Mine rescue changed businessman’s mind about politics
* EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of gubernatorial candidate profiles. Stories on Democrat Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson will also appear this week.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Dreamswork Fieldhouse is not a remarkable name for University High School's athletic building.
But the name is a remark on the Republican candidate for governor, Bill Maloney, who started the charity fund with his wife.
On the campaign trail, "work" is Maloney's theme: As a businessman, he's done it and created it. In West Virginia, there isn't enough of it. And he wants to change that.
Now voters must again decide whether they believe he can. They did not think so last year. That's when Maloney lost a special election for a one-year term to Democrat Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Even Maloney's fiercest critics concede he is a nice guy with a good business background. But they publicly question whether he knows policy well enough to talk about it or has enough skill to govern.
University's retired long-time Principal Bill Wilson does not have that question.
Wilson argues the learning curve for governor is "not that steep - I hate to tell them."
Wilson credits Maloney with helping to find the site for the new high school, which opened in 2008. He remembers Maloney poring over building plans, selling the construction bond during talks with community groups and finally raising private money to help build the school's athletic facilities, which are some of the nicest in the state.
"Bill has the capacity to see disjointed parts and put them together," Wilson said.
Wilson had a simple pitch.
"West Virginia, give Bill the job. If you don't like it, you can get rid of him in four years," Wilson said. "Hell, four years to see if it works."
Some wonder what Maloney can do if he takes office. He will likely have an experienced, Democrat-controlled Legislature to contend with.
Maloney said he has a basic philosophy for what needs to be changed in West Virginia: cut bureaucracies, weed out corruption, shakeup public education and pass tort reforms.
Sometimes he is short on the details, though. When he does offer specifics, they can end up biting him.
But Maloney said his "basic philosophy" will be good for the state, just let him get into office.
"I see my opponent; he's surrounded himself with a bunch of young lawyers," Maloney said. "No business experience there."
Maloney was not a politician before he started his run. Nor does he appear to be an ideologue: He's donated to Democrats like Joe Manchin and Mike Oliverio, a fact that came up during last year's Republican primary.
But he once chaired the state Builders and Contractors Association. That brought him into occasional contact with lawmakers in Charleston and Washington.
If Maloney learned anything from those brief forays into politics, it's that insiders have the power in Charleston.
"It seems a lot of deals got done at the Marriott bar," Maloney said. "It didn't do you any good to go to somebody's office."
Maloney turned 54 earlier this month. He was born in Syracuse, N.Y.
Democrats have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure voters know he is technically a New Yorker. But it's a frustrating label for the Maloneys.
"Where did we choose to live and where did we choose to stay?" his wife, Sharon Maloney, said.
West Virginia has lost about 100,000 people since they moved here in 1981. Bill Maloney talks about that on the campaign trail, blames Tomblin for it and pledges to reverse the brain drain.
Bill and Sharon met in 1978. They were both 19. Sharon, who is six weeks older than Bill, was going to the University of Delaware and he was going to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. They married three years later. They were both 22.
Maloney started his career as a drilling engineer at Layne. He started out in Edison, N.J., a township of about 70,000 people at the time.
"I was like, 'Get me out of there, what've you got?' " he recalled telling his bosses at Layne.
The Maloneys spent three months in Pittsburgh, and then came to Teays Valley in 1981 just as West Virginia University's football team was having its first winning season in six years. They quickly became Mountaineer fans.
Three years later, Bill Maloney "threw it all away" in the Kanawha Valley, moved to Morgantown and started North American Drillers in 1984 with another ex-Layne man.
The company started on loans and with the help of family. (Maloney's parents died about nine months apart in the mid-1990s.)
"There was a lot of times we didn't get a paycheck because the employees had to be paid before us," Sharon Maloney said.
There is an easy way to chart the company's success: as the holes got bigger, so did the company.
The company drilled holes for water wells. Eventually, they had proven themselves enough to get work drilling ventilation shafts in the Pittsburgh coal seam, which runs across North Central West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania.
"You had to build up a reputation before coal miners really believe you can do things," Maloney said.
Dee Jay Utt was the company's second hire. He's still there. He remembers the early days. The first company car was a Ford Escort. Maloney, a tall man, did not fit well. So, they cut out part of the frame to lower the seat.
"Then it looked like he was sitting on the floor," Utt said.
Even though Maloney's job was mainly to sell contracts, he did not hesitate to come out and work in the snow and mud or bring pizza to his employees in the middle of the night.
"One of the reasons he and I got to be such good friends is he wasn't afraid to jump in and hand tools," Utt said.
When business was slow, the company did everything to keep workers on the payroll, Utt said. They would clean or paint or do just about anything to stay busy, "even if we had to turn gravel over in the parking lot." Maloney also fought to get employees a 401(k), health insurance and bonuses that grew from $25 to several thousand dollars.
Utt said Maloney constantly looked out for workers' safety.
At home, Sharon Maloney said, "He makes me wear goggles when I cut the grass."
By 2000, North American Drillers was big enough to buy out a competitor in the area.
Six years later, Maloney sold his interest in the combined company, Shaft Drillers International, and entered a fitful retirement.
Even before he retired, the Maloneys were active in charities. When one of their daughter's classmates suddenly lost his father, they started the Hope Works scholarship for Monongalia County students from families that suddenly lost income due to death or divorce.
Billy Atkins, a partner at Bowles Rice in Morgantown, met Maloney a quarter century ago. At the time, Atkins was reviewing loans for a bank and Maloney was trying to get his business off the ground. Years later, the two were among a group of well-to-do northern West Virginians that built an umbrella charity. Their goal was to give the Morgantown area a philanthropic group akin to the Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation, which serves the Charleston area.
"You get nothing other than the satisfaction of seeing it benefit the community," Atkins said.
Still, Maloney evidently had made a name for himself in the community. Republicans started talking to him about making a run for governor. He met with party officials in Washington, but Sharon was not on board.
Part of her hesitation was because of their two daughters.
"We didn't really want to expose them to the political life," she said.
That changed after Maloney flew to Chile in 2010 to help rescue 33 miners who were trapped 2,100 feet underground. Their ordeal, which lasted more than two months, captured the world's attention.
Maloney said he helped drill the hole that the miners came up through, as well as designed a capsule that could maneuver under ground to get the miners in and out. Credit for the design has gone to others, including NASA, but Maloney said he has now filed a patent.
The Chilean government spent millions on the rescue effort. But Maloney said he didn't take anything but hospitalities like the plane tickets and food.
"I coulda," Maloney said. "But I didn't want to."
Things changed after Bill returned from Chile.
Sen. Robert Byrd died in summer 2010. Then Joe Manchin left the Governor's Office to go to Washington. So, there was going to be a special election to fill Manchin's seat.
Bill said he ran into U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., at a mining industry event in Charleston in January 2011.
"What are you thinking?" Maloney recalled Capito asked.
"About what?" he said.
"Well, there's a special election coming," Maloney said the congresswoman said.
(A Capito spokesman said Maloney talked to Capito about running before 2011 and when Capito saw him at the event, she thought it was a good time to broach the subject again).
Maloney decided to run. He filed at the last minute.
Maloney came out of nowhere to upset former Republican Secretary of State Betty Ireland, one of the few Republicans to win a statewide office in recent memory. With a campaign led by a GOP operative with the knack for memorable attacks, Maloney turned Republicans from Ireland and commandingly won in a field of eight Republicans.
He lost narrowly to Tomblin last fall.
This year's race has been something of a rerun. Maloney's campaign tries to pin Tomblin with West Virginia's endemic problems. The Tomblin campaign argues Tomblin has helped right the ship and Maloney is untested and inexperienced.
Maloney is working to change the outcome.
Contact writer Ry Rivard at 304-348-1796 or email@example.com.