Here’s an essential Kentucky political truth: politics and the state’s coal industry are intertwined.
That’s one of the reasons both of Kentucky’s Senate candidates—Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes—have been nearly indistinguishable on the subject.
But coal’s fortunes in Kentucky have been declining for decades.
Even so, the state’s leaders have been a bit myopic when it comes to coal’s future—at least in public. Which is why the comments Agricultural Commissioner James Comer made to WFPL’s Phillip Bailey last year came across as unusually honest.
“A lot of leaders in Eastern Kentucky keep talking about ‘coal is the answer and there is a war on coal,’” he said. “I’m a friend of coal. I support the coal industry. But the coal industry’s future doesn't look bright and we have to look beyond that and learn to develop a new economy in Eastern Kentucky.”
Now that Comer has announced his candidacy for governor, his honesty may come back to bite him.
“That’s a dangerous road to trek for a politician,” said former state lawmaker Roger Noe.
He should know. Noe represented part of Southeastern Kentucky in the state House for 15 years in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then he was defeated.
Noe said his district’s powerful coal interests felt he was spending too much time focusing on education initiatives, and not enough on coal.
“You can’t do anything because coal is king,” Noe said. “That’s been a problem with politicians taking any kind of a moderate or progressive stand with respect to coal.”
Noe said that was true back in the 1990s, and has only gotten worse. As coal’s fortunes have declined, the pro-coal rhetoric has gotten stronger, and louder.
McConnell and Grimes’ race has thrust the subject back to the forefront.
“Coal is sitting like the 800-pound gorilla on the U.S. Senate race right now,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.
He said this is partly because of the 2012 Congressional race in Kentucky’s sixth district. That’s when now-Congressman Andy Barr defeated incumbent Ben Chandler, in part by calling in question Chandler’s support of coal. And this was in a district without any coal mines.
“And so it showed that the coal issue has a resonance, it has a potential with a lot of voters who are not coal miners,” Voss said. “This isn’t just about the coal miner vote.”
It’s also about the effects of cheap coal-fired electricity, like manufacturing jobs. In a state with less than 12,000 actual coal miners left, it’s cultural.
“There are a lot more former miners than miners,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg. “There are a lot more coal miner’s daughters than people who get up and go to work every morning mining coal.”
There is a laundry list of factors working against the industry—competition from natural gas, declining coal reserves, rising costs of production and yes, environmental regulations. Experts agree: the Appalachian coalfields will produce coal for the foreseeable future, but won’t return to their previous prominence.
But even as Kentuckians come to terms with the decline of King Coal, it’s still risky for a politician to express any lukewarm feelings about the industry’s future. Or, as Davis put it: “No politician wants to be first to say the emperor has no clothes. Nor does he want to be the last.”
Since being attacked by his opponent for calling for economic diversification, James Comer has already begun to back away from his previous statements, calling on supporters in the coal industry to publicly endorse him.
For former legislator Roger Noe, the irony is that Eastern Kentuckians need to hear people like Comer speaking honestly about the future of the coal industry, and begin talking about economic diversification. But he still doesn’t think telling that truth will translate into Election Day victory—at least not for now.
“I don’t think Eastern Kentucky is ready to hear those kind of comments,” Noe said. “It will take some time for people to realize that and accept the fact that the jobs are gone and we need to look in another direction to diversify and improve the economy.”