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A champion for rural Kentucky

Sen. Mitch McConnell meets with Jackson Energy Cooperative employees. Photo: Wade Harris
McConnell hosts scholars at a 2010 luncheon in Washington, D.C. Photo: McConnell Center
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the McConnell Center in 2011. Photo: McConnell Center
Sen. McConnell greets members of the 123rd Airlift Wing in 2012. Photo: Maj. Dale Greer
McConnell greets Kentucky Honor Flight veterans at the World War II Memorial in 2017. Photo: Office of Sen. Mitch McConnell
Addison Mitchell McConnell, at home on leave during World War II, with Mitch and his mother, “Dean.” Photo: Family photo

Co-ops honor McConnell as Distinguished Rural Kentuckian

On a sunny, blustery Monday in southeastern Kentucky, more than 200 people fill a room at Jackson Energy Cooperative’s London office to hear from one of the most powerful people in the United States: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Yet the introduction from Laurel County Judge-Executive David Westerfield is less about McConnell’s national stature than about the friendship and support of the longest serving senator in Kentucky history, recalling how McConnell and his wife, now U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, consoled county residents in the aftermath of the tragic 2012 tornado.

“And that’s always stuck in my mind that they were there to help our people,” Westerfield tells the crowd. “And that’s what he’s done for so many years—to help the people of Kentucky.”

Citing McConnell’s effectiveness and responsiveness to the state’s rural concerns and needs, Kentucky Electric Cooperatives honored him as the 2019 Distinguished Rural Kentuckian at the association’s 73rd annual meeting in November. 

“Senator McConnell is a champion for rural Kentucky,” says Chris Perry, president and CEO of the association. “Time and time again, he has been there for co-ops when it matters most. And, what’s striking is how responsive he is to the issues of rural Kentucky and America.”

Perry says McConnell’s leadership has helped co-ops secure access to sensible financing and U.S. Department of Agriculture funding, and his advocacy for sensible environmental regulations has also protected the consumer-members of Kentucky co-ops.

Kentucky Electric Cooperatives President & CEO Chris Perry presents Sen. Mitch McConnell with the 2019 Distinguished Rural Kentuckian Award. Photo: Tim Webb

“As a predominantly rural state, we’re made stronger by our heritage,” McConnell says. “From Big Rivers to East Kentucky Power, your 26 statewide electrical cooperatives are making a real difference in the lives of families and communities. You’re helping power Kentucky’s future, support good jobs and drive our economic prosperity. I’m grateful for your advocacy and keeping me up to date on your priorities, and I’m honored to receive this award.”

A rural voice

“Senator McConnell is the ultimate senator,” says Brian Furnish, a Cynthiana farmer. “He’s a strategic planner. He’s planning way out ahead of most people in Washington.”

Furnish says major legislation engineered by McConnell benefits Kentucky agriculture, notably the 2004 tobacco buyout that enabled Furnish to keep his farm, and the recent legalization of industrial hemp, which is now grown in 101 of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

“I’m a young farmer, I’m an eighth-generation farmer, but I didn’t inherit anything,” Furnish says. “I inherited debt. But now I am able to buy farms and equipment and cattle and pay off a lot of things that I have owed for many years and it’s thanks to the hemp plant that I am able to do that.”

“It’s really remarkable the sense that he has of agriculture and what agriculture means,” says Kentucky Farm Bureau President Mark Haney, “and actually understands the principles of farming and what we do in especially rural Kentucky and rural America.”

Because McConnell decides what legislation will be considered by the Senate, Kentucky priorities get attention. When the Senate approved a major funding measure in October, McConnell secured appropriations to support the hemp industry, combat the opioid and substance abuse epidemic and help fight the Asian carp infestation in western Kentucky, which jeopardizes the region’s fishing and tourism industries.

“He’s been right there with us, going to bat for us, making sure we have what we need,” says Lyon County Judge-Executive Wade White, pointing to a framed copy of the Freedom to Fish Act. That federal law ensures that the public can access tailwaters below dams for fishing on the Cumberland River.

“He is the shrewdest political operator that I have seen,” says U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents Kentucky’s 5th District. “He thinks 18 moves ahead and has been a tremendous leader in the Senate and has used that influence and that clout, if you will, to help his home state.”

“He’s arguably the most powerful legislator in Washington,” says U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, “but he still keeps his feet on the ground back home in Kentucky.”

Because McConnell is a national figure, much of the news media coverage of him is through a national lens. Back on the ground in Kentucky, those who know him best describe him as devoted to his job and the people he represents.

“What he is really like is a guy who absolutely loves his work,” says Larry Cox, who served as McConnell’s state director for 26 years. “He travels Kentucky aggressively, using every recess period and a lot of his weekends to be out in 

Kentucky, urban and rural, talking to people, understanding what the issues are in Kentucky.”

Thanks from across Kentucky

Students at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College can thank McConnell for that school’s very survival, according to Vic Adams, the school’s president.

“Senator McConnell went to bat for us and passed some legislation that allowed (Education) Secretary (Betsy) DeVos to grant us a waiver based on our economically disadvantaged status we are in due to the loss of mining jobs in the region,” Adams says. “Over 80% of our students get federal financial aid. If we would have not been able to continue that program, then basically the college would have to shut down.”

Terry Hamby, a western Kentucky veterans advocate, says McConnell is “one of the best friends in America to our Kentucky veterans and Kentucky military families,” notably for veterans’ health care and for the advancement of military installations across the state. 

In his 35 years in the Senate and 13 years as the Republican Senate leader, McConnell has been the principal player in numerous high-stakes legislative deals, including a massive tax-cut law, an overhaul of the criminal justice system and critical fiscal deals. As the senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, McConnell secures funding for worthy Kentucky projects.

After speaking at the co-op in London, McConnell cut the ribbon for a Volunteers of America Mid-States (VOA) center in Manchester, which focuses on women and children suffering the effects of the opioid and substance abuse epidemic.

“He has been squarely in the center of convening partners from every sector … bringing everyone to the table to build a comprehensive solution for Kentuckians who are most in need,” says VOA Mid-States President and CEO Jennifer Hancock. 

McConnell’s discipline and legacy

Hancock calls the senator the “most patient and tenacious” leader she has ever witnessed, suggesting that McConnell learned from his mother’s tenacity as she helped him recover after polio paralyzed his leg as a 2-year-old.

The staff at Warm Springs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s polio treatment center, instructed her not to let young Mitch walk for two years as she administered physical therapy. 

“I think I learned an early lesson in discipline, tenacity and focus from a really dedicated mother who wanted her son to be able to walk,” McConnell says.

For the first time since he was 4 years old, McConnell returned to Warm Springs last year, where he was astonished to see that the institute—now a state park—still had his health records on file.

“It was an adventure to read through the initial analysis of my situation and my progress over that two-year period,” McConnell says. “One of the things we discovered was Roosevelt was actually there two times when I had an appointment, including, interestingly enough, the very week he died.”

Just as McConnell learned from his role model, the late U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, during a summer internship in 1964, he in turn has mentored hundreds of McConnell Scholars at the University of Louisville. 

“He has touched the lives of so many young people who, but for the McConnell program, might have gone out of state to pursue their academic pursuits,” says Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who also served as legal counsel in McConnell’s office. “It changed the trajectory of my life being a McConnell Scholar and having the opportunity to build a friendship with Sen. McConnell.”

Calling him her “low-maintenance husband,” Chao says McConnell is incredibly steady, calm and dedicated.

“He’s a great patriot. He loves Kentucky. He loves our country,” Chao says. “He is a man of great principle and courage. Criticism doesn’t really bother him because he believes in what he is doing. He listens to Kentuckians’ concerns, and he is advancing their interests.”

“The rest of the congressional leadership is from New York and California,” says Scott Jennings, a CNN commentator, former White House aide and longtime McConnell confidante. “McConnell understands that he represents rural people and he doesn’t give them lip service. He takes the time to understand their issues, to understand exactly how a piece of legislation affects local communities. He’s really the senior senator for rural America.”

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