WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — How did an unemployed coal miner who identifies as a Republican break through the by-invitation-only world of presidential campaign round tables?
It was a classic case of connections made in a life in a small town, Bo Copley told reporters after he became an unexpected star here Monday.
“We coach three soccer teams, and Dr. Beckett’s son and his daughter played soccer for me, and so we’ve gotten fairly close,” Copley said, tearing up as he spoke. “They approached me Saturday and said they thought of me. They were looking for an out-of-work coal miner because being close to us and seeing us, they knew our situation.”
Dr. Dino Beckett is the chief executive officer at the health and wellness center where he hosted Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III in Mingo County, which is being devastated by the collapse of the coal economy.
“They knew I try to conduct myself in a manner Christian-like, and try to be civil,” Copley said.
Round-table discussions on the campaign trail often come off as highly orchestrated affairs, especially in the week before West Virginia’s May 10 primary. But that wasn’t the case when Copley, a 39-year old father who had lost his job in the Mountain State’s energy business got to speak, as he put it, on behalf of the throng of angry people waving signs and shouting outside.
[Related: Clinton Feels the Heat in Coal Country]
Copley confronted Clinton directly over the comments the former secretary of state made during a CNN town hall back in March when she said, “We’re gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
“I just want to know,” Copley said, “how you can say you’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of, out of jobs, and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend? Because those people out there don’t see you as a friend.”
“I know that Bo…,” Clinton responded. “I don’t mind anybody being upset or angry. That’s a perfect right to feel that way. I do feel a little bit sad and sorry that I gave folks the reason or excuse to be so upset with me, that is not what I intended at all.”
At one point, Copley pushed a photograph across the table and Clinton looked at it. “This is my family,” he told her. “That’s my future. I want my family to know that they have a future here in this state, because it’s a great state.”
Copley said his family has a small business that allows them to get by, but not in the same way that they did when he was a maintenance planner for an energy conglomerate.
“Those are the three faces that I had to come home to and explain that I didn’t have a job,” Copley said.
Clinton told him her comments had been taken out of context. And indeed a tape from the March town hall shows her talking extensively about the needs of displaced coal workers.
But it is that single line that the angry crowd outside the medical center and Republicans have seized on. Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul has made it a focus of his re-election bid this fall, given that his state has lost about 1,500 coal industry jobs in the past three months.
In a statement released before her visits to Kentucky and West Virginia on Monday, he referred to the “real and devastating effects of the Obama-Clinton War on Coal.”
At the round table, in a corner of West Virginia that borders Kentucky, Clinton laid out her proposals to revitalize Appalachia’s coal communities through job training, education and small business investment.
“I put forth a $30 billion plan,” Clinton told Copley. “We can’t just leave people like you and your family behind. That’s not how I’m made, and it’s not what I’ll do. And so I made one misstatement, you know, and I apologized for that. It was not meant to be taken the way that it was taken.”
She acknowledged that the remark would hurt her chances for winning votes in Appalachia, but she hoped it wouldn’t affect Manchin, who has endorsed her.
Manchin, for his part, said he has decided he can trust Clinton, knowing full well it might cost him down the road.
“If I thought that was in her heart, if I thought she wanted to eliminate one job in West Virginia, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” the senator said at the round table. “I think Hillary knows that. She wouldn’t be here if she felt that way. There’s no way you could come into this type of a setting and meet the people who hurt so bad unless you want to help them.”
Copley told Manchin, “Honestly, if I can be candid, I think still supporting her hurts you. It does.”
“I believe we’ll have a friend, I really do,” Manchin told him. “And if my political life is on the line, so be it.”
Manchin, a former governor, is not on the ballot again until 2018, but his seat could prove crucial in deciding who controls the Senate during the second half of the next president’s term.
If the crowd outside is any indication, with perhaps hundreds joining amid torrential rains on the streets of the small coal town, Manchin just might have a political problem.
David Jarrell, a college student from Mingo County wearing a Boston Celtics T-shirt, was drenched by the end of the event waving a Donald Trump for president sign.
“I used to like Joe when he was governor,” Jarrell said. “Yeah, I loved him as governor. But when he got to the Senate, he let that stuff get to his head, and so now I ain’t gonna vote for him.”
Manchin served six years as the chief executive in West Virginia before being elected to the Senate to fill the unexpired term created by the death of the legendary Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The four-lane highway that connects this town to the state capital of Charleston bears Byrd’s name.
Manchin said he couldn’t afford to worry about the politics.
“If I’m worried about that politically, I’m more worried about myself more politically than I am about my state,” he said. “And I’m not going to do that.”