A prominent Kentucky businessman contributed $10,200 to Sen. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellJuan Williams: Trump's race politics will destroy GOP Rank-and-file Republicans fear lame-duck vote on pricey funding bill Clinton, Trump sharpen attacks MORE’s campaign four days after the Republican leader appointed him to a government commission tasked with tackling hunger.
The timing of the donation is sure to draw scrutiny, as McConnell previously faced questions about a similar donation from a Delta Airlines CEO that shortly followed a breakfast the donor shared with McConnell in the exclusive Senate Dining Room.
Four days later, Coates contributed $10,200 to McConnell’s joint fundraising committee with the Republican Party of Kentucky, according to his most recent Federal Election Commission filings.
McConnell is locked in a tough battle for reelection against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, whom McConnell spokeswoman Allison Moore immediately knocked for launching an “attack” on Coates.
“The suggestion is absurd and it's outrageous that the Grimes campaign would attack a Kentuckian who dedicates so much of his time to feeding the hungry and creating jobs,” said Moore.
The Grimes campaign hasn’t yet weighed in on the contribution, and Houchens Industries did not respond to a request for comment.
The appointment provides Coates with a position to offer policy recommendations directly to the administration on a range of food and nutrition policies that could affect his company’s bottom line. Houchens Industries, based in Bowling Green, Ky., owns and operates a number of convenience stores, supermarkets and fast food chains nationwide, among other businesses, including well-known brands like Subway and Save-a-Lot.
Coates, who joined Houchens in 2003, is a prolific donor and has given to both Democrats and Republicans. In 2008, he contributed to seven Democrats and the Kentucky Democratic Party, though he’s trended more Republican in recent cycles. This cycle, he’s contributed exclusively to Republican candidates and committees. He’s also active in government advocacy work for the grocery industry. Coates is a longtime board member of the National Grocers Association, a trade association for the industry, and also serves on its government relations committee.
McConnell’s pick of Coates was lauded by a local newspaper as a “wise choice” in an editorial, which also said Coates “will be instrumental by offering forward-thinking ideas about how to assist and improve” food assistance programs.
According to a 2012 NGA government affairs report that bears Coates’s name on the introduction, the NGA supports expanding choice and access to the food stamp program. It also opposes the Paycheck Fairness Act, which aims to reduce the gender pay gap in part by making it easier for workers to sue employers for wage discrimination, and the pro-Union National Labor Relations Board. The group still appears to hold those positions, per its website.
The Paycheck Fairness Act has taken center stage in McConnell’s campaign fight Grimes, who’s painted the senator as out-of-touch and self-interested because of his opposition to the bill.
It’s unlikely that the National Commission on Hunger will weigh in on those issues.
Spearheaded by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the bipartisan group of 10 food policy experts, officials, scholars and activists — who were each appointed by leaders of both parties in the House and Senate — has been tasked with developing “recommendations to encourage public-private partnerships and greater involvement from community and faith-based groups to reduce the need for government nutrition programs while still providing a safety net for the poor.”
Wolf’s office said the congressman saw the commission as having a broad mandate to tackle the problem of hunger, and members of the commission said they’re looking both at reforms to existing policy and new proposals that may have worked elsewhere but haven’t yet been implemented at the national level.
The commission is currently in the information-gathering stage and has met just twice since it launched last spring, so members haven’t yet suggested what reforms they’re interested in pursuing.
But Nancy Watzman, a consultant to the government oversight group the Sunlight Foundation, which reports on the intersection of food policy and campaign contributions, said Coates's business interests are intertwined with any policy work he does on nutritional program.
“Of course [reforms to the program] could affect his bottom line,” she said.
Watzman said Coates’s position on the government relations committee of the NGA “means he’s active, he’s a political player” in advocating on nutrition policy. She said the timing of the donation to McConnell and the Coates appointment was worth looking into.
“It’s most interesting that the contribution came at that point, right after McConnell appointed him,” she said.
A report on the timing of that donation from the Delta CEO prompted the Kentucky Democratic Party to file an ethics complaint charging the senator “abused his office ... by selling access” to the dining room for campaign contributions.