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."

While Gov. Manchin claims to seek balance between coal and environmental interests, Hechler feels that in practice "his balance goes 100 percent towards coal."

"Anyone that knows Gov. Joe Manchin knows that he listens to all sides," Scarbro said. "And he truly believes that we can balance our economy with our environment when it comes to our energy needs."

While the EPA had increased scrutiny of mountaintop removal under the Obama administration, Hechler sees these as "very halting steps."

"I don't think he's gone far enough, both in this area and in the area of global warming. The so-called cap-and-trade bill which was recently passed provides not enough cap and too darn much trade."

He cites deregulation as part of the problem.

"The Tea Party people that want to get the government out and the Ronald Reagan supporters who want less government are really hurting the average people, particularly the lower income people," Hechler said.

Hechler also criticized the legislative maneuvering surrounding the passage of health care reform.

"The leadership of the Congress felt it was necessary to pay off people to get their votes so that they could produce a majority of health care," he said, "and all those buyouts should be immediately removed from the health care legislation that was passed because that's simply waste."

The former congressman has strong words for the way in which today's legislators conduct themselves.

"The biggest change is in the relations between Democrats and Republicans," Hechler said. "There's gridlock in Washington today because both the members of the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are scratching each others' eyes out."

"I took the lead when I was in the Congress in making friendships with members of the Republican Party and working across the aisle with people like Bob Dole to fashion legislation that was good for the entire country rather than trying to just grind their noses into the dirt the way the current situation is," he said.

To restore a sense of public service, Hechler advocates reducing members' pay.

"Serving in the Congress should be an honor, and they ought to be paid more like the people in Peace Corps for having that honor," he said.

President Truman, Hechler remembered, eschewed appeals to popular opinion.

"He would never allow any of us to take a poll," Hechler said, "because he said polls never indicate the difference between justice and injustice, they just give you a little snapshot of temporary public opinion.

"He wrote in his diary, 'What if Moses had taken a poll in Egypt or Martin Luther at the time of the reformation had taken a poll.' He never relied on temporary popular opinion in order to make his decision."

Hechler said Truman based his actions, including pioneering work on civil rights, on the fact that establishing justice has a prominent place in the preamble of the Constitution.

"He believed his moral compass was that word, justice," Hechler said. "He should get the credit as the greatest civil rights president rather than Lyndon Johnson."

Reflecting his respect for his mentor, Hechler said, "My moral compass will be eight words of Thomas Jefferson: 'Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.'"

While Hechler's chances in the Aug. 28 primary are slim, he denied he would be surprise to win after years in public service.

"I would be gratified," he said. "I'm never surprised by anything in politics."