In Kentucky, more hope for a better discussion

August 6, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

Fancy Farm

Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Grimes speaks during the annual Fancy Farm picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. A fundraiser for a small Roman Catholic church in western Kentucky, the two-day picnic in the tiny town of Fancy Farm is a throwback to the days before television, when stump speeches were the candidates’ main vehicle to reach voters. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

Over in Kentucky, there have been some interesting moves in recent months politically, as the big U.S. Senate race there continues to include much talk about the coal industry’s troubles. For example, there was the scene last month where Democrat Allison Grimes went to the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster memorial to talk coal-mine safety:

With signs pointing to a potentially rocky road ahead in coal country, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes sought to retool her coal message this week, injecting a populist strain into her pro-coal platform.

On a two-day tour of Eastern Kentucky, Grimes traversed counties where she underperformed among Democrats in the May 20 primary, accusing U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of failing to stand up for miner safety while collecting campaign cash from coal companies.

In Hyden on Thursday morning, up roads too narrow and winding for her campaign bus to negotiate, Grimes laid a wreath at the Hurricane Creek mine memorial that commemorates the 38 miners killed there in a 1970 explosion. After touring the memorial, Grimes said the disaster shows “why we need somebody up in Washington looking out for our miners.”

And now, the United Mine Workers, in endorsing Grimes, says they’re planning a big ad campaign on her behalf.  But while the UMWA points to its belief that she will stand more strongly for mine safety and health protections, the union also quickly moves back to the industry’s narrative, which makes the race more about which candidate will fight harder against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

The United Mine Workers of America endorsed Grimes over the weekend and is planning an undisclosed amount of advertising this fall in Eastern Kentucky, where animosity runs high toward President Barack Obama and his policies on coal.

Union leaders, who declined to back Obama in 2012, are also pulling together two busloads of miners from the western portion of the state and urging hundreds of miners from the eastern region to turn out when Clinton stumps for Grimes in Hazard, Ky., today.

“This is going to be a game changer for this race, particularly in Eastern Kentucky,” said Steve Earle, international vice president for the union’s district 12. “Our people bloc vote, and we figure we are worth about 20,000 votes.”

… Earle, from the UMWA, acknowledged that McConnell is pro-coal but said the union believes Grimes is a better voice for workers and their families, particularly on issues involving health and safety. He said she also believes that environmental regulations are having a detrimental effect on the industry.

Bill Bissett

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett steps to the podium to speak at a rally in response to an Environmental Protection Agency hearing on tougher pollution restrictions, Tuesday, July 29, 2014, in Atlanta.  (AP Photo/David Goldman)

This is the same problem that West Virginia Democrat Natalie Tennant has in her Senate campaign against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. Just look at Dave Boucher’s story in yesterday’s Daily Mail, and witness Tennant’s campaign staff desperately try to walk back something that her campaign chairman, Gen. Allen Tackett said:

The campaign chairman for Democratic Senate nominee Natalie Tennant recently said Tennant agrees with President Barack Obama “on most of his policies.”

Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett, the retired head of the West Virginia National Guard, misspoke when he made the statement Saturday in Logan before a Democratic campaign event, Tennant campaign spokeswoman Jenny Donohue said.

The general misspoke. Natalie does not support the majority of the president’s policies,” Donohue said Monday evening.

“The only thing that influences Natalie Tennant’s policies is what’s right for the people of West Virginia. She’ll stand up to the president when he’s wrong, and she’ll work with anyone who’s willing to do what’s right for West Virginia.”

Part of this is the media’s fault. Political reporters too often let the career campaign consultants control the stories they do, allowing the information readers get to mirror the talking points and campaign ads, rather than deciding for themselves what the important issues are, and telling voters how the different candidates would really address those issues. Does some off-the-cuff statement from Gen. Tackett really matter that much to voters? Of course not.

But gosh, I don’t know why the Tennant campaign’s folks were so quick to throw Gen. Tackett under the bus, when it looks like the general actually understands that what’s happening with coal goes far beyond EPA policies:

Before serving as the full-time leader of the state National Guard, Tackett worked for 25 years as a coal mine manager and superintendent. He argued the proposed EPA regulations will hurt the coal industry, but notes they haven’t taken effect yet so they can’t be blamed for every problem facing the “boom or bust industry.”

“It’s a matter that the market is weak right now and the demand for coal is down,” Tackett said.

“It’s not so much the Obama administration as it is the coal market itself.”

Natalie Tennant should be talking about what’s happening in the coal markets, especially about the inevitable decline that’s going on right now in Southern West Virginia, and offering a vision for what the region could do to prosper as coal declines and after coal is gone. And just as Alison Grimes went to the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster memorial, Secretary of State Tennant could be talking constantly — constantly — about black lung disease, and about how the Republicans in Congress bottled up regulations aimed at eliminating that disease and how Rep. Capito voted to help her party block the Robert C. Byrd mine safety bill. Yes, the Tennant campaign talks about these things … but they know they have a media contingent in West Virginia that is all-too eager to get back to the “war on coal” message, and Tennant’s people constantly fall for it, playing right into Rep. Capitol’s hands.

We’ve talked before on this blog about how political leaders in Kentucky are actually moving ahead, in a forceful and collective way, to talk about ways to blunt the impacts of the coal decline on Eastern Kentucky. We see that again this week, with this report from the Herald-Leader:

Possible links between health problems and mountaintop mining in Eastern Kentucky emerged as a key concern of people attending sessions aimed at coming up with ideas to improve the economy and quality of life in the region, according to the dentist who chaired the sessions.

Dr. Nikki Stone, who practices in Hazard, said her committee will likely recommend further study.

“There’s something there that we need to explore further,” Stone said Tuesday.

Stone heads a committee on health issues that is part of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative that Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, started last year to look for ways to boost the region in the wake of steep job losses in the coal industry.

In West Virginia, though, we have nothing like SOAR. Political leaders go to great lengths not only to avoid talking about how the forecasts show Southern West Virginia coal declining regardless of what EPA does, but they do their best to convince people in that part of the state that another boom could be just around the corner. And just try to get a West Virginia elected official to talk about the studies linking mountaintop removal with serious health consequences for the people of the coalfields. Here’s what happens when you try to get Rep. Nick J. Rahall to discuss that issue. And Secretary of State Tennant and her campaign staff run from the issue almost as fast as they rush to let the Republican campaign consultants take over their message.

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