WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday, the Mitt Romney campaign released an ad spotlighting President Obama’s putative “War On Coal,” despite a controversy in Ohio about the coal miners’ rally featured in the spot. In the ad, Romney appears on a stage before rows of hard-hatted miners, their faces smudged with coal dust, as he says, “We have 250 years of coal. Why wouldn’t we use it?”
The rally was held last month in Beallsville, Ohio, thick with miners from the Century coal mine, owned by Murray Energy, a major donor to Republican causes. Within days of the rally, Murray employees contacted a nearby morning talk radio host, David Blomquist, to say they were forced to attend the Aug. 14 event at the mine.
Murray closed the mine the day of the rally, saying it was necessary for security and safety, then docked miners their pay for those hours. Asked by WWVA radio’s Blomquist about the allegations, Murray Chief Operating Officer Robert Moore said, somewhat confusingly, “Attendance was mandatory but no one was forced to attend the event.”
The “War On Coal” ad is clearly aimed at shoring up Romney’s support among working-class white men and at making inroads into Obama’s persistent lead in the crucial battleground state of Ohio.
Asked about Romney’s use of video from a rally that miners were forced to attend and that cost many a day’s wages, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams chose instead to focus on Obama: “"It remains a widely accepted fact among Democrats and Republicans alike that President Obama has spent the past four years waging a war on coal that has devastated Ohio workers and coal communities. This is one reason why the nation’s largest coal mining union, the United Mine Workers of America, has refused to endorse his reelection.”
The union has not endorsed Romney either. Obama supporters, like the AFL-CIO, pounced on Romney’s use of the Beallsville footage. “The Romney Campaign now knows full well that those miners, wage earners as they are, missed a day’s pay when they were required to attend the event,” Ohio AFL-CIO spokesman Michael Gillis said. “Instead of those workers providing for their families and putting food on the table that day, they were used as political props by a candidate that understands nothing about the plight of the average American.”
The mine is owned by Robert Murray, an enthusiastic Romney supporter and major contributor to the Republican Party on his own and through Murray Energy, one of the largest private coal companies in the U.S. Murray and his wife have given Republican candidates a total of $471,185 since the 2008 election, including the maximum of $5,000 each to Romney this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Additionally, employees of Murray Energy and its subsidiaries contributed almost $1.5 million to Republicans over the same period.
Murray Energy is among the biggest employers in the coal-rich Ohio valley, and worries run high there that the increased use of natural gas at the nation’s power plants and more stringent air pollution regulations are gradually throttling coal.
Coal jobs have risen in Ohio during most of Obama’s tenure, but mines all over the mid-Atlantic have been laying off people this year, said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, which endorsed Obama in 2008.
Murray, in an interview in Tampa, Fla., with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said “nobody was ordered to attend” the rally. “Nobody knows who attended and who didn’t. But I can tell you this: We had 3,000 people there, it was a great day, our people enjoyed it. Barack Obama is destroying their lives, their livelihoods. These people are scared, and they came out in droves to see Mitt Romney and that’s what it was all about.”
[For the record, 8:27 p.m., Sept. 19: An earlier version of this post failed to credit the Cleveland Plain Dealer for the Murray interview in Tampa, Fla.]