This story was also published in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
WHITESBURG, Kentucky — Mitch McConnell staked his last Senate campaign, five years ago, in large part on his support for the coal industry and coal miners.
But McConnell’s unwillingness to shore up the fund that supports miners with black lung disease or their pension fund, even after dozens of his constituents traveled 10 hours by bus this summer to his Washington office, has allowed a well-funded opponent to seize on what should be McConnell’s strength: coal.
“Coal miners risked their lives to fuel our country and our growth into a world power,” Democrat Amy McGrath says in a recent attack ad. Borrowing a union battle cry that still echoes in the hills and hollows around here after more than 80 years, McGrath says: “The question for anyone in Congress is, which side are you on?”
In an indication that it struck a nerve, McConnell’s campaign quickly hit back with his own ad, asserting that “Kentucky coal country knows that Mitch fights and wins for miners.”
As the coal economy of eastern Kentucky has collapsed in recent years after decades of decline, there’s a growing impatience expressed even by some local Republicans and community activists with McConnell’s leadership on behalf of sick and out-of-work coal miners and their struggling towns in his home state.
McConnell has propped up a dying coal industry as the economic engine of the region, instead of going all in on supporting economic diversity that could provide a future for communities. He failed to support legislation that would reclaim mine land for economic development. He shied away from a bipartisan coalition in his state that is nurturing tech, medical and even solar jobs. He led the Republican effort to cut taxes on the coal companies — taxes that would help struggling miners. And he has not pushed to shore up a badly underfunded miners’ pension fund.
McConnell and other Kentucky politicians “doubled down on coal at a time when they should have been shifting energy and resources to what was going to come after it,” said Jason Bailey, who follows the state’s economy as executive director of the liberal-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
“That proved to be a tremendous mistake for the region.”
Beyond his home state, McConnell’s role as the all-powerful Senate majority leader and President Donald Trump’s most important ally on Capitol Hill amplifies their campaign for sweeping deregulation of the fossil fuel industry and jeopardizes the nation’s ability to fight climate change.
In eastern Kentucky, mining jobs have slid 88 percent since 1984 — when McConnell was first elected to the Senate — from 29,801 to 3,449, as mechanization increased, companies embraced strip mining, which uses fewer employees, coal reserves shrunk and demand for coal faded.
Cheaper natural gas now outcompetes coal — and so do renewable forms of energy, like solar and wind. In April, for the first time ever, U.S. renewable energy hit a milestone, with the renewable sources producing more electricity than coal.
Coal mining is deeply embedded in Kentucky’s economic and cultural history, the subject of bloody labor battles, deadly mining accidents and haunting folk music. Still, there are signs that coal is losing its almost mythological hold over political leaders in a state where it has long been at the core of the power structure.
So when McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who describes herself as a moderate Democrat, announced in July that she would challenge McConnell next year, it was no accident that she made reference to an ailing coal miner “who is looking for someone to offer more than words.”
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said in an email that McConnell “continues to advocate for pro-coal, pro-family policies to help ensure that coal miners and their families get the help they need to recover from the Obama Administration’s war on coal, which devastated eastern Kentucky.” McConnell declined an interview request.
Barry Johnson, a retired Kentucky coal miner and federal mining inspector who is a Republican, said most folks in eastern Kentucky are more practical than “die-hard political,” wondering “who is going to take care of them, who is going to help along the way.”
Whether people in coal country can count on McConnell, he said: “I can’t say. I think a lot of people, now, are asking themselves that question.”
McConnell Can Schedule Any Coal Bill He Wants To
In 1984, when McConnell was seven years into his tenure as judge executive of Jefferson County, Kentucky — sort of like a county mayor — he took on two-term incumbent Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston for his U.S. Senate seat. It was President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election year, and McConnell came from far behind in the polls to win, portraying his opponent as an absentee politician who missed key votes. Coal was not a factor in the race.
Thirty-five years later, McConnell is now the longest serving senator in Kentucky’s history. He’s also the longest-serving Republican leader in the Senate, becoming minority leader in 2006 and majority leader in 2015, halfway through President Obama’s second term. When the Obama administration adopted rules to curb pollution from coal plants and mines, McConnell accused the president of declaring “war on coal” and ratcheted up his rhetoric as a leading Obama obstructionist.
Today, McConnell has amassed enormous power and could, by virtue over his control of the Senate, undoubtedly get the miners and their communities what they are seeking, said Norman Ornstein, the veteran political scientist and expert on Congress and American elections at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute. He exerts absolute control over the Senate’s calendar, able to schedule votes on — or block — any bill he chooses to, said Ornstein, who doubts Trump would deny McConnell, his most important ally, budget requests for Kentucky.
A War on Poverty Never Won
Whitesburg, in the far southeastern corner of Kentucky, has a compact downtown with narrow streets lined by brick and stone buildings housing small shops, lawyers, a newspaper, city offices and a library named after the late hometown author Harry M. Caudill.
Caudill’s seminal 1963 book, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” laid bare the despoiling of the mountains of eastern Kentucky and the poverty of Appalachia and helped to move a nation to launch a war on poverty.
The region still suffers. A June report from the Appalachian Regional Commission, established by Congress in the mid-1960s to lift all of West Virginia and parts of 13 states out of poverty, including Kentucky, identified 80 counties across its region as economically distressed — meaning they rank among the worst 10 percent of counties in the nation. Nearly half of those are in eastern Kentucky, including Letcher County, home to Whitesburg.
And as the coal economy of eastern Kentucky declined, the pain has been felt in many ways — community budgets have been slashed as coal severance tax payments to them plummeted; the opioid epidemic has fueled despair, and people have moved away to find work.
“The county government budget is half of what it was when I went out of office,” said Carroll Smith, a retired coal miner and school bus driver, who served 12 years as the Republican Letcher County judge executive, until 2006. “It’s getting hard for them to pick up the garbage. The trucks stay broke down.”
Fire departments are struggling to pay their bills. School funding has been slashed.
“In my county, all children receive free lunches because of the level of poverty here,” said Angie Hatton, a lawyer, coal miner’s daughter and Democratic state lawmaker, speaking in the wood-paneled lobby of her Whitesburg office. “When you think of a community that poor, that unhealthy, and opioid addicted, you would think they don’t have good representation in Congress.”
McConnell should feel an “overwhelming responsibility” to be the voice of eastern Kentucky, she said, while also adding he “does a lot of important things” nationally and internationally.
Smith’s views of McConnell and coal are more nuanced.
“If I had to pick somebody to be hard on, it would be Obama,” he said. “I don’t think Mitch McConnell voted to do away with coal. Whether he sat back and allowed it to happen and didn’t do anything about it, that’s another thing. There certainly should have been some planning.”
Few still cling to the idea as coal as a savior — not even the state’s top energy official, Charles Snavely, a retired coal mining executive who works for Kentucky’s Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. Snavely told a gathering of coal companies and representatives of southern governors in May that he saw a greatly diminished future for the industry.
Saving the Black Lung Fund
Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust, which leads to inflammation, scarring, shortness of breath and respiratory failure. The complications can include chronic bronchitis; obstructive pulmonary disease, which keeps air out of the lungs; and lung cancer. It can take many years for the disease to develop, and there is no cure.
The federal Black Lung Disability Fund provides more than 25,000 miners or their dependents with cash assistance and medical benefits. The maximum cash assistance payments ranged from about $660 to $1,320 per month in 2018, depending on the beneficiary’s number of dependents.
For more than 40 years, the disability fund was supported by taxes levied on each ton of mined coal.
But when the tax was rolled back by 55 percent on Jan. 1, as the mining industry had wanted, McConnell chose not to schedule a vote on legislation to stop the reduction. After the General Accounting Office reported in June that taxpayer obligations to the disability fund, already $4 billion in debt, could swell to $15 billion by 2050 without further action by Congress, McConnell remained noncommittal on bills to restore funding and cut red tape so that miners could obtain benefits more easily.
“What they have done is shift the cost to the taxpayers” from coal mining companies, said Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. “It’s corporate welfare.”
Steurer, McConnell’s spokesman, provided a statement saying the black lung benefits have continued as they have been and that the “senator and his staff have been working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program, and will continue to ensure these important benefits continue.”
Without further action by McConnell’s Senate majority to restore the tax on coal, the disability fund could begin to run out of money as early as next year.
Only McConnell Can Fix the Pension Fund
The miners’ pension fund, established under an executive order of President Harry Truman, today provides about 83,000 miners and their surviving spouses benefits that average $600 a month.
It is also in trouble and will run out of money in 2022 or 2023 without federal assistance.
The pension fund was paid for by payments from mining companies, but bankruptcies and mine closures have meant much of that money is no longer coming into the fund. Its fate is now tied to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal backstop for failed companies that cannot meet their pension obligations. But the PBGC, also facing insolvency, often covers less than half of the pensions workers earned.
“Nobody else can fix this problem,” Smith, the union spokesman, said of McConnell and all of the recent coal company bankruptcies. “There isn’t enough coal industry left to fix this.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has introduced legislation to use money from the federal government’s Abandoned Mine Land fund, a $2.4 billion pot used to clean up abandoned mine sites, to bolster the pension fund. The program is funded by a fee assessed on each ton of coal produced. He said in late June that McConnell was solely responsible for the lack of action on a bill.
With the pension fund very much on his mind, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, sidestepped a question at the National Press Club in early September about whether his organization would throw its weight against McConnell’s re-election.
“If you ask Mitch McConnell, we have rallied against him almost every election,” Roberts said.
But, he added, “our main goal here is to save our pension plan. If Mitch McConnell wants to be part of saving our pension pan, I will publicly thank him and say I appreciate it very much, and that ought to be helpful to him and his reelection. If he does not, then we will have to reevaluate that.”
Stuerer said McConnell has been looking for a broader solution that would involve other troubled pensions.
When Coal Is No Longer King
In 2013, when McConnell as Senate minority leader was sharply criticizing Obama’s coal record, two leading Kentucky politicians chose a different road, with thousands of coal families hurting from layoffs. Steve Beshear, the state’s Democratic governor from 2007 to 2015, and Republican Hal Rogers, who has represented the state’s Appalachian coalfield since 1981, agreed to hold a summit around a regionally difficult-to-swallow fact: coal was no longer king — and it wasn’t coming back.
The event in December 2013 drew 1,700 people. But not McConnell. He showed up in Pikeville a few days before the summit for a meeting of his own with hand-picked coal industry supporters to criticize the Obama administration’s plan to curb carbon emissions from power plants.
The Beshear-Rogers summit launched the SOAR program, or Shaping Our Appalachian Region, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that has established a network of partners, including the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to create jobs, expand broadband, promote public health and fight opioid addiction.
To date, the program has begun a digital job training program through a $3.5 million grant from the ARC, helped support the installation of 800 miles of new fiber optic cable, helped create a call center for families seeking drug treatment, and supported a new treatment voucher program.
Jared Arnett, SOAR’s executive director, said McConnell, while never an overt SOAR participant, “has been supportive (of SOAR) behind the scenes” and has “sent his staff to some of the meetings.”
McConnell found the use of strong pro-coal rhetoric advantageous to what has always been his singular goal of winning elections, said Al Cross, the director of the Center for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. Cross has covered McConnell his entire Senate career.
Cross said a McConnell staffer once told him during an unguarded moment that fully embracing SOAR would be seen as “throwing coal under the bus.”
In written responses, Steurer, McConnell’s spokesman, did not directly answer a question about his boss’ participation in SOAR. Instead, Steurer ticked off a list of other accomplishments. They include protecting the endowment of Kentucky’s Berea College, which largely serves Appalachian students, from a new tax so that it could continue to offer free tuition, and securing hundreds of millions of dollars for various economic development efforts serving the wider Appalachian region, including Kentucky.
The Quest to RECLAIM Abandoned Mines
Kentucky stands to get more than $100 million over the next five years to reclaim abandoned mines and promote economic development under legislation introduced in April known as the RECLAIM Act. In all, communities in 20 mining states would divide $1 billion.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rogers and other House members representing coal country from both parties, calls for speeding up allocations from the Abandoned Mine Land fund, which has been growing since the late 1970s. Manchin has introduced a version of the RECLAIM Act in the Senate.
“We will need (McConnell) to champion this bill,” said Dan Moseley, a Democrat, and the judge executive of Harlan County, one of more than 30 counties or cities across Appalachia that have backed RECLAIM. “We need some of these monies released.”
So far, McConnell remains uncommitted to the legislation and has not scheduled Senate consideration. His spokesman, Steurer, said he will work to ensure funding to reclaim abandoned mine lands as well as for economic development efforts in Central Appalachia. “Our office continues to discuss the issue with constituents and colleagues,” Steurer said.
Working with Rogers, McConnell did tap $425 million over four years from the U.S. treasury, beginning in 2016, for what they call an abandoned mine land pilot project, Rogers’ spokeswoman, Danielle Smoot, said. Kentucky’s share has been $105 million.
However that pilot project’s scope is narrower, only six states, and its does not require any mining cleanup.
McConnell also released a letter in late August that he had written to the U.S. Labor Department on behalf of a group of laid-off miners in Harlan County who have since July been blocking a coal train to protest the fact that their final paychecks bounced after their company, Blackjewel, filed for bankruptcy. McConnell asked the department to do everything it could to help the miners. On Friday, the Labor Department announced it would continue funding employment and retraining services for eastern Kentucky coal miners including those who lost Blackjewel jobs with a $3.7 million grant; McConnell took credit for shaking that money loose.
Beyond the bankruptcies, coal companies in Kentucky and other coal mining states have left behind blasted mountaintops, streams that run traffic-cone orange with acid, underground fires, clogged streams and dangerous open mine portals.
“You can’t live safely near many of these sites, much less launch a business or get a local economy going,” Eric Dixon, senior policy coordinator for Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Letcher County, told a Congressional committee in April.
In his 2016 budget proposal, President Obama included a $1 billion effort for linking economic development to reclaiming abandoned mines, which he called the Power Plus Plan, by accelerating spending from that abandoned mine fund. It went nowhere with McConnell.
McConnell introduced his own version of the $1 billion RECLAIM legislation in 2017 as majority leader but never moved it to the Senate floor for consideration.
Talking Mitch McConnell
On a sweat-dripping early evening in Whitesburg, Shad Baker, a self-described conservative Republican, agreed to talk politics and Mitch McConnell as he sold fresh-picked blueberries grown on a reclaimed strip mine for $10 a quart at the weekly farmers market. Like many others here, he can tick off a list of family members who worked for mining companies — dad, mom, grandfather.
Musicians from the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School were warming up on their fiddles, dulcimers and guitars for a concert of bluegrass and old-time music on a stage next to the market, which featured an innovative program meant to tackle some of the community’s serious health challenges like diabetes. Residents with “prescriptions” from their doctors picked up vouchers for at least $14 to cover locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Most local residents, Baker said, “perceive Mitch as being a champion of coal and Kentucky.” McConnell’s last election supports his point.
In 2014, Letcher County favored McConnell over his Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, by a vote of 4,787 to 2,495, even though the county has more registered Democrats. McConnell won statewide by 15 points, even though registered Democrats also still outnumber Republicans across Kentucky.
Kentucky voters appreciate McConnell because he is willing to buck national opinion on liberal causes, Baker said.
“We don’t send him there (to Washington, D.C.) to represent California or New York,” Baker said. “We send him to represent Kentucky.”
McConnell is a prolific fundraiser, raising tens of millions of dollars for his own campaign finance fund and a related political action committee he uses to help elect other Republicans. His top contributors in recent years have come from securities, investment and health sectors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But fossil fuel interests have been steady backers — $3.1 million since 2009 from a sector that includes oil and gas, electric utilities and mining.
Owners, employees and family members of Alliance Resource Partners, headed up by the politically influential coal baron and Kentuckian Joe Craft III, have been reliable backers — more than $330,000 since 2009.
Craft, through a revocable trust, also gave $1 million last year to a super PAC with ties to McConnell’s political allies that aims to keep the U.S. Senate in Republican hands. (The Senate recently confirmed Craft’s wife, Kelly Craft, to be the United States ambassador to the United Nations, at the suggestion of McConnell, amid concerns about her waffling on climate science.)
“The coal industry has become part of the power structure, probably better than any other industry in the state,” said Cross, the University of Kentucky professor. McConnell, Cross said, “has been dancing with those who brought him to the party.”
McGrath, the Democrat and former Marine fighter pilot, lost a 2018 run for Congress during a national surge that gave control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. She will have to survive a Democratic primary in order to challenge McConnell next year. But she’s demonstrated an ability to raise a lot of money, including a record $2.5 million in the first 24 hours of her campaign and wasted no time zeroing in on the senator’s record on coal.
After McGrath ran her attack ad featuring a miner who complained McConnell only spent “less than one minute” with the miners,” McConnell answered with an ad of his own saying he “fights and wins” for them. Then two miners who had ridden the bus to see McConnell and were briefly shown in McGrath’s ad released a “cease and desist” letter to McGrath in early September, saying they did not consent to appearing in her commercial.
The two, Randy Robbins and Albrow Hall, said they “deeply appreciated the warm receptions they received” on the trip, according to their well-connected Republican lawyer.
Johnson, the Republican retired miner and federal mining inspector, was also among the sick miners who rode the buses to Washington. At a Dairy Queen in Whitesburg, before the trip, he talked matter-of-factly of how he was resigned to his fate: “I am in a world of air, and I am going to smother to death.” Still, he recalled with pride his time with coal, an industry he considers to be essential to the country.
“I loved it,” he said. “It’s a good, honest job. It supported me. It supported my family.”
He said it seemed miners had become “just kind of lost in the shuffle, and kind of overshadowed by a focus on other issues.”
When asked about McConnell, he said his choice will remain private, but added:
“I think those of us who are left behind have to reassess. Maybe we need to consider who looks out for our interest and how we address it.”
Top photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Correction: This story has been changed to correct a name. The author of “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area” is Harry M. Caudill.