“Mitch stepped in and helped create cancer screening programs and provide compensation for sick workers. He knocked down walls for us.”
–former Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant worker Robert Pierce, in an ad for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
“But Mitch McConnell fought for us — creating cancer screening programs, and providing compensation for sick workers.”
–Pierce, in a shorter version of the ad.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in his first major ad buy of his reelection campaign, has chosen to highlight his efforts to win compensation and cancer screening programs for workers at a nuclear fuel plant in Western Kentucky. The ads are very evocative, featuring a worker who can barely speak above a whisper because of throat cancer.
McConnell is a fierce opponent of the Affordable Care Act, which has proven to be quite popular in Kentucky, and it is noteworthy that the ad highlights his efforts on a discrete form of health care and claims that McConnell “gives a voice to Kentucky’s working families.” McConnell faces a potentially strong Democratic challenger—and also a Tea Party rival in the GOP primary–and the Republican leader in the Senate not so subtly highlights his clout.
Here at The Washington Post, these ads hold interest because the problems at the plant—including previously unknown exposure to plutonium—were originally uncovered by our colleague Joby Warrick in 1999. Warrick’s articles, which documented that plutonium and other highly radioactive metals slipped into the plant over 23 years, created a political firestorm and spurred swift action by Congress and the federal government.
Let’s examine whether the assertions made by Pierce holds up to scrutiny.
Readers will note that there is a subtle difference between the two statements: one says that McConnell “helped” create a cancer screening program and provide compensation; the other, shorter ad lacks the modifier and simply asserts that the senator created the programs.
Former governor Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), who was Energy secretary at the time, in an interview unhesitatingly supported the first version of the ad. He said that, more than any other lawmaker, McConnell was essential to passage of the legislation that created a compensation fund for workers and former workers at DOE plants. In the Senate, he said, there were three key senators—McConnell, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.)—and “Mitch, of the three, helped the most.” He said the bill had stalled, and “he got it done. I have to give him credit. The bill was going nowhere.”
But Richardson is also quick to note that the fund was a Clinton administration initiative—one that he says was in the works before The Post report appeared in print. “I also have to give myself credit,” he said.
Richardson said he become concerned about the plant because of a lawsuit that had been filed by workers a few months before Warrick’s stories were published. He was also moved by a constant stream of letters from the widow of a man who was convinced he had been poisoned at the plant. But when he tried to come up with a plan to compensate workers who had been harmed, it was blocked by the White House Office of Management and Budget as an unaffordable entitlement.
“Because The Washington Post put it on the front page, that helped me get it past OMB,” Richardson said. “It was a Clinton administration initiative. But I wouldn’t expect him to give me credit in a campaign ad.”
Leon Owen, who was vice president (and later president) of the workers’ union at the time, agreed that McConnell played an important role in the legislative efforts. “McConnell took the lead in navigating the legislation through Congress,” he said. (Owen currently works for a contractor at the plant.)
In other words, there is little dispute that McConnell was a key part of a bipartisan team that responded to the reports and enacted legislation to deal with the problem, which is why “helped” is a useful and appropriate modifier.
The lung cancer screening program has even more of McConnell’s fingerprints. He highlighted the idea at a congressional hearing he chaired on Oct. 26, 1999, and then worked to secure and expand funding for it, according to a 2003 newsletter of the Queens College Worker Health Protection Program, which conducts the screening.
“Senator McConnell was instrumental in setting up our cancer screening program in 1999,” said Steven Markowitz, director of the program, in an e-mail.
Of course, the question arises whether McConnell should have done more before The Post expose was published. Mark Donham, who for six years chaired the plant’s Citizens Advisory Board on the cleanup, wrote an opinion article in 2008, when McConnell last ran ads featuring the Paducah plant. “McConnell did little or nothing to further environmental concerns at the plant until he was so embarrassed about his failures that he felt compelled to do something,” he argued.
Donham, in an interview, said that McConnell was responsible for “benign neglect” because “he was aware that people were saying there were problems with the plant and he should have held a congressional hearing.” But he conceded, “it was not just McConnell. There was a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil attitude about the plant” because of its importance to the local economy.
A lengthy profile of McConnell in The Huffington Post last year made a similar case, saying that before the Post articles, “McConnell’s sole concern about the plant seems to have been protecting it from layoffs and lawsuits.”
Still, Richardson says that McConnell had contacted him about the problems at the plant before the Post stories were published, urging an investigation and help for the workers.
It’s hard to reach a definitive conclusion about whether McConnell should have done more about the conditions at the plant. Certainly the political failure was collective, especially at the Department of Energy, which had fought long and hard to dismiss the concerns of workers. But at the same time, McConnell took a leading role once the problems were documented.
The Pinocchio Test
The record is fairly clear on the specific issue of McConnell’s involvement in securing funding for workers after the Washington Post articles appeared. He had a critical role in shepherding legislation through Congress—a textbook example of helping constituents faced with a crisis.
The version of the ad that lacks the crucial modifier of “helped” goes a bit too far, as it suggests it was McConnell alone who did this. The compensation plan was a Clinton administration initiative, though it appears it would have failed without McConnell’s intervention. At worse, that would be a One Pinocchio violation.
The other ad, with the word “helped,” stands up well by the standards of such ads. We will leave to political pundits the irony of McConnell running an ad that features what is, in effect, an entitlement program. We have been critical of McConnell’s campaign ads in the past, but the longer version of this ad earns a coveted Geppetto.
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