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Coal magnate trying to fire up GOP support

Published by MAC on 2006-10-28

Coal magnate trying to fire up GOP support

By IAN URBINA, New York Times

28th October 2006

CHARLESTON, W.VA. — Don Blankenship is not the governor of West Virginia. But, here in coal country, some say he may as well be, considering the power he wields.

Blankenship, chief executive of the state's largest coal producer, Massey Energy, has promised to spend "whatever it takes" to help win a majority in the state Legislature for the long-beleaguered Republican Party in a state that is a Democratic and labor stronghold.

In a state where candidates who win typically spend less than $20,000, Blankenship has poured an estimated $6 million into political initiatives and local races in the past three years.

Blankenship has spent at least $700,000 in his current effort to oust Democrats.

The state is awash with lawn signs, highway billboards, radio advertisements and field organizers that he has bankrolled.

"Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office," said Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat whose congressional district includes a majority of Massey's coal mines.

"He would be twice as accountable and half as feared," Rahall said.

Rather than bankroll his own political ambitions, as have wealthy businessmen such as Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, Blankenship has exerted his financial clout in the mold of Warren Buffett and George Soros, choosing issues and candidates in line with his philosophy.

Union leaders say Blankenship, 56, is the main reason that less than a quarter of the state's coal miners are now organized, down from about 95 percent just three decades ago.

And environmentalists describe him as the biggest force behind a form of mining called mountaintop removal that involves using explosives to blow off the tops of mountains to reach coal seams.

Local Republicans admiringly say that Blankenship combines the strategic savvy of Karl Rove, the White House adviser, and the fundraising skill of Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative financier.

Blankenship personally oversees his media campaigns; he writes advertisements and designs polls, and speaks on talk radio more than the chairman of the state Republican Party.

"This has never been an easy state for Republicans," said the party chairman, Doug McKinney. "But finally this state is at a tipping point, and Don is a big reason for that."

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