The Candidate Fighting To Save Coal Country From Mitch McConnell

In Appalachia, Senate candidate Charles Booker pitches voters on an aggressive response to the climate crisis ― and the collapse of Kentucky’s coal industry.
Charles Booker
Charles Booker
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty, AP

INEZ, Kentucky ― On a spring morning in 1964, hundreds of residents gathered at an old miniature golf course in the center of town as the whirling blades of a presidential chopper brought Lyndon B. Johnson to this tiny Appalachian enclave. Johnson had declared war on America’s corrosive levels of poverty three months earlier. He chose Inez, where a third of the population was unemployed and annual incomes were counted in the hundreds of dollars, as the site of his first offensive.

Fifty-six years later, no crowd assembled to greet Charles Booker when his black SUV, emblazoned with the logo of his fledgling U.S. Senate campaign, pulled into an empty parking lot at the community center. No one, save Booker himself and a few local activists he’d meet for lunch, even knew he was here.

In January, Booker ― a 35-year-old Democratic state legislator from Louisville and one of the youngest Black state lawmakers ever elected in Kentucky ― entered the Democratic primary against Amy McGrath, a retired Marine fighter pilot and former congressional candidate. The winner will face Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader who is chasing his seventh term in the upper chamber. Despite his status as the country’s most loathed Republican this side of President Donald Trump, McConnell is still the prohibitive favorite in a state where no Democrat has come within 100,000 votes of beating him since 1990.

Places like Inez and Whitesburg, Lynch and Pikeville ― the towns Booker visited on a tour through eastern Kentucky in February ― are still struggling five decades after the launch of the War on Poverty. Today, they are ground zero for the environmental devastation wrought by the coal industry, and the poverty and economic pain its collapse has left behind.

So Booker had come to pitch not just his candidacy but the plan he has put at the center of his campaign: the Green New Deal.

Known primarily as a series of proposals that its progressive backers hope will alter the nation’s energy future in order to stem climate change, it’s also a project no less ambitious than the one Johnson began here: a dramatic overhaul of both the nation’s economy and its social contract in a way that addresses the systemic inequality that the old economy created and perpetuated.

The Green New Deal is Booker’s plan to rescue coal country and Kentucky from total ruin ― and from politicians like McConnell who have stood idly by.

President Lyndon Johnson listens to Tom Fletcher, father of eight, describe some of the problems facing the residents of Inez, Kentucky, in April 1964.
President Lyndon Johnson listens to Tom Fletcher, father of eight, describe some of the problems facing the residents of Inez, Kentucky, in April 1964.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The Epicenter

Kentucky, where visitors crossing the West Virginia border are welcomed by pickup trucks with “Friends of Coal” bumper stickers and billowing clouds of smoke from the Ashland oil refinery, may seem like the least likely place to go in search of support for the Green New Deal. A plan that seeks to stem dependence on greenhouse gases while reorienting the American economy toward sustainable energy and development appears tailor-made to piss off people in coal country. Conventional political wisdom would suggest a Democrat doesn’t stand much chance against McConnell if he’s also running against coal.

To Booker, who has the backing of the Sunrise Movement, a group of youth organizers pushing the Green New Deal nationwide, this is precisely the time and precisely the place to pitch such a big idea. It presents an opportunity for the Kentuckians who dug the coal that powered the old energy economy to mold a new one.

“Kentucky is the epicenter of what it looks like if we lead and of what it looks like if we don’t,” Booker said during a HuffPost interview in Whitesburg. “We’re not out here talking about a Green New Deal because it’s cool or politically expedient. We’re out here trying to survive.”

Bumper stickers for Sen. Mitch McConnell sit on a table alongside "Friends of Coal" advocacy stickers during a campaign stop in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 31, 2014.
Bumper stickers for Sen. Mitch McConnell sit on a table alongside "Friends of Coal" advocacy stickers during a campaign stop in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 31, 2014.
Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

McConnell’s time in the Senate has coincided with the total collapse of the Kentucky coal industry, especially in the state’s Appalachian region. When he won his first Senate race in 1984, coal employed nearly 30,000 Kentuckians in Appalachia alone. Fewer than 6,000 coal jobs exist across the entire state today.

In Martin County, where Inez is located, the median income is $15,000 lower than Kentucky’s and just less than half that of the United States’. The poverty rate is a tick below 40%. The plight of the poor would be even worse were it not for the vast expansion of the welfare state created by Johnson’s War on Poverty.

The eastern Kentucky coalfields as a whole are one of the poorest, least healthy, least educated and least employed regions in the United States. The opioid crisis has ravaged communities. The drop in coal-related tax revenues has hammered local and county budgets, forcing cuts to basic services. Rising utility rates have made it so that the cities and towns whose workers once kept America’s lights on, as the industry slogan goes, are today buckling under the cost of trying to keep on their own.

The economic devastation has only one rival: the environmental disaster that has accompanied it. In 2000, a coal slurry pond in Martin County collapsed, spilling some 300 million gallons of toxic sludge into the local water supply. Residents can remember when the creeks in town ran black with the slurry, but they don’t have to dig as deep to recall the times their tap water turned brown. Two decades later, it often still does.

The state water commission ordered rate hikes to pay for the cleanup of the spill, so now people in Martin County ― a good number of whom live on fixed incomes ― spend more on water they can’t drink than they ever have before and then go to the store to buy bottled water they can use to make coffee or cook. Some days, showering causes their skin to burn with allergic reactions to the contaminated water.

The remains of a Martin County coal sediment pond that collapsed near Inez is seen on Oct. 23, 2000. The release turned sections of the Tug Fork and Big Sandy rivers black and forced officials to seek alternative sources of water for thousands of residents.
The remains of a Martin County coal sediment pond that collapsed near Inez is seen on Oct. 23, 2000. The release turned sections of the Tug Fork and Big Sandy rivers black and forced officials to seek alternative sources of water for thousands of residents.
Bob Bird/AP

When Booker visited Appalshop, an art and music nonprofit that hosts its own radio station, concerts and educational workshops, his host, Mimi Pickering, told him that a flooding creek nearby posed a risk to the organization’s extensive archive of Appalachian music and historical records. Appalshop was founded 50 years ago, in the midst of the War on Poverty, to train Appalachians in radio and television production. Its main building “was supposed to be outside the 100-year floodplain,” said Pickering, who leads the nonprofit’s community media initiative. “But you know those are changing.”

Most Kentuckians don’t need a dose of reality or a frank conversation. They’re well aware of what’s going on. At an event in Pike County, which has historically produced more coal than any other county in Kentucky, Booker mentioned that coal jobs were “going away” when a voice from the crowd interjected.

“They’re already gone,” the person yelled.

‘He Don’t Give A Damn About Us’

If only someone would tell Mitch McConnell.

The Senate leader has built his career actively ignoring the scale of the problems facing the planet and the changes that are plaguing his home state. McConnell, who regularly ranks among the top recipients of campaign contributions from the coal, oil and gas industries, would rather pretend the jobs here have disappeared because of a liberal “war on coal” ― and not because the industry has for decades mechanized mining work in an effort to boost production and lower costs, not because other forms of energy (including natural gas and solar) have proven more economically viable, and certainly not because the eastern Kentucky coalfields are, well, running out of the stuff.

The problem, Booker suggests, isn’t that McConnell doesn’t know this ― it’s that he doesn’t care.

“He sees us as insignificant,” Booker said. “He ain’t one of us. He don’t give a damn about us.”

In truth, Democrats and progressives have been guilty of not giving much of a damn about the people here, too. Fearful of being painted as “anti-coal,” Democrats have been hesitant to honestly engage Appalachia. Then there are the sort of progressives who come to the mountains with a copy of “Hillbilly Elegy” in one hand and a sweeping agenda to fix Appalachia in the other. Too often, they’ve offered only paternalistic half-measures, at best, and ideas rooted in outright disdain for the folks who live in the hills, at worst.

Hillary Clinton’s suggestion during her 2016 presidential campaign that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” is one example of Democrats brushing Appalachia aside. At one of Booker’s stops in Neon, Kentucky, last month, a woman paraphrased Saul Alinsky to explain how Clinton’s remark struck voters like her. “He said, ‘If you’re going to organize a Jewish community, don’t come eating a ham sandwich,’” the woman said. “She came to us eating a ham sandwich.”

Democrats have also maintained a steady devotion to technocratic drivel like “teaching miners to code” ― a stand-in, most recently repeated by former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, for the sort of job retraining programs that have proven inadequate time and again in reviving the fortunes of mountain communities and their people.

That will be a challenge for Booker and other proponents of the Green New Deal to overcome, in part because those past failures play into McConnell’s hands.

Even if he’s not well-liked in large parts of Kentucky, McConnell is good at positioning himself as a last line of defense against the big city know-it-alls, and he’s already trying to do the same with the Green New Deal. The plan’s pledge to eliminate all fossil fuels over the next decade “may sound like a neat deal in San Francisco or New York or places the Democratic Party seems focused on these days,” he said on the Senate floor last March. “But the communities practically everywhere else will be crushed by this.”

In reality, coal has already crushed many communities here, and people are doing their best to eke out a living beneath the rubble by moving beyond fossil fuels as best they can. But they’re tired of being ignored and talked down to, told what will work instead of asked what they think will work for them.

“Kentuckians have been told what’s good for them my whole life,” Booker said in our interview, during which he noted that McConnell first took office in the Senate the year Booker was born. “We get judged. We get insulted. Folks have ... made a huge sacrifice to go down into a mine and risk their life to take care of their family, and their communities have been ridiculed and made to feel like they’re the bad people. … They want other opportunities they don’t have because we haven’t been paying attention to them.”

Booker argued that he doesn’t just believe in the Green New Deal; he believes Kentuckians must have a say in what the Green New Deal includes.

The people here know what kind of help they need, he said, and many of them are already trying to provide it for themselves. Booker visited a grocery store in Isom, a town of 500 people, that had switched to solar energy in a desperate attempt to keep the business open and continue paying its employees a living wage. Outside Whitesburg, he visited the Hemp Hill Community Center, which made a similar switch to solar that cut its electricity rates by two-thirds and allowed it to keep providing food and other services ― including heat, Wi-Fi and Narcotics Anonymous meetings ― to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them. Gwen Moore, the community center’s director, asked local coal workers for permission before installing solar panels, to avoid offending them.

Their answer: Do what you gotta do to survive.

But people also know they can’t ensure that survival without a level of investment and assistance that Appalachia can’t produce on its own.

“Kentuckians want a Green New Deal,” Booker insisted. “They’re just not calling it that.”

The Rough Side Of The Mountain

Booker mouthed the words to Rev. F.C. Barnes’ hymn “Rough Side of the Mountain” as the Sunday morning service at Greater Mt. Sinai Baptist Church drew to a close in Lynch, an old coal-mining town in the shadow of Black Mountain, Kentucky’s tallest peak. Greater Mt. Sinai opened its doors in 1917, the same year that U.S. Steel founded Lynch as a company town for the workers who staffed its mine. Black workers from the South were common among the people who flocked to Lynch.

Like everywhere else nearby, the mines in Lynch are pretty much gone now, and so are the people, fewer than two dozen of whom were in attendance at Greater Mt. Sinai the day Booker stopped by. The prayers of the retired miners and their wives asked the good Lord to watch over their children and grandchildren who have moved on to Louisville or Lexington, Cincinnati or Columbus, for college and the sorts of jobs that aren’t available around here anymore.

To many who live in the mountains, Louisville ― the rich, liberal and growing city that’s three-plus hours away by car ― may as well be New York. And for many folks in Appalachia, the idea that a Louisvillian like Booker could fathom the struggles of mountain life defies belief.

Booker’s counter is that despite his roots in Kentucky’s largest city, he too came up on the rough side of the mountain, one that doesn’t look so different from the hills around these parts.

“I swear, if I took y’all to parts of West Louisville, you’d think you were in Appalachia,” Booker told a group of local activists over lunch in Inez.

Booker hails from Russell, a neighborhood in West Louisville ― the side of the city where 75% of the population is Black and decades of disinvestment and neglect have fueled generational cycles of poverty. As locals in Inez tell him about the rising costs of utility bills, he recounts times during his childhood when his mother struggled to keep the lights on at home. Booker’s West Louisville neighbors, he tells voters and activists across Appalachia, are even poorer than they are. Many of them are surprised to learn that even today, he lives in the poorest ZIP code in the state.

When a woman in Inez asked, rhetorically, what happened to the crawdads she used to catch in the creek behind her house before coal sludge polluted the stream, Booker told her that the West Louisville waterways where people fish are marked with signs warning that nothing they catch is safe to eat.

“Some, even within the Democratic Party, will say, ‘You gotta be politically calculating. ... Don’t talk about the coal jobs leaving. Don’t talk about the environment that’s crumbling around us.’ We can’t afford not to.”

- Charles Booker

The eastern Kentucky homes stained black with coal dust remind him of the West Louisville buildings covered in soot from the city’s chemical factories. The area known as Rubbertown is responsible for nearly half of the city’s emissions, and companies there have been repeatedly fined for releasing toxic chemicals into the air. The abandoned mines in Inez draw memories of the brownfields that dot Louisville, a sign of its erstwhile status as an industrial river town.

“We’re fighting the same fight, just from a different vantage point,” Booker said as we walked alongside a creek in Inez, in between knocking on doors.

Kentucky has been roiled by political and social tumult for the better part of the last four years. In 2015, Matt Bevin, an arch-conservative whose outsider brand of politics should have offered an early indicator of the discontent that would boost Trump, became only the second Republican governor of the state in a half-century. The next year, hardly any other state so enthusiastically embraced Trump himself.

Bevin is gone now. He narrowly lost his reelection bid in November, thanks in part to massive protests from teachers and state workers over his attempts to cut their pensions and his repeated targeting of public schools. Just months before the election, laid-off coal miners from the Blackjewel mine in Harlan County staged a weekslong protest to block their employer, which had declared bankruptcy, from making one last shipment of coal without paying them.

Kentuckians, at times, seem to be teetering between anger, desperation and hopelessness.

“I’d give anything to live on clean water again,” one woman in Inez told Booker. “But the chances of that happening are slim to none.”

Simply ignoring the problems in Kentucky ― both the coal jobs leaving and the environmental decimation left behind ― is clearly a catastrophic strategy. That’s true for the people living here, and it’s true for the Democratic Party, which has failed to oust McConnell by sidestepping the issues, Booker argued.

“Some, even within the Democratic Party, will say, ‘You gotta be politically calculating,’” Booker said. “‘Don’t really deal with the real issues that Kentuckians are facing. Don’t talk about the coal jobs leaving. Don’t talk about the environment that’s crumbling around us.’”

“We can’t afford not to.”

To Booker, the Green New Deal isn’t just a battle to change the power source that keeps the lights on in the U.S. It’s an effort to shift the balance of political power in a way that makes Washington more responsive to people’s needs and restores Democrats’ reputation as the party of the working class and the poor.

The son of two ministers, Booker talks politics in righteous terms. The abandonment of Appalachian towns like those he visited in February and urban communities like his own isn’t just a political failure but an ongoing American tragedy.

He chose to give up a safe seat in the state legislature for what still looks like a long-shot bid to win a place in the U.S. Senate because he didn’t see anyone approaching the race with an urgency that matches his own.

“My mother always told me, ‘Charles, if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we can move mountains,’” he said over lunch with members of Greater Mt. Sinai after the service.

“God will deliver for us,” he said. “But we can move some things out of his way.”

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