WHEELING - In a Senate campaign that has focused largely on the coal industry, the United Mine Workers of America is choosing to back Democrat Natalie Tennant over GOP candidate Shelley Moore Capito - a decision driven largely by rank-and-file coal miners themselves, according to a top union official.
UMWA President Cecil Roberts announced the endorsement during the union's Labor Day celebration Monday in Racine, W.Va. UMWA District 31 Vice President Michael Caputo, whose area includes the northern half of West Virginia and all of Ohio, said he was pleased with the decision.
According to Caputo, the UMWA's area councils throughout West Virginia voted 37-1 to recommend the endorsement, leading up to a unanimous vote by the UMWA's international executive board to back Tennant.
"This endorsement didn't come from the top down; it came from the membership," said Caputo, who also represents Marion County as a Democrat in the House of Delegates. "Natalie Tennant was with us every step of the way, and we stand with those who stand with us."
With the election just over two months away, both candidates' campaigns have focused heavily on coal, each hoping to win over voters by attacking the others' record of support for the industry, which supports thousands of jobs in West Virginia.
Capito's camp says Tennant's prior support for President Barack Obama indicates she'll go along with his anti-coal policies.
Tennant has criticized Capito for her 2010 vote against the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, and for supporting a budget proposal that she says would have reduced the number of inspectors employed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Caputo believes linking Tennant to Obama amounts to "rhetoric and scare tactics" from the GOP.
"The president is not on the ballot this time ... It's not about that," Caputo said. "Let's look at what that individual has done for West Virginia."
Caputo said Tennant was among the strongest advocates for miners and retirees affected by Patriot Coal's 2013 bankruptcy, and recalled the secretary of state joining UMWA members and supporters for a march through downtown Pittsburgh during a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public hearing on proposed new limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Tennant testified against the regulations during that hearing.
Capito, who represents West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District in the House, also testified against the EPA's proposed rule during a similar public hearing in Washington, D.C.
Levi Allen, president of UMWA Local 1638, which represents miners at Murray Energy Corp.'s Marshall County Mine, formerly known as McElroy Mine, said he likes both candidates in the race, but he was happy with the national organization's choice of Tennant.
Capito's campaign responded to the UMWA's endorsement of Tennant by pointing out Capito's sponsorship of a 2006 law updating mine safety standards, and of the Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2013, which never received a vote in the House.
"Hard-working West Virginia coal miners know that Shelley Moore Capito is the only candidate in this election fighting on their behalf every single day. Shelley led the fight for the most significant update of mine safety laws since the 1970s and she worked alongside the UMWA to protect miners' health care and pensions," said Capito spokeswoman Amy Graham. "Natalie Tennant showed just how out of touch she is with miners when she defended Obama's anti-coal policies and brought Elizabeth 'War-on-Coal-Miner' Warren to West Virginia. And there is no question she would be another vote to keep Harry 'Coal-Makes-Us-Sick' Reid as majority leader."
"Just ask the 1,100 employees at Alpha Natural Resources and 280 employees at Coal River Energy facing job losses. A friend of Obama, Warren and Harry Reid is no friend of West Virginia coal miners," Graham said.