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Published:December 1st, 2006 12:34 EST
Coal Mogul Comes Up Short in Effort to Buy Legislature

Coal Mogul Comes Up Short in Effort to Buy Legislature

By Michael Costello

When Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship announced he would once again get involved in West Virginia politics, some were surprised, many were outraged.  The outcome was unexpected.  What was considered a possibly decisive factor only months ago has faded to a virtual non-issue in the weeks following the midterm election.

Blankenship poured nearly $3 million of his own money into a multiple candidate campaign for the entitled And For the Sake of the Kids. In the campaign, voters were urged to support 41 GOP candidates over dozens of incumbents targeted for their voting records on issues ranging from repeal of the state's five percent food tax to what Blankenship claimed allowance for "secret abortions."

While Blankenship hoped his efforts would result in a Republican majority in at least the House of Delegates, the campaign backfired.  Republicans lost seats in both the House and Senate. 

"Don Blankenship spent a lot of money to do nothing," state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey said after election results came in.

In the 100-member House, Democrats managed to increase their majority as they will begin the 2007 legislative session with 72 seats, up from the 68 seats held by the party prior to the election. 

Republican incumbents Cindy Frich of Monongalia County, Greg Howard of Cabell County, Debbie Stevens of Tucker County and Gil White of Ohio County all lost to their Democratic opponents. 

Prior to the election, few Republican candidates distanced themselves from Blankenship and his donations.  Many welcomed his involvement, despite harsh criticism from state Democrats.  After the election, however, the tone of GOP leaders changed.

"I think people were mad about what they saw as Don's over-involvement in the election,"  said Doug McKinney, State Republican Party Chairman.

"Democrats campaigned hard to link Republicans to Don Blankenship, as if that were a bad thing," he said.

McKinney said that the GOP could not work with Blankenship because of campaign finance laws.  He said that even if his party tried to stop the coal mogul's involvement, they couldn't.  Republicans didn't try however, and the result was disappointment for Blankenship and his candidates.

Blankenship has emerged as a controversial figure in West Virginia both in and out of the political arena.  Many state residents are avid opponents of mountaintop removal strip mining, a process in which several hundred feet of earth are removed and displaced in order to extract thin coal seems below the surface.  The environmental effects of the process are often detrimental to adjacent communities.  But Blankenship consistently defends the practice and denies any adverse effects it may cause. 

In addition Massey Energy has accrued the most safety and environmental violations of any coal operator in West Virginia in recent years, according to state records.

A significant point of Blankenship's controversial image is Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, only 100 yards from a Massey-owned coal processing plant, and positioned under a slurry impoundment filled with more than three-billion gallons of toxic sludge and coal waste.  Air and water quality at the school has allegedly deteriorated, and is believed to cause illness to students on a regular basis.  Concerned community activists have been lobbying for a new school, built away from coal-processing operations, but again, Blankenship insists there is no danger presented to the more than 200 students at the school.      

Blankenship's industry record lead many to allege a desire to invest in business-friendly  state government less likely to enforce regulations. In 2004, Blankenship paid millions of dollars to successfully elect Republican challenger Brent Benjamin over Democratic incumbent Warren McGraw in a race for Justice of the State Supreme Court. 

Blankenship insists however that there is no connection between his professional ambitions and his involvement in state politics.

"I don't feel my involvement in trying to improve West Virginia government and managing Massey is conflicted," he said.  "What I do politically is for the general good."

"The coal company I manage is the most successful ever to operate in central Appalachia by any measure," he said.  "Those that understand that are ok with my involvement.  Others are probably waiting to see."

Blankenship has indicated that his political activity will not stop this year, even in the face of the setback of the midterm election.

"I'm hoping that this is sort of like priming a pump and that people will begin to be more attentive and more aware so that this type of campaigning shouldn't be necessary," he said.  "A lot of people disagree with the type of campaigning I've been doing and with the involvement of one person, but I'm just trying to provide the counterbalance to get it evened up and then hope that it will have a life of its own."