Ocasio-Cortez says Appalachia ‘close to my heart’ as she accepts Barr’s coal mine invite

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is from the Bronx, but says her Puerto Rican roots give her a feel for economically hard-hit areas like Appalachia — and eastern Kentucky, where she says she’s looking forward to touring a coal mine with Rep. Andy Barr.

In an interview Wednesday, the New York Democrat told McClatchy her staff will be working with the Kentucky Republican to set up a visit.

Barr, the Kentucky Republican whose office has reached out to hers, extended the offer Tuesday to the sponsor of the sweeping Green New Deal that Republicans say would put coal miners out of business. Barr asked Ocasio-Cortez to “go underground” in a mine with him.

Great, she said. “It’s very close to my heart,” Ocasio-Cortez said of struggling areas of Appalachia. “Folks may not think of that because I’m from the Bronx, but my family in Puerto Rico was a rural family too. I understand some of the challenges.”

Barr, a member of the Congressional Coal Caucus who has long supported the industry, made his offer after Ocasio-Cortez passionately defended her signature Green New Deal proposal against Republican charges that it’s a good deal only for moneyed coastal elites.

The plan seeks to tackle climate change in part by ending U.S. dependence on coal and fossil fuels and replacing carbon-emitting energy with green sources such as solar and wind power.

Ocasio-Cortez insisted that she considered the “economic and social dignity” of coal miners when she put the plan together.

“It’s a complete injustice the cancer levels that a lot of these communities are confronting,” she said, adding that she’s also worried about the environmental effects in Central Appalachia of mountaintop removal mining, in which explosive blasts dislodge bedrock to allow access to coal seams, with debris dumped in adjoining valleys.

“We have to plan a future for all of our communities, no matter what,” she said. “Failure to plan is planning to fail and I feel like we’ve been failing Appalachian communities for a very long time and it’s time to turn that ship around.”

The visit would not be Ocasio-Cortez’s first trip to Kentucky. She said she met with several grassroots organizations in Lexington when she first began considering running for Congress.

The 29-year-old stunned the political world when she defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary last year, becoming the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.

She has become the subject of endless Republican fascination — and vitriol — and like many of her appearances, her defense of the Green New Deal in the committee went viral Tuesday.

“I appreciate (her) passion about the issue,” Barr said Tuesday. “I think it’s genuine, I think it’s heartfelt.”

He said Wednesday that the offer was impromptu, but said it would give him a chance “to showcase the working people of Kentucky.”

“I want her to learn about the coal industry the way I have learned about the coal industry, not through textbooks, not through politically charged movies, but by talking to human beings,” Barr said.

He said he’d also make the argument that coal “should have a future in the United States, not withstanding her proposal.”

He called the Green New Deal “shortsighted,” arguing that coal is affordable and reliable and should be part of the U.S. energy portfolio. “I’m not a climate denier, I’m a climate thinker.”

Barr acknowledged there are no active mines in his district, but he said it is still coal-dependent with several companies that support the industry. And he noted auto plants, like Toyota, depend on “cheap, affordable industrial power.”

No date has yet been set, but Barr smiled as he talked with reporters: “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Barr’s offer came as his fellow Kentucky Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, sought to put 2020 Democratic presidential contenders in a bind by forcing the resolution to a vote, as he warned that the plan would cost trillions.

The five Senate Democrats running for the presidential nomination and nearly all of their party colleagues voted “present” on the effort to limit debate, meaning they were in the chamber but did not have to go on record as a yes or a no.

McConnell mocked the 2020 aspirants for voting “present” on the legislation in a video he released Wednesday that featured the Democrats urging quick action on climate change, only to turn around and vote “present” on the resolution.

“The vast majority of Senate Democrats could not dismiss something as crazy as ending the production of American oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy within a decade,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

“American manufacturing, American agriculture, the industries, jobs, houses, farms, buildings, and cars that make up daily life for millions of working Americans. Democrats want Washington D.C. to declare war on all of it. Because it doesn’t comply with the latest fashions in Brooklyn and San Francisco.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California on Wednesday unveiled a significantly more modest climate change bill which would block President Donald Trump from withdrawing the U.S. from the international climate accord known as the Paris Agreement.

The Republican Governors Association sought to politicize the visit, pressing Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidates to declare whether they’d accept an endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez.

“Kentucky voters deserve answers,” said RGA spokesman John Burke, accusing Ocasio-Cortez of “coming to Kentucky to push her far-left plan estimated to cost $93 trillion and destroy the nation’s economy.”

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.