HAZARD — With signs pointing to a potentially rocky road ahead in coal country, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes sought to retool her coal message this week, injecting a populist strain into her pro-coal platform.
On a two-day tour of Eastern Kentucky, Grimes traversed counties where she underperformed among Democrats in the May 20 primary, accusing U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of failing to stand up for miner safety while collecting campaign cash from coal companies.
In Hyden on Thursday morning, up roads too narrow and winding for her campaign bus to negotiate, Grimes laid a wreath at the Hurricane Creek mine memorial that commemorates the 38 miners killed there in a 1970 explosion. After touring the memorial, Grimes said the disaster shows "why we need somebody up in Washington looking out for our miners."
In a news release, Grimes laid out a plan that she said would strengthen miner protections.
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Specifically, Grimes said she supports two bills proposed by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller. One would strengthen whistleblower protections for miners and increase criminal penalties for safety violations. Another would make it easier for coal miners to get black lung benefits and create grants for research into black lung.
She chastised McConnell for refusing to back the bills, saying he has stood only with coal operators and, among other failures, "turned a blind eye" when the Mine Safety and Health Administration cut inspectors under President George W. Bush.
Grimes also said McConnell's repeated calls for repeal of the federal health care law would hurt disabled miners and their families, noting that an amendment included by the late Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., made it easier for widowers of miners with black lung to receive benefits.
McConnell "has called for a full repeal of these pro-coal miner protections," said Grimes in her most specific embrace of the controversial law, which she has said should be fixed instead of repealed.
The McConnell campaign responded by noting that he co-sponsored the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006, which mandated a greater supply of emergency air supplies for miners; emergency shelters in mines; high-tech communications and tracking devices to help find miners; and stronger materials to block off unused portions of mines. (Other co-sponsors included then-Sen. Barack Obama.)
That law was passed after explosions at underground coal mines in West Virginia and Harlan County killed a total of 17 miners in the first half of 2006.
"Alison Lundergan Grimes has already proven she'll say anything to deceive the people of Kentucky into believing she's pro-coal even though she's fully aligned with President Obama and the anti-coal liberals funding her campaign, and today's stunt of slapping her name on another liberal senator's bill is just another example," said McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore.
Robert Steurer, a spokesman for McConnell's Senate office, said McConnell "has a long history of supporting legislation to help our miners," but that the 2006 law hasn't been in effect long enough to consider further mine safety legislation.
"While this law has been in implementation for the past several years, we need to allow for its full and continued implementation before Congress considers additional reforms," Steurer said.
There were 20 deaths at coal mines in the U.S. last year, including two in Kentucky.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Grimes said she wants to "make sure that our coal miners have someone that has their back."
"They deserve to work in safe conditions just as our first responders do, and that's what it's about," Grimes said. "It's making sure they have funding at the Mine Health Safety Administration to actually operate with this up-to-date technology, that they have the funding to actually have the appropriate number of inspectors, in contrast with Mitch McConnell (who) actually turns his back as the Department of Labor actually cuts over a hundred inspectors."
Grimes' travels on Wednesday and Thursday come six weeks after significant percentages of Democrats voted against her in the primary election in Kentucky's coal-producing counties even though her opponents did not campaign or spend much money.
Voters in those counties have been exposed to a prolonged, multi-million dollar advertising campaign by allies of McConnell's aimed at portraying Grimes as a would-be rubber stamp for Obama and Senate Majority Harry Reid, who once said "coal makes us sick."
In Leslie County, where the Hurricane Creek mine memorial sits, Grimes got 73 percent of the vote among Democrats. In Perry County, where the candidate shook hands with fewer than 20 supporters at a downtown restaurant Thursday, Grimes got 69 percent of Democrats.
Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said Grimes was wise to shift her message on coal toward worker safety issues.
"I'm surprised it took this long for her to try to pivot away from an energy discussion, but it sure sounds like the smart thing to do," Voss said.
Lonnie Hendrix, the Republican mayor of Hyden and one of the few people who came to see Grimes at the Hurricane Creek memorial, said he thought McConnell had been in office too long.
"It's time to try something and see if that will help, because what's there now is not working," Hendrix said.
Still, Hendrix acknowledged that Grimes will likely struggle in Leslie County.
"That's sad, but yes, because she's a Democrat," Hendrix said.
Mitch Smith, a student at Morehead State University and president of the Perry County Young Democrats, remains more optimistic.
After shaking hands with Grimes at the Treehouse Cafe in Hazard, Smith said that if Grimes "can really show people that she is pro-coal, these people will vote for her."
"Now, in places like Leslie County, she doesn't stand a chance," Smith said. "She doesn't. That place is very, very red. But I feel like the surrounding counties are blue enough to where she can win from this area."