95-Year-Old Senate Candidate 'Never Surprised' by Politics

At 92, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., had been the Senate's oldest sitting member. One of the candidates in this month's West Virginia Senate primary is hoping to take over the title, along with Byrd's seat.

Ken Hechler is a 95-year-old veteran Democratic politician whose career dates back to a job in the Truman administration. Hechler served in the House from 1959 to 1977 and as West Virginia's secretary of state from 1985 to 2001. Now, he hopes to succeed Byrd in the Senate.

"I was elected to the House in 1958, which is exactly the same year that Robert C. Byrd was elected to the U.S. Senate. We served together side by side for 18 years," said Hechler. "So we have worked closely together and I will certainly emulate the tremendous leadership which he exercised."

While Hechler is a long shot in the Democratic primary, where popular Gov. Joe Manchin is expected to claim victory, he has campaigned throughout the state in his trademark red Jeep.

"People that have seen me in action say I might be old chronologically, but I have the mind, the heart, the passion, the articulation of a 35-year-old," said Hechler.

"The governor does think very highly of Mr. Hechler and the governor appreciates Mr. Hechler's past public service," said Sara Payne Scarbro, campaign manager for Manchin.

The primary focus of Hechler's campaign is the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining.

"My first bill that I would introduce would be to abolish mountaintop removal," he said.

The issue has sparked passionate debate in Appalachia in recent years. Proponents view mountaintop mining as an efficient and economical way to reach large coal seams with fewer safety concerns than underground mines. They emphasize the jobs the mining industry provides to the region and the use of some reclaimed mining sites for wildlife preserves or golf courses.

The environmental impacts of the practice, however, have drawn concern and outrage. When a mountaintop is removed, the resulting soil and waste often is deposited in nearby valleys, where it affects water quality for downstream residents. The magnitude of these impacts and the long-term effects on the landscape have become the subject of emotionally-charged argument.

Prominent environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Massey Energy chairman Don Blankenship squared off in a public debate on the matter earlier this year. Hollywood actresses Daryl Hannah and Ashley Judd have become involved in the opposition to the practice, with the latter referring to it as "the rape of Appalachia."

Hechler has become a key voice in this movement and has centered his candidacy on offering voters the chance to cast a ballot against mountaintop removal. He argues that the practice actually produces very few jobs, with explosives experts replacing coal miners. Reclamation, Hechler asserts, is equivalent to "putting lipstick on a corpse."

Hechler is critical of the large role the coal industry plays in the state's politics and believes that Byrd was beginning to share that view.

"In his later months of his life, he said that coal should not demonize those that criticize some of its activity and he also said that the support for mountaintop removal is diminishing," Hechler said. "I think he was on the way of changing, and that is one of the wonderful characteristics of Sen. Byrd."

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