Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, the wife of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies after the foundation told her it plans to significantly increase investments in its "Beyond Coal" initiative.
Chao's service on the board became a flashpoint during last year's U.S. Senate race in Kentucky. Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes charged that Chao's service on the board, and her compensation for doing so, undermined McConnell's commitment to Kentucky's coal industry.
Chao resigned last weekend in a letter to the foundation, and she spoke to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday morning to tell him of her decision.
McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said in a statement provided to the Herald-Leader that "it was a respectful parting of ways."
After President Barack Obama warned in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," the foundation announced Wednesday that it plans to increase its anti-coal investment by $48 million over three years.
The New York Times reported Tuesday night that Bloomberg is joining forces with a California couple to finance groups that can help states adjust to new environmental rules the Obama administration has put forward that are expected to be finalized this summer.
McConnell and other Republicans repeatedly argued during the campaign that Obama's Environmental Protection Agency was abusing its authority by implementing regulations that were rejected on Capitol Hill, even when Democrats had majorities in both houses of Congress.
Gubernatorial candidate and Attorney General Jack Conway has joined other state attorneys general in suing to stop the new rules, which would require existing and new coal-fired power plants to dramatically cut carbon dioxide emissions.
The Obama administration's actions to limit coal-fired power plant emissions to fight climate change was one of the driving issues in McConnell's landslide re-election.
During that bruising campaign, Grimes repeatedly targeted McConnell for accepting money from "enemies of coal," using the $600,000 Chao received from the boards of Bloomberg Philanthropies and Wells Fargo as evidence of her claim.
In one ad, which led the Washington Post Fact Checker to declare that Grimes "should be ashamed of herself," the Democratic candidate stood next to the Big Sandy power plant in Louisa and said she approved the message "because the difference between Mitch and me is I will fight for these jobs and no New York anti-coal billionaire will ever buy me off."
"They are shutting down half the plant and laying off their workers because Mitch McConnell didn't fight to get the scrubbers it needs to reduce coal emissions," Grimes said in the ad. "Instead, Mitch and his wife pocketed $600,000 from enemies of coal, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg."
Fact-checkers had already dissected and debunked the claim before Grimes ran the ad, leading to the stern condemnation from the Post and other media outlets. Chao joined the board in 2012, after it had decided in 2011 to provide $50 million to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Initiative.
Steurer said this week that "after learning of the foundation's decision to devote significant new resources to its Beyond Coal initiative, Secretary Chao informed Mayor Bloomberg of her decision to resign from the board."
"As a longtime Kentucky resident who has spent countless hours traveling the commonwealth and listening to the concerns and anxieties of its citizens, it became clear to the secretary that her service on the board was incompatible with her commitments to Kentucky and its people, particularly its coal miners and their families," Steurer said.
Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, praised Chao's decision.
"It makes sense that Secretary Elaine Chao would make the decision to leave the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies," Bissett said. "While the board is not involved in funding decisions of Bloomberg Philanthropies, we appreciate Secretary Chao's continued support of Kentucky coal and hope her decision sends a clear message to Michael Bloomberg that he is wasting his money in supporting President Obama's actions against the domestic use of coal."
In August, McConnell was defiant when asked whether Chao would resign from the board, saying, "Of course not — why should she?"
"She's not going to resign," he said at the time. "They do a lot of good things. They do some things she does not approve of, and she doesn't approve of their efforts in the coal industry."
Meghan Womack, a Bloomberg spokeswoman, praised Chao's contributions to the foundation on Wednesday.
"Since 2012 when she joined the board, Elaine has brought invaluable ideas and insights to Bloomberg Philanthropies' work," Womack said in a statement. "We are grateful for her service and thank her for her contributions to our efforts."
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and likely 2016 candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, stepped down from the foundation's board at the end of last year.