Donald Trump promised during his campaign to bring back mining jobs to struggling workers in coal country. Now the president-elect is apparently considering for commerce secretary a Manhattan billionaire who owned a West Virginia coal mine where 12 workers died in 2006.
Hedge fund titan Wilbur Ross, 78, tops Trump’s list to lead the Department of Commerce, according to a Politico report later seemingly confirmed in a tweet by financier Carl Icahn, a Trump confidant.
Other contenders named by The New York Times include Dan DiMicco, the former chief executive of the steel producer Nucor Corporation, and Lewis Eisenberg, the private equity chief at Granite Capital International Group.
A spokesperson for Trump’s transitional team did not respond to requests for comment.
Ross, whose job as commerce secretary would be to promote economic growth and improve living standards across the country, seems an odd choice for a president who campaigned as an economic populist. The New Jersey native’s cutthroat investment strategy of snatching up ailing businesses presents an appealing narrative to investors, particularly those who believe the U.S. has lost its competitive edge in a global economy.
But many of those turnaround stories have a human toll attached.
“It’s really the height of hypocrisy when people are counting on you to turn around the economy for them and to bring back coal jobs that you’re naming someone who’s never done anything to help working-class people,” attorney Tony Oppegard, a former mine safety official who now represents miners in his private practice, told The Huffington Post. “Trump portraying himself as the savior of the working class was just a con job.”
In August, Ross’ investment firm WL Ross Co. agreed to pay a $2.3 million fine to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to settle charges that it failed to disclose fees it charged investors.
In 2012, Ross, clad in purple velvet slippers, took the stage at a black-tie induction ceremony for the secretive Wall Street fraternity Kappa Beta Phi and sang show tunes mocking poor people, according to a reporter who sneaked into the event. Two years later, Ross declared that “the 1 percent is being picked on for political reasons.”
In 2004, Ross bought Cone Mills, a struggling textile producer in North Carolina, and merged it with another firm to create International Text Group. The company, later renamed Cone Denim, laid off hundreds of workers and outsourced jobs to emerging markets, where labor is cheaper.
“I thought Trump was going to change some things, stop shipping all these jobs overseas,” Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) told The Daily Beast. “The base that helped him win ― the base is looking for certain promises to be kept.”
But in 2002, after spending decades as an investment banker, Ross earned the nickname “bottom feeder” when he started buying up decaying steel mills and coal mines. In 2004, he began the process of purchasing some mines owned by the bankrupt coal giant Horizon Natural Resources ― but only after a bankruptcy judge stripped thousands of miners, some with black lung disease, of their medical coverage and union status.