CHARLESTON - With an endorsement from one of the biggest mining unions, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's campaign for the U.S. Senate got a significant shot in the arm, but Republicans contend it is not enough to overcome concerns about her support for the Democratic leadership at the federal level, people who they say are against coal interests of states like West Virginia.
The United Mine Workers of America's National Council of COMPAC, the union's political action arm, last week voted unanimously to endorse Democrat Tennant in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in the United States Senate.
"Natalie has been a strong supporter of active and retired UMWA members throughout her entire career, and was an especially strong supporter of our members and their families during last year's battle to preserve jobs, pensions and retiree health care when Patriot Coal declared bankruptcy," UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a press release. "She stuck with us in that fight, and I believe the strong support we received from her and other political leaders who came to our side made a huge difference in the successful outcome we were able to achieve at Patriot Coal.
"We will never forget the strength of her commitment to our cause."
The union's endorsement came after a long internal process, starting with a poll of UMWA membership conducted by Hart Research Associates earlier this year that showed support for Tennant was strong, Roberts said.
Although opponents have tried to portray Tennant as being anti-coal and willing to follow the current administration's so-called "War on Coal," Roberts said that is not the case.
"And don't let anyone fool you - Natalie Tennant is standing with coal miners again in our fight against the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) rules that threaten our members' jobs, our retirees' security, and our communities' ability to survive," he said.
Tennant has said her first act as senator will be to sign on to the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, which was introduced in response to the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy that took the lives of 29 coal miners in 2010. Tennant has also pledged to support bankruptcy reform to ensure the promises made to miners while they are working are kept when they retire.
"West Virginia coal miners give their lungs, their knees and their backs to power this country, and they deserve a senator who will put their health and safety above corporate profits," Tennant said. "While I am fighting to protect coal jobs and keep our miners working, I will fight just as hard to keep them safe, and protect the health care and pensions they have earned over a lifetime or work."
Roberts talked about Tennant's understanding of issues facing miners, having spent a lot of time in their homes listening to their stories as well.
"Natalie Tennant gets it," he said. "She marched side by side with us in July in Pittsburgh as we protested the EPA's rules.
"We didn't ask her to come; she came on her own because she is committed to coal miners, their families, their jobs and their communities. That's the kind of leadership West Virginia families need," Roberts said.
The campaign of Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Tennant's opponent in the Senate race, said Capito continually works hard for the interests of coal miners and all working West Virginians.
"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," said Amy Graham, Capito for Senate spokesperson. "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."
Graham said Tennant showed just how out of touch she is with miners when she defended President Obama's anti-coal policies and brought Elizabeth Warren to West Virginia to campaign for her.
"And there is no question she would be another vote to keep Harry Reid as majority leader," Graham said. "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.