Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Is coal still king in Ky. politics? One result says so

Just a few decades ago, Appalachian coal miners fought battles with mine operators for worker's rights, mainly better pay and safety. They were bitter rivals in a real war that looks nothing like the so-called "war on coal" of today's politics, which has led voters in a congressional district well outside coal country to elect a candidate who mostly ran on a pro-coal ticket: Republican Andy Barr, right, of the state's 6th Congressional District, which comprises most of the famed Bluegrass Region.

In today's Eastern Kentucky, miners and their relatives and friends have joined with operators in response the "war on coal" that they have been told was started by the Obama administration to end coal mining as the state has known it for more than a century. Kentucky is the third largest producer of coal in the U.S., and the industry remains a major player in the state's politics. Many people outside the Eastern coalfields have sympathy for the industry's and miners' perceived plight, said Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Cross wrote in a column for The Courier-Journal of Louisville in October that Barr and his coal industry allies were trying to unseat Democratic incumbent Ben Chandler "by telling lies" about the "war on coal." Barr's campaign ran a television ad featuring a Western Kentucky coal executive posing as a miner, proclaiming that Chandler and President Obama were attacking the coal industry. The man still has his miner's certificates, but "Barr's ad was misleading to the point of untruth," Cross wrote. "In the longstanding language of coal mining in Kentucky, there are miners and there are operators, and executives belong in the latter category." When Chandler ran an ad calling Barr's spot "a big lie," Barr ran one in which the executive said Chandler was attacking him, and another in which miners denigrated Chandler, one calling him "a low-life."

Chandler, left, met with rural
electric cooperative officials
The basis for the ads was Chandler's vote for Obama's 2009 cap-and-trade bill, opposed by the coal industry and electric utilities. Thus did Barr and his allies use Kentucky's long-standing relationship and history with coal to play on the sympathies of 6th District voters and associate Chandler with President Obama, whom Chandler said afterward "was just a little too heavy for us in some of the rural counties." Cross wrote in his pre-election column, "The race is less about Obama than coal, which is not mined in the district but seems to have more friends there than Chandler may have thought." To help Chandler after his 648-vote win over Barr last time, the state legislature made his district more Democratic, but the new counties were close to or even in the Appalachian coalfield, and he lost every one of them. For coverage from the Lexington Herald-Leader, click here.

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