WFPL reporter Erica Peterson posed an interesting question in a report for Louisville’s public radio station recently: “Can a Kentucky Politician Win By Being Candid About Coal’s Decline?” She reports that Kentucky politics and the coal industry are “intertwined,” and that even though “coal’s fortunes in Kentucky have been declining for decades,” Kentucky leaders and politicians have been publicly “a bit myopic” about coal’s future.
It’s true that the coal industry has always dictated politics in eastern Kentucky, and in the state at large. Yes! Magazine reporter Laura Flanders sums up the relationship this way:
Replacing coal in coal country is like rewiring a state-sized home. From elections to electricity, the coal economy penetrated every system. Without coal, Appalachia needs not just energy change but systemic change and economic development of massive proportions.
This is the change so many people and organizations are actively working toward. But it often seems as if our political leaders aren’t very interested in that change or in fighting for our region’s future – a future with far less coal production. Instead of presenting the region with viable options for a thriving and prosperous future economy, political leaders and candidates are busying themselves declaring their undying love and support for an industry that many – both inside and outside it – have accepted is a shell of its former self, and will never return to its former glory.
The region needs leaders who are willing to be bold by telling us the truth. We’re a tough and resilient people; we can handle the truth. We need leaders with ambitious, courageous and inspired ideas about how the region’s economy can and should move forward into the future – not leaders who are so out of touch that they patronize us with the same old rhetoric about a boom-and-bust industry that many believe is well into its final bust.
But instead of those leaders, we have a political system that still believes this:
For former legislator Roger Noe, the irony is that Eastern Kentuckians need to hear people like Comer speaking honestly about the future of the coal industry, and begin talking about economic diversification. But he still doesn’t think telling that truth will translate into Election Day victory—at least not for now.
“I don’t think Eastern Kentucky is ready to hear those kind of comments,” Noe said. “It will take some time for people to realize that and accept the fact that the jobs are gone and we need to look in another direction to diversify and improve the economy.”
What Mr. Noe doesn’t realize is that eastern Kentuckians are desperate to hear “those kinds of comments.” We are begging for them. Eastern Kentuckians are full-to-the-brim with pride for their coal-mining heritage. It is intertwined into our culture, it is our pride and it is a very significant part of our past. But eastern Kentuckians are not ignorant or delusional people. We are fully capable of seeing the writing on the wall, regardless of what our political leaders tell us from the bully-pulpit. We know a change is here – the air is thick with it. And we know that our future will look very different than our past.
Are we ready to hear politicians tell us about a new way forward? We were born ready.