LOGAN, W.Va. (AP) — A former coal company executive who went to prison for charges stemming from the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades kicked off his U.S. Senate bid Thursday evening, telling an audience he backs President Donald President Trump as a real opportunity for West Virginia.
Ex-Massey Energy boss Don Blankenship received several ovations from more than 100 supporters present at his town hall-styled kickoff event in Logan. But also among those in attendance was the father of a 25-year-old man who died in the mine explosion that led to charges against Blankenship, and he called the Republican contender’s Senate bid “a slap” in the face.
In kicking off his campaigning, Blankenship said having a pro-coal president and a Republican-controlled state Legislature gives West Virginia an opportunity to create jobs “that we cannot afford to miss.” And he added, it “may never come again.”
The onetime coal businessman will face U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in the May 8 GOP primary. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is seeking re-election.
The 67-year-old Blankenship was released from a federal prison in California last year after serving a one-year term.
Blankenship was sentenced in 2016 for a misdemeanor conviction of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia, where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion.
Blankenship sought to persuade his audience that he was one of them.
“I may leave here tonight in a little fancier car,” Blankenship told those present at a hotel conference center. “But we come from the same place, and I have not forgotten.”
Authorities have long dismissed Blankenship’s argument that natural gas caused the explosion. Manchin, who was West Virginia’s governor during the time of the mine explosion, has said he hoped Blankenship would “disappear from the public eye” after his prison release.
Robert Atkins of Racine, whose 25-year-old son, Jason Atkins, died in the mine explosion, sat to one side of the auditorium and said he was eager to question Blankenship if the opportunity arose about where his true home was — Las Vegas or West Virginia.
Atkins also said the meeting has brought up difficult memories for his family and that Blankenship’s candidacy “is more of a slap in our face.”
Among the first to show up at Thursday’s Senate kickoff event was retired federal mine safety inspector Doug Smith of Chapmanville, a registered Republican and Blankenship supporter whose wife told him about the meeting after seeing it on social media.
“I think he would sure beat what we’ve got in there right now,” Smith said, referring to Manchin.
Blankenship has previously said Trump “needs more than just another vote. He needs input as to how West Virginia can improve its citizens’ quality of life.”
The former coal executive was released from a federal prison in California last year. He is currently serving one year of supervised release scheduled to end on May 9 — one day after West Virginia’s Senate primary.
Blankenship received approval last August to have his supervised release transferred to federal officials in Nevada, where he has a home in Las Vegas.
He was sentenced in 2016 for a misdemeanor conviction of conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia, where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion. He was acquitted of felonies that could have stretched his sentence to 30 years.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Blankenship’s bid to appeal. He has insisted he’s innocent, and that natural gas and not methane gas and excess coal dust caused the explosion. He has blamed Manchin for helping create the public sentiment against him and challenged the senator to a debate.
“I know who I am and what I am,” Blankenship said in a phone interview with The Associated Press in May after leaving prison. “And I’m more than 100 percent innocent, and the charges were ridiculous. And all the emotion and all the publicity about it was just incorrect, which has been the case with me for years and years.”