January 29, 2008

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A movie theater director in Paducah was fired after confronting Sen. Mitch McConnell about the Iraq war, and blames him for her demise. Now she’s running for Congress The vicious scream emanating from the elfin, pink-mopped body of 12-year-old Heaven Chamberlain seemed at first to give even the security detail pause. It was strange and incongruent that such a harsh noise would exist in that setting, traveling on the breath of a little girl into the passenger-side rear door of a large, American-made SUV, at the time housing one of the most important political figures in this country. “What the heck are you hiding?” Heaven howled. “Do you want my father to die?” Her father, with whom she is close, is active-duty Navy, stationed now in San Diego. Heaven lives with her mother, 4-month-old sister Ireland and stepfather Carl McNew in a Paducah trailer park. For about five minutes the security guy had been doing an honest job keeping his keg of a body between the video camera in the hand of Heather Ryan, the girl’s mother, and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell. Suddenly he found his voice. “Hey, none of that,” he admonished, pointing at the kid and offering a tense set of grown-up eyes. While all of this was transpiring, the 35-year-old Ryan tried to ask her own question, over and over, in calm, measured tones. “Senator, we’d like to talk to you about the Iraq war. Senator, we’d like to talk to you about — what are you hiding, Sen. McConnell?” The Navy veteran said she wanted only a minute of the minority leader’s time. But as she already knew from her experience with members of the protest group Iraq Summer, McConnell doesn’t respond to this stuff. Never really has. It was just after sunset on Tuesday, Jan. 15, outside the main entrance of the Maiden Alley Cinema, a nonprofit art-house theater in Paducah, of which Ryan would be executive director for only three more business days. The next day, amid some uproar among local powers, the chairman of the film society’s board, Jay Siska, took Ryan and her family out to dinner, purportedly to get the facts as Ryan saw them. Siska and Jason Coltharp, an attorney and spokesman for the board, were also talking to folks around town. According to Ryan, there was a lot of frowning and some worry over where the theater is housed. For the past seven years, the theater has split the oldest renovated building in Paducah with the Seaman’s Church Institute and the River Heritage Museum. The museum is a nonprofit currently looking to raise $24 million for a construction project that would further integrate it into the existing riverfront revitalization, according to Julie Harris, the museum’s executive director. Some of that money may come through McConnell, but she said in an interview Monday that she expects most to come from private sources. McConnell has already brought millions to Western Kentucky, some of which has gone to the rejuvenation project on Paducah’s riverfront. Ryan has alleged that pressure from McConnell about this money, and how close an avid war protestor stood to its destination, played a part in her demise. But Harris said the museum, like most nonprofits, must maintain relationships with politicians of all stripes, and that she doesn’t worry that the incident will dampen fundraising. Harris would not comment on whether fundraising would be affected if Ryan still had her job. The board would eventually vote to fire Ryan for her political activism, which until this incident, she was not aware was a terminable offense. During a meeting with the film society’s board on Jan. 18, Ryan was told she should stay quiet about politics and associated causes while running the theater. She reminded the board that her resume is littered with such causes. Didn’t matter: she was fired just after noon the following Monday. It was during that meeting — which she taped and then provided to Jim Pence, a Democratic blogger and proprietor of the Hillbilly Report, who gave it to LEO — that board chairman Siska implied that McConnell’s staff wanted her gone. “What they were thinking was that an employee from the building was doing this, and that concerned them because they have a connection to the building,” Siska said at the meeting. “… That someone would feel so negatively towards the Senator coming from this building. That’s what surprised them.” “I’m confused about their concern,” Ryan replied. “Are they concerned because they thought I was a threat, or are they concerned because —” “The way it was told to me is, they were shocked at the hatred that they felt coming from your daughter,” he said. Neither McConnell’s campaign office nor a representative from the Paducah Film Society returned calls this week. In yet another twist, Ryan announced Monday that she will run for Congress in the 1st District, a seat currently occupied by Republican Ed Whitfield. Ryan, a D.C. transplant with a background in politics, called the incident with McConnell “the catalyst that propelled me into this race” in a YouTube video announcement. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com