Wealthy Coal Executive Hopes to Turn Democratic West Virginia Republican
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Don L. Blankenship is not the governor of West Virginia. But here in coal country some say he may as well be, considering the power he wields.
Mr. Blankenship, the chief executive of the state’s largest coal producer, Massey Energy, has promised to spend “whatever it takes” to help win a majority in the State Legislature for the long-beleaguered Republican Party in a state that is a Democratic and labor stronghold.
In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Mr. Blankenship has poured more than $6 million into political initiatives and local races over the past three years. Mr. Blankenship has spent at least $700,000 in his current effort to oust Democrats, and the state is awash with lawn signs, highway billboards, radio advertisements and field organizers paid for by him.
“Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office,” said United States Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat whose district includes a majority of Massey’s coal mines. “He would be twice as accountable and half as feared.”
Rather than bankroll his own political ambitions, as have businessmen like Gov. Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, Mr. Blankenship has exerted his financial clout in the mold of Warren Buffett and George Soros, choosing issues and candidates in line with his partisan philosophy.
Union leaders say Mr. Blankenship, 56, is the main reason that less than a quarter of the state’s coal miners are now organized, down from about 95 percent just three decades ago. And environmentalists describe him as the biggest force behind a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal that involves using explosives to blow off the tops of mountains to reach coal seams.
Local Republicans admiringly say that Mr. Blankenship combines the strategic savvy of Karl Rove, the White House adviser, and the fund-raising skill of Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative financier. Mr. Blankenship personally oversees his media campaigns; he writes advertisements and designs polls, and speaks on talk radio more than the chairman of the state Republican Party.
“This has never been an easy state for Republicans,” said the party chairman, Doug McKinney, seated in his party’s headquarters, a dank cinder-block building in Charleston bought in 2002, half of it paid for with a $100,000 donation from Massey Energy. “But finally this state is at a tipping point, and Don is a big reason for that.”
In 2004, Mr. Blankenship financed a $3.5 million campaign that catapulted a little-known lawyer, Brent D. Benjamin, who barely won the Republican primary, onto the public stage as the first Republican to serve on the state’s Supreme Court.
In 2005, Mr. Blankenship spent $650,000 to deal Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, the most significant defeat of his tenure by blocking a plan to use bonds to shore up the state’s under-financed employee pension plan.
George W. Bush won West Virginia in 2000, the first time since 1928 that voters backed a nonincumbent Republican for president. Mr. Bush won the state again in 2004, and in the past several years, a large number of Republicans have moved into the state’s eastern panhandle, mostly from Virginia.
In 2002, Republicans picked up 11 seats in the House of Delegates (but are still in the minority), and local political analysts say it is possible, though a long shot, that the Republicans will pick up the additional 18 House seats they need to control the Legislature in November. The Democrats retain a strong majority in the Senate.
“Don is really the linchpin of it all,” said Gary Abernathy, a consultant for the state Republican Party.
Mr. Blankenship, who declined to be interviewed for this article, told a gathering of Republicans last year in his famously blunt and monotone delivery that it “doesn’t take clairvoyance to know what we need to do” in West Virginia.
“If you go down to Virginia and copy the law book and write ‘West’ in front of it, you would clearly have a more prosperous economy, a better education system and you’d have a better state. It’s that simple,” he said, referring to Virginia, which is deeply Republican and has more pro-business laws than West Virginia.
The first step in that mission, said Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, has been to oppose unions fervently in the state. “From the first day he could, Don began busting unions,” Mr. Roberts said. “He was pretty effective at that, so now Don is trying to extend his reach across the state in politics.”
Raised just up the road from Matewan, the scene of an epic 1921 strike, Mr. Blankenship keeps a reminder of his anti-union beliefs in the back of his office. In 1985, Massey broke from the industry and insisted that miners at each site negotiate separately with the company. During the 11-month strike that resulted, someone shot through Mr. Blankenship’s office window. The old Zenith television whose screen was shattered by the bullet still sits not far from his desk.
After graduating with an accounting degree from Marshall University in Huntington, Mr. Blankenship worked at several companies before becoming a manager in 1982 at Massey, the fourth largest coal producer in the United States. Eight years later, he became the first non-Massey family member to serve as president of the company.
Mr. Blankenship, who received about $34 million in compensation last year (roughly four times the industry standard) runs the company from a double-wide trailer just across the state line in Belfry, Ky. In April, Mr. Blankenship’s personal housekeeper filed a lawsuit seeking unemployment benefits in which she accused him of responding with angry fits to infractions like getting the wrong McDonald’s order or stocking the freezer with the wrong ice cream. After the disasters at the Aracoma Alma Mine, which Massey owns, and the Sago Mine, in which a total of 14 miners were killed, Mr. Blankenship drew sharp criticism after he told The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md., that such accidents were rare and statistically insignificant.
E. Morgan Massey, the company’s former chief executive and an admirer of Mr. Blankenship’s, said that while the criticism he faced as C.E.O. was that he was “too paternalistic,” Mr. Blankenship had been viewed differently.
“Let’s just say Don is the other way entirely,” Mr. Massey said. Mr. Blankenship has also been faulted for his company’s environmental record. Massey has had more toxic spills of coal waste than any other company in the state, and from January 2000 to December 2005, it received 4,268 citations from state regulators. The next closest company received fewer than 800. A Massey spokeswoman responded by pointing out that Massey is the largest coal producer in the state.
One of Mr. Blankenship’s biggest concerns, especially after Massey lost a $50 million jury verdict in August 2002 for having forced a smaller company out of business, has been “plaintiff-friendly courts” that he says have made West Virginia an expensive place to do business.
At the same time, Mr. Blankenship has not been shy about using the courts to deal with his adversaries. In the past several years he has sued the governor, the United Mine Workers union, the state Supreme Court, and The Charleston Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper.
Governor Manchin said he tried not to pay Mr. Blankenship any mind.
“I know Don writes a lot of checks,” Mr. Manchin said. “At this point, I’m just sticking with the issues and reminding voters of the successes we’ve had with help from the Legislature. I’m not paying attention to Don.”
The state Democratic Party, however, is taking the opposite approach. It is distributing bumper stickers saying, “Don, WV is not for sale,” and has set up a Web site listing controversial comments from Mr. Blankenship. The party has sent letters to Republican candidates pressing them to give back Mr. Blankenship’s contributions; so far, two candidates have done so.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature has also tried to rein in Mr. Blankenship’s influence.
Last year in response to Mr. Blankenship’s impact on the Supreme Court race in 2004, lawmakers passed a campaign-finance law capping at $1,000 how much an individual can give to so-called 527 groups like the one Mr. Blankenship used to influence that race.
However, individuals still can spend unlimited sums of their own money on campaign advertisements, and that is just what Mr. Blankenship has said he plans to do.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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