By JAMES HIGDON
December 09, 2014
To understand Kentucky politics you have to understand this: When it comes to coal, there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. There is no red Kentucky or blue Kentucky. There is only charcoal black. And Kentucky politics is a coal miner’s daughter.
With roughly 61,000 jobs directly or indirectly linked to the industry and some $4 billion in annual revenue, the state’s devotion to coal is all but carved in stone. One law in the state, for example, allows energy companies to cap renewable energy to one percent of production, saving the remaining 99 percent for coal.
“The coal folks want people to burn coal,” says Wallace McMullen, the conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s Kentucky chapter. “In Kentucky, the coal-state mentality has equally blinded them all”—Democrats as well as Republicans.
Which means when Louisville’s civic leaders try to improve the city’s environmental health, it’s not just Republicans in Washington like incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell standing in the way, but Democrats in the state capital of Frankfort, too.
Just ask John Yarmuth, Louisville’s congressman since 2006. Yarmuth is a vocal advocate for alternative energy, as opposed to someone like Alison Lundergan Grimes, who quite visibly advocated for coal without mentioning alternatives during her unsuccessful campaign to unseat McConnell.
Yarmuth, the only Kentucky congressman endorsed by the Sierra Club, won his re-election handily and outperformed Grimes in Louisville by 12,295 votes — and his Congressional district doesn’t even include all of Jefferson County. Many of those Yarmuth-but-not-Grimes voters held the environment as their chief concern, and were upset with Grimes for trying to be more pro-coal than McConnell. When she said in her gun-themed TV ad that she “disagree[d] with Obama on coal and guns,” that wasn’t some political half-truth, as her critics and some of her supporters wanted to believe.
“Of all my supporters, environmentalists were the most concerned with Alison,” Yarmuth says. “More so than African-Americans, LGBT, labor or immigrant groups,” because coal was one of the few policies Grimes took a stand on. And for environmentalists, it was on the wrong side.
“I hardly saw the point in voting for someone that almost stubbornly refused to stand out as anything other than ‘not Mitch,’” said Meghan Levins, a chef in Louisville’s burgeoning farm-to-table scene. She voted for Yarmuth, but not Grimes. “The coal issue really is a sticking point with me because I think it’s so ridiculous to imply that there is such a thing as ‘clean coal.’”
Yarmuth hasn’t been hurt politically by his pro-environmental positions. His views are in line with voters like Levins, who represents Louisville’s political base and favor a sustainable energy policy at the risk of “a speculative increase in price,” as Yarmuth puts it.
“Part of what we deal with in Kentucky is the coal culture, which is a larger political factor than the economics of coal,” he adds. In Yarmuth’s estimation, voters in the coal-mining regions see advocacy for alternative energy as “an attack on their way of life,” which is “more impressionistic than dollars and cents.”
This emotional response to the culture of coal is what coal operators leverage for political might in election seasons. Democrats in Kentucky either support this message or remain too afraid of it to challenge it in statewide races. This is something that national activists have difficulty understanding about Kentucky politics: any elected Democrat outside of Louisville is as pro-coal as any climate change-denying Republican.
Grimes is a prime example. Grimes’s defense of coal wasn’t just some last-minute campaign stunt; her family’s relationship with coal goes back decades. Her father, Jerry Lundergan, was the chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party under Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, who once proposed building a 41-story skyscraper in Lexington called the World Coal Center. Before that, Gov. Julian Carroll testified before Congress about how important strip mining was to Kentucky’s economy, and Kentucky’s current governor, Steve Beshear, sued the EPA in 2010 for blocking state-issued coal mining permits. All three governors are Democrats.
James Higdon is a freelance writer based in Louisville and author of The Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate’s Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History. He can be reached at @jimhigdon. Full disclosure: His father, Jimmy Higdon, is a Republican state senator in the Kentucky state legislature.