Greenbrier goodwill: Why dueling flood aid is key to West Va. governor's race

Jim Justice, the Democratic nominee for governor, offered his resort as a shelter to residents struggling with deadly flooding, earning goodwill in a race considered a toss-up.

Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald/AP/File
Jim Justice, owner of The Greenbrier Resort, announces the reopening of the hotel after it was closed and offered to residents displaced by deadly flooding on July 7 in White Sulphur Springs, West Va. Mr. Justice, who is running for governor, has earned considerable goodwill among for residents for providing aid, which he insists was separate from his political run.

As West Virginians reeled from deadly flooding last month, a billionaire’s offer of shelter to 700 residents at the luxury resort he owns has put an unusual spin on the state’s race for governor.

Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains, The Greenbrier resort dates back to 1778 and boasts that it has served 26 of the nation’s 44 presidents. But in the wake of flooding on June 23 that killed 23 people, Jim Justice, the resort’s owner and the Democratic nominee for governor, closed the hotel for business and began offering it as a free shelter for residents forced from their homes.

Mr. Justice, who said he suspended his campaign for two weeks to focus on the flooding, insisted the gesture wasn’t political, the Associated Press reports. But in a race against Republican Bill Cole, the state Senate president, that has been described as a toss-up, the effort generated considerable goodwill among residents that could possibly have an effect on the political race.

“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,” Patrick Roberts, an associate professor of public policy professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in disaster politics, told the Associated Press. “But I can’t think of an instance where someone had the personal resources to really offer.”

How they respond to a disaster can sometimes operate as a litmus test for a politician. President George W. Bush faced harsh criticism in 2005 for the delayed provision of federal aid to victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Christie Christie, by contrast, earned praise for putting aside political differences to work together after hurricane Sandy in 2012, though Mr. Christie’s characterization of the collaboration has shifted over time.

Cory Booker, now a Democratic senator for New Jersey, likewise catapulted to become mayor of Newark (2006-2013) through a series of widely publicized acts of generosity, including bringing diapers to a mother of five kept inside by snowy streets.

But some, including the woman herself, said now-Senator Booker’s derring-do had eclipsed larger efforts to aid residents in the majority African-American still-struggling city.

“I have five kids and, trust me, I don’t just run out of Pampers. All we wanted was for him to plow our streets. It’s about knowing how to manage a city,” Barbara Byers told Politico.

In West Virginia, Justice’s opening of the hotel, and his raising of $1.9 million in flood relief through his Neighbors Loving Neighbors charity, have also won praise, the AP reports.

Mr. Cole, the Republican nominee, also focused on flood aid efforts, including securing tetanus shots and collecting 30 tons of goods for victims. He traveled into areas affected by the flood every day for two weeks and made some campaign appearances that had been previously scheduled, though focusing primarily on the flood, he told the Associated Press.

But his efforts received much less attention than those of his Democratic rival. The Greenbrier is located in an area that was hit hard by the flooding, forcing a slew of repairs and the cancellation of annual golf tournament on the grounds.

Announcing the reopening of the hotel to guests early last month, Justice didn’t mention his race for governor, though he spoke in front of a banner that read “God bless the great people of West Virginia.”

The event didn’t lack for drama, with Justice telling hotel employees, “We are scarred, we are damaged, we are repairing, we will be back,” and quoting a line from the 1996 movie “Independence Day,” the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported.

Justice said he had never considered the storm’s impact on the political race. “I don’t do many things from a standpoint of what I think would be politically correct,” he told the AP. “From this standpoint, that hasn’t even entered my mind, honest to Pete.”

Mr. Cole said he wasn’t criticizing Justice’s actions, but argued that his own efforts had been overshadowed. “I really went out of my way not to publicize it,” Cole told the AP, “then all of a sudden, it was, ‘Where are you?’ ... ‘Why aren’t you doing something?’”

For residents hit hardest by the storm, however, the opening of The Greenbrier had a more immediate effect, providing them with a sense of community.

I don’t think I know how to put my emotions to words,” Rex Sparks Jr., a Marine veteran living temporarily at the hotel, with his family told the Gazette Mail.

“I’ve seen a lot in the Marines, but nothing like this. All I can say is, thank you, Jim Justice. It means a lot.”

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