It felt to Buckley like he was back in the Army, working with a close-knit group of men on a secret mission. He'd served in World War II -- after a few weeks of basic training, he ended up on the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge. He rose quickly from infantryman to staff sergeant to squad leader. The job at the plant promised the safety of a stable income and a sense of purpose at the dawn of the Cold War. One month before he started, the first of his two sons was born.
It seemed like Paducah was being reborn too. As new workers from neighboring Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee showed up, the small city in Western Kentucky faced a housing shortage. "So many people came in, you know?" Buckley told The Huffington Post. "Anything that had a roof on it -- chicken house, any kind of outbuilding, they were in it."
Room rates tripled until local officials imposed rent control. Home construction blanketed the city, while trailer parks rose up on cinder blocks throughout the surrounding county. More than 1,100 homes were built while Buckley waited for his chance to move to the Paducah area. After more than six years, he found a one-story, two-bedroom white frame house on a corner lot off Highway 60, just three miles from the plant. He still lives there today.
The flood of well-paid men had ramifications well beyond the homebuilding industry, lifting almost every business in the region. Even the local brothel expanded.
Paducah embraced the plant and its patriotic celebration of nuclear power. It called itself "The Atomic City" and envisioned thoroughfares bright with shiny, pastel-colored automobiles, a downtown humming with Cold War money. "The plant just made the town, you know?" Buckley says. He still remembers when they first raised the American flag in front of the plant's administration building. He was there, standing at attention.
Fred Buckley (left) with the Paducah plant union's vice president, Jim Key.
The senator has remained loyal to the plant and its workers, keeping it running on federal earmarks and complicated deals with the Department of Energy to convert its core function from producing warheads to mining nuclear waste to create electricity. At least in Paducah, McConnell is not the "abominable no-man," the sour-faced persona of Washington gridlock. He is an honorary union man. "He's been the best friend to the plant we've had over the years," Buckley says. "He went above and beyond the call of duty for the union."
Up until the tea party-led ban on earmarks a few years ago, McConnell played out this dichotomy across Kentucky. In Washington, he voted against a health care program for poor children. In Kentucky, he funneled money to provide innovative health services for pregnant women. In Washington, he railed against Obamacare. In Kentucky, he supported free health care and prevention programs paid for by the federal government without the hassle of a private-insurance middleman. This policy ping-pong may not suggest a coherent belief system, but it has led to loyalty among the GOP in Washington and something close to fealty in Kentucky. It has advanced McConnell's highest ideal: his own political survival.
McConnell's hold on Kentucky is a grim reminder of the practice of power in America -- where political excellence can be wholly divorced from successful governance and even public admiration. The most dominant and influential Kentucky politician since his hero Henry Clay, McConnell has rarely used his indefatigable talents toward broad, substantive reforms. He may be ruling, but he's ruling over a commonwealth with the lowest median income in the country, where too many counties have infant mortality rates comparable to those of the Third World. His solutions have been piecemeal and temporary, more cynical than merciful.
And with McConnell's rise into the GOP leadership, his continuous search for tactical advantage with limited regard for policy consequences has overrun Washington. McConnell has more than doubled the previous high-water mark for the number of filibusters deployed to block legislation, infamously declaring that his "top political priority" was to make President Barack Obama a one-term president. This obstruction has had serious consequences, as the Great Recession grinds on and large-scale problems like climate change march inexorably forward. Congress has failed to address the nation's most pressing challenges, and America has come to look more and more like McConnell's Kentucky.
At the Paducah plant, and throughout the Bluegrass State, McConnell's influence is a complicated, even poisonous one. As other aging nuclear facilities have been shuttered, Paducah has groaned its way into the 21st century. The plant has become a barely functional relic in the midst of a decades-long power down. The town's post-war pastels have given way to rust, padlocks and contaminated waterways. After three decades under McConnell, Kentucky residents are wondering whether his survival is good for them.
Up for reelection again in 2014, McConnell faces dismal polling numbers. In January, a Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll found that only 17 percent of residents said they were planning on voting for him. A recent Public Policy Polling survey showed him tied in a hypothetical race against Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's Democratic secretary of state, weeks before she announced she was running on July 1. Today, McConnell finds himself at both the most powerful and most vulnerable moment of his career. He faces not only a Democratic opposition out to avenge McConnell's attacks on Obama, but an energized tea party unhappy with the GOP establishment and independents disgusted with Washington.
Keith Runyon was a veteran reporter and editorial page editor for the Louisville-based Courier-Journal, Kentucky's dominant statewide paper, which has generations of close personal ties to state and national Democrats. He witnessed McConnell's rise in Louisville and its suburbs of Jefferson County. He met his future wife, Meme Sweets, when she worked as McConnell's press secretary after his election as the county's judge-executive. Runyon came to know McConnell well. He says that McConnell was not always such a ruthless partisan obstructionist.
"It was not the local Mitch McConnell that became the problem," he told HuffPost. "It was what he became when he went to Washington."
In 2006, the former editor and publisher of the liberal Courier-Journal, Barry Bingham Jr., 72, "was dying and knew it," Runyon says. A week before his death in early April, he summoned Runyon to his home.
When he arrived on that balmy morning, Runyon recalls, Bingham was sitting up in a chair in his library. A breeze was drifting in through the windows. Among the many things Bingham wanted to talk about, the paper's early support of McConnell was one them. "He looked at me and he said, ‘You know, the worst mistake we ever made was endorsing Mitch McConnell' in 1977."
Squint long enough and hard enough, and you can see vestiges of the young, moderate McConnell in his funneling of federal money toward Kentucky projects. This is the McConnell who forged a political identity at the elbow of Kentucky's iconic reformer Republicans, the McConnell who didn't just admire Martin Luther King Jr., but made a point of witnessing the March on Washington from the Capitol steps and later spoke up for the cause on his University of Louisville campus.
In the summer before he began law school at the University of Kentucky, McConnell went to Washington as an intern for Kentucky's beloved Republican statesman, Sen. John Sherman Cooper. The senator had helped draft the first legislation for federal education aid, had fought school discrimination and had been a co-sponsor of the bill that created Medicare. He'd been hit with a lot of flak back home for the health care legislation, but his experiences taught him a bleak lesson.
"I noticed that the old country doctors and the country officials -- people who had been out in the country and had seen the plight of the people who live in the hollows and down the dirt roads -- they were for it," Cooper told reporters in 1972. "And I remembered my experiences as county judge in Pulaski County, when I'd go out in the county and see these people -- desperate, hungry, sick and nowhere to turn, and no one to help them except the old country doctors. You just can't let people go hungry. You can't just let them lie there sick, to die. Not in this country. Not with all we've got."
Cooper had also been an ardent supporter of one of Lyndon Johnson's signature achievements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and helped defeat the filibuster against it. The summer after his internship, "Cooper grabbed a visiting McConnell by the arm and spontaneously took him to the Capitol" where the two watched Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to John David Dyche's Republican Leader, a biography of McConnell.
McConnell later joined Marlow Cook's campaign for Senate in 1968, as a field organizer at colleges across the state. By the time he was through, every campus had a Cook group. "I think he believed in what we were doing," Cook says. "He believed that we were trying to bring a moderate Republican to succeed a moderate Republican. As a Republican, I was the one that could do that."
After the successful campaign, McConnell joined Cook's staff in Washington where he worked with the senator to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have guaranteed equal rights for women. Cook says McConnell and his staff all "had to work like hell on it." The amendment passed but ultimately failed to be ratified by enough states to be written into the Constitution. Cook had been the only Republican leading the deeply controversial effort. "We were fighting the likes of Phyllis Schlafly that didn't want women in the military," Cook explains. "All the churches were against it."
John Yarmuth, another young reform-minded Republican, crisscrossed the state with McConnell campaigning for Cook, and remembers McConnell as pro-choice and a supporter of Planned Parenthood. Yarmuth says that after his stint with Cook, McConnell boasted about his work on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yarmuth himself is now serving a fourth term in the House of Representatives, after switching parties to become a Democrat in the mid-1980s.
Back home, Louisville in the 1970s was experiencing a progressive heyday. The city's new Democratic mayor, Harvey Sloane, a doctor by trade, had spent two years in Appalachia as part of President John F. Kennedy's health care initiative. In Louisville, he set up a health center that served primarily African Americans in the West End neighborhood, which helped him launch a political career. As mayor, Sloane started an emergency medical service and helped create a public transportation system. Neighborhoods began to invest in historic preservation. The county started an ecology court to tackle environmental crimes.
"The community was in a can-do frame of mind," Sloane recalls. "Those were times where people were willing to step up to the plate."
The city still had plenty of problems that needed solving, of course, with deeply entrenched racism at the forefront. In 1975, courts ordered local officials to implement a new busing program in an effort to desegregate the school system. For a time, uglier forces prevailed. The Klan showed up and mass anti-busing demonstrations were held. After a calm first day of school, mobs burned buses, attempted to block firefighters from putting out blazes and attacked the police. The National Guard had to be brought in to restore order.
McConnell had witnessed government's righteous potential under Sens. Cooper and Cook, and he wanted to lead it. As Dyche notes in his biography, McConnell tried to distinguish himself during Watergate by coming out for campaign finance reform in a Courier-Journal op-ed: "Many qualified and ethical persons are either totally priced out of the election marketplace or will not subject themselves to questionable, or downright illicit, practices that may accompany the current electoral process." McConnell called for dramatic reductions in campaign contribution limits and labeled the idea of a city-run campaign trust fund a "progressive" proposal.
In 1977, he decided to challenge Democrat Todd Hollenbach Sr. for Jefferson County judge-executive, a job that exercises administrative authority over the Louisville suburbs and some city functions like welfare. The job had oversight over the most populous county in the state.
Hollenbach confesses today that he did not consider McConnell a threat. "First time I ever saw him, I must admit I was amused," he said. "I just didn't take him seriously. I can remember thinking to myself, ‘I bet he carried a briefcase in the third grade.' I thought he was just a comical-looking kind of character. ... He had no personality. He was very uncomfortable in a crowd."
But McConnell had a message that was independent enough to gain traction. There were roads that required fixing, cronyism that needed stamping out and a jail whose locks could be broken with a toothbrush. "He was kind of a good-government guy," remembers Meme Sweets Runyon, who worked as McConnell's campaign coordinator and later became his press secretary. "He thought the government could do good and could be a solution."
Charles Musson, a campaign staffer who also later worked in the McConnell administration, agrees: "He wanted to make sure government was effective."
Position papers and campaign strategy were formed in McConnell's basement during brainstorming sessions -- much of it aimed at reaching working-class Democrats. "Mitch would ask questions, and someone would be assigned to do research on that and become the expert on that," Musson remembers. McConnell worked the fried-fish-and-fried-chicken circuit. Some mornings, he served coffee to workers arriving for their shift at the General Electric plant.
McConnell came out in favor of collective bargaining rights for workers and netted the endorsement of the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council. One of his most heavily run ads featured McConnell walking with Cooper, highlighting the young politician's ties to the progressive GOP's old guard.
Dyche reports in his biography that the young politician's message did not include any Republican branding. "Breaking with local tradition," Dyche wrote, "he ran his campaign independently from the Jefferson County GOP apparatus and refused to share a slate with the Republican candidates in other races down the ballot."
While he used negative ads to batter Hollenbach -- most notably one that featured a farmer arguing that Hollenbach's statements on taxes amounted to shoveling manure -- Musson and Dyche recall McConnell showing a soon-to-be-discarded restraint. He chose not to run an ad addressing the court-ordered busing that had caused so much upheaval two years earlier. Hollenbach had no say over the busing but had fought it in court in an embarrassing and losing effort. Another potential ad featuring the young victims of a high-profile traffic accident was similarly deemed insensitive.
McConnell sealed his victory with the surprise endorsement of the editorial board of the Courier-Journal. The young politician told Louisville Today that the daily's nod showed voters that "the community isn't going to go to hell if you have a Democratic mayor and a Republican county judge. It's OK to split your ticket."
Once in office, McConnell governed with bipartisanship in mind. He became "very good" at compromising, Musson says. He hired some of Louisville's leading feminists for his inner circle and began forming coalitions with his Democratic counterparts on the county legislature. "He expected more from me and thought I could do more than I did for myself," Meme Sweets Runyon says. "He demanded a lot from me and insisted that I could do it."
McConnell sought to diversify the county's powerful boards and commissions, which had great sway over planning and development, and had historically been stacked with elites.
He invested in significantly expanding the Jefferson Memorial Forest, adding close to 2,000 acres. His administration also replaced trees uprooted by a tornado. "He was always willing to support green things if you made a good case for it," says Runyon, noting that he also started an office dedicated to environmental issues and had a well-respected liberal run it.
McConnell became known for his insistence on quality personnel. There were no more jailbreaks with toothbrushes. "He believed in things like historic preservation and the environment and functional social services," Runyon adds.
During his second term, McConnell worked closely with the progressive Sloane. If he took a position that might appear hostile to the Louisville mayor, McConnell would give him a warning. "He would call me and explain where he's coming from," Sloane remembers. "There wasn't personal acrimony there. I did the same thing with him." J. Bruce Miller, the Democratic county attorney, says McConnell had the same deal with him.
McConnell joined forces with Sloane to attempt a county-city merger as a way of cutting duplicative services and infusing suburban wealth into the city. It was a fairly liberal idea that proved ahead of its time. The referendum failed twice during their terms, but finally passed in 2000 and went into effect a few years later.
On the merger project, Sloane said the two didn't disagree a lot. "I think he was shrewd, and he did attract some good people," he said. "He wasn't intimidated by progressive people and thinking. [The merger attempt] didn't help either of us. I give him some respect for that. … He was very pragmatic. We were not there to be ideologues."
On the stump, McConnell likes to tell a story about an encounter with a tobacco farmer during one of his early Senate campaigns. "I'm for you," McConnell recalls the farmer telling him. "And what's more, you're going to win." The tale has multiple iterations -- sometimes it takes place in Western Kentucky in Graves County; at other times, McConnell leaves the location vague. But the story always has the same punch line: McConnell, a Louisville politician, asks the farmer why he's so sure McConnell will be victorious. "That feller," the farmer explains, "he's from Louie-ville."
"I believe you're right," McConnell tells the farmer, and walks on.
McConnell looks like a guy who would foreclose on your farm. The senator has a net worth of somewhere between $9.2 million and $36.4 million, according to his latest financial disclosure filings. Yet he has so much rural authenticity that small-town voters mistake him for one of their own.
McConnell's communion with the working class isn't the result of any intuitive genius. He studied farmers and coal miners for years, cultivating an understanding of the issues and anxieties that dominate rural Kentucky. He learned to hang.
"He can get down on the level with anybody," says Mary Canter, who has worked for a decade at the Graves County Republican Party office. "He can come down to just the average John IQ." Although Canter has met McConnell many times, she can't say where he lives. His credibility is so well established that his background isn't questioned.
Even in his early years campaigning for Cook, McConnell made it a point to respect the local language. Yarmuth remembers getting lost in Appalachia with McConnell. When they finally stopped and asked for directions, "It's right back there," the man told them, down "the road a couple hollers."
Yarmuth, a lifelong Louisvillian, recalls asking the man, "How loud the hollers?"
But McConnell understood, quickly ended the interaction and told Yarmuth to get in the car. In Kentucky, a holler or hollow is an address -- a nook or cranny in a mountain where a family builds a home. In locales without official roads or house numbers, "the next holler over" can be the best way to give directions.
McConnell capitalizes on his country cachet with ads accusing his opponents of being inauthentic creatures of the political machine. The first and most notorious was a cold-blooded ad he ran in his first Senate race in 1984 against Walter "Dee" Huddleston, an ad that became infamous for debasing the tone of national campaigns.
Although Huddleston had one of the strongest attendance records in Congress, he had missed a few votes while giving paid speeches. McConnell's "Hound Dog" ad, produced by future Fox News chief Roger Ailes, featured a man with a pack of dogs searching for Huddleston. It was funny, wry and gently mocking, but the effect was devastating.
Huddleston didn't think anyone would fall for the ad. "I thought the bloodhounds were kind of silly, but as it went on, I thought it was pretty effective," he told HuffPost. "It wasn't true."
The ad was so effective that McConnell spit out a sequel in which the man chases an actor playing Huddleston up a tree.
It was a sign of things to come, and the launch of a long arc in a lengthy and controversial career. Once McConnell won high office and moved to Washington, his embrace of the broad uses of government dwindled, and he came more and more to focus his career on the goal of acquiring power.
By 1990, when Sloane took on McConnell for his Senate seat, the old respect between the two men had gone out the window. On the stump, McConnell called for abolishing campaign donations from political action committees, yet by October he had taken close to $900,000 in PAC money. He deployed class-war tactics, calling Sloane his "millionaire opponent" for holding stock in oil companies, although McConnell and his campaign were highly favored by the industry. "Just remember: Every time the price of gas goes up, rich people like Harvey get richer -- and Kentucky families get poorer. We need to fight back," McConnell argued.
McConnell's campaign even came out and said he was open to raising taxes on the wealthy by eliminating some deductions. In a TV ad, he professed the belief that "everyone should pay their fair share" in taxes, "including the rich."
The central selling point of Sloane's campaign was his long dedication to universal health care. McConnell tried to steal his message with a weak proposal providing meager tax credits and tort reform. He used his own childhood bout with polio to obscure the limitations of his plan. "When I was a child, and my dad was in World War II, I got polio," he said in another ad produced by Ailes. "I recovered, but my family almost went broke. Today, too many families can't get decent, affordable health care. That's why I've introduced a bill to make sure health care is available to all Kentucky families, hold down skyrocketing costs, and provide long-term care."
No attack was too personal for McConnell. Sloane had been caught prescribing himself pain medications with a Drug Enforcement Administration registration number that had expired three years earlier. The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure eventually cleared him, and Sloane even took a drug test proving he was no addict. Yet McConnell hyped the whole controversy in an ad seemingly inspired by "Reefer Madness." As the camera flashed to pills and vials, a voice-over described Sloane as downing a "powerful depressant" and "mood altering" drugs.
"I got releases by my physicians that this wasn't the case," Sloane, who had a chronic back injury and a bad hip that would need to be replaced immediately following the election, told HuffPost. "What else can you do?"
Sloane went down in defeat.
Miller, the elected county attorney who worked alongside McConnell, says the senator is a formidable opponent in part because he focuses relentlessly on politics. Miller recalls throwing a Valentine's Day party that McConnell attended. After making small talk with McConnell about the Super Bowl, a friend pulled Miller aside in exasperation. The friend, Miller says, couldn't believe McConnell didn't know who had actually played in the game.
McConnell used to invite Miller out for dinner about three times a year. "It always centered around politics," Miller says, of their social interactions. If there was any conversation about their children, Miller says he'd be the one to bring it up. "He had daughters, and I would be the one that would have to initiate a discussion of them. ... He knew I had a son who was a professional golfer at the time. ... If I asked him about his daughters, he wouldn't say, 'Tell me about your son.'"
"He's intense," Miller says. "It's almost single-minded intensity. I'm not being critical of it. That's why everybody got beat by the guy."
McConnell kept producing animal-themed attack ads that made "The Dukes of Hazzard" look like Shakespeare, with messages so over-the-top as to mock the hillbilly humor they were meant to evoke. The G's are dropped, and the mud is thrown. In his 1996 reelection bid against the future governor Steve Beshear, McConnell's ads played off his opponent's last name. One warned voters in a Kentucky drawl not to get "BeSheared." In another, the voiceover declared "Old Beshear's a state fair champion at fleecin' taxpayers" who has taken thousands of dollars "from them foreign agents and lobbyists." The ads all featured sheep being sheared.
McConnell only played dumb on TV. Behind the scenes, he engineered key victories in U.S. House races as he built the Republican Party in Kentucky into a powerhouse. "He is the person primarily responsible for making us a Republican state," says Al Cross, the veteran political reporter and director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
When longtime and popular Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford decided not to seek reelection in 1998, McConnell saw an opportunity to expand his political empire. He'd been Kentucky's first Republican senator in 12 years. Now, as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), he tapped Rep. Jim Bunning, who had won six consecutive House elections, to grab the other Senate seat.
"He was the chairman of the committee, and he was recruiting," says longtime Bunning aide Jon Deuser. "They had a great working relationship."
Bunning's opponent, Rep. Scotty Baesler, cut the profile of a promising Democratic politician. He was known across the state as a college basketball star for the University of Kentucky's iconic coach Adolph Rupp. He'd worked as an attorney providing free services to the poor before being elected mayor of Lexington.
Baesler had used his political capital to implement key support programs for seniors and anti-drug initiatives targeting schoolchildren. During the 1998 campaign, he helped push the Clinton administration into providing more than $19 million to overhaul public housing in Lexington and provide job training programs for the city's poor. He was the pragmatic liberal alternative to McConnell.
Bunning had only one innate advantage over Baesler: He'd had the more distinguished sporting career as a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers. He'd thrown a no-hitter and a perfect game. As a politician, however, Bunning never got out of the minor leagues. He'd been an unremarkable representative in the House, best known on Capitol Hill for his acerbic blather and combative disposition.
McConnell, however, saw someone he could steer to victory. "He was practically the campaign manager for Bunning in that race," says Dave Hansen, a GOP campaign manager who served as political director of the NRSC in the 1990s. The senator sent his top men to aid Bunning. Kyle Simmons, his chief of staff, took a leave of absence to become the Bunning campaign coordinator. Tim Thomas, McConnell's field representative for Western Kentucky, took personal leave to volunteer for the Senate hopeful.
But the senator was more than just a careful stage manager. He was the campaign's pivotal instigator. In August 1998, McConnell took the stage at the annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Western Kentucky and delivered a speech that would define the contentious race between Bunning and Baesler.
The colorful, open-collar campaigning at Fancy Farm, a state-fair-sized festival, is a rarity in contemporary American retail politics. Typically, stump speeches are choreographed for the press, their audiences stacked with enthusiastic supporters. But at Fancy Farm, those running for office are expected to tailor their speech to the setting and let it rip under the ceiling fans. It's as much a comedic roast as it is a political rally.
"It's kind of this throwback," Hansen explains. "Candidates get up there, and they make the most outrageous comments to stir people up."
McConnell gave Bunning a clinic in his ruthless approach to campaigning at the Fancy Farm event. The Republicans coordinated vicious speeches targeting Baesler's status as a founding member of the Blue Dogs -- a caucus of conservative House Democrats. Much to the chagrin of progressives, Blue Dogs have since become a major force in Democratic politics, but the group was still something of a novelty in the late 1990s, a fact that McConnell and Bunning exploited to comic effect. McConnell slammed Baesler as a "blue chihuahua," who had "mistaken Kentucky taxpayers for a fire hydrant" and who would serve as a "lap dog" for President Bill Clinton. Bunning delivered a call-and-response mockery with the festival's GOP audience.
"He would go through all these votes Baesler made and say, 'What do y'all think about that?' And the crowd would shout, 'Bad doggy!'" recalls Trey Grayson, an attorney and party activist who would later be elected Kentucky's secretary of state.
The typically mild-mannered Baesler took the bait and responded with a brutal stemwinder of a speech against Bunning, replete with outsized hand gestures and ugly facial contortions. Although his rant played well with the live audience, an angry man wildly waving his arms and shouting in the August heat left a visual impression that was ripe for McConnell's manipulation. As soon as Baesler's rant ended, McConnell was eager to make sure his staff had caught it on tape.
"We filmed it," says Hansen, who was working for McConnell at the time. "We put it to Wagner music, and it made one hell of an ad."
With Baesler's antics playing out in slow motion over music by Adolf Hitler's favorite composer, McConnell moved the tone of American political ads even lower than his landmark "Hound Dog" spot or the Beshear sheep ads had.
"Mitch saw the video and thought he saw something. He showed it to the Bunning folks," says Grayson. "Baesler looked crazy. He looked kinda like Hitler."
"When I ran, he was the best help Jim ever had," Baesler says of McConnell. "He got that ad running lookin' like I was a crazy man. I thought that thing -- without question, he saw its value."
The race was not called until well after midnight, but Bunning eventually emerged victorious by a little more than 6,000 votes. The barrage of negative ads against Baesler not only worked, they effectively ended his career in national politics. At 57, he was a washout. Two years later, Baesler ran for his old House seat and lost to a Republican by 18 points.
At least in Kentucky, McConnell has proven to be an incredibly effective Democrat-vaporizing machine. He has ended the political careers of everyone he has ever defeated, except Beshear, who was elected governor in 2007, 11 years after losing to McConnell.
"When he took over a long time ago, Republicans weren't alive in Kentucky," Baesler says. "Now everything's competitive. They've even had a Republican governor. That wasn't the case until he got involved a long time ago. He's the backbone of the whole thing. And I wish he wasn't. If he hadn't been with Bunning, I woulda won."
McConnell had moved Kentucky Republicans a long way from Cooper's passionate defense of Medicare. The defeat of the practical, reform-minded Baesler had consequences for the state. In his 12 years as a senator, Bunning's most significant legislative achievement consisted of single-handedly blocking the extension of federal unemployment benefits in 2010. His hardline stance eventually became a standard negotiating position of the Republican Party, cold comfort to the more than 10.7 percent of Kentuckians who were officially out of work at the time.
Bunning's Senate career will be best remembered for his message to those politicians who dared to provide aid to needy citizens: "Tough shit."
On their way to victory, McConnell had shared with Bunning a strategy that he had long preached to his own campaign staffers. The senator had adopted what he called his "west of Interstate 65 strategy," named for the highway that splits the state from Louisville in the north down to the Tennessee border. McConnell believed that his elections were won or lost west of I-65. The far western counties were once a Democratic stronghold, but the territory showed signs that it could be open to a determined Republican.
"He basically told other parts of the state they weren't going to see him as much from, say, the first of August till Election Day," a former McConnell staffer recalls. "He primarily was going to focus west of I-65. That's where he thought more gains could be made."
McCracken County, set along the banks of the Ohio River in Western Kentucky, played a pivotal role in McConnell's expanding power and influence. With its history of strong African-American leaders and outspoken union membership, the county initially opposed him: When he was first elected to the Senate in 1984 by a narrow margin, McConnell lost McCracken by about 4,000 votes. It was a victory to even get that close.
In his critical reelection fight against Sloane, however, McConnell took the county by more than 1,500 votes, and his influence in the region has grown ever since. McConnell now owns the west. Al Cross credits Paducah, the McCracken county seat, and the surrounding area as "the key to his success."
Sen. Mitch McConnell (right) talked with USEC General Manager Howard Pulley during a media tour of the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in the plant's Central Control Facility on Aug. 12, 1999. (Photo by Billy Suratt)
There were good reasons to be concerned about the Paducah plant's survival. With the Cold War arms race giving way to the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and new hope for arms treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Atomic City began to lose its luster. In 1980, the Paducah plant employed about 1,940 workers in production activities. Within five years, more than 650 of them were gone. In 1987, a similar uranium enrichment facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., was shuttered, leaving Paducah and a third plant in Ohio as the only such operations left over from the Manhattan Project. The technology was fast becoming obsolete. Among the workers, rumors of the plant closing became an ever-present part of the job.
If the Paducah plant were to close, it would have a devastating effect on the local economy. Production only accounts for a fraction of the plant's economic significance: Hundreds of guards, drivers and other contract workers are employed at the plant, while restaurants, homebuilders, and other establishments are all dependent on the business that the plant's employees provide.
In 1990, McConnell offered an incumbent's solution by playing up his ties to then-President George H.W. Bush and floating the idea of a new state-of-the-art plant in Paducah. According to news accounts at the time, Sloane was far less enthusiastic about nuclear power, citing concerns about safety and hazardous waste. "That killed Sloane in that campaign," the plant union's vice president, Jim Key, told HuffPost.
Paducah never got that new plant, but McConnell discovered a winning strategy and continued to patch together new contracts and make-work jobs, exploiting residents' fears over layoffs. The senator kept the plant's doors open, but he did so at the expense of the workers' own well-being. For decades, the plant's toxins had spread through the air and into the ground, slowly killing its own workers and tainting the surrounding area -- a fact McConnell ignored in Washington and in Paducah.
Workers had breathed in plutonium-dipped dust, sloshed through areas high in harsh chemicals, and got hazardous powders on their food and in their teeth. They'd taken the poisons home with them on their clothes. On site, workers had erected "Drum Mountain," a scrap heap that bled contaminants into the soil. Lawyers and scientists would later deploy "groundwater plume maps" to show how far the toxins had spread.
But the effects of the toxins were plain to see. As early as the 1970s, Fred Buckley's patriotic fervor had begun to dim. He no longer completely trusted management. Although he moved up the plant's ranks, from security guard to running control rooms, he suspected the work was far more dangerous than his bosses had let on. When he welcomed his son Michael at the plant in August 1973, he did so with a warning: Better make sure the equipment isn't contaminated. Don't trust the company. Trust yourself. "I tried to stress -- be sure to not take anybody else's word for it," he recalls.
Buckley had seen his friend Joe Harding waste away to nothing. The two had known each other since childhood, when their families had adjoining corn and soybean farms in Tennessee and they walked to school together along crop-lined roads. Valedictorian of his high school, Harding took in a year of college while Buckley went off to war. But when the two reunited at the plant, Buckley began to notice how the work made Harding sick and the bosses hounded him for speculating about possible radiation contamination. "They didn't give him the respect they should have," Buckley says. "He did his job. Joe came to work after he looked like a ghost."
Sores crept up Harding's legs and wouldn't heal. Fingernail-like protrusions grew out of his elbows, wrists, palms and the soles of his feet. The nails, he said in an audio diary, were "very, very painful." He'd try to trim them, but they'd just grow back. His daughter, Martha Alls, now 71, recalls watching his head shake violently from tremors during Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners.
Harding, who would develop a fatal stomach cancer, knew he had company among his fellow workers. He kept a record of 50 other workers who were either dying or had died of cancer. An internal memo from the plant revealed that management kept its own death list in secret.
In 1971, the plant fired a very sick Harding; he was denied workers' compensation, pension, and health insurance. But Harding continued to speak out against the plant and became a minor celebrity with the anti-nuclear movement. He spent the night of his death in 1980, with his body wasted away to barely more than bones and his skin wrinkled like a walnut shell, giving a last interview to a Swedish media team who had flown in. "I picked them up at the Holiday Inn," Alls says of the foreign reporters. "They stayed with Daddy until midnight. I took them back to the hotel. He died the next morning. I think it just wore him out telling it all."
The year before McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984, Clara Harding had her husband's body exhumed and his bones tested, which, according to news accounts, revealed excessively high levels of uranium. A decade later, a co-worker told The Boston Globe that Joe Harding's exhumed body "was hotter than a firecracker."
Clara Harding kept up her husband's crusade, but it took a toll. She had to sell her house and move into a duplex. "I think she wrote to everyone in the government," Alls says. "I just felt like this was a hopeless case. This was the government -- you don't mess with your government." The federal government fought Harding's claim. According to the Courier-Journal, the feds spent $1.5 million in legal fees to deny her the $50,000 she sought in benefits.
McConnell's sole concern about the plant seems to have been protecting it from layoffs and lawsuits. Midway through his first Senate term, he came out in favor of economic sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime, but fought the ban on importing that country's uranium. McConnell worried about the effect of fewer uranium shipments on jobs back in Paducah. In 1988, he voted against an amendment that would have made Department of Energy nuclear subcontractors liable for accidents caused by intentional negligence or misconduct at plants like Paducah.
McConnell's opposition to trial lawyers became his justification for inaction on worker health. After coming out against another provision aimed at assisting workers in high-risk jobs, he complained that the bill would simply "stimulate personal injury and worker compensation litigation on a scale far beyond our present imagination."
Back in Paducah, however, the litigation was just about to begin.
In the late '80s, wells near the plant were showing signs of possible contamination. Ronald Lamb helped run a mechanic shop on his family's old farmland a few miles from the plant. He and his father and mother all drank from the same well and started getting sick. "We thought we were dying," Lamb told HuffPost. "I lost the hair on my arms. It looked like I had chemo."
On Aug. 12, 1988, government officials contacted 10 households with an ominous directive: Stop drinking and bathing in the water from their wells. The Department of Energy began sealing off wells near the plant and re-routing the water supply for roughly 100 residences.
Lamb says he repeatedly wrote letters to his local elected officials, including McConnell, but didn't get much more than a form letter in response. "They felt your pain but felt like you were being taken care of," Lamb recalls.
Lamb didn't think so and spoke up around the country, including two trips to Washington in the early '90s on his own dime. He and his family also filed a lawsuit. Even though that case was unsuccessful, it led to a January 1997 class-action lawsuit with Lamb and dozens of other area residents that argued the plant had rendered their properties essentially worthless. The complaint alleged that "massive" discharges of radioactive materials and heavy metals had spread to their land, "causing and threatening severe property damage and health problems." The complaint further alleged that the flow of hazardous waste continued unabated. That case was settled in 2010 for an undisclosed amount.
Ruby English, a West Paducah resident whose well was shut off, says her husband Ray had also written to McConnell without success. English had thyroid and colon cancer. Ray worked in the nearby wildlife refuge bordering the plant, she says, and he'd come home with stories about seeing the creek water turn purple and yellow. He'd drink from the well and wash in the creek. He died a few years ago, his immune system a wreck. "The damage is done. I feel sorry for the workers the most," English says. "They're right in the middle of it. ... It's pathetic, it really is."
"Once full of aquatic life," the court complaint filed on behalf of residents stated, "the Little Bayou Creek is now void of any meaningful plant or animal life." A pair of deer were found near the plant in the early '90s with trace amounts of plutonium in their systems, according to the Associated Press. A 1990 Department of Energy inspection report noted that hazardous contamination had spread to rabbits, squirrels and apple trees.
The inspection highlighted management deficiencies and evidence of contamination at the Paducah plant. In multiple areas, management acknowledged the plant lacked the tools to measure such contamination or had not put adequate safeguards in place. Four years later, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the facility a Superfund site, adding it to the agency's official list of ecological cleanup priorities.
The Paducah plant's hazardous "Drum Mountain." (Photo from a GAO report)
The workers had little control over the mess and lacked suitable protections. "The essential problems were created in the haste to build nuclear weapons," says Terry Lash, director of the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy during the 1990s. "Because of the threat to the existence of the country, they just didn't worry about the long term."
McConnell and other Kentucky officials were intimately familiar with the plant's problems. Tim Thomas, who worked on McConnell's staff as a field representative for Western Kentucky starting in 1997, told HuffPost that the senator's office and the Department of Energy had discussions "on a regular basis."
McConnell and his staff toured the facility every few years and knew about the contaminated water supply and the mountain of leaking storage containers. McConnell also knew the name of Joe Harding. "I had heard of the widow," Thomas says. "We had heard of Joe Harding. We didn't know if this was an isolated incident or what. We were not in an investigative position."
Mark Donham, 60, served as chairman of the Paducah Citizens Advisory Board, which was tasked with watchdogging safety issues and making recommendations to the Department of Energy about the cleanup. He doesn't recall Thomas or any other representatives from McConnell's office taking a big interest or even attending the board's public meetings detailing the contamination spread.
Meanwhile, the plant's own community relations plan in January 1998 noted that the number of possible hazardous waste zones had soared to 208. Despite all the concerns, Donham says, "McConnell never stood up and lobbied for an investigation."
When The Huffington Post asked McConnell at his weekly Senate press conference on the Hill in June about his handling of the hazardous waste issue, the senator brushed it aside. "That's of course a parochial question," he said. "I'll be happy to address it if you'll check with the office." His office did not respond to follow-up questions or multiple requests for an interview with the senator.
It was not until The Washington Post reported in August 1999 -- 19 years after Harding's death and five years after the Superfund listing -- that thousands of plant workers "were unwittingly exposed to plutonium and other highly radioactive metals," turning the plant's problems into a national scandal, that McConnell finally sprang into action. He called for hearings into the contamination outside the plant and rushed to Paducah for a tour of the facility.
McConnell and Bunning requested a Government Accountability Office report on the situation at the plant, but the agency returned a scathing indictment of the senators' own inaction. Since 1993, McConnell had served on the Senate Appropriations Committee -- the panel responsible for the government's final funding decisions -- but according to the GAO, the Department of Energy hadn't been given the money it had requested to clean up the Paducah site.
"The funding available for cleanup had been much less than requested [by DOE]," the April 2000 report reads. "Cleanup at the site, including the removal of contaminated scrap metal and low-level waste disposal, was delayed because of funding limitations."
All told, there were roughly 496,000 tons of depleted uranium in storage, according to the GAO, along with 1 million cubic feet of "uncharacterized waste." Drum Mountain had swollen to 8,000 tons of life-endangering scrap and stood nearly 40 feet tall. The feds suggested that the plant, so utterly compromised, could become its own spontaneous threat. "Some of this waste and scrap material poses a risk of an uncontrolled nuclear reaction that could threaten worker safety," the report reads.
With a wave of press coverage focused on the Paducah plant, McConnell did something that few in Washington would expect from the fierce Obamacare opponent: He worked to pass what amounted to a new entitlement that allowed plant workers over age 50 access to free body scans and free health care. The program also provided $150,000 lump sum payments to workers who developed cancers or other illnesses from radiation exposures, and up to $250,000 in compensation for medical problems caused by other toxins. Spouses and children were also eligible for the program, which cost the federal government more than $9.5 billion.
But the legislation was not a high priority on Capitol Hill. When the bill stalled, Bill Richardson, then President Clinton's energy secretary, credits McConnell with pushing it through. "I remember the bill was in trouble," Richardson told HuffPost. "There was some last-minute shenanigans, and McConnell got it done."
At least to Richardson, McConnell claimed to have worried about safety at the plant. "McConnell talked to me about this issue," Richardson says. "He was pretty outraged, but he basically said that he had been trying to work [on this] and I was the first secretary to listen."
After the bill became law and the entitlement was put in place in 2001, McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, who was President George W. Bush's labor secretary at the time, flew to Paducah and awarded the first $150,000 check and a folded American flag to Harding's widow. The money was nowhere near enough to cover the extent of his medical bills. "He didn't get anything compared to what he was supposed to," his daughter Alls, who says she's a McConnell supporter, told HuffPost. She added that the ceremony "meant everything to Mother. ... It was recognition that Daddy had done good." Residents who drank from the poisoned wells, like Lamb and English, weren't covered by the entitlement.
But the program was enormously popular in Kentucky, and with good reason. Workers who had seen nothing for decades were suddenly receiving payments. Thousands of others were being screened, and many lives were saved. The free checkups caught cancers and heart conditions.
The exams identified a few suspicious nodules in Michael Buckley's lungs. "I want to definitely keep track of the problems and make sure they don't get any larger," he says.
Years later, during his 2008 reelection campaign, McConnell was still championing the compensation bill in a TV ad that featured Michael's father, Fred, praising the senator for helping out Paducah's workers. "Without a doubt, Senator McConnell has saved people's lives," Fred Buckley told viewers. The ad ended with another worker declaring that the senator "cares for the working man."
McConnell had spun a political liability into gold, going from potential goat to savior. He flooded the media market in Western Kentucky with that ad. "They ran that thing every night it seemed like to me for two years," Fred Buckley recalls.
Cleanup is still slow in coming. Outside Big Bayou Creek, which flows into the Ohio River, the Department of Energy has posted a sign that warns of toxic sediment. "Use of this waterway for drinking, swimming or other forms of recreation may expose you to contamination," it states.
In 2008, the senator thumped his Democratic opponent by more than 4,000 votes in McCracken County.
MCCONNELL'S SAFETY NET
In Paducah, old men waited years with cancerous growths before they were treated. In Appalachia, men with rotting teeth give up waiting and yank them out with pliers. In the southwest part of the state, prenatal care for some expectant mothers is an emergency room visit after their water breaks. In central Kentucky, a woman must live five months with a numb arm before seeing a nurse at a free clinic 45 miles from home.
Kentucky doesn't have so much a safety net as a painful waiting list -- a very, very long one. More than 17 percent of its citizens go without health insurance of any kind, even as the state's high poverty rate results in more than 880,000 Medicaid patients. Only about 43 percent of the state buys health insurance from the private sector.
The public health results are what you might expect: terrible. The state has the seventh-highest obesity rate in the nation and, predictably, the eighth-shortest life expectancy. Kentucky babies start with disadvantages from their first cry: The number of premature births in the state has increased over the past decade, while the number of babies born addicted to drugs jumped by nearly 1,100 percent between 2001 and 2011. Certain counties have infant mortality rates higher than those of "third world countries," according to a March 2013 report from the Kentucky Department of Public Health.
To try to address the needs of Kentucky residents, health care providers in the state have been forced to get creative. In Elkton, the Helping Hands Health Clinic is supported by twice-a-week bingo games put on by the staff, while in Danville, the Hope Clinic operates out of an old bank and serves six counties. Last July, a mobile clinic set up a triage on fairgrounds in Wise County, Virginia, which served many Kentucky residents who crossed over the state line. Stan Brock, the clinic's founder, says that in a little more than two days, they saw 1,453 dental patients and pulled 3,467 teeth. "It filled several buckets," he recalls.
For years, McConnell responded to Kentucky's poverty and health care crises by directing millions of dollars in federal earmarks to various projects in the state, constructing what has amounted to a lottery system. To get help, the plight of Kentuckians did not have to rise to a national scandal like the Paducah plant's contaminated workers. Nor did it require the tint of a conservative cause. They just had to be very lucky. (Nobody has emphasized just how lucky more than the senator himself. McConnell has greeted the recipients of his earmarked funds like winners of the Powerball jackpot, complete with giant novelty checks.)
Earmarks have political benefits, and McConnell made a point of visiting remote counties to tout the federal money he had secured for his constituents.
"I hate to call it passing out checks, but you know that's kind of what it amounts to," says David Cross, who served as chairman of the Clinton County Republican Party until 2012. Cross remains a McConnell-supporting Republican, and still lives in Clinton County, which has a population of about 10,000 on the state's southern border. Cross says McConnell would visit Clinton "when there was some aspect of the federal government involved locally and Senator McConnell was involved and he wanted the local community to know he was involved."
McConnell was one of hundreds of politicians who benefited from making this kind of selective disclosure, since earmarks were essentially anonymous under congressional procedures for decades. New rules in 2008 required members of Congress to disclose their funding requests, and the practice was banned outright in 2011. A Huffington Post review of three years' worth of public earmarks, from 2008 through 2010, shows that McConnell orchestrated the delivery of nearly half a billion dollars in federal funds, with a pronounced emphasis on projects in his home state. If earmarks coordinated with presidential budgets are included, the figure swells to $1.5 billion.
Earmarks are no longer part of McConnell's political toolkit, but the senator is still campaigning on his pork-barrel legacy. Just days after Alison Lundergan Grimes formally jumped into the Senate race, he was already reminding voters of the federal benefits he has steered to Kentucky, and ridiculing Grimes' ability to bring home the bacon as a backbencher.
"Kentucky would lose dramatically by trading in a leader of one of the two parties in the Senate for a rookie," McConnell told reporters on July 3. "Kentucky is in an extraordinary position of influence as a result of their confidence in me over the years. ... Do we really want to lose the influence?"
The biggest chunk of McConnell's earmarks were devoted to defense spending, but they financed an astonishing variety of projects, including at least $21.9 million on civilian health efforts and $24 million for a "medical/dental clinic" at the Army's Fort Campbell.
McConnell directed money to everything from mobile health screenings to lab upgrades for stem cell research into heart failure. One earmark funneled money to a University of Louisville scientist for groundbreaking research into aging, with treatment implications for Alzheimer's and even space travel.
Indeed, the state's public universities have been big benefactors of the senator's earmarks. In the decade before the earmark ban, McConnell bestowed approximately $140 million on the University of Kentucky, according to Bill Schweri, the university's director of federal relations. Much of the McConnell largess went to new building construction and steady research support.
Schweri met regularly with McConnell's staff, becoming intimately familiar with what the senator would approve. McConnell's staff had the same basic questions for every pitch: How will this help Kentucky? How will this keep University of Kentucky alums from fleeing the state? "He wanted to see the university be an economic driver in the state," Schweri explains.
Using a public university to drive the state's economy, much less providing public health care, would be anathema to members of the tea party. At least nationally, the Senate minority leader isn't so generous or noble. McConnell has, almost as a matter of routine, favored corporate subsidies and tax cuts for the wealthy over safety net support for Americans living in poverty. Nearly every social support program can count on McConnell's opposition, from home heating assistance to allowing states to access cheaper medications.
Children receive no special exemption from McConnell's tough love at the federal level. He has sought to prevent disabled children of legal immigrants from receiving benefits and has been a fierce opponent of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides medical coverage for families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance. It is no shock that his opposition to Obamacare has been unwavering, all the way down to Medicaid expansion in his own state, which will give more than 350,000 Kentuckians access to the program.
But at least in Kentucky, there is what might be called the McConnell option. Some of his federal appropriations went to health care services for the state's most vulnerable citizens. And unlike Obamacare, his earmarks frequently provided direct government services without a private-sector intermediary.
In the 2005 and 2008 federal budgets, McConnell and his staff recognized the rotting teeth and premature birth problems in their state, and funded a program whose research saw a linkage between the two. The University of Kentucky received a total of $1.78 million for the program -- a drop in the bucket, but, Schweri says, an easy sell.
"Staff picked up on it right away," he recalls. "Senator McConnell has really, really good staffers. They are very knowledgeable. It never ceases to amaze me how clued in they are to the state of Kentucky."
The earmark funding trickled down to the Baptist Women's Clinic's pilot prenatal care program, known as "CenteringPregnancy," which targeted at-risk, soon-to-be moms. Along with providing sonograms and routine care, nurses and midwives moderated group sessions that went beyond breathing exercises and swaddling techniques. They found room to address what so much of Kentucky's social services could not.
A couple attending a group session at CenteringPregnancy in late February.
"It will be the heat of the summer, and you will have moms that are walking," says LeAnn Langston, a registered nurse and a nurse manager with the clinic. "We've had women pushing strollers in the heat of the summer." After bonding with each other at the sessions, groups formed carpools.
In 2006, CenteringPregnancy's first year, 370 women participated, almost all of them young and on Medicaid. The program's popularity ensured a significant impact locally, but like many of McConnell's other health solutions, it was all but irrelevant statewide.
The earmark provided for an examination room as well as a dentist and a hygienist on site to offer screenings and cleanings at no charge to the mothers. Oral infections can complicate a pregnancy and have an impact on birth weight. Some of the women, Langston recalls, had never been taught how to use a toothbrush. "A lot of it was the culture -- ‘Everyone in my family has false teeth,'" Langston explains. "They would show up in the ER if they had a toothache. They really didn't acknowledge their mouth unless there was pain."
The clinic dentist flushed diseased gums, excavated years of calcified plaque and uprooted necklaces of dead teeth. Full-mouth extractions, Langston says, were not rare. Neither was evidence of drug use. After the clinic put in place random drug testing and ramped up counseling, Langston says, nearly 90 percent of the women who tested positive on the initial visit were drug-free by the time they were ready to deliver their babies.
The women needed all the help they could get. For many low-income mothers in Kentucky, Medicaid covers at most the first two months after they give birth. If they have drug problems, bed space at rehab facilities is limited across the state. Just traveling to these places can be a barrier, says Dr. Ruth Ann Shepherd, the director of the Division of Maternal and Child Health in the state's Department for Public Health. "I don't know that there is ever going to be enough treatment facilities," she adds.
Lack of space isn't the only problem. After weeks of effort, Langston and her team recently secured one of her moms-to-be a spot in a detox facility roughly three hours away in Lexington. Her detox lasted five days and ended with the promise of outpatient counseling, the woman, 31, told HuffPost.
She had been soothing her anxieties with illegal prescription drugs, methadone and, on the rare occasion, she says, crystal meth. She didn't see a single therapist at detox. It took her 48 hours to relapse.
"I felt like I needed it," she says. "I had a panic attack as soon as I got home. I'm a self-medicator. That's just where I go." It's been more than a month and she's still waiting for the outpatient care.
Today, the drug testing and the CenteringPregnancy program continue at Langston's clinic. But the funding from McConnell's earmark dried up in 2009, and without it the on-site dental clinic had to close.
Similarly, high blood pressure and diabetes are huge problems across the state. In the 2009 and 2010 federal budgets, McConnell earmarked close to $3 million to fund heart health classes that would educate residents in the state's rural areas about how to eat better and exercise. Organized by the University of Kentucky, the class curriculum -- with its eat-your-vegetables philosophy -- would not have been out of place at one of Michelle Obama's Let's Move events.
Instead of getting kids interested in exercise, however, these classes aimed to persuade adults to stop eating only canned vegetables and to replace soda with water. Debra Moser, a nurse and professor with the University of Kentucky who designed the project and participated in some of the class work, recalls people saying their parents had died from heart attacks and they were just going to die of one, too. Others said they drank soda because coal mining had contaminated their wells.
The program couldn't address the poisonous wells. But it could at least highlight alternatives in the Kroger aisles. Moser says about 1,400 residents enrolled in the classes; 60 percent didn't have a primary physician. For those who stuck with it and continued to be monitored by health care providers after the classes ended, there were across-the-board reductions in the risk factors for heart disease.
Along with the exercise tips and self-sufficiency lessons, the class instructors passed on referrals to places like the Hope Clinic in Danville, where low-income and no-income residents could get free health care. Hope receives only enough funding to operate part-time during the week and has just three rooms, including one with a recliner for patients with mobility issues or those who are so obese that they can't lift themselves up onto the examination table.
Late February brought two new patients who had gone without health care for years, recalls Terry Casey, a nurse practitioner at Hope. Both had stroke-level blood pressures. Casey says she obtained medications right away from a local pharmacy and promptly sent off lab work, but their conditions were already grave. Within two weeks, one had suffered a stroke while the other had a heart attack.
Casey, whose clinic receives no federal funding, thinks the heart health classes are a small Band-Aid for a much larger problem. And she was surprised that McConnell had anything to do with them. "Every day I see people who come through here that are in such terrible shape without resources that, from my perspective, what I see is people like McConnell working against expanded health care coverage and they get involved in the politics and they don't pay attention to what's going on on the ground level," she says.
Shelia Calladine, 63, and her dog, outside the school bus in which she lives.
Calladine says she was only allowed to move into this shelter-on-wheels if she agreed to marry her boyfriend. That was the deal Gary had made with the couple. The marriage, Calladine says, was a mistake. "I shouldn't have done that," she says. "I don't feel forced but pushed. Not forced but pushed."
As a cold, persistent rain fell outside and her skinny dog yipped at the barren farm and empty lots, Calladine spoke about growing up as a restaurant manager's daughter who began waitressing at age 9 and never finished high school. She spent decades behind dimly lit bars and truck-stop cash registers. When she realized that she couldn't see the poker machines from the bar, a doctor told her she had diabetes. She didn't have health insurance. If she ran out of insulin before payday, she had to hope her body wouldn't miss it. Sometimes she woke up in hospital beds.
While she was working at a truck stop in Livingston, a co-worker found her naked on a bed in the motel where she lived. She'd fallen into a diabetic coma.
McConnell's earmarks never shone their short-term hope on Calladine. Somewhere, maybe a county away, they found some other down-on-their-luck souls and taught them about turkey bacon or pulled a dead tooth from their rotting gums. But the senator never chose what his state truly required: comprehensive solutions to, instead of temporary patches over, the gaping holes in Kentucky's health care system.
Obamacare has its own shortcomings for Kentucky. It will not address the chronic shortage of doctors in rural areas or the lack of doctors who accept poor patients. But it will at least grapple with the statewide crisis in accessing health insurance.
After returning to Lincoln County and finding the Hope Clinic, Calladine says, she has been able to get a handle on her diabetes and a recently discovered thyroid condition. The rest of her care must wait, however -- even emergencies.
Three weeks earlier, Calladine fell and fractured her ankle. But the emergency room is only free with a referral from the clinic, and her next appointment at Hope wasn't for two days. So she had no choice but to wait, sit out the pain and watch her ankle swell. "If it got any fatter, it felt like it was going to bust," she said.
THE LEGACY HE SOUGHT
Early in McConnell's first campaign for Jefferson County judge-executive in '77, staffer Charlie Musson remembers calling businesses and asking if his candidate could stand outside their storefront and do some politicking. On the way to one of those first campaign stops, he could see McConnell stewing in the backseat of their car.
"The whole drive out you could tell he's getting anxious," Musson says.
Finally, McConnell couldn't help but speak up. Maybe they could turn the car around and just go back home. "How do I do this?" he asked.
McConnell was actually good with young voters and had impressed Musson with the way he took the time to talk politics over Cokes with his high-school-aged volunteers. But even with this first campaign, the 35-year-old McConnell understood his true value. "Can I go back and make fundraising calls?" he offered from the back seat.
Before the race, when he was teaching political science at the University of Louisville, McConnell had explained to his class what built a political party. He'd written on the blackboard three words: "Money, money, money." Although he would churn out position papers, he told Louisville Today after his victory that "issues, unfortunately, usually are kind of peripheral to winning a campaign."
McConnell eventually carried that philosophy into the Senate. It's what people note most vividly about his tenure.
The day after winning his first reelection contest in 1990, he was already using the occasion to solicit funds for his next campaign. Former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt told Louisville Magazine about a lawyer at his firm inviting Wyatt to the event. "He asked me if I cared to join him and a few others for lunch with Senator McConnell, to celebrate. Then he said I'd need to bring along a check for $2,000, because the senator was already raising money for 1996," Wyatt told the magazine in 1995. "He's serious."
Alan Simpson, the now-retired Republican senator from Wyoming, recalled to the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2006 that when McConnell asked for money, "his eyes would shine like diamonds. He obviously loved it." A former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Christian Coalition lobbyist remarked in the same article that fundraising is the senator's "great love above everything else. ... His fundraising is like a corporation, a booming, full-time business."
In the mid '90s, McConnell was tapped to run the GOP's Senate business as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The job meant targeting winnable races, helping to discover promising candidates and building a war chest that could put on-the-bubble contests in play. All the spreadsheets and the strategy sessions showed McConnell had a real chance at a Senate takeover.
Democrats were defending more seats than Republicans in 1998 -- Arkansas, Nevada, Ohio and both Carolinas were all major GOP targets. It was six years into Bill Clinton's presidency -- a time when the president's party typically weathers significant losses -- making other seats in conventionally Democratic states appear vulnerable. Both Barbara Boxer in California and Patty Murray in Washington would trail for almost the entirety of their races that year, and Russ Feingold created a takeover opportunity in Wisconsin by placing principle before politics and setting a strict limit on his own campaign spending.
"At the beginning of the cycle, much like last cycle, there was that early chest thumping on the Republican side," says Paul Johnson, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the '98 race. "It was advantage Republican and all sorts of good things were gonna happen for them."
But McConnell & Co. fatally miscalculated with their national GOP message tying Democratic candidates to Clinton and his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The president became more popular during the impeachment proceedings, and the Republican attacks galvanized disheartened Democratic supporters. On election night, McConnell's hound dogs got neutered. State after state fell to Democrats. By the time all the votes were counted, Republicans hadn't gained a single Senate seat.
McConnell's ability to raise cash for candidates kept him from being laughed out of Senate leadership. As head of the NRSC, he had capitalized on the explosion of "soft money" -- unlimited spending by political parties on so-called party-building activities, which often included controversial advertising critical to campaigns. In 1998, McConnell raised more than $37 million in soft money, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, besting the NRSC's previous high-water mark by 30 percent -- unheard of in an election year with no presidential contest -- and eclipsing the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's 1998 haul. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, he would raise more than $90 million in each of his election cycles during his run as chairman
McConnell recognized early the importance of protecting his turf. There has been no greater Senate foe of campaign finance reform. When Feingold and McCain proposed a bill to ban soft money outright in 1996, McConnell spearheaded the opposition and launched a filibuster -- at the time a relatively extreme response reserved only for dramatic legislation.
He also placed a call to Indiana lawyer James Bopp Jr. Although his office was 650 miles from Capitol Hill, Bopp had cultivated a substantial reputation in right-wing circles for his work on behalf of Washington-based conservative Christian organizations, including the anti-abortion National Right to Life Committee. In the 1970s, many of these groups began injecting politics into their cultural advocacy, which sparked investigations from the Federal Election Commission. Bopp pioneered a defense for these groups rooted in the First Amendment, a traditional foundation of liberal advocacy.
Before McCain-Feingold had even been voted on, McConnell and Bopp founded the James Madison Center for Free Speech and began plotting opposition to the legislation if the filibuster failed.
In 1997, McConnell held the line. Even though McCain and Feingold mustered 53 votes, McConnell's filibuster forced a 60-vote standard and killed the bill. But five years later, with soft money up 500 percent over the past decade, McCain and Feingold gathered 60 votes, and President George W. Bush signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
Defeated on the Senate floor, McConnell with Bopp's aid went straight to court, filing a lawsuit against the FEC to challenge the initial implementation of the bill -- a naked effort to overturn the law in court and another tactic often deployed by liberal lawyers thwarted by conservative policymakers. They even garnered support from ACLU heavyweight and corporate lawyer Floyd Abrams. McConnell told The New York Times that he found all the criticism thrown his way "exhilarating."
"He was proactive," Bopp says of McConnell. "It took a year of litigation. It got to the Supreme Court. ... He would have meetings with the five lawyers representing him fairly regularly. He's a lawyer, you know. He can't help himself. I keep telling him he's a politician, not a litigator."
McConnell lost his own case, but within the decade, he had transformed election law. Bopp and the James Madison Center kept filing First Amendment cases on campaign finance, and in 2010, their Supreme Court victory in Citizens United v. FEC allowed independent groups to spend unlimited sums from corporations and wealthy donors on elections. McConnell's legal and ideological infrastructure had birthed the era of the super PAC.
He was proud of it. When U.S. News & World Report ran a headline calling McConnell the "Darth Vader" of campaign finance reform, he framed it and hung it on the wall of his Capitol Hill office.
After 30 years in Washington spent fighting Democrats on nearly every front, McConnell has embraced his persona as the dark lord of Capitol Hill. John Yarmuth, the Democratic Kentucky congressman who as a young Republican had traveled with McConnell organizing college campuses for Cook, says the two are no longer on speaking terms. "He won't talk to me now," Yarmuth says of McConnell. "I've known him for 45 years."
Recently, Yarmuth says, he ran into the Senate minority leader at a largely empty airport VIP room. McConnell was sitting alone with a newspaper. "I looked straight at him," Yarmuth says. "I said, 'Hi, Mitch.' There wasn't a muscle in his face that moved. ... He just buried his head in the paper."
McConnell's life has become an endless campaign.
Marlow Cook is disappointed in his former staffer. "When you go to Washington, you make your record," says the retired former senator. "Nobody else makes it for you. And the record that he has made, he has to be comfortable with or he wouldn't be there. ... A man makes the reputation he gets. Mitch has to be satisfied. If I were there and I were in that position, I would not be satisfied."
But even in the realm of winning elections, the purpose supposedly served by McConnell's campaign finance obsession, McConnell's actual record is weak -- two disappointing terms as NRSC chairman and an obstructionist legislative strategy as minority leader that helped burn the GOP in the 2012 elections. Only in Kentucky is his party building truly tangible.
Over the past 30 years, McConnell has grown the Republican Party in the state from a small collection of idealists like Cooper and Cook into a dominating force in his image. In the summer of 1999, he helped engineer his party's historic takeover of the state Senate. Behind the scenes, he played what the press described as a "pivotal" role in pushing two Democratic lawmakers from familiar regions to defect to the GOP. State Sens. Dan Seum of Jefferson County and Bob Leeper of Paducah changed parties and turned the state Senate over to the Republicans.
Before he announced his switch, Seum says he made a pilgrimage to McConnell's Louisville residence. McConnell corralled the state Republican leaders into a room, where they pledged to support Seum. "The point is if you are going to make this jump, this switch, it's nice to know someone helpful, and Mitch was very helpful," he says.
Leeper has since become an independent. But the Republicans are still in control of the state Senate and have a credible shot of one day taking over the state House of Representatives. Kentucky Republicans know who to thank: They named their headquarters building after McConnell.
McConnell's Bluegrass Committee PAC has capitalized on his national leadership position to funnel cash into state politics. Its donations have gone not only to tight congressional races across the country, but to down-ballot contests in Kentucky, all the way to lowly statehouse challengers.
"A whole lot of people are indebted to him from that early support," Trey Grayson, the former Kentucky secretary of state, says. "He earned a lot of loyalty." The size of the check wasn't necessarily what mattered either. Even $1,000 sent a signal to the state's political class.
Such campaign spending became even more critical to McConnell after the tea party swept into congressional power in 2010 and banned the earmarks that helped keep his Senate seat secure. In the 2012 electoral cycle, the Bluegrass Committee spent $77,000 on 58 candidates for state office in Kentucky, up nearly 60 percent from the $49,000 it gave to a total of 33 Kentucky state candidates in the 2010 cycle.
Yet even in Kentucky, there are signs that McConnell's clout has eroded. McConnell spent several years grooming Grayson to be the next U.S. senator from the Bluegrass State. He had been instrumental in guiding Grayson's reelection as Kentucky secretary of state in 2007. He counseled Grayson and challenged him to meet fundraising goals. Two years later, when McConnell had tired of Bunning and pushed his already vulnerable, former friend into retirement, Grayson got the nod.
Grayson, who was only in his 30s, says McConnell assisted in all aspects of the campaign, introducing him to potential donors and grassroots activists, and helping him develop a message. The two talked regularly on the phone. Grayson describes McConnell's assistance as "just so thorough." He should have had an easy path to victory. "I had locked up establishment support," he recalls. "I did all the right things."
Ironically, if it weren't for McConnell's tireless work attending Rotary Club functions and hotel luncheons across the state, building up the party infrastructure and filling Rolodexes, Grayson might have had a Senate career. But the minority leader had developed the Republican brand into such a force that it had become big enough to invite an anti-establishment insurgency.
When tea party favorite Rand Paul jumped into the GOP's Senate primary, he didn't just campaign against Grayson. He ran against McConnell and Washington, and -- shockingly -- thumped Grayson, 59 percent to 35 percent. On that election night in May 2010, McConnell called his candidate to offer his condolences -- and offer a bit of advice about defeat. "It was important to accept it gracefully," Grayson says McConnell told him.
McConnell certainly has. He traveled to Paducah to attend an actual tea party hosted by the county GOP on Broadway Street to rally support for Paul in the general election. Since Paul won the Senate seat, it's been the senior senator who has made the greatest concessions to his junior colleague -- whether by becoming a supporter of legalizing industrial hemp or hiring Paul's right-hand man to run his own 2014 reelection campaign. The joke among Washington insiders now is if you want to know where McConnell stands on an issue, just ask Paul. Quite a turnaround -- McConnell's gone from reformist, good-government Republican to Ayn Rand fanboy.
Rand's a Republican. The rest doesn't matter to McConnell. "One of the things he always talked about -- you need to stick together," explains Kentucky state Senate President Robert Stivers II (R). "Sit down and work through problems. But always stick together. Stay with your team."
In Kentucky, McConnell has, in a sense, created a GOP Frankenstein -- letting loose a beast he can no longer control. The Republicans taking up all the oxygen in the state's capital city of Frankfort aren't looking for ways to help the state assuage its deepest and most chronic deficiencies. They're too busy seeing United Nations conspiracies in education standards and approving bills that would supposedly nullify future federal gun regulations. The Kentucky Republican Party has become the party of local Todd Akins and Louie Gohmerts.
In February, the state Senate passed a bill requiring a doctor to perform an ultrasound on a woman seeking an abortion. If the doctor failed to present the ultrasound image to the patient, the doctor could be fined $100,000 for a first offense and as much as $250,000 for subsequent offenses. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Paul Hornback, a Republican from Shelbyville, tells HuffPost he had sought McConnell's advice "many times," even before he ran for the Senate.
"He was one of the first ones I talked to before I decided to file," Hornback says. "He thought it'd be a good idea. ... He knew that my values would fit in well with the Republican Party." In 2010, the Bluegrass Committee PAC gave Hornback's campaign $1,000.
Hornback says McConnell's conservative values gave him the courage of his own convictions and adds that he's received encouragement from the senator's staff. "He set a standard out there for all of us in the party," Hornback says. "Our thoughts are pretty much in line."
McConnell is in line to awkwardly embrace them all, whether teaching state pols how to raise money or set up committees or simply create a lasting culture. If that means using his beloved University of Louisville football games as Republican unity sessions, so be it. Invites to his tailgate parties are coveted.
"Before I was Senate president, he did it with the prior Senate president," Stivers says of the tailgates. "He did it with me as a floor leader."
McConnell might, if the mood strikes during the game, offer a stiff high five. "You can see almost the emotion," Stivers says.
In place of a discernible philosophy or lasting impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, there are other monuments. In Owensboro, there's a Mitch McConnell Way and, on the city's riverfront, a Mitch McConnell Plaza. Outside Louisville, there is a 5.4-mile trail in the Jefferson County National Forest called Mitch McConnell Loop. In 2004, Bowling Green established the River Walk at Mitch McConnell Park.
The Mitch McConnell Center for Political Leadership crowds half a floor of the University of Louisville's library with a hodgepodge of mundane artifacts celebrating his Senate career. One placard notes that he has served longer than Wendell Ford, while another details his interest in Henry Clay's desk. A portrait of a younger McConnell is inscribed: "In a representative democracy senators are elected to lead, not merely to reflect which way the political wind is blowing at any given time."
Though Paducah has yet to name a building or street after McConnell, the town is a testament to his complicated legacy. Millions in earmarks have promised new waterfront development, but that optimism recedes a block or two away from the Ohio River. The downtown business district is gap-toothed with darkened buildings and empty lots. Even the storefront biker church looks in need of salvation, inhabiting half of a big pink building still advertising discount clothes for a long-departed retailer.
Remnants of the city's Spielbergian rocket dreams endure in the murals along the imposing flood wall that still celebrate the Atomic City. Both the city and its senator are holding onto a bygone era. McConnell may not have been loyal to his moderate roots or conservative orthodoxy, but he has been loyal to the jobs at the uranium enrichment plant to the point of absurdity.
In March 2011, McConnell told then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu that the Paducah plant "happens to be the economic engine of far Western Kentucky." Once upon a time, it was. But the number of jobs at the Paducah plant have dwindled steadily over the past few decades. Today there are only about 1,100 production employees, down by about 100 from two years ago.
This spring, the government contractor USEC announced that it would shutter production at Paducah. McConnell, along with Sen. Paul and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), immediately released a statement indicating that they wanted the plant to continue re-enriching depleted uranium. And they may succeed in 2013 -- as they did in 2011 -- in persuading USEC and the Department of Energy to keep the plant on life support for another few years. But the enrichment has already ceased and becomes more difficult to restart the longer the plant remains idle. Workers have received official notices from USEC that layoffs are weeks away.
"During its tenure on the site, USEC has built a strong record of safely and effectively following radiological and environmental regulations," USEC spokeswoman Georgann Lookofsky told HuffPost. "We’re committed to return the plant to DOE in a condition that complies with the terms of our lease" and all "environmental, health, safety and regulatory requirements."
Allan Rhodes Jr., who serves on the Paducah Board of Commissioners and owns a coffee shop in town, thinks McConnell has been missing in action on the plant closing. "Now when we need him the most visibly, I don't see him leading the charge," Rhodes says. "I'm sure his life is pretty sweet."
The plant workers' union is beginning to question their members' past support for McConnell. Jim Key, the union vice president, says he hasn't heard from McConnell's office since April. "Inactivity tells me and no communication tells me he's given up on Paducah," Key says.
McConnell can only save jobs at the plant by essentially authorizing busywork. If the Department of Energy wanted to put money into nuclear power, it could do so in far more efficient ways, and could do it even in Paducah, buying updated technology and retraining personnel. But McConnell has not gone to bat for a new uranium enrichment centrifuge for Paducah. New technology is expensive, and a biannual patch earns the same political loyalty with a much lower price tag. Unfortunately for the plant, McConnell's steady funding has done little more than slow its slide into economic irrelevance.
On a Friday in early April, Fred Buckley's grandson Wade, 29, clocked out at the plant for the last time. He was the last of the Buckleys to earn a paycheck there.
Wade Buckley had been the McConnell ideal, the reason he showered state universities with earmark money. The Buckley grandson had graduated from the University of Kentucky with a mechanical engineering degree and didn't flee the state as soon as convocation was over. He took a job at the plant as a project manager handling major repairs.
Wade worked alongside men who knew his father and grandfather. But unlike his kin, he didn't feel like he was part of any boom. Nor did he think his paycheck was something he could count on forever. And the job stifled. "To tell you the truth, I always knew that job would not be a lifelong career for me," he says. Walking into the plant meant entering a time warp. "It is 60-, 65-year-old technology. Things that are inefficient don't survive."
After less than two years at the plant, Wade Buckley began to plan his exit. He is single. He doesn't have kids. He didn't bother looking around Paducah for his next job. Following a three-month search, he decided to accept an offer from John Deere in Augusta, Ga. He would be evaluating product lines and making improvements to the company's tractors.
Wade's father, Michael Buckley, says he understood why his son had to move. But he wished his son could have found a job closer to home. "I really hated it," he says. "He's always been close to us." His son wouldn't be able to come over on Saturdays or after church on Sundays. He'll miss that.
On the morning of his move in mid-April, Wade stopped in to see his grandparents. He and his grandfather sat in the gray easy chairs in the living room, next to the old grandfather clock and the stereo that never played anything but traditional country and the truest gospel. It was sad, Fred Buckley says, those last moments. He told Wade that the "sky is the limit," that you could count on a company like John Deere.
"You got to go where the work is," Fred Buckley acknowledges -- a sentiment he'd felt when he first commuted to the plant from Tennessee.
In Augusta, Wade settled into a duplex close to all the amenities he could ever need. He marvels at John Deere's resources, at how not every task requires stacks of paperwork. He loves that everything at his job is new. There are opportunities to collaborate, to test, to invent. "You are just free," he says. "I have options now."
Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.