(originally posted January 22, 2010)
Right now I think it’s really important to look at this landmark decision the Supreme Court just made to end restrictions on corporate funding for political campaigns. I’m glad to see a lot of people outraged. This decision is a pretty blatant acceptance (and even approval) of how entrenched politics and corporations are in the US political system. Nowhere do I think this is more evident in West Virginia, where the two largest corporations (Arch Coal and Massey Energy) are sickeningly powerful and have more influence in political campaigns than the candidates and their platforms. The CEO of Massey in particular, Don Blankenship, uses his West Virginia charm, if we can call it that, to mask his ruthless attacks on anti-coal politicians (check back in a few days for a post on his recent debate with Robert Kennedy, Jr., and the local response). Because Massey has so much money, more than political campaigns can normally raise in WV, they are able to sway elections one way or another in favor of the coal industry’s interests, and this has become extremely apparent in the judicial realm. In West Virginia, judges are elected just like any other official, which is problematic in part because we don’t truly realize the weight of this type of decision. Furthermore, companies like Massey are constantly influencing judicial campaigns in their favor, meaning that WV voters tend to vote in favor of Massey without meaning to do so.
Let’s take a campaign from 2004, which was when I was a senior in high school about to vote in my first elections and fairly dedicated to local politics. I went to a meeting in Martinsburg about letting voters registered as Independents vote in primary elections for the Democratic ticket. There, I met Warren McGraw, a candidate for the Supreme Court that year and someone who I thought seemed respectable, attentive, and very worthy of my vote. But when I spoke of how much I enjoyed meeting him to others, I couldn’t understand why no one else echoed this sentiment until someone explained to me that he let child molesters walk free. While I continued my support of McGraw throughout the election, it wasn’t until later that I was able to delve more deeply into his campaign to see what had really happened.
McGraw had voted numerous times against Massey Energy, and Blankenship didn’t want to take a chance on the WV Supreme Court having the power to shut him and his company down any longer. Rather than leave the election to the candidates, Massey put almost $2 million into a campaign called “And For the Sake of the Kids,” which, in its advertisements, declared that McGraw allowed our children to be victimized and criminals to walk free, all based on a single case in which McGraw allowed a man convicted of sexually assaulting his younger brother to get probation. The details left out of these claims against McGraw included the paroled man’s youth as part of a drug trafficking ploy by his mother and sexual abuse by a teacher; while I won’t claim his troubled past excuses his behavior, I want to show that Massey’s biased support of Brent Benjamin, McGraw’s opponent – which was monetarily more substantial than any amount McGraw could have raised – was based around assumptions and misrepresentations of an issue that clearly placed McGraw in the role of the child-hating demon. I don’t blame West Virginia voters for not rooting through the details of this case to find the truth, but it is sick and sad that Massey was able to swing the election their way based on an issue that had absolutely nothing to do with coal (for more information on this issue, see Burns 2007).
If this was in 2004, and coal mining in WV has become a larger issue in the six years since then, and if corporations are now allowed to give political candidates as much money as they want…I think we can see where this is going. While Obama may be making strides in his executive position at least to consider revoking mountaintop removal permits, I still don’t think national policy is what’s going to make the difference. When the political situation in West Virginia stops being so intrinsically linked with the coal industry and with coal corporations’ money, that’s when we can consider seeing change in West Virginia. Despite the fact that the state is working on laws requiring more transparency in campaign funds, the US Supreme Court has opened up the opportunity for companies like Massey to even more blatantly buy out political candidates, knowing full well that no candidate who isn’t supported by the coal industry can possibly make enough money to counter the smear campaigns that the industry inevitably runs. If there is no industry as strong as coal in West Virginia and if the companies that consolidate that strength throughout Appalachia are allowed to choose who is in office, then I think we can agree that democracy cannot even exist as a fantasy in the coalfields.