[This piece was originally published in the Spirit of Jefferson in November, 2015]
Whatever happens at his trial, the hard truth is we are living in Don Blankenship’s West Virginia. The billionaire coal baron may have landed himself in the dock, but along the way, he landed an avalanche of politicians in our Capitol. The policies, and the politicos, that Blankenship groomed for a decade finally broke through in 2014 and they are busily turning our state into one big Massey enterprise.Old Scratch
Don Blankenship has a knack for summing himself up better than anyone else. He has declared that he believes in a kind of social Darwinism — “survival of the fittest” — whatever produces more money and profit justifies itself by that alone. Miners killed or injured by his deliberate circumvention of safety rules were simply a cost of doing business and as long as his bank balance went up, he felt fine.
And, Lord, did it go up. In 2011, when Massey sold out to Alpha, Don Blankenship took an payout worth over $86,000,000.00, on top of all the money he’d made before that. He locked up a lifetime deal for company lawyers too and who knows what other perks. At the height of what people call the “war on coal,” money rained down on Don Blankenship. He won the war.
But as Don faces the long arm of the law, United States Attorney Booth Goodwin, and a possible prison sentence, his legacy surrounds every West Virginian in every county — not just the coalfields he used to haunt. His cronies, proteges, and pals are a veritable “who’s who” of the present-day West Virginia Republican Party. Senators, Delegates, GOP Party officials and flacks — odds are any given one of them graduated from the Don Blankenship school of social Darwinism (or at least took plenty of money from it). They call him the “kingmaker.”
Blankenship’s reign demanded unremitting hostility toward union miners in particular, and the idea of working people bargaining collectively for better wages in general. He despised safety regulations that could slow down his efforts to “run coal” and increase company profits. Most of all, he wanted Republicans to control the Legislature so they could implement his agenda and his favorite policies.Coal Tattoo
And they have. The Armstead/Cole regime in place since the 2014 election followed Blankenship’s playbook page by page. Repeal of coal mine safety regulations: check. Attack on union wages and organized labor: check. Tax cuts for wealthy and influential businesses: on the way. Blankenship didn’t want to run only his mines, he wanted to run the whole state, albeit by proxy. Now West Virginia faces the prospect that Don Blankenship will rule West Virginia from a prison cell.
The power of Blankenship reared its head in Wood County last month, where one of his proteges, Republican county chair Rob Cornelius, got himself removed from his post for outrageous and offensive behavior. His actions included crude sexual remarks at public hearings and brandishing a baseball bat at a retired police officer. The dean of the GOP House caucus, Delegate Frank Deem, called Cornelius “bad news.” Never mind. The State Party quickly reversed course and put Blankenship’s man back on the job. Asked to comment on the trial, the Republican Party darling said: “[Blankenship] was a very good man and friend to me over the years.”
It pays to be Don’s friend, and it pays well.UBB
Millions and millions of Blankenship’s dollars have been poured into the West Virginia Republican machine, and none of it appears to have been returned when he was indicted. Bereft of the man himself as he occupied himself preparing for trial, Bill Cole, Mitch Carmichael, and Patrick Morrisey have become pale echoes of Blankenship’s rhetoric. They lobby for tax cuts benefiting rich businesses like Cole’s own auto-dealerships. They lambaste the wages earned by construction workers. They decry any regulation aimed at protecting human lives and limbs, or even basic clean water, as an affront to the “interests of business.” They re-brand the Blankenship agenda as the “Chamber of Commerce” agenda.
Blankenship once made a great show of living in West Virginia. But after his companies polluted the water supplies in his neck of the woods, we found out he’d built his own private water line for his house, while the local people dealt with his pollution. Once again, he sums himself up better than anything you can say about him. The pure self-interest, the total disregard for the rights of other human beings in the pursuit of profit — Don Blankenship piped in his own special water, while the local folks drank the water he’d dirtied. Social Darwinism.
It’s a shame Blankenship’s friends won’t go on trial with him. He may be the ringleader, but he recruited dozens of accomplices to do his dirty work, and many of them have yet to be charged. Even if he goes to jail, the men his money put in power will continue on the path he paved for them. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” So it may be with Blankenship, unless, in 2016, his legions of politicians receive a different verdict, from a different jury: West Virginia’s voters.