LOUISVILLE — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell received a hero's welcome Wednesday at a Louisville aluminum fabricating plant that had fallen on hard times until he helped pass fair-trade legislation, protecting some 400 jobs.
In a post-earmarks Washington, McConnell has been using his political muscle to protect jobs at home. In recent weeks, he's been credited with helping to preserve some 1,200 jobs at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant for at least another year, and with protecting 200 jobs at garment factories in Campbellsville and Olive Hill.
For generations, Kentucky politicians have been judged on their success in directing federal dollars to their home state. With that option out of favor, they've had to find other ways to prove their worth — such as protecting jobs.
McConnell arrived to applause Wednesday at Cardinal Aluminum Co., posing for photographs with employees, even signing autographs, all because he had helped to win passage of the legislation earlier this year that protected the Louisville firm and others like it from unfair trade practices.
"Thank you for everything you've done for the company and for me," said maintenance technician Allan Hill, stretching out his hand to shake McConnell's.
McConnell said he was simply doing his job.
"I wasn't sent to Washington just to work on international issues," he said. "I was also sent to look out for Kentucky. And I'm grateful that I was able to be helpful in this particular instance."
McConnell's focus on protecting jobs, besides endearing him to voters, is sending a not-so-subtle message about the value of re-electing him in 2014. The idea, said University of Louisville political scientist Dewey Clayton, is to show that Kentuckians benefit from having McConnell to continue serving as the Senate Republican leader, a powerful post that gives him clout on all issues, including jobs.
"When you start talking about jobs, you're talking about bread-and-butter issues," Clayton said. "When you keep a plant from closing, people get that."
The notion isn't lost on other Kentucky political leaders. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul was in Paducah on Wednesday, touring the gaseous diffusion plant. Paul, McConnell, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear all laid claim to helping broker a deal earlier this month to help keep the plant running for another year.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the beleaguered plant, which was set to close later this year, will remain open to enrich depleted uranium for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Energy Northwest, a utility in Washington state. Chu said the arrangement involves transferring a portion of the Department of Energy's depleted uranium to Energy Northwest, which will contract with the Paducah plant to do the enrichment.
Paul said securing that deal shows that "making noise about projects in your state is important."
In Louisville, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth has taken the jobs issue a step further, scheduling workshops to help his constituents find jobs. His next one is in June. Yarmuth works with job-placement professionals from KentuckianaWorks, the Louisville Urban League and Metropolitan College to help his constituents write résumés and prepare for interviews.
And Beshear travels the state to announce each new company that moves into Kentucky. On Wednesday, he was in Leitchfield, where New York Blower Co. will open a manufacturing plant, creating 125 jobs. The state provided tax breaks worth up to $4.8 million to lure the company.