16 people who shaped the 2016 election: Bo Copley

By Nov. 9, the votes will have been cast and counted, there will be a winner and a loser, and the country will begin a slow return to normal. Historians will have their say on the outcome, but all of us who have lived through this election will carry away indelible memories of a shocking year in American history: of a handful of ordinary people, swept up in the rush of history; of a series of moments on which the fate of the nation seemed, at least briefly, to turn; and of places on the map that became symbols of a divided nation. As we count down to Election Day, Yahoo News has identified 16 unforgettable people, moments and places.

What did Hillary Clinton mean when she said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”?

To Bo Copley, a 39-year-old unemployed West Virginia coal miner, her remark at a CNN forum in March was a direct threat to his future livelihood, family and town. So when Clinton showed up to campaign in Williamson, he let her know how he felt:

“I just want to know how you can say you’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you’re gonna be our friend,” he said, sliding a picture of his three children across the table toward her — a moment captured by reporters that catapulted him to at least fleeting local fame. Months later, when Republican West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito held a hearing in October on “the devastating effects that EPA’s anti coal regulations are having on our state,” Copley was a star witness, describing the events leading up to his layoff as a maintenance planner and foreman at a subsidiary of the mining giant Arch Coal:

“With increasing regulations forcing other mines to close, we would see more and more inspectors on our job. At one point, we had 12 inspectors on our property on the same day. They told us they were all there that day because they had nowhere else to go … That would lead to more violations because of their interpretation of laws. More violations lead to higher cost per ton. Higher cost per ton leads to less profits. Less profits lead to job loss.”

It was a report from the trenches of what Republicans have been calling, since long before the campaign even began, the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” This was a message Donald Trump sought to reinforce at a rally in West Virginia by donning a miner’s hardhat and pretending to wield a shovel, violating a principle of campaigning dating back to 1988, when Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was photographed in a tank turret, wearing a helmet that memorably reminded many observers of Snoopy: Never put anything weird on your head.

Bo Copley collects himself while speaking to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Bo Copley collects himself while speaking to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Williamson Health and Wellness Center in Williamson, W.Va. (Photo: Paul Sancya/AP)

To Clinton, her remark was just a recognition of something that was happening already, and would continue, a result not just of environmental concerns but competition for coal from cheap natural gas. She apologized to Copley for her “misstatement”:

“What I was saying is that the way things are going now, we will continue to lose jobs. That’s what I meant to say and I think that seems to be supported by the facts.” As the media noted, she was actually making a point about the need to bring jobs back to Appalachia and support laid-off miners.

Copley, for his part, was unconvinced, telling reporters after the confrontation that he “would have liked to have heard more of what her plan is” for coal country. He could have read her plan, all 2,180 words of it, including job training, expanded broadband access, combatting drug abuse, and promoting the rich cultural heritage of Appalachia, here. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered; as he also told reporters, he was a Republican who would never support her anyway: “Coal is not the only priority,” he explained. “Her stance on abortion and other things are things I can’t get behind either.” — By Jerry Adler


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