The Magazine

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

The Pennsylvania Senate race is too close to call.

Nov 5, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 08 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Smith continued to farm but also started working for some of the area’s coal mines, “running equipment.” He convinced his wife, Saundy, that they should mortgage their house so he could purchase his own mine. “Mrs. Smith helped me build this,” he says.

One mine became three mines, and soon Smith was one of the largest independent coal mine owners in the business. He became a multimillionaire as he purchased more real estate and started a car wash (pronounced “car warsh”) business. He also began buying more farmland around the old Smith homestead, where corn and wheat have supplanted the dairy cows. In his black Ford pickup, we drive past newly sowed rows of wheat that he says he planted himself.

“This farming, Mike, once you get it in your blood, you’re stuck. You can’t get it out,” he says.

We pass the small Lutheran church on the edge of his property where Smith was baptized and where he’s still an active member. We also spot the farmhouse his grandparents owned and where Smith’s father was born. There are now at least five generations of his family who have lived on this land. He has seven children, including four adopted, and nine grandchildren, including a newborn. I ask him about his background. How long have Smiths lived in this township? Where did they come from?

Smith is briefly silent as we drive up another green hill. “I thought about checking that out, but I never seemed to take the time to do it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve always been a little busy.”

A few miles away from the farm, we visit the mines that kept Smith so busy these last three decades. He sold his mines two years ago, but we drive down into the deep mine as if he still owns the place. Smith may be new to politics, but he’s an expert on coal mining. I ask him to explain what we’re looking at.

“That’s the coal seam,” Smith says, pointing to the black layer cropping out of the ground underneath several feet of sandstone. “Upper Freeport, it’s about 36 inches thick. At the end seam, it’s probably about 12.6 BTU, 1.3 sulfur. But what we had to do here was, you know, take, pull the topsoil off, and there’s piles of topsoil saved and seeded down. Then the subsoil, and we piled it up, seeded it down. Then we remove all the dirt and rock above the coal seam. That’s what we call the overburden. It’s all stored down here and we removed all of that, then we loaded that coal out that was in this pit. Then we started underground.”

At a nearby coal refinery, Smith spots a familiar face. “Is that Mouse?” he asks as we pull up to a man whose face and hands are black with coal dust. Mouse, whose real name is Richard, is missing a few teeth. He’s eating an orange ice cream bar.

“I’d shake your hand, but they’re filthy,” Mouse says to me.

“When are we gonna have a poker night?” Smith asks Mouse.

“You’re busy all this month, probably,” Mouse replies.

“Yeah, but you guys go ahead,” Smith says. “Yeah, once this election’s over, it’d be nice to get together.”

“Yeah, that’s what I figure, after the election,” Mouse says.

Smith asks Mouse who he’s voting for.

“Obama,” Mouse answers with a sly grin. “My ass!” He breaks out in laughter.

There are plenty of Romney-Ryan and Tom Smith signs scattered throughout this part of the state, but there are just as many anti-Obama signs, all of them focused on the president’s “war on coal.” A new Smith ad features a young miner from Rockwood named Colt Bowman who says he was recently laid off as a result of Obama’s regulations on the industry. “If Bob Casey is reelected, we could lose even more jobs, but worse, we could lose our way of life,” Bowman says.

Smith says Casey doesn’t have any answers for people like Bowman, and so he hasn’t earned reelection.

“It comes down to this: What has Senator Bob Casey done as a United States senator?” Smith says. “Where’s his plan? Where’s his idea?”

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.

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