Disgraced and once-imprisoned former West Virginia coal magnate Don Blankenship is hoping to occupy Senator Joe Manchin’s soon-to-be-vacated seat, as the long-time Democratic lawmaker retires in 2024. Having run unsuccessfully in 2018 as the GOP Senate candidate, and in 2020 as a candidate for the Constitution Party, this time, the Appalachian strip-mining baron, who once called himself “Trumpier than Trump,” is running as a Democrat.
Blankenship explained to WV News that he switched parties because of personal animus: the Republicans pushed false stories about him, according to his telling, and were not properly focused on his state’s opioid crisis. West Virginia has the highest rate of deaths from opioids in the country.
State Democrats did not cheer his announcement. “I don’t care what letter he has after his name this week,” West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Pushkin wrote in a statement to news outlets, “Don Blankenship is not a Democrat and does not represent the values of our party.”
Blankenship once called himself “The most hated man in Mingo County.” As the head of Massey Energy, a massive coal company, Blankenship helped lead a program of mountaintop removal—an extreme form of strip mining that involves destroying mountain tops and ridgelines to be able to mine coal more cheaply. Mountaintop removal has dire consequences for the environment and for anyone who doesn’t have equity in the company doing the mining. These can include poisoning nearby drinking water sources, and increasing the likelihood of flooding—both of which happened in Mingo County (large floods happened multiple times).
As my colleague Tim Murphy revealed in a 2015 profile, after Blankenship was indicted “for allegedly conspiring to commit mine safety violations, conspiring to cover up those violations, and providing false statements about his company’s safety record,” the magnate worked overtime to make sure that the damage he inflicted on the state extended far beyond environmental devastation.
Blankenship crushed the mine workers union that was baptized in his backyard. Voluminous court records and government investigations show that he presided over a company that padded its profits by running some of the most dangerous workplaces in the country.
This, predictably, resulted in the worst mining tragedy in decades:
A mascot of the coal industry’s worst excesses, Blankenship pumped millions of dollars into West Virginia’s political system to promote an anti-regulatory agenda and curry favor with state lawmakers and officials. But Massey’s pursuit of profits at any cost ultimately proved to be Blankenship’s downfall. When, on April 5, 2010, an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers—the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years—prosecutors began slowly building a case against the powerful mogul.
Blankenship was sentenced in 2016 and spent a year in prison after being found guilty of conspiring to violate mine safety regulations.
Now, eager for a new challenge, the senatorial hopeful told WV News, that he was running for office in order “to help residents realize that ‘our enemy is the government and the politicians, and which party you’re in doesn’t really matter.'” Former miners and family members of those who were killed while he was in charge of Massey Energy have criticized the newly-minted Democrat, AP reports. For others in the state’s coal community, he’s “assertive” and a “man of integrity.”