08/11/2010 02:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

National Bellwether for Clean Energy and Climate Change: Why Ken Hechler's Senate Campaign Matters

Forget the dogs days of August.

Amid the ruins of the clean energy and climate change legislation, one statewide election has emerged as a bellwether for the green and climate justice movements: Ken Hechler's campaign against Gov. Joe Manchin to fill the late US Sen. Robert Byrd's pivotal seat in Congress.

From Alaska to Alabama, from California to North Carolina, anyone remotely interested in the fate of our nation's energy and environmental policies should take notice... and take out your wallets and support Ken Hechler's campaign.

On Aug. 28, the anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, voters in West VIrginia will not only go to the Democratic primary polls to elect a new US senator -- they will determine whether the US Congress will be chained to the devastating political machinations of Big Coal lobbyists for the next generation.

The stark differences between these two candidates could not be more symbolic of the current crisis in the Democratic Party and Congress--and in the nation.

Ken Hechler is a visionary dream candidate, who advocates a long-awaited and crucial transition from reckless coal mining (strip mining and mountaintop removal) to a clean energy and sustainable economic future.

As I wrote one year ago, Ken Hechler served as a military officer in World War II and interrogated Nazi war criminals; he assisted Franklin D. Roosevelt with his 13-volume public papers. As a US Representative from West Virginia, Hechler was the only member in Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

As I noted last year, when Hechler was willing to put his life on the line, the 95-year-old Hechler's Senate campaign is the culmination of his life's work and a visionary campaign he launched 40 years ago:

A hero to coal miners in Appalachia and around the nation, Hechler's understanding of the complexities of the coalfield economy is unmatched in the country. Hechler's congressional leadership led to the passing of The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was the first legislation to deal with black lung disease from coal dust.

In 1971, Hechler took the lead in dealing with another coal mining issue: strip-mining and mountaintop removal. He held the first hearings on mountaintop removal in 1971. Hechler introduced the first federal bill to abolish strip-mining in the spring of 1971.

As Hechler testified in a House committee in 1971: "Representing the largest coal-producing state in the nation, I can testify that strip-mining has ripped the guts out of our mountains, polluted our streams with acid and silt, uprooted trees and forests, devastated the land, seriously destroyed wildlife habitat, left miles of ugly highwalls, ruined the water supply in many areas, and left a trail of utter despair for many honest and hard-working people."

Forty years later, with more than 500 mountains, 1.2 million acres of hardwood forests and untold historic communities destroyed, over 2,000 miles of headwater streams jammed with toxic coal waste, and his beloved coalfield region mired in hopeless poverty, Hechler is running to end mountaintop removal.

Gov. Joe Manchin is a youthful sycophantic frontman for Big Coal interests, whose embarrassing and incompetent administration has turned West Virginia into a toxic wasteland and national sacrifice zone of egregious human rights and environmental violations.

Vaguely reminiscent of disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, Manchin has operated West Virginia as a self-described "extraction state" and allowed outside Big Coal corporations to plunder its people and resources.

In a blatant move to reserve the Senate seat for his own taking, Gov. Joe Manchin appointed his former chief counsel Carte Goodwin to temporarily hold Byrd's seat. Within days, Goodwin quickly betrayed Byrd's most recent views on climate and coal issues, and sided with outside Big Coal lobbyists, blasting any hopes for a climate and clean energy bill. Check out this clip from "On Coal River," a recent film documentary on the national scandal of mountaintop removal and a threatened elementary school, featuring a clueless Goodwin and the shameless Manchin:

If you live in West Virginia, you have an opportunity of a lifetime to vote for Ken Hechler on Aug. 28.

If you live elsewhere, you have an opportunity to support one of the most important American heroes and his nearly half-century campaign for civil rights and environmental justice today.