Don Blankenship: From coal baron to disgraced jailbird to… the Senate?

  • Published on July 16th, 2017

Normally one runs for Senate FIRST and only AFTERWARD goes to jail, but these are not normal times.

In yet another sign of the total destruction of norms and even human decency in the Trump era, convicted criminal Don Blankenship is mulling a bid for Senate. Notorious for flaunting safety rules (and human decency) when he ran the Massey Coal Company, he served time for the deaths of 29 miners in the West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine disaster and just got out of jail last year.

By Jeremy BloomUpper Big Branch Mining Disaster Memorial Don Blankenship

“I do have a lot of love and interest in West Virginia–when you see we’re still 50th after all of these years–it doesn’t seem like we are ever going to get off the floor. It does cause one to stop and think if he can make a difference or not,” he told a West Virginia radio show this week.

“I haven’t decided what I want to do. I’m not a politician, as you know. I’m not a great speaker and so forth that politicians need to be good at. I do think I could help West Virginia, quite easily, move up from 50th.”

Concern for the downtrodden

Gosh, Don, how do you think West Virginia got to be ranked the 50th state in so many things? It couldn’t possibly be From the Ashes coal documentarythat you and your coal baron friends who run the place have driven it straight into the toilet (as shown in the National Geographic documentary, “From the Ashes“) while paying yourself huge salaries, huge bonuses, and huge golden parachutes when you have to leave your coal company because you’re, you know, going to jail…

As Tim Murphy writes at Mother Jones,

Before he was forced from his perch at Massey (with an $86 million golden parachute), Blankenship was a towering figure in West Virginia politics, giving millions to help build the Republican Party in the state and infamously throwing his weight around in judicial elections. As I wrote in a 2015 profile of Blankenship:

The irony is that, even at the nadir of Blankenship’s power, his ideology is ascendant. He transformed West Virginia not just physically (entire towns have been wiped out by Massey’s footprint), but politically. Now, by playing off fears of creeping government involvement, the coal industry has strengthened its grip on state politics. Lawmakers friendly to the industry, with financial support from Blankenship, have won sweeping victories at the ballot box and used their mandate to roll back health and safety regulations while trumpeting the survival-of-the-fittest capitalism that was Blankenship’s gospel. The man on the mountaintop may have fallen, but the widespread impact of his legacy shows no signs of diminishing.

And it’s great that Blankenship has finally noticed that West Virginians need help. But he didn’t exactly have a jailhouse conversion to the side of the angels.

Who was upmost on his mind as he once more breathed the heady air of freedom? As DeSmogBlog notes,

[After leaving prison], the former CEO of Massey Energy released an open letter to President Trump urging the administration to ignore any legislation that would strengthen punishments for mining company executives and supervisors who knowingly flout safety rules.

Coal supervisors are not criminals, and the laws they work under today are already frightening enough for them. More onerous criminal laws will not improve mine safety,” Blankenship wrote. He said that Congress “too often wants to punish coal companies, coal operators, and coal supervisors versus helping them to improve coal mine safety.”

Yep. Coal supervisors and company executives. They’re the real victims here.

Could Blankenship serve 1 to 6, with time off for good behavior?

“If I could get some momentum, some help, I might have a chance at winning a Republican primary, particularly,” says Blankenship. “I assume Joe Manchin would love to see me get in the race because he would probably think I would be more easily beatable than the others.”

Well, maybe. Blankenship’s lawyers, in trying to get his trial moved from West Virginia to Baltimore, claimed his name was so toxic in West Virginia that he couldn’t possibly get a fair trail. But as we have seen, some deplorables will vote for just about anyone, no matter how toxic their reputation seems to the rest of us.

As Blankenship wrote in his letter to Trump,

“You and I also share something. We share relentless and false attacks on our reputation by the liberal media. The attacks on me have been relentless since 1985 when the miners at a group of mines I supervised chose to decertify their union membership. I am hopeful that in considering this request to improve coal miner safety, you will put aside the media’s false claims about me and help me expose the truth of what happened at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010.”

West Virginia used to be a solid Democratic bastion, thanks to the United Mineworkers Union. But one of the Coal mine employment by wikimediahallmarks of the Obama era was Appalachia turning on the Democrats who brought them rural electrification and poverty programs and going deep rock red (and I’m sure racism had nothing to do with it).

They blamed Obama for eliminating coal jobs, rather than the oligarchs who actually reduced coal employment from a peak of 863,000 in 1923 to just 50,000 today, by mechanizing the mines and switching to hugely destructive mountaintop removal mining that uses a fraction of the workers to move the same amount of coal.

It would be the ultimate irony if these poor whites end up voting for the very oligarch who destroyed their jobs (along with their water and land) because they believe that only he can fix the mess he created.

(Coal miner employment chart by Wikimedia Commons)


About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.