Ky. vs. the future; Will state's politicians enable a surrender to defeatism?

Herald-leader editorial writerNovember 25, 2012 

For those still puzzling over why so many Kentuckians who have never been near a coal mine identified with the woebegone miners in the ads attacking Democrat Ben Chandler, I have a theory.

Just as four years ago Barack Obama's "hope and change" served as a conveniently vague magnet for all kinds of ideals and grievances, the "war on coal" has become a similar catch-all.

An industry PR campaign set the stage for coal to become a rallying cry for Kentuckians who feel their ways of life or livelihoods are under siege. (And in this economy, you'd have to be crazy not to feel insecure.) The old culture wars handily morphed into coal wars as people — seniors, especially — saw the shattering of familiar landmarks in their belief systems. And many Kentuckians still can't wrap their minds around having a black man in the White House.

Congressman-elect Andy Barr's strategy of tieing Chandler to Obama and the president's supposed "war on coal" tapped all these anxieties.

Then, along came the election, and not only was Obama re-elected, a couple of states approved gay marriage and the land of Paul Ryan knowingly elected a lesbian to the Senate. (Was that not foretold in the Book of Revelation?)

What worries me is this: If enough Kentuckians convince themselves that the future is out to get them — and if politicians exploit and reinforce this belief — it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then Kentucky really is sunk.

Also worrying, after the hammering Chandler took, no ambitious Kentucky politician will dare do anything that might be construed as disloyal to coal.

Such treasonous acts include pushing to diversify the state's energy base or Eastern Kentucky's economy. That's unfortunate because doing both is critical to the future.

The Republican appeal to our sense of victimhood didn't work everywhere.

Barr lost big in his hometown of Lexington with its diverse, well-educated population and 6.2 percent unemployment.

By supporting Obama for the second time, Lexington and Louisville were no different than other cities, including in red states. (Obama carried Jackson, Miss.)

Rural voters, most of whom will never have to worry about paying taxes on income above $250,000 and who depend heavily on government programs such as Social Security and Medicare, voted against their own interests.

Part of the "war on coal" narrative is that, although less than one percent of Kentucky jobs are in mining, existing industries would flee without cheap electricity from coal. This plays on Kentucky's inferiority complex by discounting assets such as an eager, proven work force; a central location and good transportation, and a regulated LG&E/KU with a bunch of industry efficiency awards. Besides the "cheap power depends on coal" argument is becoming moot with natural gas cheaper than coal.

But I bet neither of Kentucky's future-focused, big-city mayors, Jim Gray or Greg Fischer, ever saw cheap electricity as the key to their cities' futures.

Gray and Fischer, who are collaborating on a regional economic plan, want to build on the region's assets, such as auto manufacturing, and to create a quality of life that attracts smart, visionary, entrepreneurial wealth-creators.

In Lexington, some of the most exciting developments are coming from figuring out profitable ways to re-purpose historic, but neglected, buildings. Many of the entrepreneurs who are succeeding at this are University of Kentucky graduates or repatriated Kentuckians, whose demands include a good local beer and a grass-fed burger.

It's impossible to predict the economy. Who would have guessed bourbon's big comeback? But it seems to me you can't go wrong by building on your assets. In Kentucky, that starts with land and water.

The anger and fear surrounding coal is where tobacco was not long ago. Tobacco faded, but Kentucky agriculture is making more money than ever. That's not to discount the loss of thousands of small tobacco farms. That said, some rural Kentuckians tried something new and are succeeding.

I hope someone in power champions reforesting strip-mined mountains, using techniques developed by UK scientists. The reforestation initiative is one bit of common ground between the coal industry and environmentalists.

It could put people to work now, though the real payoff would take generations. Planting forests just seems like a more promising plan than fighting the future.

Reach Jamie Lucke at jlucke@herald-leader.com or 231-3340.

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