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McConnell Campaign Lashes Out After Report Ties Wife to Anti-Coal Group

Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, at the Fancy Farm picnic.
Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, at the Fancy Farm picnic.
Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, at the Fancy Farm picnic.
Credit Alix Mattingly/WFPL News
Senator Mitch McConnell and his wife, former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, at the Fancy Farm picnic.

A report linking Republican Mitch McConnell’s wife to an aggressive anti-coal campaign has drawn angry reactions from the Kentucky senator’s re-election team.

McConnell is on a two-day bus tour in the eastern half of the state, countering stops earlier this week by Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes.

On Wednesday, Grimes told a Hazard audience that  she was the more pro-coal candidate.

The McConnell campaign and its allies have consistently said Grimes's receipt of hefty donations from environmental activists and groups shows where she stands in regards to the coal industry.

On Friday, Chris Moody of Yahoo News reported that McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is a current board member of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which provided a $50-million grant to the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” initiative.

From Yahoo News:

In 2011, Bloomberg Philanthropies teamed up with the Sierra Club to target coal plants for closure in an effort to "end our nation’s reliance on dirty coal, plant-by-plant, community-by-community, and state-by-state," according to Bloomberg Philanthropies’ website.


The organization boasts that it has “prevented 150 coal plants from being built,” and has taken direct action against 16 plants in McConnell’s homestate of Kentucky, arguing that coal production is a health hazard and is harmful to the environment. The website takes credit for retiring 172 “dirty power plants” with “351 to go.”

McConnell campaign senior adviser Josh Holmes defended Chao in an online message Friday morning, pointing out that she became a board member a year after the grant was announced.

.@zhanover better yet, she wasn't even on the board when those decisions were made. Amazingly poor oppo and disingenuous hit piece.— Josh Holmes (@HolmesJosh) August 8, 2014

A Bloomberg Philanthropies financial report, however, states that Chao was on the charity's board when at least half of the  grants were made to the Sierra Club.

In the same year Chao was paid $9,400 for being on Bloomberg Philanthropies board, the group gave a total of $25 million to the environmental group, according to an annual report filed by the group to the New York Department of Law in November 2013 and obtained by WFPL.

Holmes' counter-argument  leaves open a host of questions, such as McConnell's efforts to stop Bloomberg Philanthropies and Chao remaining with a group with anti-coal sentiments. 

In March 2013, for instance, thegroup's annual reportcalled for permanently ending the country's dependence on coal.

"The campaign’s goal is to shut down one-third of U.S. coal plants by 2020 and move toward cleaner, alternative energy sources," the report said. "With Bloomberg Philanthropies’ support, the Beyond Coal campaign has won commitments from over 130 coal plants to close, and in addition to coal plant closures, Bloomberg Philanthropies is backing a new effort to facilitate the production of natural gas in the United States through the development of sound regulations around fracking."

Since 2011, Chao—who served as U.S. labor secretary under President George W. Bush—has also been a board member of Wells Fargo, which two years after she joined announced it was divesting from surface coal mining because of environmental concerns.

During a Fancy Farm event this past weekend, McConnell told a Western Kentucky audience that his wife was an asset in the race.  On Tuesday, Chao was featured in a campaign TV ad calling out Grimes.

The senator's re-election team has yet to respond to WFPL's follow-up questions regarding Bloomberg Philanthropies, but a campaign spokeswoman said they are seeking a correction to the Yahoo News report.

"We are working to get this false story corrected because the whole premise is wrongly based on her having a role when she clearly did not," said campaign spokesman Allison Moore. "Sen. McConnell has led the fight against the Obama administration's war on coal and a decision made by a board before Secretary Chao joined does not change that."

The McConnell campaign did not specify what correction it was seeking from Yahoo News, but blamed Grimes' team for the story before issuing a mild threat.

"If Alison Lundergan ‎Grimes thinks that it's appropriate to attack family in this campaign she better think through that very carefully," said Moore.


Annual Bloomberg Philanthropies financial report:

Copyright 2014 89.3 WFPL News Louisville

Phillip M. Bailey became WFPL's political editor in 2011, covering city, state and regional campaigns and elected officials. He also covers Metro Government, including the mayor's office and Metro Council. Before coming to WFPL, Phillip worked for three years as a staff writer at LEO Weekly and was a fellow at the Academy of Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
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