Who The Hell Is Don Blankenship?

Don Blankenship is one of the Republican candidates hoping to unseat West Virginia’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin this fall. Yesterday, he released the following campaign ad, which cements him, even in the age of hideous Republicans like Roy Moore and Arthur Jones, as an all-time awful candidate:

It’s a spectacular cavalcade of political amateurism. The flat, monotone delivery. The dead-eyed, expressionless face. The use of “Chinapeople”, an antiquated and derogatory racial term weirdly updated to be gender-inclusive. The back and forth between a close-up shot of his face and a more zoomed-out shot, cutting almost rhythmically with the end of every sentence. The entire ad spent railing against Mitch McConnell, a fellow Republican who serves as a Senator from an entirely different state. The two little girls at the end, presumably his granddaughters, necks and limbs seemingly frozen in unnatural positions, as if they are lifelike dolls hastily and clumsily poised.

Who is he? ceases to be the right question. The better question is, what is he? Blankenship comes across not so much as a man, a soul possessing aspirations and dreams of office, of public service, as he does a dead-eyed dinosaur, a decrepit fossil with beliefs and vocabulary more befitting someone who just emerged from a triple-length Rip van Winkle slumber. The sort of man who, in response to controversy over his use of “Chinapeople” in this ad, uses the word “Negro” to refer to Black people.

Let’s rewind a bit. Blankenship spent decades in the coal industry, eventually becoming Chairman and CEO of the Massey Energy Company in 2000. He was still in charge when, in 2010, an explosion at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners—the worst mining disaster in the United States in forty years. Multiple investigations found the company culpable for the disaster. Here are some choice highlights from the Mine Safety and Health Administration:

The physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at UBB and were entirely preventable…. the unlawful policies and practices implemented by PCC/Massey were the root cause of this tragedy. The evidence accumulated during the investigation demonstrates that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.

The investigation also revealed multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators.

Witness testimony revealed that miners were intimidated by UBB management and were told that raising safety concerns would jeopardize their jobs. As a result, no safety or health complaints and no whistleblower disclosures were made to MSHA from miners working in the UBB mine in the approximately four years preceding the explosion. This is despite an extensive record of PCC/Massey safety and health violations at the UBB mine during this period.

As the CEO and chairman at the time and for the ten years leading up to the disaster, Blankenship obviously bore substantial responsibility for the company’s despicable, profit-centered, dehumanizing attitude towards its own workers and the deaths that resulted from that disinterest in their safety, and this was reflected in court, where he was sentenced to… one year in prison and a $250,000 fine?!

Believe it or not, by the standards of mine-safety investigations, that’s actually a tough sentence. Blankenship wasn’t accused of direct responsibility for the accident, and the jury acquitted him of several charges that carried higher penalties, such as securities fraud. Ultimately, all they could pin on him was conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards, which, get this, is a misdemeanor charge for which one year in prison is the maximum allowable sentence. What’s worse, according to that linked New York Times article, his sentencing was “the first time such a high-ranking executive had been convicted of a workplace safety violation”. Imagine all the avaricious, morally bankrupt coal barons who subjected their employees to deadly conditions in order to cut costs and completely got away with it before Blankenship received what little punishment he did. Much of the blame there lies with our country’s lawmakers, who “[have] demonstrated little interest in imposing tougher penalties” for violating mine safety laws. Now Blankenship is running to become one of those lawmakers, to further stack the deck against attempts to actually institute and enforce penalties for executives who gleefully put their workers’ lives on the line in order to further line their own pockets.

Still, Blankenship has maintained his innocence—he’s even appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court—and he’s not the only one. Check out this site, which paints him as a noble crusader for thorough investigation of mine safety hazards and accuses the government—and particularly Joe Manchin—of ignoring game-changing forensic evidence dug up in a documentary film sponsored by the same Mr. Blankenship. Indeed, it excoriates Senator Manchin as going on a witch hunt against Blankenship in order to serve some hidden, unspoken agenda.

Wait a second… what’s this here at the bottom of the page?

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Ah. Never mind that “not the only one” part then.

Blankenship’s ill will towards Manchin stems from that supposed witch hunt (and maybe also this letter where Manchin tells Blankenship he’s “disgusted by your continued exploitation of the memory of [the dead miners]”), and it’s likely informed his current bid to unseat the senator. Which takes us back to the present day… where, naturally, his loathing for Manchin has taken a back seat to his weird vendetta against Mitch McConnell.

For whatever reason, Blankenship has gotten very caught up on the fact that McConnell’s wife, current Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, is Chinese. Or, to be more precise, that Chao’s father, shipping magnate James S.C. Chao, is Chinese, and that McConnell is in his pocket. The elder Chao “is a wealthy Chinaperson,” Blankenship said last week on a local radio show. “And there’s a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China.” So fixated is he on this point that he made the ad that inspired this whole article, where he broadcasts to the entire world that he thinks “Chinapeople” is the correct and acceptable way to refer to Chinese people in 2018, and also implies that “Chinapeople” cannot also be “West Virginia people”. (The Asian population in West Virginia may be small, but it’s hardly nonexistent.)

This all becomes especially idiotic when you realize that, per the New York Times, Blankenship is currently engaged to a Chinese woman:

China, as it happens, is a topic of personal interest to Mr. Blankenship. His fiancée, Farrah Meiling Hobbs, was born there. The two met on a flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas about eight years ago, Mr. Blankenship said. According to the website of an international trading company Ms. Hobbs founded, she is “a former Chinese professional basketball player and part-time model” who moved to the United States in 1996.

(Let me just say that it constantly astonishes me how these pallid, unkempt, semi-fossilized conservatives—Sebastian Gorka, Steve Bannon, Blankenship, their ilk—manage to find, or once found, women who were willing to have sex with and/or marry them.)

As if that baffling racism wasn’t enough, the ad coins the nickname “Cocaine Mitch” for McConnell. I think “Swamp Captain Mitch McConnell” is funnier, but “Cocaine Mitch” is definitely the crazier one. The Washington Post has a thorough fact check about its utter lunacy, but in brief, this nickname alludes to the fact that, in 2014, authorities found 90 pounds of cocaine smuggled on a ship run by Foremost Group, the shipping company owned by Chao’s family. Blankenship claims that McConnell’s father-in-law has given him “millions of dollars over the years” (itself not true, unless McConnell is hiding all records of it), and that it’s cocaine-smuggling money as opposed to, you know, international shipping money.

Let’s not forget, either, that this is an ad for somebody running for a Republican primary nomination to go up against a sitting Democratic Senator which spends its entire run time excoriating a Republican from a different state, never mentions any of his primary opponents, and only in passing mentions the Democrat.

It’s truly an incredible example of political advertising, a piece of anti-auteurism, a work so staggeringly myopic and incompetent not just in content but in execution that it could only have come from a single person, a single person of limited talent and lacking any of the discretionary or moderating influences that might come from having someone offer a second opinion. It is a thirty-second epic, maintaining a single-minded, xenophobic focus on McConnell’s family ties even as it attempts to cover every political base imaginable, from cheering job creation in West Virginia to refuting personal attacks against Blankenship himself to beating Joe Manchin to doing it all “for the sake of the kids”. And that’s not even getting touching on the dozens of baffling little details, like how the first three seconds of the ad carry a label that he’s pro-life and an NRA member, or how a reminder to “Vote Don Blankenship” takes over that space for the next 24 seconds, or how his hair is grayer in the “I approve this message” bit than it is in the rest.

He’s not likely to win the Republican nomination, thank goodness. His main opponents, Patrick Morrisey and Evan Jenkins, both consistently poll higher than him. But Blankenship’s poll numbers remain comfortably in the double digits, and with anywhere from 20-40% of the electorate still undecided, his standing could change dramatically. And he shouldn’t even be running. In a just system, he’d still be in jail; in our system, we have to trust that the majority of West Virginians will not vote for a man whose actions led to the deaths of 29 of their own.

That’s all a bit depressing, so let’s close this with a largely tangential anecdote about Don Blankenship that is too funny to leave out.

His son, John, was a racecar driver who enjoyed middling success on his father’s dime. He was named the 2009 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series Rookie of the Year, and managed to run four races in NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series in 2012 before daddy pulled the plug on funding him. This is the car he drove in those four races:

coalcar

His best finish was 23rd, five laps down.

His dirt late model adopted a similar aesthetic. The soot-black look is fitting.

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Top image a composite of public domain portraits of Sens. McConnell and Manchin and Sec. Chao; NuclearVacuum‘s illustration of China; photo of John Blankenship’s car from Conrad Nelson; and a screenshot from season 6, episode 9 of Justified.

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