LOGAN, W.Va. (AP) — A former coal company CEO who went to prison on charges stemming from the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in decades kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign by trying to persuade a largely working class audience that he identifies with them. But one father whose son died in the 2010 tragedy called the GOP businessman’s jump into politics “more of a slap in our face.”
More than 100 supporters clapped heartily for former Massey Energy executive Don Blankenship at his town hall-style event Thursday, where the Republican candidate declared avid support for pro-coal President Donald Trump and signaled he was aligned with West Virginia’s hard-working electorate.
“I may leave here tonight in a little fancier car,” Blankenship told those gathered at a conference center in the city of Logan. “But we come from the same place, and I have not forgotten.”
Men and women in white T-shirts reading “Blankenship” and “U.S. Senate” beneath an American flag applauded repeatedly as he talked about job creation, and aligning with Trump and a Republican-led state Legislature to improve West Virginia’s sagging coal economy.
The campaign kickoff event Thursday night drew no protesters. But Robert Atkins, the man in the audience whose 25-year-old son Jason was killed in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion along with 28 others, said the Senate bid has brought up bitter memories for his family.
Atkins sat to one side of an auditorium in Logan as Blankenship spoke and told The Associated Press that the candidacy was “more of a slap in our face.”
Blankenship 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. Blankenship said having a pro-coal president and a Republican-controlled Legislature gives West Virginia job creation and other economic opportunities “we cannot afford to miss.”
The 67-year-old Blankenship was released from a federal prison in California last year after serving a one-year term. 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.
Manchin, who was West Virginia’s governor at the time of the mine explosion, has said he hoped Blankenship would “disappear from the public eye” after his prison release.
Last year, Blankenship was released from a federal prison in California. He is serving one year of supervised release scheduled to end May 9 — one day after the state’s Senate primary.
Blankenship received approval last August to have his supervised release transferred to federal officials in Nevada. He has a home in Las Vegas.
The U.S. Supreme Court has 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 at the mine. He also has blamed Manchin for helping create the public sentiment against him and challenged the senator to a debate.
Among the first to show up at Thursday’s Senate kickoff event was retired federal mine safety inspector Doug Smith, a registered Republican living in West Virginia and a Blankenship supporter. Smith said his 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.