West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice holds a service dog onstage after announcing Monday, Jan. 7, 2019, in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., that he will seek re-election in 2020. (AP Photo/John Raby)

Jim Justice won the election in 2016 as a Democrat planning to serve one term as governor. On Monday, he announced his re-election bid as a Republican.

Justice made his announcement at the White Sulphur Springs Civic Center at an event announced by the state GOP, which he officially joined in August 2017. He made the announcement flanked by signs reading "Results not Politics" and "Hope Delivered."

"There's a lot of work to do," Justice said. "So the guy that came to you and thought really in his mind that he wouldn't run again, today — I'm going to stand up to say this — today, I'm announcing officially, right now, my candidacy to run to be re-elected as your governor in 2020."

He made the announcement after screening a video package that amounted to a highlight reel of his first two years in office. During his speech, Justice focused on what he said was an economic turnaround in the state. He noted he entered office in the midst of a massive budget deficit, and the state is now on track to end the fiscal year with a surplus.

While revenue collections are up, seasonally adjusted employment has increased from 736,600 in January 2017 to 740,700 in November 2018, with unemployment rates of 5.3 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, West Virginia is one of two states seeing an increase in the poverty rate in 2017.

Justice also listed education reforms, exempting veterans' retirement pay from income taxes, and other accomplishments.

It has been a boom-bust two years for the businessman-turned-politician. Justice has scored several political wins since taking office. He has overseen the state budget swing; the Legislature and voting public passed his $1.6 billion road bond referendum; he appointed two former Republican officeholders to the Supreme Court who went on to win judicial elections; and he signed legislation eliminating Regional Education Service Agencies as part of a package of changes to state public education.

On the other hand, he has served through scandals including the impeachment of Supreme Court justices and related criminal and judicial investigations; a stalled $150 million flood recovery program; the ouster of three of his cabinet secretaries; and an ongoing lawsuit brought by a Democratic lawmaker challenging his Lewisburg residency under the state Constitution.

Justice also held office during the first statewide teacher and school service personnel strike in state history. Though he made repeated statements calling on the public employees to end the strike and accept a lower pay raise, he and legislative Republicans eventually relented and signed legislation into law granting a 5 percent pay raise. He has promised to double the raise this upcoming session.

Forbes estimates Justice to be the wealthiest man in West Virginia in 2018, worth $1.9 billion. That said, his private businesses have been dogged by delinquent taxes and allegations of failing to pay contractors over the past few years.

According to October polling data from Morning Consult, Justice has an approval rating of about 43 percent, the 12th lowest of any governor.

The event marks a complete U-turn for the state Republican party, from regularly blasting Justice in news releases to hosting his re-election announcement.

Melody Potter, state GOP chairwoman, declined an interview. Over text messages, she denied that the Republican party hosted the event, despite the organization having sent out invitations for the event sporting the governor's face next to the party seal. She referred inquiries to the Governor's Office, which could not identify a point of contact for the campaign.

She said Justice deserves praise for the state's revenue collection turnaround, helping Republicans win office during the midterm elections, appointing conservative justices to vacancies on the Supreme Court, and giving public employees a pay raise.

State Democratic chairwoman Belinda Biafore criticized Justice in a written statement for hosting an announcement in the midst of legislative interim meetings and two days before the start of a legislative session.

"Since Governor Justice took office several counties have been moved to concern of economic distress, the unemployment rate has not decreased, and Justice and companies have been in and out of court over taxes and debt," she said. "His campaign slogan seems to be 'Hope Delivered' but what he has delivered has been anything but hope."

To date, one Democratic candidate has publicly announced plans to challenge Justice, Stephen Smith, a community organizer from Charleston.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at jake.zuckerman@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.


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