If you think Donald Trump already holds down the title of the worst American, that’s only because you haven’t met Don Blankenship. Trump may threaten to shoot someone on 5th Avenue, but Don Blankenship killed 29 men 900 feet down in the darkness under Raleigh County, West Virginia. And now he’s a contender for the US Senate … that’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.
Operatives in both parties now say there’s no denying Blankenship is in the top tier of candidates in the race, along with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins. The major reason? His time in prison didn’t deprive him of the fortune he earned running Massey Energy, and he spent more than $2 million on television ads before Morrisey and Jenkins’ campaigns could run their first spot on television.
To say that Blankenship has spent decades running roughshod over the laws of West Virginia and the lives of his workers doesn’t even begin to describe the coal CEO’s actions. When a $50 million judgement against him was before the state Supreme Court, Blankenship treated one of the court’s justices to fun, sun and hookers in Monte Carlo. When the evidence of partying on the Rivera ruined that plan, Blankenship ran his own candidate for the court, spending a record amount to flood the airwaves with “venomous” ads to turn voters against a sitting justice. It worked.
Blankenship was already the highest paid CEO in the coal industry, even though his company was far from the largest, taking home $17.8 million in 2009. But it wasn’t enough. He drove his mines with a notorious disregard for safety. He continually pushed his managers to generate higher profits, criticized supervisors for taking time to address issues, and racked up literally thousands of mine safety violations.
On April 5, 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 men. Both MSHA and an independent team concluded that Blankenship’s company had failed to meet basic safety standards and ignored previous citations and warnings. That included 515 citations in 2009 alone. In court, mine officials directly implicated Blankenship. He was convicted—but only for the safety violations, not for the death of the men—and served a one year sentence. He appealed twice. He lost.
And now he’s running for Senate, and his chances are much, much better than you might think.
When it came to operating his mines, Blankenship made it clear where he stood:
"If any of you have been asked by your group president, supervisors, engineers, or anyone else to do anything other than run coal, you need to ignore them and run coal."
The “anything else” Blankenship is talking about may be building stoppings, hanging curtains, rock dusting and in general doing what’s necessary to keep an underground mine well ventilated and free from the buildup of gas and coal dust. That didn’t happen at Upper Big Branch, because everyone was fixated on “running coal,” rather than operating a safe mine.
Following the disaster, Blankenship floated multiple theories of what had happened. He claimed there had been an unprecedented burst of natural gas, rather than a simple untended buildup of coal dust, as both MSHA and an independent team concluded. Most disturbingly, Blankenship concocted a claim that MSHA itself was to blame—that the mandated ventilation plan for the mine actually cut, rather than increased, airflow across the working face. A review by outside engineers proved that wasn’t true.
Multiple investigations found there was nothing to Blankenship’s claims. But while in jail, Blankeship wrote his own little Mein Kampf, a 67-page screed in which he claims that the government covered up the real reasons for the disaster and that he was a political prisoner of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.
Since his release from jail, Blankenship has already begun filling West Virginia airwaves with his poisonous claims—going so far as to hire the sister of one of the dead miners to appear in an ad demanding that MSHA release information that Blankenship claims they are hiding. It’s clear that Blankenship intends to conduct his own campaign in the same way he managed the defeat of Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, by creating conspiracy theories and depicting Manchin as a tool of the same “deep state” that Donald Trump rails against.
Rather than being ashamed of the time he spent in jail, Blankenship intends to use it as the central theme of his campaign.
When Blankenship mentions Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the most reviled Democrats in this deeply red state, it’s not just a gratuitous name-check. It’s a personal feud, one that many still-out-of-work coal miners feel just as bitterly.
“I don’t know that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and so forth hate anyone more than they hate me,” Blankenship says, noting Clinton even criticized him in her book, “What Happened.” Or, as his political consultant, Greg Thomas, put it to me: “Having the opponent’s Department of Justice put you in jail is the ultimate street cred.”
Despite claims that “Trump digs coal,” coal mine employment is not growing. Coal-fired power plants continued to close in 2017. Even more are scheduled to close in 2018. Some small mine operations are continuing to thrive on the production of coking coal used in making steel, but most mines aren’t capable of producing that type of coal. Coal mine employment in West Virginia is down for both surface mines and underground mines. It will keep dropping.
But miners continue to look for some excuse for why jobs have fallen to a fraction of what they were a generation ago, and it seems easier to accept that Dark Forces in the form of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Joe Manchin conspired against coal … rather than accept that the industry is dying. That idea hasn’t come out of nowhere. Operators like Blankenship have spent decades conducting everything from TV and radio campaigns to concerts and picnics designed to portray themselves as “job creators” and government regulations the enemy. If the idea that miners have come to support the companies that abuse them rather than either the union or agencies trying to keep them safe seems odd, keep in mind that those miners have seen pro-operator ads, slogans, and “news” every single day of their lives. Blankenship alone regularly spends millions just to keep the theme of operators good, government bad circulating. MSHA spends nothing.
The idea that someone who bribed one judge, bought another, and was directly implicated in the deaths of 29 men (and that’s ignoring the other men who died at the same mine under Blankenship’s supervision) could still be a top contender for the US Senate may seem amazing. But Don Blankenship is building on the foundation Trump has made. He’s running on a platform that the DOJ is corrupt, MSHA is corrupt, the whole deep-state freedom-hating government is corrupt, and only a straight-talking businessman who isn’t concerned about being politically correct can set things right.
Should he win the GOP primary, Don Blankenship may turn out to be the next Todd Akin—the only candidate that Manchin can be guaranteed to beat. But don’t count on it. Akin’s loss required that voters be concerned over a candidate who made ignorant, hateful, sexist statements.
In the Trump GOP, Akins are welcome.
A younger Blankenship explains his philosophy of life.