The Dark Lord of Coal Country Rises
On Monday morning, President Trump warned the people of West Virginia about voting for former coal baron and convicted criminal Don Blankenship in Tuesday’s Republican primary: “To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference. Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”
Why is Trump weighing in? Because if Blankenship wins on Tuesday, Trump loses.
Blankenship is a racist who would likely be destroyed in a general election against incumbent Democrat Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin is hardly one of the bright lights of the Democratic party, but at least he has not been accused of bribing federal judges or served time for running a mining empire that put profits above human lives – literally leading to the deaths of 29 miners. Right now, Democrats need to defend their current seats and pick up just two more to gain control of the Senate in this year’s midterm elections. Republicans believe that, with a strong Republican candidate, Manchin might be vulnerable. West Virginia is, after all, Trump territory.
If Blankenship wins, however, Trump will be in the difficult position of choosing between supporting a Republican whose business record and moral compass is even more fucked-up than his own, or staying silent and abandoning a key race. Trump has already been duped once in a situation similar to this, when he backed Roy Moore, the alleged serial sexual predator, in the Alabama Senate race. Alabama, like West Virginia, is the dark-red heart of Trump country. When Moore lost, Trump was humiliated.
In West Virginia, Trump has no one to blame but himself for Blankenship’s rise. Blankenship is a junkyard dog version of our president, a political con man who uses money and violence to intimidate his enemies, and who is shameless at exploiting the very people he pretends to help. As I wrote in a 2010 profile, Blankenship is “a man who pursues naked self-interest and calls it patriotism, who buys judges like cheap hookers, treats workers like dogs, blasts mountains to get at a few inches of coal and uses his money and influence to ensure that America remains enslaved to the 19th-century idea that burning coal equals progress.”
Blankenship’s Senate campaign, such as it is, has mostly been a mix vague promises to bring back coal, solve the opioid epidemic and take on the Washington establishment.
But unlike other nut-jobs that Trump has set free upon the nation, Blankenship is a guy who actually has blood on his hands. An explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine, operated by Massey Energy, where Blankenship was CEO, killed 29 men in 2010. In the view of many West Virginians, the explosion wasn’t an accident, but the result of a deliberate strategy at Blankenship’s mines that valued profits over human lives. Blankenship was notorious for running the most dangerous mines in West Virginia, as well as for ignoring laws to rein in mountaintop removal mining that was turning Appalachia into a moonscape. As Delorice Bragg, whose husband Don “Rizzle” Bragg was killed in a fire at Massey’s Aracoma mine near Melville, West Virginia, put it to me in 2006: “It wasn’t a mine fire that killed my husband,” she said, “It was greed.”
In 2015, Blankenship went on trial for his role in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. If there were any justice in the world, he would have been convicted of 29 counts of manslaughter and locked away for life in a small concrete cell. Instead, Blankenship ended up being convicted of a single misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to willfully violate federal mine safety and health standards and served a year in Taft Correctional Institution, a private prison near Bakersfield, California – a posh place that’s known as a playground for white collar criminals. (“The commissary was exceptional,” one recent inmate wrote.) In fact, the disaster was downright profitable for Blankenship. In his last year as CEO, Massey Energy paid him $17.8 million. By one estimate, he received an additional $86.2 million when the company was sold. Around that time, he bought a $2.4 million villa in Las Vegas, complete with palm trees and an infinity pool. (He also owns a home in West Virginia.)
After his conviction, Blankenship argued that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) – not himself or his former company – bore responsibility for the deaths of his miners, and he has said that the government’s “cover-up” of what happened at Upper Big Branch is “far worse than Benghazi.”
He also shamelessly promoted himself as a “political prisoner,” a sort of Nelson Mandela of the war on coal. “It’s probably the most helpful thing in the campaign – it’s amazing. When the truth comes out about what they did,” he said, referring to the Obama administration, “it’ll make the Russian probe look benign.”
Still, even in a place like West Virginia, it’s not easy for a rich ex-con to get elected to the U.S. Senate. So Blankenship has been deft about deflecting attention by launching a bizarre attack on Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell. “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people,” Blankenship said in a campaign ad last week. “While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”
The “China people” remarks are apparently a reference to McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation, who is the daughter of James S.C. Chao, the founder of the Foremost Group, a shipping and trading company. Blankenship also tagged McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch,” an apparent reference to a seizure of drugs on one of his wife’s family’s ships. “The war to drain the swamp and create jobs for West Virginia people has begun,” Blankenship says in the ad. “I will beat Joe Manchin III and ditch Cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.”
Blankenship’s opponents in the primary have been slow to take him on. Until recently, State Attorney General Morrisey would say only, “Don Blankenship is not a credible candidate.” But last weekend, Morrisey started using “robo-calls” to potential voters saying: “Convicted criminal Don Blankenship didn’t vote for President Trump and is a resident of Nevada, where he must report to his parole officer.”
On Sunday, Morrisey moved to have Blankenship disqualified from the primary for failing to submit a financial disclosure form, in violation of election law and perhaps of his probation.
Many Democrats are secretly (or not so secretly) hoping that Blankenship pulls off an upset Tuesday, thereby deepening the misery for Trump and the Republicans in the midterms. It’s unlikely, but not impossible.
Either way, Blankenship is one of the most unsavory characters in American politics today, a man who achieved wealth and prominence by ruthlessly exploiting the blood, sweat and tears of West Virginians. Let’s hope the ghosts of dead coal miners carry his campaign off to oblivion.