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Don Blankenship, Dead Miners, Humility, and the Limits of Free Speech in West Virginia

A call came in and there was a man who wanted to know if I had any questions for the former coal CEO and convict now running for U.S. Senate. Turns out I did have one.

Don Blankenship, former coal company executive who was convicted of federal safety violations that led to the deaths of 29 coal miners in 2010, is now running for U.S. Senate. (Photo: AP file)

I was sitting at home in West Virginia tonight when a call came in from the U.S. Senate campaign for Don Blankenship.

The campaign wanted to know if I wanted to participate in a phone call town hall with Don.

Sure, why not.

The man in charge of the town hall – a man Don referred to as Greg – said if I wanted to ask Don a question I should punch in star three on my phone.

I punched in star three and waited my turn.

During his opening remarks, Don laid out his conservative credentials – NRA member, pro-life, tough on liberals, on immigration illegal means illegal, drug test teachers, put America first and West Virginia first.

And he took all kinds of calls from around the state – from a father whose kids were dealing with heroin and opioids, from a man who was complaining about high utility bills, from another man who complained about liberals wanting to take away our guns.

Don was gracious and even tempered.

My notes indicate he even railed against “the corporations.”

People were given ample time to ask their questions – one man went on for a couple of minutes before Don interjected to answer.

How democratic, I thought.

Here was Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, a man convicted of a federal crime that led to the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, a man who spent a year in jail for his crime, taking questions from random citizens from around the state. And letting them ask their questions, listening and actually answering the questions.

The question I wanted to ask was – Don do you actually think you can pull the wool over the eyes of West Virginians and win a Senate seat from West Virginia – the scene of the crime?

I actually think he can, because the Democrats are likely to nominate the corporatist Joe Manchin. And it’s very difficult in a red state, in the age of Trump, for a corporate Democrat to defeat a corporate Republican – even if the Republican is multimillionaire CEO convicted of a crime connected to the deaths of 29 miners.

A new poll shows Blankenship is in second place (27 percent) in the May 8 Republican primary, gaining on Congressman Evan Jenkins (29 percent) who is in the lead, with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey trailing in third place at 19 percent.

But before asking my question, I opened with what was on my mind at that moment when Greg said – up next, Russell in Berkeley Springs.

“Hey Don,” I said.

“Hey,” Don said.

“Do you understand the term humility?” I asked.

“Yes,” Don responded.

“What does it mean to you?” I asked.

“Well, it means when you are put in a position of power that gives you more power than you should have, you need to remember to be humble,” Don said. “And when you are in a situation, some of the situations I’ve been in, it will create a lot of humility.”

“The reason I raise it is because you have been convicted – ” I started to say.

But then Greg cut me off and said – next Don we have Joy from Charleston who has a question about the economy.

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Russell Mokhiber

Russell Mokhiber

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.  He is also founder of singlepayeraction.org, and editor of the website Morgan County USA.

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