Former Coal Company CEO Don Blankenship Polarizes GOP Primary Electorate in Southern W.Va.

May 4, 2018

Polls show former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship hovering in third place in the six-way Republican U.S Senate primary primary race. In his native Mingo County, Blankenship’s donations to the community, and a belief that he will help bring back jobs, have led some to support him.

On one end of the main street in Matewan, West Virginia, a replica train station houses memorabilia from the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the historic Mine Wars. Don Blankenship grew up near here in this Mingo County town along the border with Kentucky. Massey paid for this million-dollar museum and welcome center, and a plaque on the wall bears Blankenship’s name.  

On the other end is the local chapter of United Mine Workers of America -- the union Blankenship tried to break at his own mines. Among the signs planted firmly out front is one thanking Sen. Joe Manchin, the Democrat Blankenship hopes to challenge in November.

Joe Vagott is the of head of the Matewan Visitors and Convention Bureau. He said he’s still undecided but is leaning toward Blankenship. The 60-year-old former Massey security officer recognizes that this man, whose kids grew up playing with his own, is a polarizing figure.

“He’s done a lot of great things for this community,” Vagott said. “It depends on which side of the fence you’re looking from.”

A jury found that Blankenship conspired to violate mine safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County. Twenty-nine miners died there in 2010. It was the worst U.S. mine explosion in 40 years, and he spent a year in federal prison. 

Independent investigators found that sparks in the mine ignited a pocket of methane, setting off a chain of explosions, which could have been prevented. Blankenship maintains that the Mine Safety and Health Administration cut the mine's airflow, leading to an explosion and a widespread cover-up. But no other independent source who has studied what happened has ever reached that conclusion. Even before Upper Big Branch, MSHA found that Blankenship ran dangerous mines for years.

It's Complicated

Terry Steele, 65, is a retired coal miner and rank-and-file UMWA member in Nicholas County. He said he doesn’t know anyone who supports Blankenship where he lives. He also has a home in Matewan, and things are more complex there.

“There’s still division all over the area for who are for him, and those who not only against, we’re dead-set against him,” Steele said. “He brags about busting the union. If he gets it beat, it’ll be because the union beat him. And it will be enjoyable.”

Blankenship is running a self-funded campaign. None of his rivals have raised the mine disaster as a campaign issue, but national Republicans are working to oppose him. 

Those who do support him describe a man whose presence brings jobs -- and one who put money back in the community when few others did. Bo Copley is a 41-year-old former coal miner from Williamson, and he’s not the Copley running against Blankenship in the GOP primary. He touches on that nostalgia.

“When he had Massey, when it was Massey, he kept everybody working [and] kept money in their pockets,” Copley said. “He’ll fight for us. I don’t know that that’s what he’s running on, but he’ll fight for us back here. Manchin has fought for us before. I don’t know these other guys. I know Don.”

David Cook Jr., 51, is a longtime coal truck driver and a former assistant coach for the powerhouse Matewan high school football team, the Tigers. Cook is a Democrat, but said he’d choose Blankenship over Manchin because Blankenship has helped Matewan where it counted. Cook says Blankenship helped to raise money for the team before the school was consolidated. Then after major flooding destroyed the field and equipment in 2002, he wrote a big check. 

“There’s been a lot of people in this area that made millions of millions of dollars that I can’t remember ever helping us do anything,” Cook said. “He never said no. He helped us anytime we ever needed him…[Blankenship as] Senator would be the greatest thing to ever happen to southern West Virginia.”

The flood response factors in heavily for Denise Sipple, a 42-year-old from North Matewan. She works at a grocery store just over the border in Kentucky. She said, her husband had a successful career at Massey. And as Independents, they can vote in Republican primary in West Virginia. 

“He actually sent his own trucks and his own equipment and dug people out and helped clean the roads off and make everything made things passable himself,” Sipple said. “Because it took forever for FEMA or anybody to get down here.”

A View from the Past

Gestures like that go a long way. Chuck Keeney, an Appalachian history professor at Southern WV Technical and Community College, said they hearken back to the days when corporate titans acted as benefactors even while ruling with an iron fist.

“It’s 21st Century welfare capitalism. It was started in the 1920s, adopted by big industries, largely as an anti-union movement, but it also about providing recreational facilities, PR, ball fields, things like that for local communities to deflect criticism of companies and build up public support,” Keeney said. “Blankenship has played into that quite effectively in the southern coalfields, and for some individuals that means a lot.”

Keeney senses a lot of gusto for Blankenship that’s not reflected in other candidates.

“You have people that support Blankenship tend to be very enthusiastic in their support.” he said. “Now there are people who are very enthusiastic in their dislike of Blankenship obviously. And I think enthusiasm was one of the things that helped Trump win in 2016.”

UBB Anger Persists

About 100 miles away in Raleigh County, Gary Quarles walks around his woodsy living room, surrounded by mine memoriabilia and dozens of family photos. He and his wife, Patty, lost their only son, Gary Wayne, in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. He was 33 and left behind an 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. An autopsy revealed he also had black lung disease.

The Blankenship signs that dot the road between Williamson and Matewan are nowhere to be found in these parts, just minutes away from where the mine exploded. If a Blankenship ad comes on TV, Gary turns it off, but then they show up when he’s listening to country music on YouTube.

Quarles is angry about Blankenship’s run. He’s accepted that some people refuse to believe the facts about the mine disaster, but he wonders how anyone could vote for him.

“He cares nothing about nobody, and people need to know that,” Quarles said. “If you ain’t made up your mind, and it’s laying on your mind about should I or shouldn’t I, Don don’t care about you. That should be enough not to vote for Don Blankenship.”

And though he never wants to see him again, he has a message for Blankenship himself.

“You’ve got the money, you can go anywhere you want to go, so go and leave us alone,” Quarles said. “You’ve not cared a thing about the people that got killed at UBB, and you’ve never apologized to nobody.”

That unrepenting attitude has shades of another larger-than-life coalfields personality -- Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin. He led the armed movement to break up the unions in a violent chapter of the mine wars. Chuck Keeney says the area has a history of defying figures like Chafin and celebrating them at the same time. 

“He went to jail, came back, and the town threw a parade for him when he came back from prison,” Keeney said. “This tough, no comprising type of individual, who never apologizes, who never admits he was wrong. I think for whatever reason people in this region tend to be drawn to because they believe that that’s the type of individual that can get things done.”

The 2018 GOP primary is May 8.