Monday, March 19, 2018

Ex-con coal baron nears lead in W.Va. Senate primary; illustrates 'conservative movement in rural America'

Convicted coal CEO Don Blankenship is running neck and neck in the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in West Virginia, but he's aiming his blows at Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the former governor he considers responsible for his year in the pokey.

"In 2016, the former hard-charging chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co. went to federal prison for conspiring to evade safety laws in the lead-up to the worst coal mine disaster in a generation—a 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners. Manchin, the governor at the time, commissioned an independent probe that reached blistering conclusions about Blankenship’s tight grip over Massey and did a lot to seal public opinion about his role in the disaster," Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. "Years later, as federal prosecutors zeroed in on Blankenship, Manchin, by then a senator, said on national TV that the ex-coal boss had 'blood on his hands'."

Blankenship, who maintained his innocence during his year in prison, "entered this race because he has an axe to grind with Joe Manchin," state House Democratic Minority Whip Mike Caputo told Loh. "It's more personal than politics." But to face Manchin, Blankenship has to get through the May 8 GOP primary. His foes are more experienced politicians, but he has blown past state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in polling and is only two percentage points (within the margin of error) behind U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, who represents the state's southern third.

Many West Virginians seem to have accepted Blankenship's claim that he's a victim, and some miners associate him with better times, when the state's coal production was three times higher than today. Through his anti-union, anti-illegal immigration stances, "Blankenship has tapped into the anger of working people in West Virginia and their deep frustration over the state’s stagnant economy," Loh reports. "To understand Blankenship’s appeal is to understand the current conservative movement in rural America, and how, in the span of several years, West Virginia became one of the reddest states in the country after decades as a Democratic enclave."

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