Bo Copley got his 15 minutes of political fame as the laid-off West Virginia coal miner who challenged Hillary Clinton on a campaign stop during the 2016 presidential election, and then fought a quixotic battle for U.S. Senate in 2018.
In a speech, Clinton had declared her support for miners who needed help and support because environmental controls and the rise of natural gas were decimating their industry. In the speech, Clinton said:
And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.
Critics seized a soundbite from her introduction to the problem – “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of business” – and turned it into a campaign slogan against her.
One of those was Copley, who in 2018 decided to turn his news-amplified voice into a campaign for the U.S. Senate.
The 43-year-old is from Delbarton, a tiny town in the heart of Mingo County, an impoverished coal region in the southern part of West Virginia famous for the Matewan Massacre, and the Hatfield and McCoy feud. Remarkably, he had no campaign experience or established political network before attempting to win statewide office because he felt called by God to use his platform to make a difference.
In Brooklyn, filmmaker Todd Drezner was watching. After the 2016 election, he was looking for a creative project that would help bridge America’s political divides.
He got in touch with Copley who agreed to let him shoot a feature documentary about his Republican primary campaign.
The Campaign of Miner Bo is an engaging journey with Copley, a friendly family man whose evangelical Christian pro-gun anti-abortion politics and support for President Trump clash with those of the New York filmmaker’s.
That’s the point, Drezner told me. Even if we disagree with the politics of people like Copley, “you can’t dismiss their entire lives.” The question is “how can we find common ground, even if we don’t agree with each other.”
In addition, Copley’s underdog battle “is the American dream of the person who’s unemployed and has no money and thinks he can be elected to U.S. Senate.”
We see Copley laid off from his job as a mine foreman (he doesn’t literally dig for coal) and frustrated, looking for work. “It’s hard to make ends meet right now,” he says. He finds solace in his Christian church, his close community and coaching his son’s soccer team.
As a politician, he’s not exactly a natural. He’s shy about asking people for their vote, and especially their money, a losing recipe in modern politics.
“It’s not a conventional campaign,” Copley tells his coach, campaign manager Jaryd Crum.
But Copley is a decent man, looking for compromise and respectful of American principles found in the Constitution. When an activist at a West Virginia teachers’ union rally berates him for being a Republican, Copley, refreshingly, does not feel threatened. “She has a right to free speech,” he says. “It is what it is.” He says he understands the teachers’ anger and praises his own education. Copley knows he’s an underdog. “Send a David to slay Goliath,” he tells voters.
Drezner is not afraid to challenge Copley, pointing out, for example, that Clinton was actually declaring her support for miners. Copley answers: “I didn’t know that she had said we don’t want to forget those people, but I think we’ve already been forgotten by a lot people across the nation.”
Drezner’s movie is more about politics than mining. Even if Copley were elected President, he’d have a hard time reversing the fall of coal mining, in trouble around the world as countries, including the U.S., transition to renewables, natural gas and nuclear. There are fewer than 20,000 coal miners left in West Virginia.
And if this movie is about politics, it’s about the decency of an earnest political campaign with the best intention of helping others, and, beneath the surface, the connection between the West Virginia coal foreman and the Brooklyn filmmaker.
In the end, Copley loses the Republican primary to West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrissey, getting a little over 4,000 votes, fifth in a six-man field. Morrissey then lost to Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat.
These days, Copley is back to work, but he’s thinking about running for office again. “I want to help find common ground,” he told me in a phone interview. “You and I might not agree, but we don’t need to be extreme, we should compromise and meet somewhere in the middle. That’s what politics should be.”
The process of running for Senate, and feeling the political burn of unwarranted attacks and pressures of garnering support have left Copley more empathetic toward professional politicians. If he could talk to Hillary Clinton now, he told me, he’d tell her “thank you for coming to talk in a place where you knew people wouldn’t like you.”
The promise of better human connection is always uplifting.
An hour-long version of The Campaign of Miner Bo will be broadcast on public television stations around the country this fall. The full-length feature will be available on video on demand platforms in October. To be notified about screenings and VOD availability, join the mailing list at the film’s website, www.minerbofilm.com
John W. Miller