This article was originally published on Coal Tattoo, a blog by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
We certainly wrote a lot about it at the time she said it. That quote from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that was so taken out of context by the coal industry, Trump supporters and West Virginia political leaders (see here, here, here, here and here).
Now, more than 10 months after the general election, Clinton herself has a few things to say about that comment. There’s a whole chapter about it in her new book, “What Happened.” She called the chapter, “Country Roads” and said that it was the campaign comment that she regrets the most from the entire race:
Stripped of context, my words sounded heartless. Republican operatives made sure the clip was replayed virtually nonstop on Facebook feeds, local radio and television coverage, and campaign ads across Appalachian for months.
… The point I had wanted to make was the exact opposite of how it came out.
As Clinton recounts, she was answering a question about how she would win support from working-class whites who normally vote Republican. Here’s the full answer:
Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around politics that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who 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, right, Tim? [That’s Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who was in the audience]
And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.
In the book, she explains:
If you listened to the full answer and not just that one garbled sentence pulled out of it, my meaning comes through reasonably well. Coal employment had been going down in Appalachia for decades, stemming from changes in mining technology, competition from lower-sulfur Wyoming coal, and cheaper and cleaner natural gas and renewable energy, and a drop in the global demand for coal.
I was intensely concerned about the impact on families and communities that had depended on coal jobs for generations. That’s why I proposed a comprehensive $30 billion plan to help revitalize and diversify the region’s economy. But most people never heard that. They heard a snippet that gave the impression that I was looking forward to hurting miners and their families.
The book does a lot of blaming the media for all of this, and anyone who reads my blog (see here and here especially) knows I don’t really disagree with that basic point.
But perhaps another reason that most people didn’t hear about the Clinton plan to save the coalfields is that she didn’t really talk about it that much. And, of course, others in her party — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin — want to just keep talking about coal, coal coal, as if the next boom is right around the corner. And Clinton is wrong to try to rewrite history to suggest that Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t propose his own coalfield rescue plan (see here). President Obama had such a plan, of course, but as we’ve discussed before, it was really too little and too late and wasn’t promoted nearly enough by Obama or any Democrats.
Photo by Daniel Desrochers
The book also describes the trip Clinton made to West Virginia after the quote. She says that “prominent Democrats in West Virginia” encouraged her to just fly in and out of Charleston and “make a speech in front of a friendly audience.” She says:
But that wasn’t what I had in mind. I wanted to go deep into the southern coalfields to communities facing the biggest challenges, where Trump was most popular and my coal-miner gaffe was getting the most attention. As one of my advisers put it, that would be like Trump holding a rally in downtown Berkeley, California. That’s pretty much what I was going for.
Then she writes about arriving in Mingo County, where there were protesters waiting for her:
Standing with them was Don Blankenship, the multimillionaire former CEO of a large coal company who was convicted for conspiring to violate mine safety regulations after the Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed twenty-nine workers in 2010. He was due to report to prison just days later, but he made time to come protest me first.
She goes on, describing the maddening politics of the coalfields:
Just look at Don Blankenship, the coal boss who joined the protest against me on his way to prison. In recent years, even as the coal industry has struggled and workers have been laid off, top executives like him have pocketed huge pay increases, with compensation rising 60 percent between 2004 and 2016. Blankenship endangered his workers, undermined their union, and polluted their rivers and streams, all while making big profits and contributing millions to Republican candidates. He should have been the least popular man in West Virginia even before he was convicted in the wake of the death of twenty-nine miners. Instead, he was welcomed by the pro-Trump protesters in Williamson. One of them told a reporter that he’d vote for Blankenship for president if he ran. Meanwhile, I pledged to strengthen the laws to protect workers and hold bosses like Blankenship accountable — the fact that he received a jail sentence of just one year was appalling — yet I was the one being protested.
Clinton correctly describes the “so-called war on coal” as an insufficient explanation for the shift from Democrat to Republican in coalfield politics. And she also is right when she says the Obama administration “was slow to take on this false narrative” that air pollution regulations and efforts to fight climate change were the major — if not the only — drivers in coal’s decline. And she’s correct that it’s wrong to leave race and gender out of the analysis of how folks in this part of the world responded to Obama and to her.
The book also provides what I assume is her honest reflection about her loss, and the role that working class voters in places like the coalfields played in that:
Most of the folks I met in places like Ashland, Kentucky, and Williamson, West Virginia, were good people in a bad situation, desperate for change. I wish more than anything that I could have done a better job speaking to their fears and frustrations. Their distrust went too deep, and the weight of history was too heavy. But I wish I could have found the words or emotional connection to make them believe how passionately I wanted to help their communities and their families.
That’s all fair enough. But it’s hard when you see her point out Blankenship to wonder why issues like worker safety and health weren’t talked about more during last year’s elections, both for national office and in our state and local races. How often did any West Virginia Democrats talk about the black lung crisis?
Of course, the coalfield media is to blame, for so often shamelessly parroting the “war on coal” nonsense. But the only way West Virginia is going to find a positive way forward is to talk more honestly, more often, about the fact that coal has been both good and bad to our state, and most importantly, that there’s not another boom coming just around the next corner. Clinton may have wanted to promote that discussion — and maybe her quote made it impossible to do — but there are other elections coming, and it’s not too late for other leaders to start leading.
Ken Ward Jr. covers the coal industry, the environment, workplace safety and related issues for the Gazette-Mail.