PIKEVILLE (AP) — Kentucky’s Democratic U.S. Senate candidate journeyed to the heart of the state’s coal country on Tuesday in an effort to win over voters turned off by Hillary Clinton’s comments about putting coal miners out of business.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray unveiled a four-part plan to revitalize eastern Kentucky by widening a crucial thoroughfare to attract new businesses and securing federal funding for research on capturing the harmful carbon coal releases when burned.
“Rather than focus on the past, I’m going to focus on the future,” said Gray, who is trying to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul in November. “Better times are ahead of us.”
After decades of irrelevancy in eastern Kentucky, Republicans have found success by blaming coal’s collapse on President Barack Obama. In 2014 and 2015, most eastern Kentucky coal counties voted for the first time for a pair of Republicans in statewide elections: U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and Gov. Matt Bevin.
Democrats were hoping to shed Obama’s negative impact on down-ballot races this time by running with Hillary Clinton, whose husband twice won Kentucky in the 1990s. But that changed after Clinton was asked on CNN to explain how her policies would benefit poor white Republican voters in southern states.
“I’m the only candidate, which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity, using clean renewable energy as the key, into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” Clinton responded. “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.”
Clinton was talking about her plan to spend $30 billion protecting miners’ health benefits as companies go bankrupt, but Kentuckians were dismayed by the middle part of her quote. And while she called that comment a mistake, Republicans seized on it to denounce Clinton and anyone who supports her.
Clinton went on to lose nearly every eastern coal-producing county in Kentucky’s May presidential primary while winning the state by less than one half of 1 percent.
“Well she was wrong, and it was taken out of context. And I don’t agree with it,” Gray said, while telling reporters he still supports Clinton. “You don’t agree with everybody at any point in time. And she doesn’t know this region as well as I know this region.”
Gray did not mention Paul by name, but said he doesn’t see any evidence that “Republicans in Congress” are doing anything to help the people of eastern Kentucky.
Paul countered that it’s “kind of galling” for Gray to travel to the region while supporting Clinton for president.
“Can anybody who is a friend of Hillary Clinton’s be a friend of eastern Kentucky? Unless they can explain that, I don’t think they have much business out here,” Paul said.
As Paul spoke in nearby Whitesburg, constituents pressed him to explain what he’s doing to create alternatives to the struggling coal industry.
Paul said it’s not up to the government to favor one industry over another. Instead, he touted his proposal to create an “economic freedom zone” in eastern Kentucky where reduced taxes and regulations could attract private investment.
“I do know if I leave more money in your county, you will do better,” he said.
Today, just 6,900 people work in coal in Kentucky, the fewest since 1898. In 1989, the coal industry employed more than 31,000 people in Kentucky.
Gray, who was flanked by Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo and state Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, said he doesn’t know how much his revitalization plan would cost. But he said the nation owes this commitment to coal miners.
“We’ve always made investment when there was a struggle in any industry. Look at the way the country responded to the automobile industry and the banking industry,” Gray said. “Yes, these numbers may be ambitious, but they are achievable.”