Elected: 1976, 19th term.
Born: May 20, 1949, Beckley
Education: Duke U., B.A. 1971, George Washington U., attended 1972
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.
Family: married (Melinda) , 3 children
Democrat Nick Rahall, first elected in 1976, is the ranking minority member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and an avid guardian of his state’s coal interests. He used to regularly win reelection with two-thirds of the vote, but his margins of victory have narrowed as West Virginia has grown more conservative.
Rahall 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 his 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. Rahall’s voting record puts him near the center of the House. He is conservative on social issues—he opposes abortion rights and received an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association through 2012. He was one of 17 House Democrats to join most Republicans in June 2012 in voting for criminal contempt charges against Attorney General Eric Holder in connection with the controversial “Operation Fast and Furious” gun-tracing operation.
He predictably has worked to help the coal industry and coal miners over the years. 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 mine workers. 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. He opposed the 2009 cap-and-trade bill aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, saying he wanted more emphasis on clean coal technologies. He also sought to distance himself from some of the Obama administration’s increased regulation of coal. After the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, he worked in 2010 to get more money for mine safety. He helped draft the House-passed “Stop the War on Coal Act” in 2012, including a proposal barring the Environmental Protection Agency from using the Clean Water Act to indefinitely delay or retroactively veto permits for surface mines.
Environmental groups were disappointed when Rahall in 2001 became the ranking Democrat on the Natural 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.
On Transportation and Infrastructure, Rahall promised to work closely in 2013 with new Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa. He expressed frustration that the previous chairman, Florida’s John Mica, wasn’t given the autonomy from his party’s leaders to cut deals. After a June 2012 “derecho” storm severely lashed West Virginia, Rahall got a bill through the House requiring the Federal Emergency Management Agency to improve how it evaluates individual assistance requests from people affected by such storms. From 1993 to 2001, he was chairman and ranking minority member on the panel’s Surface Transportation subcommittee, where he established the Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute, a consortium of five colleges at Marshall University.
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 pro-Israel resolutions. In 2002, he opposed military action in Iraq, saying, “I feel the Iraqis want to give peace a chance.” His sister, Tanya Rahall, worked for several years as a lobbyist for Qatar before joining a D.C. lobbying firm in 2008. The firm, RJI Government Strategies, filed a lawsuit in 2010 contending that Tanya Rahall had threatened to use her brother to ensure that “doors on Capitol Hill will be closed” to the firm after it fired her. The congressman’s office dismissed the suit as politically motivated and said he does not let family members lobby him. The controversy wasn’t the only one associated with the lawmaker that year. In August, he acknowledged that he should not have used his official congressional stationery five years earlier in asking a judge for leniency for his son, who was facing felony robbery charges at the time. His son was given a four-year suspended sentence.
Until 2010, Rahall had dropped below 61% of the vote only once and had not been seriously challenged in 20 years. But Republicans made an aggressive run at the seat that year. His opponent was former state Supreme Court Justice Elliott “Spike” Maynard, who had switched his voter registration from Democrat to Republican before entering the race. Maynard blasted Rahall as a Washington insider who was insufficiently concerned with protecting the state’s coal industry. Meanwhile, a West Virginia tea party group ran an ad trying to play up Rahall’s Arab-American ancestry and connections to President Barack Obama, whom some activists believed to be Muslim. Maynard ran another ad on that theme, claiming the congressman was “good for the Middle East, good for Obama, bad for America.” But those negative efforts backfired, and Rahall won 56%-44%.
Rahall had another tough race on his hands in 2012. Republican Rick Snuffer, who lost to Rahall by 32 percentage points in 2004, returned for a rematch. But Rahall’s real opponent was Obama, who had become an unpopular figure in West Virginia. Snuffer sought to paint Rahall as weak in defending the coal industry, and national Republicans produced a TV ad on his behalf contending that “with Obama as president, we just can’t count on Nick Rahall.” But Rahall tapped a variety of transportation-related campaign donors to outraise Snuffer and won, 54%-46%.