HUNTINGTON – Legislators who expected to weaken Massey Energy president Don Blankenship by requiring him to put his name on political advertisements made him stronger, according to House judiciary committee chair Jon Amores.
Amores said at a May 19 session of a Marshall University journalism fellowship that legislators told him people would get sick of Blankenship's name.
Amores said, "I think that's Christmas."
He quoted the line that politicians don't care what anyone writes as long as they spell the name right.
In 2004, Blankenship bankrolled For the Sake of the Kids, which ran television ads attacking Justice Warren McGraw in his bid for re-election to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
Three weeks before the election, news organizations identified Blankenship as the source of the ads.
Backers of McGraw, a Democrat, thought the revelation might drive voters away from Republican opponent Brent Benjamin, but Benjamin won.
After the Legislature required individual identities on ads, Blankenship waged campaigns in his own name against the food tax and a state bond issue.
Attorney George Carenbauer, who acted as counsel to For the Sake of the Kids, told the Marshall fellows that the food tax and the bond issue enhanced Blankenship's positive name identity.
Carenbauer said, "He's the guy that wants to get rid of my food tax."
Robin Capehart, who ran Benjamin's campaign, said candidates cannot control the messages of so called "527" independent groups because law prohibits contact between them.
Andy Gallagher, who ran McGraw's campaign, said he wanted to tell groups to stop doing stupid stuff but he could not.
He said, "Mostly I thought they were working for George and Rob."
Carenbauer said that For the Sake of the Kids ads called Benjamin a responsible conservative. He said, "What if he thinks of himself as a moderate? What if he thinks of himself as a liberal?"
He said, "Somebody else is shaping your identity for you."
Gallagher said Blankenship was violently opposed to McGraw. He said, "But he spent his own money, and he spent it in a legal way."
He said, "Who am I to come along and say he shouldn't spend more than a thousand dollars? That's dangerous ground to be on."
Capehart said, "It's easy to get one contribution of $100,000. It's hard to get a hundred contributions of $1,000. You've centralized the power."
Carenbauer said election law always plays out differently from what people expected.
Gallagher agreed. "My side was responsible for 527s," he said. "The Frankenstein monster that we created ended up gobbling us up. Be careful what you wish for."
Carenbauer said the Federal Election Commission has issued new rules to regulate 527s. In 2004, he said, the commission declined to regulate them.
"Everything was just wild west, swift boats and George Soros," he said.
A person in the audience said she was originally from Raleigh County, where Blankenship's name means a lot. She said, "Again it comes down to a coal company influencing such an important race."
Carenbauer said, "We don't know who was on the other side. It was so much money so fast."
Gallagher said that when Blankenship was identified as the source of the ads, "I thought, the press finally busts this guy. We're really going to go up."
Wrapping up the session, Amores said he wondered if the legislature should allow any campaign contribution, requiring only disclosure.
He said, "Should we stop the tides or should we just identify the tides?"
Gallagher said, "No matter what the legislature does, it will end up in court and the judges will rule on their own elections."
Amores said a pendulum might swing. He said awareness of the effects of money and loss of individual power might bring into politics classes that have not been political.
Capehart proposed contributions without limit, reported in 48 hours. He said Virginia and Alabama run that way, "with no sign of overcorruption, if that's a word."
The Marshall University fellowship brought together journalists from West Virginia and other states for its annual "Fourth Estate and the Third Sector" conference on coverage of nonprofit groups, May 17 to 21.