A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

With hundreds of protestors outside, McConnell, panel discuss region’s pressing federal issues

By Mark Hansel
Special to KyForward

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s appearance in Covington Thursday was a study in contrasts.

Hundreds of demonstrators filled Seventh Street, carrying signs and chanting slogans, such as “Ditch Mitch” and “This is what democracy looks like,” in unison.

Inside the Hotel Covington, things were much more reserved.

McConnell was the keynote speaker at a Federal Issues Luncheon attended by 150 people and hosted by The Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce & the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.

McConnell seemed at ease, despite the protests that have accompanied his public appearances in recent days and the crowd gathered outside. He started his address by saying “I have a lot more fans than I used to have.”

Outside, demonstrators used signs and bullhorns to deliver their message. Inside the Hotel Covington, McConnell and a panel of experts discussed the region’s pressing federal issues over lunch (Photo by Mark Hansel)

“Protesting is about as American as apple pie,” McConnell said. “We’ve been protesting for 240 years.

He was briefly interrupted a few times by protestors who managed to make their way inside the Eva G. Farris Ballroom.

“Senator, we’re not protesting the election,” said an unidentified woman. “We’re protesting right-to-work. We’re protesting losing our health care. We’re protesting election interference in White House. We’re protesting the fact to get in front of you, we have to pay dollars.”

She was quickly ushered away by police, as were two other men who interrupted McConnell a few moments later.

The Senate Majority Leader seemed prepared for the possibility of interruptions and made light of it.

“I didn’t realize there were multiple speakers,” he said.

McConnell spoke on a number of issues, including the decision to block President Barack Obama’s selection of a Supreme Court Justice to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia until after the presidential election.

He said, at the time of the decision, he thought Hillary Clinton would be the next president, so partisanship was not a factor.

“The first thing that came into my mind was, (what) if the shoe was on the other foot,” McConnell said. “If the vacancy had been created in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election and there had been a Republican in the White House and a Democratic senate, there was not chance that vacancy would be filled.”

Closer to home, McConnell acknowledged the recent announcement by Amazon to invest $1.49 billion in an air hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and the impact it would have on the region.

He also praised the Kentucky General Assembly for its efforts in the first weeks of the short session. He mentioned the repeal of the prevailing wage, the passage of right to work, as well as the work on charter schools and tort reform.

“I wish I could experience a one week stream of successes like they had in Frankfort the first week they were in,” McConnell said. “It’s like putting an open-for-business sign in Kentucky. It really changes our image.”

MConnell even made light of his new role as Senate Majority Leader, comparing it to being a groundskeeper at a cemetery.

“Everybody’s under you and no one is listening,” he said.

McConnell addressed the November presidential election as well, acknowledging that President Trump did not win the hearts of voters.

“It’s no secret that neither one of these candidates was popular,” he said. “In the end, I think what the American people decided was this, ‘If you were happy with the status quo, and you thought America was doing just fine, in the end, obviously you voted for Hillary Clinton.’ But if you thought the country needed to go in a different direction and was underperforming, I think that was the fundamental issue that brought about the Trump election.”

Outside, demonstrators had a much different view.

“What we are not seeing is the reflection of our Democratic and American values coming out of our State Houses and out of Washington,” Linda Nesbitt, one of the event organizers, said. “We’re here today to send a positive message to Senator McConnell and the other legislators, that things like health care, clean energy and the environment and inclusiveness and diversity are important to our economy. He’s speaking to a chamber of commerce group today, so we thought the message of promoting and growing our economy is very important.”

Somewhat overshadowed by the clamor surrounding McConnell’s appearance and the protest were a panel of experts that spoke on some of the regions pressing federal issues.

Andy Aiello, general manager of the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky (TANK) discussed transportation, while Frank Julian, vice president of government and legal affairs spoke about taxes.  Newly installed University of Cincinnati president Dr. Neville G. Pinto, who most recently serves as acting president and professor of chemical engineering at the University of Louisville, spoke on acquiring talent.

Obviously the demonstration was not anticipated when the luncheon was planned, and it clearly diverted some of the spotlight from the scheduled program.

Despite the protest, Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President Trey Grayson said he was very pleased with the event itself.

“Doing this with the Cincinnati Chamber, is helpful to get the region together,” Grayson said. “A lot of the people here from Cincinnati have never been to the Hotel Covington before. Maybe we will do this next year with (U.S. Sen.) Rob Portman.”

A primary goal was to help promote and generate interest in the Joint Chamber Washington DC Fly-In in late May.

The annual Fly In provides an opportunity for the region’s leaders to travel to the nation’s capital to deliver a message to lawmakers about issues of importance to Northern Kentucky and its communities.

Mark Hansel is managing editor for NKyTribune. Contact him at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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