Politics & Government

McConnell goes back to his hometown and finds surly voters

Brent Gambrell drove 200 miles from Middlesboro, Kentucky, to Louisville to greet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
Brent Gambrell drove 200 miles from Middlesboro, Kentucky, to Louisville to greet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017. McClatchy

Mitch McConnell launched his political career here, and it’s still the place he calls home when he’s not in Washington.

But even in Louisville Wednesday, the Republican Senate Majority Leader couldn’t escape frustrated constituents who weren’t crazy about his plan to repeal Obamacare.

“He lives in a bubble. He hears what he wants to hear,” said James Moore, who owns a Louisville information technology consulting business, said after questioning McConnell about health care.

At a white-tablecloth luncheon in a hotel ballroom with local business leaders, McConnell may have been among friends and supporters he’s had since he first ran for local office in Jefferson County 40 years ago.

McConnell owes his political life to Kentucky’s most populous county, where he was elected to the first of two terms as judge-executive in 1977. That office, the equivalent of a county commissioner in other states, was his springboard to the U.S. Senate, where he was first elected in 1984.

But inside and outside the Louisville Marriott East Wednesday, McConnell faced a large group of Kentuckians who demanded answers from their senator of more than 30 years.

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As he did a day earlier at a smaller luncheon in rural Anderson County, about 60 miles east, McConnell acknowledged the protesters, calling their presence “as American as apple pie.”

“You might have noticed I have a large fan club outside,” McConnell told members of the Jeffersontown Chamber of Commerce after finishing a plate of grilled chicken over a bed of mixed greens. “I assume most of them are Kentuckians.”

One of them was Moore, who grew up in Jeffersontown, an independent city within Jefferson County, which merged with Louisville more than a decade ago.

Moore stood up to tell McConnell that he and his employees had personally benefited from the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans want to repeal. Moore has a form of leukemia, and while he said he’s always offered health care to his employees, he wanted assurance from McConnell that Republicans wouldn’t end the expanded Medicaid coverage under the health-care law that’s provided benefits to poor Kentuckians.

“Well, I’m pleased to hear from somebody in business who’s had a positive experience with the new health care law,” McConnell said. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard that before.”

“I can put you in touch with a lot of others,” Moore replied, with applause breaking out in part of the room.

When an unidentified woman asked what would replace the health-care law’s prohibition on denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, he said subsidized high-risk pools were the right solution. McConnell said one of his own three daughters joined a high-risk pool because of a pre-existing condition. The woman, however, wasn’t satisfied and pressed McConnell for more details.

“Let’s just not have a debate here,” McConnell snapped. “Why don’t you let the lady behind you ask her question?”

After answering other questions related to health care, McConnell had to leave to give another speech to a local utility company in downtown Louisville.

“We need a town hall!” yelled someone in the audience, before McConnell was escorted out through the ballroom’s kitchen to the next event, which was not open to the public.

Moore, who describes himself as a left-leaning centrist, only went to the luncheon after a friend couldn’t attend. Other Kentuckians were kept outside by police, some on horseback.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encountered hundreds of protesters Tuesday outside a luncheon with local business leaders in Anderson County.

Brent Gambrell came all the way from Middlesboro in southeast Kentucky, about 200 miles from Louisville.

“It was a long drive,” he said.

Middlesboro is in the heart of eastern Kentucky’s struggling coalfield. McConnell talks about the negative impact of federal regulations on the state’s coal business all the time. He recently pushed to overturn an Obama administration rule intended to protect streams from coal mine debris.

Yet Gambrell said he couldn’t remember the last time McConnell visited the region.

“Mitch needs to get down to Bell County,” he said.

Others didn’t have to travel quite so far, but had many of the same concerns.

“Why am I not here?” asked Michele Morgan, of Goshen, Kentucky. “He’s supporting Trump!”

Morgan and her mother, Linda Morgan, live in Oldham County, a heavily Republican county northeast of Louisville that went 62 percent for Trump last November. Linda Morgan, who lives in LaGrange, said many of her neighbors had Trump signs in their yards.

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Yet Michele Morgan said her brother was a Republican who supported Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“He didn’t think Trump was qualified,” she said.

David Hall, of Lynch, Kentucky, was wearing a latte-colored T-shirt that said “Appalachian American.”

Hall said his dad, grandfather, uncles and cousins all worked in coal mines. It’s an intergenerational occupation in eastern Kentucky, and many natives take great pride in the region’s mining heritage.

Yet Hall said he’s witnessed the consequences of a mining technique called mountaintop removal, where entire sections of mountain are blasted apart to expose coal seams, with the debris dumped into the surrounding valleys.

With McConnell’s support, Congress and Trump recently reversed Obama’s stream protection rule.

“I’ve seen mountaintop removal,” Hall said. “It’s an awful thing.”

A supporter and protester of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argue after McConnell spoke at an Anderson County Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis