The Battle for West Virginia’s Senate Seat

As a native of West Virginia, and one who came of age there, returning for junior high and high school (after my parents moved to and from small towns of eastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia), I feel compelled to offer some comments about the state of the senate race in the state. Why, would you ask, since I have not lived in the state since leaving in 1964 after college in neighboring Virginia, would I care, and why would I be qualified to comment at all after such a long absence? I have come back often for family connections and a great high school reunion every five years. I've seen a split in my family on both sides of the political divide, and have seen my originally very close high school class divide bitterly along red and blue lines in the age of Trump. Maybe, just maybe, the distance in both time and geography makes the mind clearer. Like someone famous said, "Who am I to judge?" But I will weigh in.

An article in today's Wall Street Journal (May 4) paints a fascinating picture of the current senate race. Joe Manchin is running for reelection as a Democratic Senator for the state. He faces an uphill fight in a state that provided Trump an election margin of 42 percentage points! West Virginia has gone from a solid blue bastion of the Democratic Party and home to the union and working man to one of the reddest and safest states for a Republican candidate for President. The three major Republican candidates to unseat Manchin represent the large, and frankly unsavory spread of their Party. In fact, the national Republican leadership is trying hard to defeat one of its own candidates, Don Blankenship, who has been a leading threat to unseat Manchin ... after Blankenship got out of prison, where he served a one-year term for a mine safety conviction following the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

The explosion in Upper Big Branch, a Massey-owned mine south of Charleston, attributed to poor ventilation and faulty water systems, killed 29 workers in April 2010.

Blankenship was the CEO of Massey Energy at the time, and was forced to retire after the disaster. A criminal investigation found that the company covered up safety violations. The jury found Blankenship, who has remained defiant, guilty on one of three counts—conspiring to willfully violate safety standards, a misdemeanor. They found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements.

The original indictment alleged that for years prior to the explosion, Blankenship “conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards” at the mine and “was part of a conspiracy to impede and hinder federal mine safety officials from carrying out their duties at Upper Big Branch by providing advance warning of federal mine safety inspection activities, so their underground operations could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed.”

Two other candidates are vying with Blankenship to oppose Manchin in November. The West Virginia senate seat is lining up to be crucial in control of the Senate for the Republicans. Blankenship's leading opponents include Republican Representative Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat who has switched parties, and State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. An April 18 poll from Fox News put Jenkins ahead with 25% of likely Republican votes, followed by Morrisey with 21% and Blankenship with 16%. Three additional Republicans trailed with less than ten percent between them.

Republican officials do not want Blankenship to win the Republican primary, feeling that either Jenkins or Morrisey would fare better against Manchin, the former Governor and moderate Democrat who remains  popular in the state.  Blankenship has conducted a bitter campaign, angry with the national Republican leadership, and has accused "Cocaine Mitch" McConnel of being involved with the drug business through his wife's ties in Asia! (McConnel's wife is Elaine Chao,  Secretary of Transportation in the Trump Administration.) To exemplify the dystopian nature of the present political playing field these days, Blankenship, who states that he does not believe the polls, claims that the mine disaster was caused by federal mine-safety regulators and then was covered up by the Justice Department. This has resonated with some voters in the state, who are quoted in the Journal article: "They set (Blankenship) up to get killed. I don't believe he is guilty ..."

The acrid and acidic nature of politics these days produces extremes. One voter who was surveyed supports Mr. Morrisey for his positions to ban transgender students in the schools from using the bathroom of their "identified sex" and to oppose abortion, both red-meat evangelical positions. So the race will depend on a wide range of positions. The climate is ripe in the age of Trump for conspiracy claims and belief in "fake news." Blankenship's position that he doesn't trust the Fox polls could be vindicated, since nearly 31% of the respondents favored none of the three, or were undecided.

Since I grew up there and memorized the population and all fifty-five county seats, West Virginia has maintained a population of roughly 1.8 million as births and "move-ins" equal deaths and "move-outs." The natural beauty of the state is unsurpassed along the spine of the Appalachians, however mining excesses including slag heaps, apart from their ugliness, also contaminate streams and water supplies. The campaign decision by George W. Bush, to allow "mountain topping" mining techniques, resulted in political and financial support to gain the state's three electoral votes -- three key votes which put him over the top. Mountain topping is a low-cost mining technique where the top 500 to 1,000 feet of ridge-lines literally are leveled off, the coal extracted, and slag and discarded rock are stored temporarily or strewn down the slopes until finally an attempt is made to "restore" the area, to put it back as it was. It never is! Streams are defiled and the natural beauty of the state has been scarred along with the lungs of the hardy men who work the mines.

Mountain top removal in Pike County, Kentucky

West Virginia continues to lag/suffer in terms of education, poverty, drug addition, and other malaises of modern life. My home town of Princeton is afflicted with many boarded-up stores on what used to be the vibrant main street. Part of the decline is due to national changes in retailing such as Internet buying, as well as a Mall on one end of town and giant big-box stores on the other. Fortunately, Princeton lies on the major intersection of the West Virginia Turnpike (Interstate 77) and US Route 460, a major E-W artery, so has a large hospitality and service industry of motels/restaurants, etc. Nearby Bluefield, for many years a city of over twenty thousand nestled next to the 3,500 foot tall East River Mountain chain, once the business center for mining and railroading in southern West Virginia, now languishes with around ten-thousand residents and a depressed downtown. Charleston, the state capital, formerly had over one hundred thousand residents. Now listed with a population of just over fifty thousand, it's the largest city in the state! With few job opportunities outside health care, the chemical industry along the Kanawha River, and mineral extraction, many people have left the state for better opportunities. The natural beauty is, as mentioned, unsurpassed. But the signs of decline are clear.

The state deserves forward thinking leadership. To be subjected to the rants of Don Blankenship, called the "Roy Moore of West Virginia" does nothing to help that situation. Rational citizens who value education and alternates to the mineral extraction industries need to step up.


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Author: Reunion, and Contact Sport.


4 Responses

  1. Well said!
  2. A masterfully written piece Jim. You may know that one of my sons has been living in Charleston for most of his 47 years. He has always enjoyed the political scene, almost as much as he enjoys the scenery. It is a truly unique place.
  3. I was born and raised in Huntington, left for an EE education at the University of Cincinnati, and returned only for a few visits. My mother was born in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky, where her father, my grandfather, was an EE working in the mines. He had been born and raised in Lonaconing, a coal mining town in the Maryland panhandle. He later worked in Switzer, near Logan, and eventually settled in Huntington, where bad health forced him to take a job as a "stationary engineer" in a downtown building. A few years before she died, my mother wrote down her memories of a childhood train trip up one holler, and a hike up another holler to attend Devil Anse Hatfield's funeral. They arrived to find a NY Time reporter covering the event. The first time I was allowed to take my parents' '57 Chevy out for a spin with my new drivers license, it was into the coal fields east of Charleston, where I saw homes with people living at subsistence level in abandoned company towns. I'll never forget how the coal companies ripped everyone off, and I continue to read, in disturbing detail, how they continue to do so. Blankenship and others like him are scum, and should have been prosecuted for murder. In recent months, I've found several things about my home state profoundly disturbing. First, a recent PBS interview with a young man in his 20s who seemed to be barely literate, stating, with great emotion, that his only goal to be a miner like his daddy and his daddy's daddy. Second, election returns that showed Blankenship's strong support in the very counties where his management had caused the death of dozens of miners. Third, the devastation of my hometown by opiods. Fourth, that the population of the city where I was born and raised and the state capitol where I worked as a college student have dropped by half. When I was a kid, there were steel and glass factories in Huntington and Charleston was a major center of chemical industry. Fifth, by the apparent terrible state of education in the state. I've always believed that I got a pretty good education in Huntington, and I still remember my Civics teacher, Ms. Toole, admonishing us to remember not WHERE I read something, but WHO wrote it.
  4. Jim, right on. Right on. When I was in high school in Princeton, the three "big cities" in the state were all a bit over one-hundred thousand, which seemed like a million to me at the time. The three, Wheeling, Huntington, and Charleston, all are about fifty thousand or so now. Bluefield, the largest city in the southern tier of West Virginia, was twenty or twenty-five thousand, and sported the regional newspaper, the NBC TV station, and three (one FM and two AM ...count 'em!) radio stations. Wow, Bluefield was the cat's meow. Today, Bluefield is a shuttered and depressed city or less than ten-thousand residents. Most of the growth moved over to the Virginia side of the border, although nearly all rural areas are not booming. I don't know what the answer is. Long term, it's education and transition to more modern industries, along with trying to get a college branch in your town. Health care seems to be the only growth business, along with some tourism and the motel/restaurant hubs for major highway intersections. It's "drive through" country and a "Land for Old Men (and women)."

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