Rahall Touts Seniority, Accomplishments On Mine Safety

10/29/2010 12:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Heath Harrison A cartoonist, freelance writer and frequent contributor to

Democrat Nick Rahall has represented West Virginia's 3rd Congressional district since 1977 and currently chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and serves as vice-chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Rahall is best known for his work on mining issues, particularly in the field of mine safety and black lung benefits. He was a co-sponsor of sweeping mine reform bill approved by a House comittee, after the Upper Big Branch disaster. The Massey Energy mine, in which 29 workers were killed, is located in his district.

Rahall faces Republican Elliott "Spike"Maynard, a former Democrat who lost his bid for reelection to the state's Supreme Court in 2008. Maynard was defeated after the release of photos which showed him vacationing on the French Riviera with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Blankenship's company was appealing a case in Maynard's court at the time.

As Republicans seek to capitalize on coalfield anxieties, the race has recently drawn national attention for a series of racially-tinged ads by Maynard and conservative groups targeting Rahall for his Arab-American heritage.
Q- How do you feel the campaign is going so far? Many of your opponent's supporters have described this as "the race of your political life." Do you detect any significant change in the mood of your district?

Rahall- I feel confident, but I'm not overconfident. I take every race seriously. I believe in what the late senator Robert Byrd once said -- there are only two ways to run: unopposed and scared. And I'm not unopposed. Competition's healthy, I appreciate that.

I'm running this campaign as I run every campaign -- vigorously, working for every vote and not taking anything for granted. Whether its' an election year or non-election year, I've always been accessible to the people and have a record of which I'm proud to run.

I believe this election is crucial to the future of our state, because of the loss of seniority already, with the loss of Senator Byrd. And we lost a seat on the House Appropriations committee with Representative Mollohan's defeat. West Virginia cannot afford further loss of seniority, which is vital to a small state like ours.

I recognize there's anger out there. There's angst, there's frustration, there's fear --the fear being more fueled by scare tactics run across the nation and, in particular, my district.

But, when all is said and done, the people of West Virginia will see through the fog and the fear factor that's being invoked in this election and make their judgments in what is in the best interest for our state.

Q - There have been a number of controversial ads run in your race, by your opponent and by outside groups. What are your thoughts on the Citizens United ruling, and what can be done with campaign finance reform? It seems these ads are getting much worse this year.

R - They're getting a lot worse and they'll get even more so. I supported the DISCLOSE Act that passed in the House of Representatives, but failed in the other body, like so many other pieces of legislation that did not have the minority's support and did not have 60 votes.

It's a dangerous precedent that's been set here - for example, the charges and allegations that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is being fueled by foreign money.

It's hard to prove that. All money's fungible. We know that. We know that the Chamber gets money through membership dues. And, while they claim that doesn't go to political advertisements or political activities, all money's fungible - so were not going to find a direct route.

The doors have been opened by that Supreme Court decision earlier this year and it's a dangerous precedent for democracy as we know it.

Rahall's response to the ad campaign's in his district can be read here.

Q - The race has been revolving a lot on the issue of coal. What would you say is the biggest difference between you and your opponent on mining issues, specifically on mine safety and the EPA issue?

R - I've walked the walk, instead of talking the talk.

I've been, for 34 years, fighting for coal miners' health and safety and black lung benefits.

I've insured the health care of our UMWA members by capping the unearned interest on the abandoned mine reclamation program -- a program that I set up, and comes through my committee. I'll take a back seat to no one to my efforts on mine safety.

Now is that why the two largest supporters of my opponent [Massey Energy and International Coal Group] are the two companies that are responsible for the most deaths in our mines in West Virginia? Is that why they have this personal vendetta against me this year?

Those who claim I'm anti-coal have been sipping champagne on the French Riviera with Don Blankenship for too long. Many in Washington are just amused when they hear that I'm being attacked as anti-coal. They're wondering what the heck is going on, when they know that I'm the most pro-coal member of the congress.

Coal is our foundation, make no mistake about it. Is coal under attack? You bet it is -- has been, is and always will be.

Coal is constantly under attack. Too often, it's like terrorist threats - when the threat is abated and dealt with and unsuccessful, then you never knew the threat was there in the beginning.

So a lot of our effort has been defensive over 34 years and it is to this day, because coal is not perceived as a fuel of the future. Certainly, in the halls of the Congress of the United States, it's under attack.

It's more important to have someone that can be at the table, working with agencies, instead of calling them names every day, and having the door slammed in your face when you go try to work with them. That's a responsible legislator vs. one who just gets out there and talks the talk.

I'm strongly behind the current mine safety law that's going through the congress and passed out of committee.

I've been working with responsible coal operators to make sure those who are doing it right are not harmed by this piece of legislation, and to insure that there is an off ramp of the pattern of violations for those who truly want to address the citations that have been issued to them.

Q - Your opponent has two major mining companies backing him. And there are some, like CONSOL Energy, backing your campaign. As far groups and unions representing workers, such as the UMWA, they all seem to be supporting you. What are your thoughts on that?

R - Because coal miners -- union or nonunion -- know who has been there for them over the last three decades. They know who has been fighting for their health and their safety and who has been there -whether its an individual problem, like black lung benefits, veterans benefits, Social Security checks or other items of a personal nature. And they know who has been there with them on a collective basis, fighting to improve black lung laws.

The late Senator Byrd had a provision in the health care law to make it more fair and expeditious for black lung claimants to have their applications adjudicated. We're continually trying to update our black lung laws and also trying to, as we tried under the Bush administration, to prevent the allowable dust levels in our nation's coal mines to exceed certain levels. That has been an alleged contributing factor to the Upper Big Branch disaster. Coal dust, combined with methane, is an explosive situation for our coal miners.
They know who's been there for them, for their health and their safety.

Q- Do you feel most of the criticism is coming from the owners of those particular companies, and you're not getting it so much from the workers?

R - None from the workers. Now they're being subjected to tremendous pressure from their employers, but thank god the ballot box is a secret ballot.

Q- As far as other industries, what do feel the West Virginia should do to diversify its economy beyond just coal mining? What more could be done in that area?

R - As I said, coal is our foundation, but it should not be our ceiling. We should be able to, and we are, diversifying our economy.

We have other extractive industries in this state. We have other small businesses like in the technology field that are coming online. Health services - here in Huntington, for example, we're using the tremendous expertise and talent at Marshall University, combined with students to create new jobs.

Were expanding in many different areas. We're revitalizing downtowns, like here in Huntington at Pullman square. I secured seed money for that project. In Beckley, the Beckley Intermodal Gateway - again, using creative and innovative use of federal dollars to rejuvenate downtown.

Were going to do the same in Logan and Bluefield. They're starting down that process as well. These are efforts to instill in our downtown areas new jobs, and we're being successful in that area.

Q - I want to talk about some of the issues that are coming up in races across the nation this year, and get your thoughts on how they affect your district?

As far as the Recovery Act, how would you say it has benefited the area you represent?

R - Tremendously. Millions of dollars have gone, not jut for transportation projects, but have gone to updating health care technology in our hospitals, to broadband access, for airport improvements, runway terminals, and National Guard centers. Health centers across the southern part of the state have benefited from stimulus money.

There's still roughly a third yet to be spent, so were hopeful for even more money for major arteries in the southern part of the state, like the Coalfield Expressway and King Coal highway that are receiving stimulus money.

Tri-State here in Huntington has received over 2 million dollars update their buses to become more fuel-efficient and to have emergency supplies for fuel.

The stimulus money is not the panacea. We didn't expect it would be, but it has certainly kept unemployment from being higher than what it is. But this type of investment in our infrastructure is an investment for our future.

And let me add there was also a tax cut in the stimulus for approximately 95 percent of working Americans. Those in the middle to low income groups received a tax cut.

Q - The health care bill has also been a major issue. As far as your district, what would you say are the benefits that are kicking in for residents?

R - First, let me say it's not the perfect bill. I've not seen the perfect bill in my 34 years in congress. If we have to come back and tweak or amend it later on, that's fine. We'll do it.

A lot of it hasn't kicked in yet. The cost of doing nothing in the health care reform area would have been much more devastating to our deficits and economy than doing what we did.

The status quo was unacceptable and action was needed. I've run every campaign in the last decade on the need for health care reform, as have so many others across the country.

This was a painstaking process that went through hearings and the bill is on the Internet so everybody can review it.

It wasn't jammed down anyone's throat. It was a transparent and open process and wasn't jammed down anyone's throat any more than the Bush tax cuts for the super wealthy 10 years ago, which got through Congress using the reconciliation process.

The benefits that have kicked in now - the fact that children can remain on their parents' health insurance policy until age 26 is good for our students, who are just entering the job market and may find a job with no health insurance coverage. The fact that children can no longer be cut off coverage because of preexisting conditions. That's in effect now. By the year 2014, all individuals will be positively affected by that.

Small businesses can start receiving tax credits for the premiums they pay for their employees' health insurance. It will allow small businesses to work together and bargain together, to help put them on an even playing field with the big boys, as far as providing coverage. And it will free up money for other employees and expansion of businesses.

The doughnut hole is beginning to close, whereby our senior citizens have faced out of pocket expenses for expensive prescription drug costs, after they reach a certain threshold level of expenditures. They're starting to receive $250 checks as we speak. Eventually, that coverage will be full for our senior citizens.

The cuts that are out there -- that are claimed to be cutting Medicare benefits. The cuts are in the waste and fraud and abuse in Medicare. That's where the cuts are coming from. The savings from those go back into shoring up the future of the Medicare trust fund.

You can still keep your own doctor and have your doctor of choice. You can still go to him or her or shop around for another one.

The health insurance companies can no longer place annual caps on your coverage and, eventually, lifetime caps will be removed as well. This will prevent one from having to spend their entire life savings on a catastrophic illness

There will be free co pays for preventative visits to the hospital and annual checkups, so that people don't wait until an illness gets so severe that it costs a life savings to treat -- or it might be too late. Periodic checkups are preventive in nature and intended to save us money in the long term for health care costs.

Q - The polls showing opposition to the bill seem to be dropping as time passes. I've seen a few recently that have it under 50 percent.

R - I saw one nationwide poll that said over 50 percent felt we didn't go far enough.

Q - Are you confident that, as these benefits kick in, the bill will become more widely accepted?

R - Yes, it will. Now there's going to be a segment out there that probably benefits from it and recognize a lot of their initial fears were not true. Are they going to admit it that they're wrong? No, because they're against everything. They're the party of no, and they're going to say, "no, no, no" on everything - even if they're benefiting all the way to the bank as they speak.