Coal Country Divides Over an Unrepentant Boss’s Senate Bid

Don Blankenship, the former coal executive, kicked off his campaign for the United States Senate in January at an event in Logan, W.Va.

LOGAN, W.Va. — The devastating explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine killed 29 men in 2010 and scarred West Virginia like few events in modern memory. Don Blankenship, the head of the mining company, went to prison over it.

Not many people would call that a springboard for a career in politics.

Yet when Mr. Blankenship emerged last year from his one-year sentence for conspiracy to violate mine safety laws, rather than express remorse or contrition over the tragedy, he announced a run for the United States Senate, in a state where coal has been as much a cultural identity as an economic one.

His return to the public eye has reawakened painful memories in West Virginia, especially for relatives of the disaster’s victims. “You took 29 lives away from families like mine,” said Judy Jones Petersen in an interview, as if she were addressing Mr. Blankenship. Her brother, Dean Jones, was killed in the disaster. “Shame on you for coming back,” she said.

At one of Mr. Blankenship’s meet-and-greet events with voters, a knot of protesters held signs: “You must be joking.”

But in the coal fields, many people don’t think his candidacy is a joke at all. He has found support there for his claim to be a victim himself, pursued unfairly by federal prosecutors and mine safety inspectors. He brazenly calls himself a former “political prisoner.”

“They railroaded him,” said Steve Blair, a retiree who worked in mines run by Mr. Blankenship when he was the chief executive of the Massey Energy Company, once the largest coal producer in central Appalachia. “The federal government turned everybody loose to testify against him, just to get rid of him.”

Mr. Blair, 61, wearing a West Virginia University cap, forked up his steak and eggs at a Bob Evans restaurant recently in Logan. The town, once a Democratic stronghold, is emblematic of how vehemently voters in Appalachia have rejected the national party: Mr. Blair voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but four years later, the sitting president lost the Democratic primary in Logan County to a protest candidate in a Texas prison.

A burly man who is certain in his views, Mr. Blair had a ready explanation for the long decline of the coal industry. “One word: Obama,” he said. “I was put out of business by Obama.”

Mr. Blankenship claims that the federal government, not the coal company, is to blame for the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va. Investigators found no evidence to support his claims, but he is running for office in an era of nationwide voter credulity for conspiracy theories.

And his candidacy is unfolding in a state where many people embrace a sense of persecution over coal’s decline. Economists say that a host of factors are responsible, chiefly the abundance of cheap natural gas, which has undercut coal in the energy marketplace. But that is not what many West Virginians choose to hear.

“What hurt coal was the Obama administration and nothing else,” said Denny Harton, a retired business owner who introduced Mr. Blankenship recently at one of his rallies.

Dianne Dewey White, chairwoman of the Republican Party of Logan County, said thousands of miners who once looked to Mr. Blankenship for work are likely to support him now. “You wouldn’t believe what good parties they had, and what times they had,” she said. “They spent a lot of good years with him. People don’t forget that.”

Coal barons like Mr. Blankenship used to be despised in Logan County, a rugged region in southern West Virginia. The Battle of Blair Mountain happened here in 1921, when miners seeking to unionize clashed with a private army fielded by mine owners, and more than 50 people died.

But as West Virginia has become a deep-red state, the sympathies of many mine families have shifted from unions to mine operators, who are portrayed as job creators.

“I have heard people say, ‘When Don was in charge, we always worked,’” said R. Booth Goodwin II, who prosecuted Mr. Blankenship as a United States attorney and then ran for governor unsuccessfully in 2016. “The coal industry is still perpetuating a lie that coal mining is coming back, and it’s going to be just like it was before, when all objective evidence is to the contrary,” he said.

Mr. Blankenship, 67, is up against two more conventional candidates — Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Representative Evan Jenkins — in the Republican primary in May. He said he is prepared to spend whatever it takes on the race, and his pockets are deep: In his last years at Massey Energy, he was reportedly paid $38.2 million. Opponents who once dismissed his candidacy now see him as a credible threat in the Trump era, positioned to appeal to many West Virginians’ resentment of elites of any kind.

“There’s a pride in the state, deep inside, that comes from people dumping on it so long,” said an aide to Senator Joe Manchin III, the Democratic incumbent who will face the winner of the Republican primary in November.

Mr. Manchin once said that Mr. Blankenship “has blood on his hands” because of Upper Big Branch, the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years. Some West Virginians speculate that Mr. Blankenship is running to pursue a vendetta against Mr. Manchin, who was governor at the time the mine exploded. Although Mr. Manchin is the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, he is still expected to face a tough re-election race in the state, where Donald J. Trump won 68 percent of the vote in 2016.

Mr. Blankenship dismisses talk of a vendetta. “If I wanted to get Senator Manchin, I’d just go out and slam him, like he did me, put national TV ads on,” he said in an interview. “I’m trying to win an election.”

Through a spokesman, Mr. Manchin declined to be interviewed. “Out of respect for our coal miners and their families who are still grieving the loss of their loved ones, I will not comment on Don Blankenship,’’ he said in a statement. “West Virginians know the facts, and the jury has spoken.”

Mr. Blankenship was convicted of a misdemeanor count of conspiracy in 2015 after the jury heard that federal safety inspectors had written hundreds of safety violations for the Upper Big Branch mine, and former miners described unsafe conditions there.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Blankenship charges that “the Obama government blew up the Upper Big Branch mine.” He maintains that the explosion happened because federal inspectors had ordered the company to install an ineffective ventilation system.

None of the several investigations conducted by state, federal and independent authorities support Mr. Blankenship’s theory on the mine disaster. Instead, investigators found that mine management failed to prevent a combustible buildup of coal dust, which was ignited by faulty machinery to create a fireball.

After completing his prison time at the Taft Correctional Institution in California, Mr. Blankenship declared in court papers that his primary residence was in Las Vegas. The car that brought him to a recent appearance in Parkersburg, W.Va., was a luxury BMW sedan with Tennessee plates.

To many relatives of the miners who were killed, his re-emergence in coal country is a source of bitter pain.

Gary and Patty Quarles, who are raising a grandson after their son, Gary Wayne Quarles, was killed at Upper Big Branch, described their anguish at watching Mr. Blankenship’s TV ads, titled “For the Sake of Coal Miners.”

“We’re sitting here in our living room with our grandson, and there he sets up on TV — that’s sickening,” said Mr. Quarles, who also worked in Massey Energy coal mines. “Don can say what he wants to about safety and doing all this and that for miners — there was no safety in Massey coal. None whatever.”

“All they know is to lie, cheat and outlaw,” he added.

At a barbershop on Main Street in Logan, the county seat, customers with ties to mining tended to react negatively to Mr. Blankenship’s candidacy, while the barber, Chad Browning, was studiedly neutral. “Coal is king in this county,” said Mr. Browning, 45. “There’s nothing else here.”

In his shop in the former bus station, a haircut is $10 and a poster for a Kiwanis pancake breakfast is taped to the mirror. The street outside is a shadowy canyon of tired brick buildings, with a tattoo parlor nearby and a pawnshop offering “Loans, Guns, Ammo.” Only one UPS truck stops to make deliveries on Main Street these days, Mr. Browning said, where once there were three.

The UPS driver, Mike Workman, 46, the son of a coal miner, watched Mr. Browning apply hot lather to a customer and shave his neck with a straight razor.

Mr. Workman lamented how the conflict over coal, between protecting jobs and protecting the environment, had become so bitter. “It’s a political war, but to us it’s not a political war — we’re just trying to make a living,” he said. “I don’t think there’s nobody in West Virginia that wants to see the streams tainted. I’m a fisherman and a hunter. We love this area. This is where our kids play. We drink the water here.”

He said he could not vote for Mr. Blankenship. “I’ve had family in the mining industry; they know that he puts production above safety,” he said.

In the barber’s chair, Bob Lucas, 52, who works in a coal processing plant, said he could not support Mr. Blankenship, either. Mr. Lucas was once an electrician at a Massey-owned mine, where he said he was asked to take shortcuts that would compromise safety. Rather than do that, he said, he quit the job.

Mr. Lucas said the mine’s managers lived in fear of a visit from Mr. Blankenship, who would descend on the site by helicopter. “When Don flew in, they were terrified,” he said.

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