One of the most memorable moments of the 2016 presidential campaign came right here in West Virginia when out-of-work coal miner Bo Copley confronted Hillary Clinton over her comments about putting “a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

Copley asked Clinton, face-to-face at a small roundtable meeting in Williamson, how she could make that comment and then “come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend.”

Clinton apologized and back peddled, saying that her comments were taken out of context.

The outcome of the election means we’ll never know how Clinton’s policies would have impacted coal, and Clinton lost badly to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary in West Virginia (51% to 36%), but Clinton showed guts going to the heart of coal country after her controversial comments.

Fast-forward to the 2020 campaign and United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts would like for every one of the Democratic candidates to have a “Bo Copley moment.” Earlier this month, Roberts sent letters to each of the nearly two-dozen Democrats inviting them to “come to a union coal mine and go underground.”

In a news release, the union said, “Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have endorsed the Green New Deal or offered similar plans that would hasten the closure of coal-fired power plants and the mines that feed them. Those plans fall short of the kind of specificity needed to give miners a sense of comfort that their families’ lives will not be completely disrupted.”

Cecil Roberts

The coal industry, while showing some life under the Trump administration, continues to struggle. The union said 289 coal-fired power plants have closed this decade, and 50 have shut down just since January 2017.

UMWA officials tell me they have heard back from 17 of the 23 candidates who received the invitations who said they are willing to go underground.  The candidates who did not reply are Corey Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, Kristen Gillibrand, Wayne Messam and Marianne Williamson.

The union is now working with the campaigns to try to arrange the visits, which would likely be in southwestern Pennsylvania or north central West Virginia.

The UMWA has a long history of supporting Democratic presidential candidates, although the organization has cooled to Democrats since they have embraced climate change as a primary issue. I challenged Roberts as to why he should even worry about the Democratic candidates since President Trump is a strong supporter of the coal industry.

Roberts sidestepped the question, but it does make sense to try to raise awareness among the Democratic candidates, one of whom may end up in the White House. “They owe it to these workers to meet them face to face, tell them their plans and then just listen,” Roberts said. “They may get an earful, but that is the only way to start the dialogue that needs to happen.”

If and when any of the Democratic candidates go underground and talk with miners, they will find out that promoting anti-carbon policies and ruminating about climate change as an existential threat is one thing, but as Hillary Clinton can attest to, sitting across the table from a real person whose livelihood is threatened by those policies is quite another.

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