West Virginia's Party-Switching Governor Owes Millions In Unpaid Taxes & Fines

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On Friday, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is switching parties from Democrat to Republican. The governor made the announcement at a home state rally with President Trump, declaring that he can no longer serve effectively "as a Democrat governor."

Justice is a billionaire and former coal executive who, prior to being elected governor in 2016, had never held political office. Despite his wealth, he owes over $15 million in taxes and fines to multiple states, an NPR investigation found during the campaign. According to tax liens filed against Justice's companies, he owes $4.4 million alone to the state of which he is the governor, and has additional debts in Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Alabama.

"Like it or not like it, but the Democrats walked away from me," Justice said at the rally to roaring applause. "Today, I will tell you with lots of prayers, and lots of thinking: Today, I tell you as West Virginians, I can't help you anymore being a Democrat governor. So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican."

Although party switching is relatively rare in American politics, the governor's announcement isn't entirely surprising. This is the second time Justice has changed his party affiliation: He was a Republican prior to 2015, when he announced his campaign for the governorship. And there were other signs that Justice wasn't a standard-issue Democrat: He refused to endorse Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, and during his State of the State address, he referenced Trump five times, often in glowing, positive terms.

In a broader sense, Justice's announcement isn't surprising given West Virginia's unusual political history. The state almost always votes strongly Republican in presidential elections (it went for Trump by 42 points, a bigger margin than any other state in the country, in 2016). However, the state's voters reliably elect Democrats to statewide office. West Virginians haven't sent a Republican to the governor's mansion since 1997, as incumbent Sen. Shelly Moore-Capito is the first Republican senator from West Virginia since 1956.

Trump also spoke at the rally, and said that Justice's decision "showed the country that our agenda rises above left or right." In a statement, the West Virginia Democratic Party slammed Justice's announcement, calling it "a slap in the face to all of us who believed in what he was promising" and accusing him of "[taking] advantage of Democrats by taking our money and our votes."