By Alexander Bolton - 02/20/15 06:00 AM EST
Ted Strickland, Democrats’ top prospect to take on Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R), is facing a litany of questions about his ties to the clean-energy industry that could weigh heavily on coal-country voters.
To prepare for a possible Senate bid, the former Ohio governor quietly stepped down last week from a senior role with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank and advocacy group that has promoted a shift away from coal.
“CAP has people like Carol Browner right down the hall from him in the office, and we can’t in the industry trust someone whose ties to the war on coal go that deep,” said Christian Palich, interim president of the Ohio Coal Association, a GOP-leaning group.
Strickland tried to inoculate himself from attacks shortly before leaving by touting the think tank’s new report calling for reform of coal subsidies to help Appalachian coal compete with cheaper Western coal. He argues that Western coal producers enjoy an unfair advantage because their royalty rates have not increased in 40 years.
The apparent move to rebuff the possible damage is a sign that coal politics could figure prominently in the Ohio Senate race next year. Strickland, however, said 2016 was not a motivating factor.
“I care about Ohio. I care about coal communities,” he said, according to The Associated Press, “long before there was any talk of me entering a political race of any kind.”
Strickland notes he represented the heart of the Buckeye State's coal country in the House and still has tremendous support in the area. Despite his 2010 loss to Republican John Kasich, the Democrat still carried most of the rural southeast Ohio district.
"Ted Strickland has always had tremendous support and continues to have support among coal mining families and the leaders of coal mining in Ohio,” said Dennis Willard, a spokesman for Strickland. “The labor organizations for coal miners have backed him and so have their leaders throughout his entire career.
“We’re confident that should Strickland decide to run for the U.S. Senate, he’ll continue to enjoy their support,” he added.
If he jumps into the race, he may nevertheless face scrutiny over his strong ties with the renewable energy industry, which some coal companies see as a threat to their livelihood.
While serving as governor of Ohio, Strickland oversaw a $1.57 billion bipartisan stimulus package that doled out more than $80 million in grants and loans to solar, wind and other energy initiatives that compete with the state’s coal industry. Some of the loans have since come under scrutiny because several companies failed to repay them on time.
Strickland received $736,000 in contributions, more than any Ohio politician, from employees at companies that received state support, according to the Toledo Blade, which has conducted several in-depth investigations of Strickland’s ties to the green energy industry.
One firm, Willard & Kelsey Solar Group, won more than $10 million in assistance after forging a relationship with C. David Snyder, one of Strickland’s top donors and fundraisers, according to the Blade.
Strickland has said he did not know Snyder was tied to Willard & Kelsey and stated more broadly that no decisions on grants and loans were based on political contributions.
After losing his reelection bid in 2010, Strickland and some of his top aides formed Midwest Gateway Partners, a consulting firm focused on promoting clean-energy policy. Its website promises to help clients navigate public and private interests in the highly regulated industry.
Strickland has begun fundraising ahead of a likely 2016 run, and Republicans are already hitting Strickland on his ties to clean energy, accusing him of putting his allies ahead of blue-collar miners in Ohio’s southeastern coal country.
“He sets up programs that hurt part of Ohio, benefits his donors and down the line benefits himself. When he loses re-election he goes and lobbies for these industries that cost Ohio taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars that he and his donors benefited from and were complete failures,” said Chris Schrimpf, spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party.
“Not only did Strickland pick the winners but he picked the donors in charge of vetting the winners,” Schrimpf added.
The Blade reported that Strickland, before leaving office in January of 2011, appointed his former chief of staff to the board of the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority, which had oversight over the $150 million Advanced Energy Job Stimulus Program set up by his administration.
Strickland received nearly $150,000 from people affiliated with companies that benefited from the energy stimulus program, The Blade also reported.
Alan Melamed, an Ohio-based Democratic strategist, defended Strickland by arguing it was his job as governor to promote new industries in Ohio.
“Republicans are trying to make this a big tie to show there’s something unseemly about the connection to green energy but what I would say about it is the public is looking at candidates focused on the future and not the past,” he said. “The public looks at green technology as the direction of the future, not the past. They’re very supportive so I don’t see that being a problem for Gov. Strickland.”
Melamed said Strickland represented southeastern Ohio in Congress and has credibility with pro-coal voters in that rural part of the state.
“There’s nothing unusual about political figures leaving office and doing work on behalf of organizations or companies that have been aligned with what their policy directions have been,” he said.
Willard, Strickland’s spokesman, said just because his boss is trying to create jobs in the clean-energy sector does not mean he’s turning his back on coal.
He said Strickland will fight to protect miners’ pensions and challenged Portman to do the same.
“Ted Strickland will fight to help them protect their pensions and not allow coal mining companies to switch names and try to deny the pensions these miners earned for their families, children and widows,” he said.