Rep. Nick Rahall (D)
West Virginia 3rd District
Early in the 20th century, the coal fields of southern West Virginia were one of America’s boom areas. Into rural farmland and hollows, inhabited by the same families that settled these mountains 100 years before, came coal company lawyers with mineral rights’ leases to sign, coal company engineers to design and sink the mineshafts, and men from other mountain counties, as well as Europe, to work the mines. Company houses were built, company stores were stocked with goods as the company dictated, and company paymasters kept close tabs on the finances of every employee. These conditions bred dull discontent, which was ignited into the fire of industrial unionism by the tongue of John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers, who organized most of the mines in the 1930s. Lewis was not only a militant unionist, but also an isolationist, and during and after World War II, he called out his coal miners on strikes, to the fury of Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The national war effort and postwar economic recovery were threatened by these labor stoppages involving some 300,000 workers, centered in back corners of the country like southern West Virginia.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
All that is history now. Coal is no longer central to the U.S. economy and there are only a few thousand coal miners left in southern West Virginia, and many are not UMW members anymore. Most of the old underground mines have been abandoned, leaving behind mineshafts and piles of tailings—and lives that were snuffed out by cave-ins or simple carelessness in America’s deadliest industry. Manufacturing jobs in the area, which had been predominantly in the chemical industry, also have been reduced by more than half since 1980. The region has still not hit bottom: Of seven counties in the nation with more than 20,000 residents that suffered a 10% population loss or greater in the 1990s, four of them—Logan, McDowell, Mingo and Wyoming—were in southern West Virginia. All four have continued to decline in population since 2000. In September 2008, a faint hope of recovery through “clean coal” technology was snuffed out when the U.S. Energy Department cancelled the Bush administration’s proposed $215 million clean-coal project in Greenbrier County after deciding it was unlikely to succeed.
The 3rd Congressional District of West Virginia includes most of the mountainous coal country in the southern part of the state that for years was heavily Democratic. But the coal mining counties now make up less than half of the district. About a quarter of the population is in and around the industrial city of Huntington on the Ohio River, which includes Marshall University. Another quarter is to the east, in Beckley and the farming uplands. (Also located there is the Greenbrier Hotel resort, where the government built a massive secret fallout shelter, code-named “Project Greek Island,” to house the entire U.S. Congress in the event of nuclear war). The population of the 3rd District in 2007 was 585,000, down significantly over the last half-century. The district has shifted to Republicans in the past decade. In 2000, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore won the district 51%-47%. In 2008, Republican John McCain won it 56%-42%.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D)
Elected: 1976, 17th term.
Born: May 20, 1949, Beckley .
Education: Duke U., B.A. 1971.
Family: Married (Melinda); 3 children.
Professional Career: Civil Air Patrol, 1977–88; Staff asst., U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, 1971–74; Bd. of Dir., Rahall Communications Corp. 1974–76; Pres., Mountaineer Tour & Travel Agency, 1974–76; Pres., WV Broadcasting Corp. 1980–2001.
The congressman from the 3rd District is Nick Rahall, a Democrat first elected in 1976. He was 27 years old at the time and the youngest member of the 95th Congress. Today he is the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. He comes from the thin economic upper crust of the coal country. His family owned radio and television stations in Beckley and in St. Petersburg, Fla. He graduated from Duke University, worked on Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd’s staff and then in the family’s businesses. In 1976, when Democratic Rep. Ken Hechler ran for governor, Rahall ran for the House and won a five-candidate Democratic primary with 37% of the vote. Hechler, after losing the primary to Jay Rockefeller, returned to the district and ran as a write-in. Rahall spent $236,000 of his own money on his campaign—an enormous sum in those days—and beat Hechler 46%-37%. Rahall got seats on the Interior and Public Works committees in his first term, fine assignments for a young member from a rural district with low incomes and poor roads. In addition to being the chairman of the renamed Natural Resources Committee, he is now the No. 2 Democrat on the renamed Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
|Nick Rahall (D)||133,522||(67%)||($592,264)|
|Marty Gearheart (R)||66,005||(33%)|
|Nick Rahall (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (69%), 2004 (65%), 2002 (70%), 2000 (91%), 1998 (87%), 1996 (100%), 1994 (64%), 1992 (66%), 1990 (52%), 1988 (61%), 1986 (71%), 1984 (67%), 1982 (81%), 1980 (77%), 1978 (100%), 1976 (46%)
Rahall predictably has worked over the years to help the coal industry and coal miners. He was the chief House sponsor of the law requiring union and non-union coal operators to bail out the United Mine Workers health care funds and he has continued to secure federal funds for retired mineworkers. He and Byrd passed an amendment to the Export-Import Bank reauthorization forbidding financing of foreign mining ventures. In 2006, after the Sago mine disaster in Upshur County, he and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., co-sponsored legislation requiring companies to have updated mine emergency response plans, wireless two-way communication and electronic tracking systems. It quickly passed both houses and became law. From 1993 to 2001, he was chairman and ranking minority member on the Surface Transportation subcommittee, where he established the Rahall Transportation Institute, a consortium of five colleges at Marshall University and obtained $90 million for the Heartland Corridor, the old Norfolk Southern route through southern West Virginia connected to the Port of Virginia.
Environmental groups were disappointed when Rahall in 2001 became ranking Democrat on the Resources Committee because he had shown little support for their views. But, while he promotes the use of coal, he has by no means been a reliable supporter of measures sought by oil companies. He has opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and he has favored expanding wilderness areas in the West. In 2004, he received the Wilderness Society’s Ansel Adams award for being “forceful, energetic and wise in preventing special interests from exploiting places that Americans hold dear.”
In the majority, Rahall’s agenda included increasing the royalties that oil and gas companies pay to the federal government for rights to deepwater exploration and overhauling the Mining Law of 1872. His chief focus in the 2007 energy bill was to require hard-rock miners to pay royalties for mining on federal lands. According to Rahall, coal mines and oil and gas producers have been paying royalties for decades, while miners of gold, silver and other hard-rock minerals have gotten away without making payments. Critics said that the proposed 8% royalty would destroy the industry. The House passed the bill 244-166, but Senate Republicans blocked it from being included in the energy bill.
Rahall also had limited success with his proposal to slow oil and gas development on federal lands. In 2008, he worked with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to mandate that oil companies with leases on 68 million acres of federal land “use it or lose it.” But Democrats did not make a serious effort to pass his proposal. In early 2009, he prepared a plan to increase oil and gas royalties on federal lands by 50%, and to reduce lease periods from to 10 to five years.
Rahall’s family roots are in Lebanon, and he is often in the small minority of members voicing support for Arab causes and voting against Israel. In 2002, he opposed military action in Iraq, saying, “I feel the Iraqis want to give peace a chance.”
Since his first election in 1976, Rahall has dropped below 61% of the vote only once, and he has not been seriously challenged in 20 years.