For months, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell has accused his Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, of engaging in a “war on coal,” casting her as an outright enemy of one of the state’s most vital industries.
But while McConnell presents himself as a defender of Kentucky coal mining, a member of his own family who serves as a key campaign surrogate is taking a role in an organization that funds one of the most aggressive anti-coal campaigns in the country.
McConnell’s wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, sits on the board of directors of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which has plunged $50 million into the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, an advocacy effort with the expressed goal of killing the coal industry.
In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies teamed up with the Sierra Club to target coal plants for closure in an effort to "end our nation’s reliance on dirty coal, plant-by-plant, community-by-community, and state-by-state," according to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ website. The Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded campaign has a stated goal of “retir[ing] a third of the nation’s 500 coal plants by 2020, replacing the majority of retired coal plants, and keep[ing] coal in the ground in Appalachia.” The organization boasts that it has “prevented 150 coal plants from being built” and has taken direct action against 16 plants in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, arguing that coal production is a health hazard and is harmful to the environment. The website takes credit for retiring 172 “dirty power plants” with “351 to go.”
When former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg announced support for the initiative three years ago, he called coal “a self-inflicted public health risk” and declared that ending all coal power production was “the right thing to do.”
"Ending coal power production is the right thing to do, because while it may seem to be an inexpensive energy source the impact on our environment and the impact on public health is significant,” Bloomberg said at the time. “Coal is a self-inflicted public health risk, polluting the air we breathe, adding mercury to the water we drink, and the leading cause of climate disruption.”
The Sierra Club’s anti-coal website even features a map of coal plants in Kentucky and throughout the country and labels each with a skull and crossbones.
With help from Bloomberg’s group, the Sierra Club has doubled its staffing capacity and expanded the anti-coal campaign to 45 states.
Chao joined the foundation in April 2012 and serves an “advisory and oversight” role to the organization. According to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2012 financial filing, she earned $9,400 for her efforts on behalf of the group. All board members were paid that amount, except for one — artist Maya Lin — who received $18,500.
Chao’s role in Bloomberg Philanthropies flies in the face of the primary message of the McConnell campaign, which has made defending the coal industry the centerpiece of his re-election effort.
McConnell has run multiple ads proclaiming his support for coal.
"I will be the leader of the forces that take on the war on coal," McConnell said in a recent ad that painted Grimes as an opponent of the coal industry. "We've got to fight back in this war on coal. Damn right. We're not going to sit there and take it, I can assure you that.”
Pro-coal industry advocates argue that mining is integral to the state economy and to the well-being of its residents. Coal sustains most of Kentucky’s energy and employed 11,885 people in Kentucky last year, according to the Kentucky Coal Association, an industry-funded group that labels the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal efforts the “enemy” of coal.
Bloomberg Philanthropies isn’t the only group Chao represents that has taken a stand against the coal industry. She also sits on the board of directors at Wells Fargo, which in 2013 announced that it would divest from surface mining of coal in Appalachia due to environmental concerns. In the bank’s Environmental and Social Risk Management report, the company announced that it would no longer lend to coal companies that participate in “Mountain Top Removal” (MTR), in which miners extract coal from mountain summits.
"We carefully consider companies who are engaged in surface mining in the Appalachian region of the United States. We recognize the significant concerns associated with this practice and we also acknowledge the significant investments made by our coal customers in their mine operations, which were entered into in good faith and in accordance with applicable regulations,” the Wells Fargo report, published in February, reads. “As a result of our deliberate approach and the broader movement of the industry toward other mining methods, our involvement with the practice of MTR is limited and declining. Wells Fargo will not extend credit to individual MTR mining projects or to a coal producer that receives a majority of its production from MTR mining.”
The McConnell family has benefited significantly from Chao’s work with Wells Fargo. As a member of the board of directors, Chao received $332,350 in 2011 through compensation, stock and fees, according to a Wells Fargo stockholder report from March 2012.
Chao, of course, isn’t the candidate running for office, and she has her own independent and successful career in public policy and business. Before her tenure as labor secretary under former President George W. Bush, she served as president and CEO of United Way of America, directed the Peace Corps, and worked in banking at Capital Markets Group and Citicorp.
She is not, however, a passive spouse in the campaign. Chao has played an active role in her husband’s re-election effort. The campaign has featured her in fundraising materials, and she appears regularly on the trail. Earlier this month, she filmed an ad that accused Grimes of being “anti-Kentucky.”
It is not uncommon for high-level officials to be tripped up by their spouse's work. Former South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle, for example, routinely came under attack for his wife’s work in corporate lobbying. Bill Clinton's White House bore the brunt of scrutiny of his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton’s career as an attorney at the Rose Law Firm.
A McConnell spokesman defended the senator's record on coal and pointed to the fact that Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the grant before Chao joined the board.
"The decisions to make those grants by Bloomberg Philanthropies were made before she joined the board and she played no role in the decision to grant them," Stewart told Yahoo News. "Sen. McConnell has a longstanding, principled record of defending coal families and jobs. Decisions made by a board before Sec. Chao ever joined do not change that and as the Obama administration will tell you, he hasn’t let up an iota in his defense of Kentucky coal families and jobs."
This article has been updated.