On the eighth anniversary of the worst American mine disaster in half a century, Don Blankenship was camped out at a diner in Elizabeth, West Virginia, explaining to an audience of two why his recently completed stint in federal prison made him more appealing to voters.
The trip to B-Bopp, a ’40s-themed joint about the length of a Mack truck, had been advertised as a chance to throw questions at the man whose campaign for US Senate has thrown Republican operatives into crisis mode. But only a pair of white-haired men had stuck around for lunch with Blankenship and his entourage. “We was told we come down here, we’re gonna eat,” said one of them, a bespectacled activist with a Trump hat and a prospector beard.
The 68-year-old Blankenship is a large man with thinning hair, a double-wide chin, and a thick brown mustache. During his 18 years as CEO of the Appalachian coal giant Massey Energy, he cultivated a reputation as a domineering taskmaster whom subordinates crossed at their peril—a boss who bragged of having been shot at by his own employees, a millionaire who allegedly ripped a coat rack out of the wall to prove a point to his housekeeper. But Blankenship is so soft-spoken in person it sometimes sounds as if he is talking to his shirt. He struggles at small talk. He’d rather discuss his ads.
“As I say in one of my commercials, it should be easy to choose between me and the others,” he said, as he waited on his egg sandwich, “because the enemies I have are the very enemies of West Virginia—Obama and Hillary.”
Two years ago, Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws in the lead up to the April 5, 2010, explosion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine. Twenty-nine miners died in the blast. Although he was never charged in connection with the explosion itself, four subsequent investigations reached the same conclusion: Massey’s emphasis on profits over safety had created a perfect storm of hazards that made the disaster possible. Prosecutors had aimed to send Blankenship to prison for 30 years on a handful of charges, the most serious of which was making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission about Massey’s safety record (a felony). After he was found guilty on a single misdemeanor charge, the judge handed down the statutory maximum. Blankenship went from being a merely polarizing figure in the state to a pariah.
But that was then. Now, Blankenship isn’t running from his conviction—he’s largely running on it.