LOGAN, W.Va. — In his U.S. Senate campaign kick-off event Thursday, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship told the crowd he is a West Virginian who cares about the state’s future.

“When the media says Don doesn’t understand or that he cannot relate, you can be sure that is not the truth,” he said in front of a teleprompter. “The truth is that you and I and most West Virginians share common bonds. All of us share strong bonds whether we are rich or whether we are poor or whether we are somewhere in between.”

Blankenship faced no opposition from the nearly 100 people at the Chief Logan Lodge, Hotel and Conference Center. They welcomed Blankenship with applause and eagerness to help his efforts to win the Republican nomination and defeat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Blankenship was released from prison in May 2017 after serving a one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. The guilty conviction was in connection with the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, in which 29 miners died.

The former coal executive is on probation until May 9 and resides in the Las Vegas area.

“All elected politicians live most of their time in Washington, D.C. It’s the caliber of the person that they are sending to Washington, D.C., not where he goes for a home or part of the time,” he told reporters following Thursday’s event.

Blankenship’s campaign has focused much of its attention on targeting the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s investigation into the disaster, going as far as calling investigative efforts a cover-up.

“The explosion was a natural gas explosion. It was not a coal dust explosion, and the families’ loved ones were not the cause of the explosion,” Blankenship said. “If any human being was, it was the leadership of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.”

MSHA reported in December 2011 a methane ignition caused the coal dust explosion, adding safety violations including the intimidation of workers and advance notice of inspections were factors in the disaster.

Politifact rated the Blankenship campaign’s claim as “Pants on Fire,” noting there was “no substance” to the argument as the campaign failed to provide any supporting information.

Gwen Thomas, of Staunton, Virginia, said she has doubts about the final report regarding what happened at the Raleigh County mine. Her brother, Grover, was among the miners killed.

“He was afraid. He did not want to go back,” she said. “I know it was the ventilation. Just give me the emails.”

Thomas is supporting Blankenship, and starred in a September advertisement he funded requesting President Donald Trump, as well as Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., help release information regarding air flow and natural gas at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

“The last several days before Grover died, he told me that MSHA had changed the ventilation plan and he was afraid,” she said. “The day before the explosion, he told me, ‘I do not want to go back. I am afraid.'”

The Blankenship campaign’s recent advertisements have focused on his community efforts, and feature coal miner Danny Muncy and Pastor Mike Bostic who spoke highly of Blankenship’s record in regards to safety and community work.

“Don has a big heart,” said Sue Hatfield, of Red Jacket. “I don’t think that Don would have sent those men in that mine if he had known there was a danger of them not coming out.”

Blankenship spoke about multiple political issues — from illegal immigration to tax reform — but all of his points went back to supporting President Donald Trump’s agenda. This included building a wall on the United States’ southern border to passing tax legislation.

“It has never been my goal to be a politician. In fact, people that know me would think it’s impossible,” he said to the crowd. “But I do know how important it is to improve our economy and grow our job market. I understand the pain that lack of jobs causes.”

Blankenship told reporters after the event West Virginia’s change from being controlled by Democrats to Republicans has made the state better for businesses, though the results of the change have not been seen yet.

“The thing now is to make sure that they know the state’s federal representatives are also in favor of business development in West Virginia, and they are not going to be slandered and so forth when they come here,” he said.

Blankenship added West Virginia coal will come back “to an extent” as the result of increased steel production for infrastructure projects. The coal industry currently faces tough competition from a growing natural gas industry, and employment in coal mining declined from 178,000 people in 1985 to less than 52,000 workers in 2017.

Blankenship is in a packed race for the Republican nomination and opportunity to challenge Manchin, the likely Democratic nominee; U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and business owner Tom Willis have already filed with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office to run, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and former coal miner Bo Copley have been campaigning since last year.

The primary election will be held May 8, a day before Blankenship’s probation will conclude. The general election will take place Nov. 6.

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