The article “Coal has been a constant for ACCCE head in a varied career” originally appeared in CEO Update on November 15, 2013.
Mike Duncan says some of his earliest memories concern coal. Both grandfathers, at various times, were miners. After 67 years, his dad still has a country store in Kentucky where he sold supplies to miners when coal was booming in Central Appalachia, where Duncan has always made his home.
After law school, he and his wife bought a controlling interest in a Kentucky bank. For 40 years, they lent money to small coal companies and miners themselves. He’s back in Appalachia often, recently visiting along with six staffers. “It’s part of the culture. I’m trying to make sure that they understand a little bit more about the groups that we represent.
Duncan came to ACCCE in 2012 after a career that took him from small-town banking to big-time politics. Active in Republican politics for years—at county, state and national levels—he was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2007-2009, and in 2010 was founding chairman of the American Crossroads Super PAC. Along the way, President George W. Bush had named him to a term on the Tennessee Valley Authority board.
“Of course coal was part of the mix,” he said, along with nuclear and hydroelectric power.
He talked to CEO Update about steering ACCCE (See Preparing for transition can prevent staff turnover from becoming toxic), his entry into associations and his political background. Excerpts follow:
CU: How did the job at ACCCE come about?
MD: I was looking to go on another corporate board after my Tennessee Valley Authority board [post] expired, something in the energy space. I’d learned a lot during that period of time, so I had a skill set that was kind of interesting, and I was young enough and I thought, well, this might be an interesting thing to do, so I started talking to some of my friends. One called me and said, “Hey, I’ve got something for you,” and I thought it was probably an energy board of some kind. They said, “No, there’s this association that you really need to look into,” and I said, “Well, I’m not interested in being a lobbyist.”
[But] I’ve worked on causes all my life, and he said, “Well, this is a cause that you’ll feel good about.” And he submitted my name to [executive search firm] Russell Reynolds. Then I was contacted and did the interview process and learned it was something I did have a passion about, because it was the whole idea of coal and coal-based electricity, which means that the utilities were involved, and then, the third part was the rail.
We are a little different than an average coal association. We’re a coalition of coal companies. They’re represented by their own association here in town [National Mining Association]. And we’ve got the railroads—[Association of American Railroads CEO] Ed Hamberger does a great job representing the railroads. Then, you’ve got the investor-owned utilities, and we also have co-ops as part of our group, and the utilities. We also have as the final component, manufacturers, vendors who supply the chain. So ACCCE was created.
CU: In leading this coalition, you have different constituent groups in a way. Is there some analogy to the RNC?
MD: Well, I think everything you do in life prepares you for the next step. Certainly, being at the RNC was great preparation. There, I was a member first, then a southern regional vice chairman. Then, I was elected treasurer, then confirmed as general counsel, and then President [George W.] Bush asked me to be chairman. I’ve worked with almost every group within the RNC, so managing coalitions really is an important part.
Beyond that, I spent a year studying—when I worked at the White House for Bush 41—the difference between private enterprise and government, so had classes at [Harvard’s] Kennedy School. Working in the nonprofit sector is analogous to that. It’s not private sector, and it’s not government. It’s somewhere in between, but it’s managing those expectations of different groups, so all those things, I think, prepared me.
CU: And you had association experience. You were head of the Kentucky Bankers Association.
MD: I was. It was a great experience for me. I was the youngest bank CEO at one time, and then, I was the youngest president of our state bankers association. I was 26 when I became CEO of a community bank. Then when I was president of the Bankers Association—gosh, that was in the mid-’80s, so I was in my early 30s—it fell upon me to head the association during a time when they were looking for a new CEO. The guy who had it for many years decided to retire, so a big part of my job that year was to prepare the association for the transition.
We were trying to go from a dues-based organization to a service-based organization, and I learned a great deal about associations. During that period I wasn’t the day-to-day officer, but I had to immerse myself in the daily activities of the association during the interview process, and I’m proud to say that the person that we hired is still there all these years later.
CU: How did you get involved in politics?
MD: I grew up on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Our business was in Kentucky, and our farm was in Tennessee. I had an uncle who ran for superintendent of schools. It was an elected position then, and I went with him every day he campaigned one summer, and we lost by 12 votes. Of course, it broke my heart, but I learned a great deal, and I was hooked. Also, in this little community, former Sen. Howard Baker resided there, and his father was a congressman. His father and my uncle knew each other, and I thought everyone was interested in politics because I was in a hotbed of political activity. So my roots in politics go back a long way, and I think prepared me for the debate that was going on in leadership positions, understanding structures and understanding moving organizations forward.
CU: What are some of the policy challenges this association is facing?
MD: I believe that the EPA sometimes misreads the acts, and in this instance I think they have misapplied the Clean Air Act, and how it should be interpreted. I think the fact that they’ve come out with a new source of standards for new power plants to be built has done a couple things while they’ve gone through the process. It’s frozen any new plants because of uncertainty in the capital market, and I think now that they have a proposal out for comment that will create a de facto ban on new coal plants in the country, because it’s established a standard that’s not achievable. I believe their policy will be counterproductive in the fact that it will discourage people from making investments.
When I was a young man, I remember seeing Los Angeles for the first time or even Cleveland and seeing the dirty air there. We’ve cleaned up a lot of that, and where they’re going with their new standards, if you did away with all the coal plants in the country—which would be a terrible shock to our system for reliability, for affordability, it just it wouldn’t work, but let’s say you did—all you’re doing is getting rid of 3 percent of the CO2 emissions worldwide.
CU: How will you respond to this challenge?
MD: First of all you have a consensus as to what the message is, and with a coalition, you’ve got to listen to everybody, then you educate as many people as you can. Then, you advocate your position in many different ways. You advocate it on a federal level, but primarily, the fight is getting ready to go to the states. Because as the government goes through this process that the president has outlined, it’s very tight process. And this is a legacy issue for him. He wants to get it done during this period of time—there’s not a lot of room on the other end for a thorough debate.
Now we’re on this end up here where we’re having hearings—we believe they’re having them in the wrong locations because the states where they’re having the hearings only average 26 percent of their electricity from coal. And states that have a high percentage of coal, they’re not having hearings there. So we’re arguing with them on process. We think that it’s disingenuous.
Then, they next will come out with regulations or proposals on existing plants. Then, the states will have a chance to talk about that and work on that, and then, there’ll be a plan that comes out of the Federal Register. That will be given to the states as guidelines, and states will have to comply, and they have to do this all before 2016.
So we want to make sure everybody understands that there are tradeoffs. If you create this system, it’s not going to be uniform all over the country. A lot of places that have competitive advantages now, and have manufacturing, their electric rates will go up dramatically. We have to make sure that the policymakers understand what these tradeoffs are.
CU: When you’re working with policymakers, your group is working with both parties. How do you transition from former RNC chair to this bipartisan role?
MD: I think I was able to do that because of the passion I have for the issue and the people involved. I think the fact that I grew up in coal country, that I have an affinity for the people there, that I understand it so well and that I don’t see it as a Republican or Democrat issue. Flipping the switch on should not be [a partisan issue], or having a national energy policy that gives you national security.
I think if you go back and look at some of the quotes when I was hired here from Howard Dean—Howard and I served as chairmen together—and some of the other Democrats I worked with over the years, they’ll tell you I have the ability to understand policies and to work for solutions. I don’t know the political affiliation of everyone in the organization, but I know some of them are Democrats.
CU: Has anything in this job surprised you?
MD: Well, there’s a learning curve. I subscribe to this idea that it takes a period of time for you to maximize your effectiveness in any organization, and there is a learning curve with ACCCE, not only the people involved internally and externally, but the nuance of the issues. One of the good things about a job like this is every day is different. Sometimes you’re advocating, and sometimes you’re managing, and you’re educating. But sometimes you’re working on budgets.
CU: Did you ever consider running for office?
MD: I did early, but it just wasn’t the thing that motivated me. At different times I looked at it, and I would say, well, for this business reason or family reason, this is probably not the best thing for me to do. But I hope that I continue working, and I hope that I continue to have—this is your money quote—meaning and adventure in my life. That’s what I teach my interns to look for.