CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice once rejected a legislative budget by showing a plate of cow dung he brought from a farm to the state Capitol on a silver platter. He hoisted the hind end of his pet English bulldog in the House chamber in response to criticism. And he was always ready with a poster board or prop to illustrate a point.
Justice will deliver his final State of the State address Wednesday night, bringing a close to one avenue for his quirky, unpredictable speeches. The popular two-term Republican governor is running for Democrat Joe Manchin’s U.S. Senate seat in November.
The 6-foot-7 (2-meter) Justice will leave big shoes to fill — literally and metaphorically.
A former billionaire who owns dozens of businesses, Justice, 72, has always put on a show never seen before under the Capitol dome.
Gone this time next year from the Statehouse will be Justice’s overused adverbs such as “really, really,” the informal “lotta lotta,” or, in order to get his point across, “more than good sense.”
He refuses to use teleprompters or speak from a script, and his staff has admitted they are often as surprised as anyone by what he says or does.
During his first State of the State in 2017, he referred to the West Virginia budget as “an 18-karat dog’s mess.”
Usually at Justice’s side — or on his lap — is his grumpy-looking English bulldog, Babydog, who sometimes dresses up, such as when she wore a hat with a giant bow for a briefing ahead of the Kentucky Derby.
In 2022, Justice ended his televised address by flashing Babydog’s rear to the crowd in response to singer and actress Bette Midler, who called West Virginians “poor, illiterate and strung out” in a tweet after Manchin refused to support President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
“Babydog tells Bette Midler and all those out there: Kiss her heinie,” Justice said, grinning, to a standing ovation.
Justice has been described as “folksy” for his unique, rambling speaking style, a characterization he embraces. He’s said West Virginia is on an economic “rocket ship ride” and has called himself a frog who’s proud of his pond.
“I speak in real common language. … Really and truly you know that I am talking to you, just like we were sitting in your house and I was talking to you,” he said during his 2022 State of the State. “I’m not talking down to anybody. I don’t believe in it.”
In 2017, he brought to his inauguration an ax and tackle box that he bought for $200 on the side of the road from a woman who had fallen on hard times.
“I carry the tackle box and the ax every day,” he said. “I can’t stand how good we are and how troubled we are and how many people are hurting.”
Not everyone has been charmed by Justice, who has sparred with politicians from both sides. He’s been critiqued for not spending enough time in Charleston, instead devoting time to other activities like coaching a girls’ basketball team near his home on the Virginia border.
Justice has also been criticized for underfunding everything from public schools to the state’s foster care system, and advocates for low-income residents say he has failed to meet the challenges facing the neediest citizens
Others have groaned that stunts like the Babydog hind-end episode are unprofessional and hurt the state’s image. Justice has also received attention for failing to pay fees for safety violations at family coal mines and millions in unpaid business debt.
State Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin took a jab at Justice in November, saying residents deserve a politician who “shows up to work, pays his debts, and brings more to the U.S. Senate than just a cute dog.”
Six months after taking over as governor as a Democrat, Justice announced at a rally for then-President Donald Trump that he was switching to the GOP.
He oversaw the response to two statewide teachers’ strikes, COVID-19 and the ongoing opioid epidemic, which has claimed lives in West Virginia at a higher rate than any other state.
During the pandemic, the pro-vaccine governor said residents who went unvaccinated were “entering the death drawing.”
He has also focused on economic development and tourism. West Virginia has long ranked near the bottom of U.S. health and economic statistics. Justice has consistently condemned jokes made at the state’s expense.
“I don’t subscribe to that, and I know you don’t either,” he said during his 2021 State of the State.
Instead, Justice calls West Virginia a “diamond in the rough.”
When he reintroduced a proposal to cut the state’s personal income tax, Justice said legislative leaders told him to either give up or “make a big splash.”
“And so here comes me cannonballing into the pool,” the governor during last year’s State of the State. “By God, I’ll make a big splash.”
After lawmakers agreed to a compromise cut of 21.25%, Justice signed it in early March.
Leah Willingham And John Raby, The Associated Press