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Hechler files to run against Manchin for U.S. Senate

CHARLESTON -- Ken Hechler has filed to run for the U.S. Senate, challenging Gov. Joe Manchin for the Democratic nomination.

Hechler, 95, said he doesn't expect to win the race.

"I don't want to make it a campaign against Gov. Manchin," Hechler said Wednesday morning, speaking on the phone from New York, where he is doing a series of public lectures.

"I want to make it about mountaintop removal. A vote for me is not a vote for Ken Hechler --  it's tantamount to a vote against mountaintop removal."

He filed to run with the secretary of state's office via fax.

Hechler served nine terms in the U.S. House from 1958-1977 and four terms as West Virginia's secretary of state from 1985-2001.

In 2004, he ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state, a race that was won by Republican Betty Ireland. Because of Hechler's age -- he turned 90 during his campaign -- the race gained some national attention.

Hechler has been a longtime opponent of mountaintop mining and has been involved in several public protests.

He was arrested last summer for obstructing and impeding the flow of traffic outside a Massey Energy prep plant in Sundial, Raleigh County.

He also was among more than 100 people accused in May 2009 of trespassing on Massey Energy property near Pettus to protest a surface mine project there, but he was not arrested then.

Hechler said he has not talked to other Democrats about his Senate bid but decided to run not long after the state Legislature agreed to hold a primary next month.

He said he doesn't expect his entry into the race will go over well with many in the party.

"I pretty well decided if I got any opposition I would stick to my guns," he said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio, Manchin's former chief of staff, said the party will not endorse any candidate "or do anything" until the primary is over and the general election race is underway.

"Mr. Hechler is a fine man and has been a good friend," Puccio said.

Hechler didn't reveal details about how he plans to raise funds for a campaign, other than to say he "has a little saved up."

Gary Zuckett, the executive director of the left-leaning West Virginia Citizen Action Group, said Hechler was a fine candidate.

"I think Ken Hechler is a respected West Virginia political figure that is of the caliber that would fit in the position he's running for," he said.

The group's political action committee, Citizens PAC, has yet to endorse a candidate for the Senate race because the filing period, which began Tuesday, doesn't end until Friday. But the group has supported Hechler in the past.

Hechler said he is more focused on using his campaign as a platform to discuss mountaintop mining in West Virginia.

 "I'm running for the environmentalists who are opposed to mountaintop removal," he said. "It's a way to put it on the ballot. I'm trying to give an opportunity for all those people in the state to show there is strength in our numbers."

He said environmentalists and other foes of mountaintop mining might rally behind him at the polls.

"I'll have an opportunity then to articulate this in the general election," Hechler said. "I'm not ineligible to take office, but I don't expect that to happen. I just want to mobilize people to take a stand on this issue."

Hechler's age became an issue during the 2004 primary for secretary of state.

Democratic opponent Mike Oliverio paid to have a sticker attached to the front page of the Daily Mail and Gazette that said, "Mike Oliverio, Democrat for secretary of state. I'm not 89 years old."

Hechler made an issue of age himself in 2000 in a failed bid for the 2nd Congressional District seat. One 30-second TV spot showed Hechler, then-secretary of state, playing tennis with regular partner Jay Barkley, 24.

Hechler has seen history.

When he was drafted, Pvt. Hechler had his Ph.D. and had worked in Franklin D. Roosevelt's White House. He went through Officer Candidate School and mustered out as a major in 1946.

He landed shortly after D-Day on Omaha Beach.

As a congressman, Hechler was the principal author of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. He also worked toward passage of the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

Hechler's campaign trademark since 1960 has been a red Jeep.

While JFK and Hubert Humphrey engaged in their historic 1960 showdown in the West Virginia primary, Hechler was seeking his second term in the House of Representatives. He drove a Chevrolet convertible during his first congressional try in 1958. He won but harbored doubts about the Chevy's suitability as a campaign buggy.

 Since then, it's been the red Jeep.

And, so, it seems, it will be again.


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