Former coal baron Don Blankenship has been snubbed by President Trump, defeated in West Virginia’s GOP Senate primary and called to account for a safety record that is blamed for a disastrous mine explosion.
Yet Blankenship, who received a private post-primary phone call from Trump, won’t give up. He announced this past week that he will run for Senate as the nominee of the Constitution Party and continue his campaign, launched from a prison cell, to prove that he was wronged.
Blankenship was the chief executive of Massey Energy in April 2010 when an explosion killed 29 coal miners at the company’s mine in Upper Big Branch, W.Va. Citing a litany of safety lapses, a judge in April 2016 sentenced him to a year in prison, the maximum for a misdemeanor, and fined him $250,000.
The mustachioed coal baron didn’t agree. In a 67-page manifesto titled “An American Political Prisoner,” written from federal prison, Blankenship said that “our justice system is broken” and that he was not responsible for the Upper Big Branch tragedy.
He said that federal regulators lied and that prosecutors “did everything they could to ensure my conviction, despite knowing I was innocent of the charges against me.”
Now Blankenship — who describes himself as “Trumpier than Trump” and “the most anti-establishment candidate in the nation” — is running as a third-party candidate against his longtime nemesis, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), as well as the low-key GOP primary winner, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
Republicans fear that he could end up playing the spoiler, leaving a vulnerable seat in Democratic hands in a state Trump carried in a landslide, with 68.5 percent of the vote. And many say that Blankenship is not allowed to run, citing a West Virginia “sour grapes” law that bars candidates who lose in one party’s primary from changing registration to a “minor party organization” to get on the ballot.
“This time we won’t get surprised by the lying establishment,” Blankenship said in a Facebook post Monday. He blamed his primary defeat on a Trump tweet that said Blankenship couldn’t win the general election.
Blankenship said he had been “assured by White House political staff that they would not interfere in the primary election.”
Like Trump, Blankenship is hoping that by touting his corporate experience and promising to bring back mining jobs, he will strike a chord in a state that ranks 48th in the nation in per capita income.
It’s an unlikely campaign pitch. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that mining and logging together employed 23,000 people in West Virginia in March — just 3.1 percent of total employment in the state. Growth in construction, tourism and education has driven the state’s unemployment rate down to 5.4 percent.
But talking about coal jobs has become a type of political shorthand, a way to appeal to West Virginians who would never set foot in a coal mine but who share Blankenship’s sense of unfairness and his desire to shake up the political establishment.
Blankenship is “a larger-than-life figure, just like Trump, and there are certain people who are attracted to folks like that,” said Tony Oppegard, a former mine-safety regulator and a lawyer who represents miners in safety cases. “He’s extremely wealthy, so he can also flood the airwaves with his message. He’s spent millions of dollars of his own money and far outspent the other two guys.”
Oppegard added: “There is a segment of the population that, regardless of what he did, will say, ‘Well, his mines employed a lot of people, and we’re going through hard times, and he was a job creator.’ There is some truth to that. The question is: At what cost?”
Blankenship’s life is entwined with the state’s long, complicated relationship with coal. He was born into poverty in Stopover, Ky., near Matewan, W.Va., scene of a deadly shootout that occurred in 1920 when private detectives tried to evict striking miners from company-owned homes. His mother, a single parent, ran a small grocery store.
Blankenship became an accountant and joined Massey in 1982, working his way up to division manager in Rawl, W.Va., where he clashed with striking members of the United Mine Workers of America. He hired replacement workers and armed guards. Blankenship said someone fired 11 gunshots at his house, including one that went through a television he kept on display.
As chief executive, Blankenship continued to show an accountant’s interest in the numbers. At 30-minute intervals, he received faxes listing production rates and downtimes at Massey’s various mines. He insisted on signing off on small expenses that would be routine at other companies.
“Those are the types of intimate details that ordinarily a CEO is not involved in,” Oppegard said. But, he added, “that’s why you can directly link the poor safety record of Massey mines to him personally.”
In the late 1990s, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration was so unhappy with Massey’s safety record that it sent Blankenship to its National Mine Health and Safety Academy.
“He was a very soft-spoken, very polite person,” said Jack Spadaro, a West Virginia native who was director of the academy at that time and who designed a program just for Massey. “But one could tell in conversation with him that his only real concern, ever, was production, and he really encouraged his management to completely disregard mine and safety standards.”
Afterward, violations kept piling up. In late 2000, a Massey coal slurry reservoir collapsed, leaving a 70-mile path of destruction in what was then the worst U.S. environmental disaster.
By the time of the Upper Big Branch accident in 2010, MSHA had cited the mine for 1,342 safety violations since 2005, with a total of $1.89 million in fines proposed, according to federal records.
In the month before the explosion, the mine had received 50 citations for poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape ways, and the accumulation of combustible materials.
Upper Big Branch wasn’t the only Massey mine with safety problems. Altogether, 54 workers died in Massey mine accidents during Blankenship’s tenure.
But it was an unrepentant Blankenship who finished his sentence in 2017 and immediately took to Twitter to settle old scores with Manchin in a fashion that echoes the angry style of Trump.
Manchin had said Blankenship deserved blame for the Upper Big Branch explosion.
“I believe this permeated from the top down — from Don Blankenship down,” Manchin told ABC News in 2014. Manchin, who was governor at the time of the blast, also said: “I believe that Don has blood on his hands. And I believe that justice will be done.”
As governor, Manchin set up an independent panel that concluded that Massey’s safety lapses and MSHA’s defective oversight were responsible for the accident. As senator, Manchin proposed a bill that would make the safety violation for which Blankenship was convicted a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
Blankenship tweeted that Manchin “said I conspired to commit safety violations that caused the death of 29 miners. Not true. He needs to apologize now.”
He said, “I challenge Sen. Manchin to debate UBB truth. A U.S. Senator who says I have ‘blood on my hands’ should be man enough to face me in public.”
The feud isn’t Blankenship’s first leap into the West Virginia political fray.
In 2004, Blankenship spent $3 million of his own money to campaign against the reelection of Justice Warren McGraw to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. He ran ads accusing McGraw of setting a “child rapist” free. McGraw lost.
The new justice then cast the deciding vote against a $50 million award granted to the owner of a small coal company who convinced a jury that Massey had driven his business into bankruptcy. The U.S. Supreme Court later said that the new justice should have recused himself.
In early 2005, Blankenship opposed legislation proposed by Manchin that would have increased the coal severance tax and funded workers’ compensation benefits. Blankenship launched a television, radio and direct-mail ad campaign to oppose a $5 billion bond offering that would have propped up underfunded pension and disability plans for teachers, judges and other public employees. Voters rejected the bond issue.
In 2006, Blankenship spent $5.1 million to back Republicans running for the West Virginia legislature. (The year before Massey had paid Blankenship $34 million, according to Energy and Environment News.)
Manchin was on the opposite side of every one of Blankenship’s campaigns, and he said the coal baron’s campaign against the bond offering could prompt increased scrutiny of Blankenship’s business. “If you want to throw yourself into public policy, your record is open,” Manchin said in one interview.
But regulators didn’t need encouragement from Manchin.
At Upper Big Branch, federal inspectors concluded just before the 2010 accident that senior managers showed “reckless disregard” by ordering a mine foreman to ignore a citation for faulty ventilation. An MSHA inspector added that he believed that “the operator has shown high negligence” and warned that the ventilation problems could “result in fatal injuries.”
Massey management was accused of violating a long list of safety standards — including mine-ventilation, roof-support and dust-control measures — that have been effective in preventing mine explosions.
“There was a machine called a rock dust machine that costs maybe $15,000,” Spadaro said. “It was defective.” He said the young worker who operated the machine alerted his supervisor and warned of a potential disaster. Nothing was done.
Spadaro said he believes that regulators should have closed the mine until the problems were corrected. But, he added, “ultimately responsibility goes to Don Blankenship.”
Now Blankenship is hoping for a measure of redemption. He intends to run as the nominee of the Constitution Party, which was founded as the U.S. Taxpayers Party by anti-tax crusader Howard Phillips and which calls itself the philosophical home of the tea party. The party would “restore American government behavior to its Biblical foundations,” according to an announcement on Facebook.
He also has a message for the president.
“I share most all of your policy views, but I refrain from taking positions based on fake news and swampers’ rhetoric,” Blankenship said in an open letter to Trump. “You, of all people, should also refrain from doing so.”
“I think, to Don’s credit, he has not been cowed, and he continues to believe that the truth has not really been told, or if it has been, it’s been obscured by the constant chorus that Massey was a dangerous place to work,” Blankenship’s defense lawyer William Taylor, a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder, said when the coal baron was released last year.
U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger, who sentenced Blankenship in 2016 and is the daughter of a coal miner, said at the time that “instead of being able to tout you as one of West Virginia’s success stories, we are here as a result of your part in a dangerous conspiracy.”
But Blankenship is hoping to become a success story yet.