Top Kentucky coal advocate bends over backward to defend McConnell family’s connection to anti-coal group

Chris Moody, Yahoo News
A coal shovel works at the Midway mine in Centertown, Ky.
View photos
A coal shovel works at the Midway mine Tuesday April 14, 2009 in Centertown, Ky. The trade group representing the Kentucky coal industry is defending Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife’s work on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, despite its role in funding one of the most aggressive anti-coal initiatives in the country.  (AP Photo/ Daniel R. Patmore)

The trade group representing the Kentucky coal industry is defending Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife’s work on the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies, despite its role in funding one of the most aggressive anti-coal initiatives in the country.

Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett on Wednesday sent a letter to eight Kentucky state lawmakers pushing back against their call for McConnell’s wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, to step down from her position on the board of directors at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Yahoo News revealed last week that Chao joined the board in 2012 despite the organization’s decision a year earlier to spend $50 million over four years to fund the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, an initiative that targets coal energy production. The coal industry is a major contributor to the economy in Kentucky, and McConnell has made defending it a central role in his political career.

Bissett defended Chao and argued that her work with the group should be viewed as positive for pro-coal advocates because it would provide them with “someone on the inside.”

“Since her appointment, her involvement as a proven pro-coal person has given Kentuckians someone ‘on the inside’ of these boards who can express our views and explain the social and economic harm that has been caused in the past,” Bissett wrote in the letter. “It is obvious to us that she is trying to make a positive difference for Kentucky coal in these positions.”

Bissett was responding to a letter he received Tuesday from Democratic officials who represent districts that rely on the coal industry urging him to call for Chao’s resignation.

“As Kentuckians with long histories of championing a strong, vibrant coal industry in the Commonwealth, who work with the Kentucky Coal Association, we call on you personally and on the Kentucky Coal Association directors to denounce the Bloomberg board’s disgraceful action and call on the McConnells to return the money they have pocketed from this and any other anti-Kentucky coal organizations,” the letter read. “We also urge you to join us in demanding that Ms. Chao resign immediately from the Bloomberg board.”

Despite Chao’s role on the board, Bloomberg Philanthropies continues to fund the Sierra Club campaign, as well as anti-tobacco efforts that target another Kentucky cash crop. Board members serve an “advisory and oversight” role on the board but do not make final decisions on grants.

McConnell and his Democratic opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, are both making aggressive moves to win pro-coal voters in the state.