shrewsbury told me that he contemplated cursing at him but resisted. Instead, he thought, “Now I get to run against two coal barons.”

The other coal baron is Jim Justice, who is one of the richest men in the state. Justice’s appeal is built around his reputation as a successful businessman and a certain down-home, right-wing populist persona. He is six and a half feet tall and weighs more than three hundred pounds. Throughout his two terms as governor, Justice has coached the Greenbrier East High School girls’ basketball team. (He has vowed to continue coaching if elected to the Senate.) In 2022, after Bette Midler criticized Joe Manchin for blocking Biden’s agenda—“He wants us all to be just like his state, West Virginia. Poor, illiterate and strung out,” she tweeted—Justice brought his English bulldog, Babydog, onto the floor of the legislature for his State of the State address and said, “Babydog tells Bette Midler and all those out there, ‘Kiss her hiney.’ ”

From the start, Justice’s governorship has been marked by allegations of corruption and negligence. In 2017, he held his inauguration party at the Greenbrier, an eleven-thousand-acre resort in the Allegheny Mountains, which he had bought out of bankruptcy a decade earlier. The celebration was attended by some four thousand people and featured a performance by Lionel Richie, who crooned “Easy” while Justice and his wife slow-danced. According to a joint investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica, more than a million dollars of the inaugural fund—much of which came from statehouse lobbyists—went to Justice’s Greenbrier Hotel Corporation. (Justice called the report “garbage.”) In the fall of 2022, he transferred twenty-eight million dollars of COVID-relief money to a discretionary account of the governor’s office; a state-Senate investigation later revealed that nearly ten million dollars of the money went toward construction of a new baseball stadium at Marshall University, Justice’s alma mater. (Justice has denied misusing funds.) Meanwhile, for five consecutive years, Justice kept state spending at the same level as the year before—which, adjusted for inflation, amounted to steep cuts—intensifying shortages of corrections officers, child-service workers, and teachers.

Justice’s Senate campaign is occurring alongside an ongoing collapse of his personal fortune—the result of mounting liabilities that have been compounded by the cratering price of coal. Last year, a Virginia bank announced that it intended to collect three hundred million dollars in defaulted loans that had been personally guaranteed by Justice and his family. In February, the bank sought to put the Greenbrier Sporting Club, which is part of the resort, up for auction. (Justice’s companies have gone to court to try to block the sale.) Justice’s flagship coal business was recently forced to satisfy an unpaid debt to a Russian energy firm by turning over one of its helicopters.

The federal government, meanwhile, is currently suing thirteen of Justice’s coal companies for the nonpayment of millions of dollars in fines for more than a hundred health and safety violations. In the past several years, retired miners and the U.M.W.A. have filed a lawsuit alleging that Justice’s coal companies let the prescription-drug coverage of their former employees lapse. Pinkey Mullens, who retired from one of Justice’s companies after working as a miner for thirty years, lost his drug coverage on multiple occasions while he was recovering from cancer. “This is so wrong,” Mullens’s wife told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. She said that Justice would “answer for it, somehow, some way. Maybe not in this lifetime. But he will.” (Justice declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Justice has also attempted to paper over a growing humanitarian crisis in West Virginia’s criminal-justice system. In the past decade, the mortality rate in the state’s jails has been the highest in the country. Last year, private briefings prepared for the governor’s office by the state’s Department of Homeland Security, which oversees prisons and jails, said the system needed more than three hundred million dollars to address overdue maintenance, staffing shortages, and severe overcrowding. At the most troubled facility, Southern Regional Jail, which is in coal country, recent investigations have revealed that inmates were forced to sleep on concrete floors and to drink from toilets. Over the course of fourteen months, at least sixteen inmates died there. Sara Whitaker, the criminal-policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, told me, “There is no telling how many people would be alive today if the Justice administration had responded with decisive action, instead of misleadingly assuring the public there was no problem.”

Despite the bad publicity, Justice remains a formidable candidate. Most recent polls have him beating his primary opponent, the U.S. congressman Alex Mooney, by forty points. (Manchin dropped out after polls showed him losing to Justice in a general election.) At a press conference in March, Justice was asked whether his mounting legal and financial problems would affect his ability to serve in the Senate. “I don’t know why we should occupy ourselves with that,” he said. “I would say judge me by my deeds, and that’s all there is to it. Look at West Virginia today. West Virginia is absolutely really, really moving.”

Justice has boosted his popularity with a constant stream of ribbon-cutting events—passing out a thirteen-million-dollar check to a middle school, staging an elaborate ground-breaking ceremony at the site of a new steel-production facility—and an increasing embrace of culture-war issues. In September, 2022, a few months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Justice signed an eight-week abortion ban. This year, he supported an anti-trans bill called the “Women’s Bill of Rights”; a press release promoting the effort praised the governor for “boldly standing with women” by “fortifying into West Virginia law words like ‘female,’ ‘woman,’ and ‘mother.’ ” (The bill failed to advance out of the state Senate.) He has also received unflagging support from Donald Trump, who, in an endorsement of Justice on Truth Social, wrote, “Big Jim Justice, the Governor of the Great State of West Virginia (I LOVE WEST VIRGINIA!), is BIG in every way, but especially in his wonderful HEART!”

Justice and Trump have both defended the power of coal to revive the West Virginian economy, even as the state’s fiscal crisis continues to deepen. At a ceremony last year, Justice signed four bills promoting coal while flanked by the logo of Friends of Coal, an advocacy group whose name is on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and license plates throughout West Virginia. In 2016, Trump wore a “Friends of Coal” hard hat at a rally in Charleston that drew ten thousand people. “I’m going to put the miners back to work,” he promised.The following year, he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement. In fact, coal jobs declined by twenty-five per cent during Trump’s Presidency.

The near-total absence of well-paying jobs in southern West Virginia has made it fertile territory for nurturing a politics of resentment. But the electorate there has also grown more disaffected. In 2016, when Trump won three-quarters of the vote in McDowell County, the result became an emblem of the appeal of his right-wing populism in deindustrialized America. But Martin, the historian at Chatham University, pointed out that two-thirds of registered voters didn’t vote at all. “Nobody came in first,” Martin said. “Because so many people had become disillusioned with using votes as a way to improve life in McDowell County.”

Shrewsbury has a quote from Eugene Debs tattooed on his rib cage: “I have no country to fight for, my country is the Earth, and I am a citizen of the world.”

On my last day in West Virginia, I met Shrewsbury back at the state capitol. Outside, a towering statue of a coal miner stood above a plaque that read, “Let it be said that ‘Coal’ is the fuel that helped build the greatest country on earth.” I found Shrewsbury inside the rotunda, passing out renewable-energy literature at a Save Our Solar rally. He had just driven back from Kentucky, where his parents now live. That night, he would be attending a vigil hosted by the Muslim community of Charleston to support a ceasefire in Gaza. Despite the gruelling schedule, Shrewsbury seemed energized as he reiterated his belief that the only way to break coal’s stranglehold is to provide well-paying manufacturing jobs in solar and wind energy. “West Virginia powered the nation before,” he said. “We can do it again with a new light.”

Shrewsbury’s opponents in the Democratic primary have leaned into their perceived strengths. Glenn Elliott, the mayor of Wheeling, who has been endorsed by Manchin, told me that he believes Justice’s regressive abortion ban has created an opening for Democrats with independents and even some Republican women. Blankenship has been busy on Twitter, offering support for Trump and lashing out at establishment politicians of both parties. In early March, he tweeted that “many of our government leaders make Benedict Arnold look like a Medal of Honor winner.”

No public polling exists on the Democratic primary, which is scheduled for May 14th. But Shrewsbury has reason to be hopeful that Democrats in the state will opt for a more progressive platform. Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton in West Virginia’s 2016 Democratic primary. Two years later, twenty thousand West Virginia teachers walked out in a wildcat strike, protesting cuts to their health insurance. The strike, which inspired similar walkouts in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, helped spark an insurgent campaign for U.S. Congress from Richard Ojeda, a Democratic state senator and U.S. Army veteran who had highlighted the teachers’ plight. Ojeda, who lost his general election by twelve points, isn’t endorsing anyone in the primary, but he admires Shrewsbury. “Zach is exactly what West Virginia needs,” he told me. “He’s a veteran. He has a great plan for helping people. But it’s West Virginia. And in West Virginia, many folks think Donald Trump is the second coming of Christ.”

I reached Shrewsbury by phone recently; he was on the road. Since announcing his candidacy, he has logged more than thirty thousand miles in his Chrysler and intends to campaign in each of the state’s fifty-five counties. If he wins the primary, he plans to hold a general-election kickoff rally where his campaign began—this time to honor the five hundred miners who were arrested after the Battle of Blair Mountain and tried at the courthouse in Charles Town. “Coal mining is the culture of West Virginia,” he told me. “But this election, West Virginians will have a choice between the working man and the company store.” ♦

This story was supported by the journalism nonprofit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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