Business group fly-ins to Capitol Hill are generally staid, platitude-laden fare.
So when it was time for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to address our delegation, I sat up straight and tucked away my iPhone so as not to be tempted to rudely text in front of the second most powerful man in America.
The event convener grabbed the platform, adjusted the microphone, and announced: “To introduce our next speaker, here’s Jonathan Miller.”
I stared agape and dumbfounded. While my law firm was co-hosting the forum, I hadn’t been warned of this duty — and anyway, why would they ask a former Democratic elected official to introduce the nation’s top Republican?
McConnell seemed to agree: As I cautiously trudged to the front of the room, the Leader cleared his throat and loudly harrumphed: “Now this should be interesting.”
I dutifully read through the sanitized script I was stealthily handed. McConnell approached, shook my hand and took the mike. “Thank you, Jonathan,” he intoned. “Jonathan Miller is one of the last remaining liberals in Kentucky. We haven’t gotten rid of all of them. Yet…”
These days, when it comes to the antagonism we feel for our opponents, sports and politics are virtually indistinguishable. As the annual UK/Louisville hoops clash approaches, I too have fallen victim to hyperbolic verbosity: describing the Cards as “the enemy,” their coach a “traitor,” their team worthy of our “hatred.”
U of L’s most prominent fan (OK, maybe right behind J-Law) provides for me double the micro-aggression. Not only does Senator Mitch McConnell love the Cards (and denies Matt Jones’ entreaties to admit that he hates the Cats); as the most prominent and powerful Republican in this Commonwealth’s history, he has transformed politics – both here and nationally – in ways I find pretry objectionable.
McConnell’s much-scrutinized 2010 comment that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” seemed to encapsulate everything that we progressives disliked about the Senator: His seeming focus on securing power for the sake of power, putting party above country, scorched-Earth negative campaigning, promoting polarization over desperately-needed problem-solving. I respected the hell out of his political skills — he’s inarguably the most effective Kentucky politician of my lifetime — but like most Democrats I know, I viewed him less as a partisan opponent, and more as a political enemy.
Mitch McConnell is our Darth Vader. (Or whoever the bad guy is in the new movie — I’m still waiting for the lines to shrink.)
Then I left the Frankfort bubble, and a few strange things happened.
I became acquainted with a number of his staff and former employees — folks that had worked closely with the Senator in Washington and the Bluegrass. Two things struck me: First, this was an extraordinarily talented crew: McConnell seems to pick off some of the smartest, most capable and most diligent folks on Capitol Hill and state politics. Second, they seem to all love their boss. Not in an Obama-2008 dreamy fan-boy kind of way; but rather as a friend, mentor, even sort of a surrogate father — deeply admiring his loyalty, self-discipline and commitment to public service.
And then came hemp.
Neither a farmer nor a toker, I’m probably the unlikeliest hemp advocate. But this tribute to Gatewood Galbraith and a phone call from state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer has led me on a continuing long, strange trip, fighting battles in Frankfort, Washington and federal court to legalize, develop and bolster the emerging industrial hemp business. (Read here and here about our early battles.) Aside from Comer, who got the ball rolling against all measures of local defensiveness, there’s been no person more responsible for the industry’s success and economic viability than Mitch McConnell.
After Commissioner Comer succeeded in building a bi-partisan coalition to pass legalization in Frankfort (with major assists from State Senator Paul Hornback and House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins), McConnell penned and ensured the passage of an amendment to the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill that authorized hemp pilot programs in states like ours that had developed regulatory regimes. This year alone, the state is witnessing all kinds of research and development, in 125 different projects: ranging from hemp food to horse bedding to car paneling to nutritional supplements.
Then just this past week, after the industry encountered sporadic resistance from federal agencies still trying to regulate hemp as a controlled substance (unlike its cousin marijuana, hemp has only trace levels of THC, the psychoactive drug that gets you high), the Majority Leader pulled off an even greater feat: The enormous, all-encompassing Omnibus Spending Bill — signed into law Friday by President Obama — contains a McConnell-inserted provision that forbids the feds from interfering with hemp pilot projects. More importantly, it enables the industry to start making money, by explicitly permitting the interstate sale, use and transport of industrial hemp grown or cultivated in state-sanctioned programs. As McConnell’s controversially-coiffed GOP sometimes-antagonist might exclaim, this is YUUUUGE.
What’s instructive about the Senator’s deep immersion into this issue is that it’s in stark contrast to my deep-seated stereotype of him — as a political animal solely focused on advancing Republican interests. I’m confident that McConnell polled the issue before he began advocating for legalization — to make sure he wasn’t committing political suicide. But there are no elections to be won by his support; and with the industry so nascent, no political contributions to be secured. As his staff and former colleagues have insisted to me, the Leader views this as part of his legacy — a sincere desire to assist Kentucky farmers, struggling in the post-tobacco economy, and potentially to build a vibrant new industry back home. This is consistent with his mission in recent months to vanquish the right-wing, just-say-no segment of his party, in order to wrest some bi-partisan compromises on trade, transportation, and last week’s effort to simply keep government operating.
My fellow progressives need not worry about me going soft. I still strongly oppose McConnell’s position on many issues about which I care deeply — from marriage equality and abortion rights to affordable health care and campaign finance reform. Because of these strong ideological differences, I will be on the front lines fighting the Senator’s attempt to flip the Kentucky Democratic House, and I will support whatever Democrat runs against him in 2020 (I even tried to recruit Ashley Judd last time.)
The personal animus, however, is gone, as well as the tendency to think the worst of every one of his pronouncements and decisions. I will agree to disagree with him — strongly on many occasions. But I will applaud him when he does the right thing.
A few months ago, one of my very oldest and best friends, David Hale, was sworn in as a federal district court judge. I spoke at Judge Hale’s investiture, as well as did Senator McConnell, who had strongly supported David’s nomination by President Obama. I approached McConnell after the proceedings and told him that I would never forget what he had done for my friend. The Senator responded, “Jonathan, I will never forget that article you wrote in which you claimed I was trying to lose the Senate race.” I laughed and responded, “Senator, I am so honored and flattered that you read my columns.”
I’m pretty sure the Senator and I are never going to be BFFs. And I am never going to root for his basketball team (except, of course, when they play Duke).
But with our nation so polarized and our politics so paralyzed, I hope others will occasionally look behind the vitriol, recognize where we have common ground, and view the other side for what it is: Americans who love our country as much as we do, even if they have a different prescription for its well-being.