In the coal fields of southern West Virginia, one of the biggest campaign issues is — unsurprisingly — the future of coal.
That’s the backdrop for one of the most contentious congressional races of the year, with Democrat and fierce organized labor advocate Richard Ojeda pitted against Republican Carol Miller, a champion of President Donald Trump’s agenda, for the open 3rd Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives.
Both candidates say they are strong supporters of the coal industry. But recent campaign disclosures show that the race has become a proxy for the longstanding struggle between mine owners and the workers who have risked their lives and health to extract billions of tons of the fossil fuel.
Ojeda, for his part, raised an unprecedented $1.4 million over the last fundraising quarter, bringing the cash in mostly through small-dollar donations. He rejects corporate money and receives support from the United Mine Workers of America, among other mine labor organizations.
Miller, in contrast, loaned her campaign $290,000 and relies on large donations from coal and natural gas executives, lobbyists, and attorneys, according to public disclosures. Her recent campaign finance statement reveals a laundry list of corporate-controlled PACs from the energy industry, particularly coal. Among the PAC donors are Coal PAC, Contura Energy PAC, and Alliance Coal PAC, which are funded largely by coal executives.
Other groups tied to coal executives have also weighed in with cash directed toward helping Miller get elected. America First Action, a Republican Super PAC funded by natural gas and coal interests, including Murray Energy chief executive Bob Murray, has spent nearly $700,000 in negative advertising against Ojeda. For its part, the National Mining Association, a lobby group for mine owners, supports Miller.
Powerful coal industry figures also appear on Miller’s list of individual donors, rounding out a picture in which one candidate is aligned almost exclusively with the forces of the coal industry who work in corporate offices, while the other draws his support from the associations of the workers who take on the dangerous jobs inside the mines themselves.
Among the individual donors to Miller’s campaign that can be found rubbing elbows in the executive suites of coal companies is Roger Nicholson, a longtime coal attorney. According to campaign finance disclosures, Nicholson gave Miller two contributions for a total of $1,250. Among coal mine workers, Nicholson is infamous for suing to block mine safety regulations that require companies to alert state inspectors of an accident and working to shield his previous employer, the International Coal Group, when it faced lawsuits from survivors of the Sago Mine explosion that trapped and killed a dozen miners in 2006.
Nicholson’s defense of coal companies at the expense of their employees extends into his political advocacy — sometimes in the immediate wake of tragedies. In 2010, 29 mine workers were killed in what has come to be known as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, named for the site operated by the then-coal giant Massey Energy. Only months after the disaster, Nicholson wrote an email to coal executives, including those from Massey Energy, urging them to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — which opened up a flood of corporate campaign cash — to defeat several left-leaning politicians.
Nicholson is currently listed in his law firm as part of a team that helps mining companies respond quickly to mine safety inspections and fatalities at the workplace.
Miller boasts another coal attorney on her list of individual donors, Robert McLusky, a lawyer with the firm Jackson Kelly. McLusky recently made headlines thanks to an appearance at a coal executive conference in West Virginia. The audience erupted with laughter as McLusky mocked the bankruptcy of the Charleston Gazette, the leading state newspaper which has been critical of the coal industry, as well as investigative journalist Ken Ward Jr., whose reporting has earned national acclaim in part for his coverage of coal-related issues.
McLusky serves as an outside attorney to various coal firms, including many years defending Massey Energy. According to court filings, McLusky previously served as counsel to Patriot Coal, another controversial firm that plunged into bankruptcy. The company was created as a spinoff from Peabody Energy, a maneuver that critics allege allowed Peabody to attempt to avoid paying for the pensions of thousands of workers, many of whom face serious health complications from working with coal.
Another Miller donor, Steptoe & Johnson coal attorney Christopher Slaughter, specializes in helping “employers defeat union organizing campaigns.”
The 2018 race is unique in the recent history of West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District. Over the last few years, the seat has flipped between Democrats and Republicans. Amid the back and forth, coal executives tried to maintain influence by lavishing candidates from both parties with campaign dollars. Ojeda’s tack — siding unambiguously with coal industry workers — disrupted this bipartisan distribution of cash.
Ojeda, already a state senator, has taken things a step further. Not only are his largest campaign checks from labor unions, but he has also made job growth and labor activism a defining feature of his candidacy. He has rallied with mine workers against the Patriot Coal plan to strip them of their pensions and medical plans.
And his appeal goes beyond just coal industry workers. Earlier this year, Ojeda warned that teachers in West Virginia would strike, making him the first legislator to raise the issue publicly. When teachers indeed walked out in every county in the state, Ojeda joined demonstrators to march across the state capital.
The approach favoring workers — and criticisms of the corporations that repress them — features in his campaign materials. “When I see companies using bankruptcy loopholes to keep from paying our coal miners the pensions they work for, I will not sit quiet,” Ojeda says in one of his campaign’s television ads. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have been sold out.”
Before the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, along with the Sago Mine disaster, where 12 coal miners died in an explosion, brought international attention to the modern plight of West Virginia mine workers, the district was a bastion of labor populism. Blair Mountain, the site of the country’s largest labor uprising in 1921, lies within the district’s borders, a pivotal moment in the history of militant unionism and state violence that fueled the labor reforms of the early 20th century and well-paying jobs that brought decades of labor peace.
The decline of coal and the rise of more efficient mining technology, however, have caused a painful transition that has given mine owners the upper hand. Hollowed out by years of corruption scandals and a rising tide of GOP big-money efforts in the state, the decline of the Democratic Party has also changed West Virginia’s political environment. In recent years, as Republicans seized control of state government, West Virginia has weakened organized labor through so-called right-to-work rules, repealed prevailing wage laws, and chipped away at safety regulations.
Miller, for her part, has served as a state representative in leadership, helping pass much of the coal association’s agenda in the legislature. She has declined interviews, refused to debate Ojeda, and has used her campaign and outside GOP groups to instead pummel Ojeda as a misfit and a liberal.