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'Secret' Debate Shows Coal's Political Sway in Kentucky, Professor Says

The coal industry's political sway remains strong in Kentucky despite flagging production and employment numbers—a fact on display recently in the state's gubernatorial race, political experts says.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported on Wednesday that Kentucky's major party candidates for governor participated in a “secret debate” this month in Virginia hosted by coal industry leaders.

During the debate, billed as a “discussion,” Attorney General Jack Conway and Louisville businessman Matt Bevin answered questions posed by Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, rebutted each other and answered questions from the audience, the newspaper reported. The Coal & Investment Leadership Forum was part of a golf and fly fishing retreat attended by industry executives and politicians. But the event was not publicized and reporters were not permitted to attend.

“The coal industry remains big spenders both in terms of lobbying, in terms of public relations and certainly in terms of campaign contributions, and it remains a significant player in a lot of states, particularly in Kentucky,” said Nick Surgey, the director of research for the the political watchdog group Center for Media and Democracy.

Citing an invitation to the event, Surgey said the event allowed for one-on-one conversations between politicians, investors and coal executives.

The event was hosted by Jim McGlothlin, founder of United Coal Company and owner of the Olde Farm golf club in Bristol, Virginia. Invitees paid $7,500 to attend, according to the Guardian.

Lexington businessman Joe Craft III, president and chief executive of coal company Alliance Resource Partners, also attended, the Herald-Leader reported.

Craft was the 21st largest donor in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Craft contributed $3.4 million to pro-Republican super PAC American Crossroads in 2012, including $850,000 from Alliance. Since 1998, Craft has given $79,500 to the Republican Party of Kentucky and $50,000 to the Democratic Party of Kentucky.

Despite all the money the coal industry spends on lobbying, numbers show the industry is slowing down production in Kentucky and shedding jobs.

The coal industry shed 1,230 jobs in the first quarter of this year—a 10.6 percent decline from the previous year. Production in the eastern Kentucky coalfields was only a third of what it was in 2008.

Regardless, coal is still king with Kentucky voters, said Michael Hail, a government professor for Morehead State University.

“It doesn’t seem to me that the significance of coal with the electorate has any particular thing to do with the health of the industry at this point or that point,” Hail said.

Coal has played a major role in recent Kentucky elections for generations, and the industry's welfare has remained largely a consensus issue among Democrats and Republicans candidates.

“Coal is iconic for Kentucky much like thoroughbred horses and the bourbon industry,” Hail said.

“So many people and their extended families in their family history touch those industries, and I believe that’s why they continue to have resonance with the Kentucky electorate.”

Bevin and Conway are scheduled to debate on June 19 in Louisville.

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