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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Parsing McConnell’s Job Description

A laid off coal miner in an Alison Lundergan Grimes TV ad poses a question to Sen. Mitch McConnell: “Why’d you say it’s not your job to bring jobs to Kentucky?” McConnell doesn’t dispute saying it and no recording exists; but he claims that he misunderstood a reporter’s question and his words have been misinterpreted.

What’s a fact-checker to do? Look at the facts.

McConnell was quoted as saying, “Economic development is a Frankfort issue. That is not my job.” But the comment came on the same day that he was in his home state to speak about — jobs. McConnell gave his quote during a brief interview April 24 with a local reporter who didn’t stay for McConnell’s speech, which focused on his efforts to retain and create coal jobs.

So, the theme of McConnell’s speeches that day — four of them in all — were about the very issue (jobs) and the very industry (coal) that concerns the man featured in the Grimes ad.

Moreover, there were numerous instances before and after April 24 that show the senator considers creating jobs part of his job. He has supported approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline, passage of trade legislation, and funding for job training and workforce development programs.

There may be a philosophical difference between the two candidates on how best to create jobs. But Grimes’ use of a single quote that appeared in a six-paragraph story of a local paper doesn’t fully reflect McConnell’s position on job creation.

Coal has emerged as a key issue for both campaigns, with each candidate accusing the other of not doing enough to bolster the industry. The McConnell campaign recently put out an ad that claimed Grimes “supports Barack Obama’s anti-coal environmental platform.” But as we wrote about an outside attack ad that accused Grimes of being “silent” as “Obama attacked coal,” Grimes has repeatedly staked out a position strongly opposing Obama’s tighter regulation of the coal industry.

The Grimes ad attacking McConnell on coal is the second in a series that features a Kentucky resident sitting beside Grimes and putting a rhetorical question to McConnell. The first featured a classic and misleading Democratic Medicare scare tactic.

In this new ad, Grimes sits next to David Stanley in front of a roadside gas station. She begins, “I’m Alison Lundergan Grimes and David Stanley lost his coal mining job in Letcher County, and he has this question for Senator McConnell.”

Stanley then says, “Mr. McConnell, in the last two years, we’ve lost almost half of our coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky. Why’d you say it’s not your job to bring jobs to Kentucky?”

After a pause for effect, as birds chirp and a pickup truck passes by, Grimes leans in and tells Stanley, “I couldn’t believe he said that either.”

They are referring to a McConnell quote in the Beattyville Enterprise that ran in an April 24 story under the headline, “McConnell says not his job to bring jobs.” The article was only six paragraphs long, so we’ll share it in its entirety:

Beattyville Enterprise, April 24: U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell said Friday that it is not his responsibility to bring jobs to Kentucky.

Appearing in Beattyville, McConnell was asked by The Beattyville Enterprise what he was going to do to bring jobs to Lee County.

“Economic development is a Frankfort issue,” McConnell said. “That is not my job. It is the primary responsibility of the state Commerce Cabinet.”

Asked about public works projects McConnell said he is interested in bringing public works to the state. “Most comes from the state, though,” he said.

He did say that he is responsible for protecting jobs by “pushing back” against the Obama Administration’s restrictions on the coal industry.

“Oil and gas are big here,” he said of Lee County. “They (the Obama Administration) are making it hard on them too,” he said.

McConnell’s office said his message to the reporter “got lost in translation,” and it quickly issued a statement from McConnell saying the story reflected “the exact opposite message to the one I was trying to convey.”

McConnell, April 25: I visited Lee County to talk about a top priority of mine: jobs. I was surprised to see a headline about my visit that sent the exact opposite message to the one I was trying to convey. Encouraging positive economic development and job growth is at the center of what I do every day.

A month later, McConnell further addressed the comment during a press conference with his Kentucky colleague, Sen. Rand Paul (beginning about the 9:23 mark).

McConnell, May 24: I thought [the reporter] was talking about specific industries in Lee County. And that is obviously a job of the state Commerce Department. I believe, had he stayed for the speech … he would have understood that my whole speech was about job creation and the job destruction that’s gone on as a result of the Obama administration. So look, the things that Senator Paul and I work on together and the things that we advocate are all job related.

Edmund Shelby, the Beattyville Enterprise editor who conducted the interview, stands by the story.

Asked if it is possible McConnell misinterpreted his question and believed it was about “specific industries in Lee County,” Shelby said, “If that’s his interpretation, I think that’s a fair interpretation.” But Shelby said his question was more generic in asking about what he would do to bring jobs to Lee County. And, Shelby said, “We were both speaking English.”

No recording of the interview exists. However, McConnell’s public comments minutes later suggest there’s more to his position than are captured in his brief quote to the Beattyville Enterprise.

Shelby said he could not stay to hear McConnell’s speech — he interviewed McConnell in the hallway before the event —  but we obtained a recording of the speech from a Los Angeles Times reporter who was there, and reported on it (h/t to Michael A. Memoli). In his ensuing speech, McConnell laid out his case that if voters reelected him, and Republicans recaptured a majority in the Senate, he would be in a position to reverse many of the Obama administration policies that he says have stifled job creation. In his speeches that day, McConnell argued the Democratic Senate had blocked numerous jobs bills passed by the Republican House.

“We’re now in the sixth year of this, what I would call a kind of Western European experiment — big debt, lots of borrowing creating that debt, taxes, regulation, micromanagement of every part of our lives,” McConnell said. “And what has it produced? In America, writ large, very slow growth.”

Those comments comport with others McConnell made before and after the Beattyville speech.

Here are some examples we found of McConnell talking about efforts to create or preserve jobs:

  • In a floor speech on Jan. 15: “What we’re saying is, how about we actually try to create jobs? … The Republican-controlled House has sent over a number of bills that would give a boost to jobs and the economy. A good start would be for the President to lean on the Democrats who run the Senate to take those up for immediate consideration. … He could call for true, bipartisan tax reform. He could announce construction of the Keystone Pipeline, which would help create thousands of American jobs right away. And he could actually deliver on one of the brightest spots of his economic agenda: trade.”
  • In a floor speech on Feb. 26: “How else can you explain why the President has refused to sign off on projects such as Keystone Pipeline that would create thousands of jobs or why he refuses to push his own party to join Republicans and support trade legislation that could create even more jobs?”
  • In a press release on June 25, McConnell applauded the passage of a bill to promote job training and workforce development programs.
  • In a floor speech on May 13: “The Keystone Pipeline is a project almost everyone knows will create thousands of good jobs at a time when we need them very badly … The American people sent us to the Senate to do something about jobs and address the issues that actually matter to their daily lives. It is time the Democrats, who run the Senate, drop the diversions and finally work with us to do so.

One could make a political argument about whether McConnell’s approach to job creation is correct — some economists, for example, debate the job-creating power of the House bills he referenced. But McConnell’s statements make clear that he sees job creation as part of his job description.

The Grimes ad goes one step further and links McConnell’s comment to coal jobs — and there’s plenty of evidence that that’s a distortion of McConnell’s position. In fact, as the Beattyville Enterprise story itself states, McConnell “did say that he is responsible for protecting jobs by ‘pushing back’ against the Obama Administration’s restrictions on the coal industry.” Shelby said Grimes was “mixing two issues” in the ad — the lack of coal jobs and McConnell’s comment about job creation in general.

The speech McConnell delivered in Beattyville made clear that McConnell considers the protection of coal jobs, and fighting President Obama’s regulations of coal mining, a key responsibility of his job. In fact, that was the focus of his speech.

The Los Angeles Times reporter who was present for that speech and three others that day wrote that those speeches “each offer a fuller picture of how the incumbent argues his status in Washington as a potential majority leader in a Republican-led Senate next year is an answer to the state’s economic woes.”

As Stanley did in the Grimes ad, McConnell lamented the loss of coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky. According to a 2014 report from the Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence in partnership with the Kentucky Coal Association, coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky have fallen by 38 percent from mid-2011 to the end of 2013, when they numbered 7,436.

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told us it’s unfair to blame McConnell for that. “Senator McConnell and his staff have done everything they can to support Kentucky’s coal miners and coal production,” he said.

Bissett said the Kentucky Coal Association does not endorse political candidates.

Neither does the Beattyville Enterprise.

“We find it best not to endorse people who would later disappoint us,” Shelby said.

— Robert Farley