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Kerry, Bush Vie for Coal States

The Democrat looks to win West Virginia -- which Bush took in 2000 -- and elsewhere, pushing for cleaner mining of the fuel.

August 15, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the 2000 presidential campaign, it took Al Gore until October to get to West Virginia, and he paid the consequences. The aggressive, industry-friendly campaign of George W. Bush had already persuaded the state's voters that Gore was a radical environmentalist who would doom its cash crop -- coal.

West Virginia gave its crucial electoral votes to Bush, the first nonincumbent Republican in 72 years to win the state.

That won't happen this year -- not if John F. Kerry can help it -- and not in western Pennsylvania or southeastern Ohio either. The Democratic nominee went to West Virginia the night he clinched the nomination. He has been back four times since, promising to protect miners' jobs and health and moderating his position on clean air.

The United Mine Workers, which reluctantly endorsed Gore weeks before the election, has been campaigning for Kerry since embracing him in April.

In 2000, "the Democratic Party took West Virginia for granted," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. "Bush came into West Virginia talking about coal and believing in coal. But [Gore] didn't make a very strong statement about coal."

Kerry, Roberts said, is different: "I think he's going to be great for coal miners and their futures. There's a lot of enthusiasm in this state for this candidate."

During a speech two weeks ago in Wheeling, W.Va., Kerry said that by learning to burn coal more cleanly, the nation could help reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

"I want a nation that depends on its own ingenuity, not the Saudi royal family," Kerry said.

"You've got coal to be dug right here -- it can be mined. But we've got to make sure we do it clean."

Charles "Dick" Kimbler, 67, a miner who helped Bush win the mine workers' support in 2000, worries that Kerry could take the state this year. He complained that the president's West Virginia campaign staffers were not making it to the flea markets and county fairs to promote their boss.

"It's going to probably cost him the state of West Virginia," Kimbler said.

But Bush remains a formidable opponent in the coal belt. He visited West Virginia early and often in the 2000 campaign, choosing Kimbler to introduce him at rallies. Returning 11 times as president, he has eased regulations for extracting coal from Appalachia's mountaintops and made it easier to modify or renovate older coal-fired power plants without installing expensive pollution controls.

Terry Holt, Bush's campaign spokesman, disputed the notion that Kerry was a better friend to coal than Gore. He cited Kerry's vote last year for a bill designed to combat global warming. The bill, which failed to pass the Senate, would have had "a significant negative impact on the coal industry," according to the Energy Department.

Coal generates slightly more than half the nation's electricity, but it is also a major source of air pollution.

As a senator from Massachusetts, where the air is polluted by upwind coal-fired power plants in the Midwest, Kerry has long advocated stringent pollution controls that are not popular with the coal industry. On the campaign trail, he contends that the nation does not have to choose between coal and clean air.

He advocates doubling the nation's investment in clean coal technology to $10 billion over 10 years to make coal burn more cleanly. Bush has asked for $310 million to $470 million a year for these purposes, sums that Congress has regularly increased.

Kerry has moderated his position on the Kyoto Accord, an international global warming treaty that miners and the coal industry say threatens their future. Kerry says that it is now too late for the United States to make the Kyoto treaty's aggressive targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. But unlike Bush, he favors bringing the United States back to the negotiating table on the treaty, which was signed by most other developed nations.

Gore had written a controversial book about environmental problems called "Earth in the Balance" and was identified with the Kyoto treaty, which he had worked on.

"Gore was viewed as anti-coal because he was so pro-environment," University of West Virginia political scientist Allan Hammond said. "Kerry, although he has a strong environmental record, doesn't carry the baggage Gore did."

In West Virginia, where recent polls show Kerry with a slight lead over Bush, coal is more important politically than the state's 15,000 coal-industry jobs would suggest. Bush won the state by about 41,000 votes, or 6% of the total vote, in 2000. Without West Virginia, he would have been defeated.

"If you lose the vote of coal miners, it might not be many in numbers," Hammond said, "but it adds up" when family members, retirees and workers whose jobs depend in part on mining are included.

The issue is similarly important in southeastern Ohio and southwestern Pennsylvania, two other tightly contested states. Gore won Pennsylvania by 5% and lost Ohio by 4%.

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