In a speech to the General Assembly in Springfield, President Barack Obama will mark nine years since he announced his first campaign for the White House. For the president, this trip down memory lane kicks off what will no doubt be a year-long legacy promotion tour. But for those of us who still represent our constituents in Illinois, it’s a reminder of how quickly that audacious young senator abandoned the interests of his adopted home state in pursuit of his own political agenda.
I’m speaking, of course, of Barack Obama’s evolution from dedicated defender of downstate coal jobs to commander-in-chief in the War on Coal.
More than a decade before he led an all-out assault on affordable energy and jobs from coal, the largely unknown state senator from Chicago championed the workers and rural communities I continue to fight for in southern Illinois. In 1997, state Sen. Obama supported grants to reopen closed coal mines and provide incentives to new businesses that use coal. In 2001, he voted for $3.5 million in loan guarantees to build new coal-fired power plants, even telling his colleagues he was a “strong supporter ... of downstate coal interests and our need to prop up and improve the outputs downstate.”
Fast forward to his 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate, and you’ll still find the future president standing with coal miners as he promised “there’s always going to be a role for coal” in Illinois. In 2007, the junior senator even cosponsored federal legislation to provide $8 billion in funding for coal-to-liquid fuel. But that was then and this is now.
Just one short year later, as a candidate for president, Obama made his infamous 2008 pledge to the San Francisco Chronicle to “bankrupt” anybody who tried to build a new coal-fired power plant. Since reaching the peak of his political power, President Obama has not only left his downstate Illinois constituents behind, his policies have destroyed their livelihoods and devastated their local communities.
Three hours south of Springfield, in the heart of the Illinois Coal Basin, is the village of Galatia. With a population of 935, this community in my district has borne the brunt of the president’s betrayal. Last May, nearly 100 workers lost their jobs at the nearby New Era mine. Still reeling from those layoffs, permanent despair took hold when word came that the local mines would close forever by mid-2016. Before the first round of layoffs in Galatia, New Era and its sister mine, New Future, employed about 700 people.
“It impacts everybody,” the town’s mayor, David Harrawood, told the Southern Illinoisan after the closures were announced. “It doesn’t just impact coal miners. It impacts trucking businesses, the stores, all their vendors. It’s not just one segment. Down here, we’re all tied together.”
What Mayor Harrawood describes is a heartbreaking story that has played out in small towns across America. With each new burdensome rule and regulation rolled out by the administration, more workers lose good-paying jobs, more families are thrown into poverty, and more communities are devastated by bankruptcies and a shrinking local tax base.
So while you’re here, Mr. President, if you can find the time for those you left behind on your way to the top, come pay a visit to Galatia. Come and see what your policies have done to the families you used to represent.
You say the War on Coal is a myth, Mr. President. Come to Galatia and see how real it is.
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee representing the 15th District of Illinois. He lives in Collinsville.