CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After deadly floods washed thousands of West Virginians out of their homes last month, about 700 victims bypassed the shelter at the high school gym and got rooms at a luxury resort fit for royalty.
Jim Justice, billionaire owner of The Greenbrier resort and Democratic nominee for governor, closed his hotel for business and opened it as a free shelter after the June 23 floods that killed 23 people, including 15 in Greenbrier County.
Shooing away election talk, Justice said he put his gubernatorial campaign on hold for the two weeks following the floods to focus on victims. But a boost of good will from voters seems likely in return.
There’s a long history of storms and other natural disasters making or breaking political leaders — President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie drew praise for dropping partisan differences and working together after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, while then-President George W. Bush never fully recovered from his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.
Justice, on the other hand, is just a candidate — but he is also West Virginia’s richest man. His stately, white-columned hotel turned out to be right in the middle of the flood’s worst destruction, putting him in a situation with little precedent in modern politics.
“Candidates have said things, made appeals or, normally, they criticize the response of elected officials, saying ‘it’s too slow, it’s too little,’ and that’s how they win favor,” said Virginia Tech associate public policy professor Patrick Roberts, who specializes in disaster politics. “But I can’t think of an instance where someone had the personal resources to really offer.”
Dating back to 1778, the 710-room Greenbrier resort has long been one of the jewels of West Virginia’s tourism industry, hosting presidents and royalty and holding a once-secret underground bunker built for Congress in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War.
The Greenbrier’s golf course temporarily became a flowing brown river, just two weeks before it was to have hosted a PGA Tour golf tournament — an event that was ultimately canceled.
Justice swears the storm’s political implications never occurred to him.
“I don’t do many things from a standpoint of what I think would be politically correct,” Justice said. “From this standpoint, that hasn’t even entered my mind, honest to Pete.”
Justice’s rival in November, Republican nominee Bill Cole, also stepped in to help after the floods, but with less fanfare. He helped secure tetanus shots for Nicholas County, brought port-a-potties to Clendenin, ran public service ads for donations at his car dealerships and collected 30 tons of goods for victims.
Cole traveled into flood-ravaged regions essentially every day for two weeks. He made some campaign appearances that had been on the books for a long time, but said it was a 90-10 split in favor of flood work.
Still, his efforts were overshadowed by Justice, who announced the reopening of The Greenbrier at a news conference with a banner reading “God Bless The Great People of West Virginia” draped behind him.
“I really went out of my way not to publicize it,” Cole said, “then all of a sudden, it was, ‘Where are you?’ … ‘Why aren’t you doing something?'”
Cole, the state Senate president, added in an interview, “To me, the fine line also exists if I’m out there looking for the TV cameras to get interviewed, then am I really helping or am I just looking for earned media?”
Cole said he’s not judging Justice’s actions. He considers the flood off limits politically.
Whether Justice’s intentions are pure, political or somewhere in between, no one disputes that he made an impact on a region in ruin. Among other efforts, he has raised $1.9 million for flood relief through his charity, Neighbors Loving Neighbors, including checks from celebrities like NBA legend Jerry West and PGA Tour golfer Bubba Watson.
Another indirect benefit: Republican attacks temporarily fell silent against Justice for being delinquent on his bills, taxes, coal mine fines and other obligations.
Local residents sang Justice’s praises when they walked the resort’s halls to grab a free lunch late last month.
“It’s great PR,” said Marybeth Beller, a Marshall University political science professor. “The photos that played out in the (Charleston) Gazette-Mail (newspaper) showed ordinary working-class West Virginians all of sudden being able to stay at The Greenbrier with their families. It was a tremendous mark of generosity.”
And whether he thought about it or not, likely a mark of good politics as well.