WASHINGTON -- Last Oct. 20, Sen. John Kerry, in nonstop derision of President Bush, declared: "Where we see a beautiful mountaintop, George Bush sees a strip mine." That environmentalist rhetoric, backed by Kerry's Senate voting record, injects the senator into confrontation with the coal industry that could defeat him for president. That is his burden in Wheeling, W.Va., Monday, on a campaign swing that includes visiting a coal mine.
Coal is a side issue in Congress, but it is critical to two states won by Bush in 2000 that could decide the 2004 presidential election. Coal production is important for Ohio and absolutely vital to West Virginia. If Kerry is perceived as anti-coal, he could lose both states -- and the presidency.
On this week's visit to West Virginia, Kerry is likely to condemn as inadequate Bush's investment for clean coal technology (currently $2 billion over 10 years). He echoes the anti-Bush line by the state's most powerful Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd. Mine owners laugh it off, noting you can't have clean coal if Kerry-backed measures eliminate all coal.
This disadvantage of an incumbent senator running for president may explain why only two have been successful. While governors (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) have obscured their positions on delicate questions, Kerry cannot escape the impact of thousands of votes during 20 senate years.
One such vote came in 1999. Byrd, grand protector of West Virginia, proposed an amendment to preserve coal production. It was designed to override liberal U.S. District Judge Charles Haden's decision, since reversed, to end mountaintop mining in West Virginia.
Byrd told the Senate that his amendment was intended "to allow for the continuation of our coal industry and the jobs it provides while better protecting the mountains and hollows of the state we love." With the United Mine Workers strongly behind Byrd's amendment, it passed the Senate Nov. 18, 1999, by 56 to 33. Kerry was one of the 33.
Kerry also co-sponsors environmentalist Sen. James Jeffords's Clean Power Act, which the coal industry regards as a death sentence in eliminating 90 percent of mercury emissions by 2008. The non-partisan Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates the Jeffords bill would reduce coal consumed for electricity by 43 percent, losing 1 million jobs.
Last year, Kerry voted for (while Byrd was voting against) the Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act, which would move the U.S. toward the Kyoto global warming protocol. The EIA estimated the bill would reduce coal's share of electricity from 50 percent down to 11 percent, eliminating 50,000 coal industry jobs.
Kerry has not deviated from this environmentalist standard. And he must find a way to defend it in Ohio, where huge industrial job loss could portend Republican disaster and Democratic bliss. Republicans never have elected a president without carrying Ohio.
Republican Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio pounds the table in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee when the Jeffords bill is discussed, asking: "Do we want to do away with coal? If we do want to do away with coal, what is going to take its place?" The Ohio Coal Association, which orchestrated the state legislature's passage of a resolution condemning the Jeffords bill, is preparing to put Kerry's record in the hands of every coal industry worker in the state (and neighboring states, including West Virginia).
While Ohio long has been pivotal in presidential elections, West Virginia has been a backwater -- until recently. George W. Bush visited Morgantown, W. Va., the last weekend of the 2000 campaign to pin down five electoral votes from the overwhelmingly Democratic state, which Al Gore had alienated partly because of his perceived anti-coal position.
Nearly all the early political maps made for 2004 have West Virginia swinging back to the Democratic column this year, but the most recent poll by the American Research Group shows a flat-out tie at 46 percent. Kerry does not help by lauding his endorsement by the League of Conservation Voters, an organization that has labeled coal as one of the "inefficient, destructive fossil fuels of the past that pollute our air and water." John Kerry on the campaign trail this week predictably will avoid embracing that position.