Elliott County: Revisiting the Democratic stronghold that embraced Trump

by Ben Stanley / 24 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Elliot County Kentucky Trump

Business is brisk and cursing is banned at Yates Barber Shop in Sandy Hook, Kentucky. Photo/Ben Stanley

A year ago, Ben Stanley travelled to Elliott County, Kentucky, to find out why voters, for the first time in 150 years, had backed the Republican presidential candidate. So what do they think now? 

From the moment you walk into Yates Barber Shop in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, you can tell that little has changed over the past year. Haircuts are still just 10 bucks. Two copies of the Bible are still within reach of the barber’s chair. Handwritten signs around the two-room trailer continue to discourage clients from swearing, which George Yates has always detested. “No cursing please!” says one. Another asks for “no dirty jokes”.

The same films – a mixture of Christian movies, old-time westerns and The Andy Griffith Show – remain in the DVD rack below a flat-screen television for waiting customers to watch.

“The TV – that’s one thing that is new,” says Yates, who has operated the shop for nearly seven years. “Well, actually, it’s second-hand.”

A 39-year-old ex-Marine with a shaved head, neatly trimmed beard and a patient smile, Yates describes being a barber as his “secular employment”. In spending time with clients and hearing their daily joys and frustrations, his real job, he says, is as “a witness for the Lord”. And in the Appalachian foothills, as everywhere else, those joys and frustrations often seem to be linked to one Donald J Trump.

One thing that hasn’t changed here, says Yates, is the division of opinions on the 45th President.

“From what I’ve seen in this shop,” says Yates, who lives in nearby Morehead, “half the people think he’s insane or could lead us to war. The other half are still on board with Trump: they still like him and think he is doing exactly what he said he was going to do.”

Sandy Hook, Kentucky, is not to be confused with Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of a gun massacre in an elementary school in 2012.

Photo/Ben Stanley

Break with tradition

Sandy Hook is the only town in Elliott County, which, 15 months ago, broke with a long tradition. For the first time since its formation in 1868, the 7725-person Eastern Kentucky district voted for a Republican in the US presidential election.

The candidate, a former New York property mogul-turned-reality TV star, won the White House after running a controversial isolationist, anti-immigration campaign that pledged to bring jobs back to blue-collar America.

His was a message perfectly pitched for Elliott County folk – 96.7% are white and most are evangelical Christians. They have watched the long-plentiful jobs in the local coal and oil industries dry up over the past decade. Trump took two of every three votes.

Last January, I travelled to Elliott County to find out what made its residents roll the dice with Trump, whose Twitter account, cocky rhetoric and often-contradictory worldviews have made for a rocky first year in the Oval Office.

Sandy Hook (pop 622), on the Little Sandy River, is quintessential smalltown Kentucky. Photo/Ben Stanley

Sandy Hook (pop 622), on the Little Sandy River, is quintessential smalltown Kentucky. Photo/Ben Stanley

A year ago, I found a frustration with a Democratic Party that no longer resembled the one their fathers, mothers and grandparents had voted for – and a very real fear that the post-industrial world was, almost purposefully, turning its back on them.

Sandy Hook (pop 622) seemed little different, at first glance, when I went back recently. Bare poplar trees still covered the hills around the town, which is built up from the banks of the Little Sandy River. There was still no cell-phone reception. And yet the sweet ordinary rhythms and news of a small town could be heard, if you listened.

Bluetongue disease and wild coyotes had wreaked havoc on the area’s deer population over the hunting season, so fresh venison had been hard to come by. The Frosty Freeze, Sandy Hook’s only restaurant, had been sold after Judy Pennington, the owner’s wife, died. The new proprietors kept the price of coffee at 50 cents.

Zach Mayse, the principal of Elliott County High School, had left his job, as had a number of teachers, in response to changes to state pension funds. At 7-7 at time of printing, the Elliott Lions, the school’s community-loved basketball team, was having an ugly year – it had won the regional title for the previous three.

Vickie and Troy Griffith. Photo/Ben Stanley

A new cafe and doughnut shop started before New Year and a Save-A-Lot supermarket opened in November, creating 28 part-time jobs. “Honestly, this year Elliott County is really booming,” says Vickie Griffith, who, with her husband, Troy, owns the All Occasions Fun Zone entertainment centre.

In December, it was announced a US$1.3 billion ($1.8b) aluminium plant would be built in nearby Ashland, creating about 500 jobs that will offer workers up to $52 an hour. The plant should open by mid-2019 and plenty of Elliott locals will have a job there when it does.

“That is going to be one of the best investments the state has ever made,” Matt Bevin, a first-term Republican governor, told media last month.

Trump had nothing to do with the aluminium plant deal or with new shops in Sandy Hook, but he gets part of the credit around town. Wherever they are in the world, voters who put their trust in a leader seek to have that ratified. Even if you have to squint to do that or stretch the narrative on jobs or economic growth a little, you will.

Since Trump was elected, unemployment in Elliott County has fallen from 10% to 8.2%. That’s still double the national average and the second highest in Kentucky, but it’s progress.

“You can walk around and you hear how much work is coming back,” says Troy Griffith. The couple recently opened All Occasions, with bouncy castles for children and an area for adult fitness and gym classes, in an old grocery store.

“You talk to people in the check-in and they’re down on Obama and up on Trump. He’s bringing jobs back. He’s giving people the courage to open businesses.”

County sheriff Ronnie Stephens and special deputy LaShawn Litton. Photo/Ben Stanley

County sheriff Ronnie Stephens and special deputy LaShawn Litton. Photo/Ben Stanley

Crime wave

Despite the rising confidence in business and work, Sheriff Ronnie Stephens has been dealing with a crime wave over the past year. Stephens, a three-term sheriff who took over from his brother Jim when he fell ill last year, says that heroin and meth usage increased “massively” in 2017.

The high unemployment rate and poor access to rehab resources mean Eastern Kentucky is considered ground zero for America’s opioid crisis. Despite declaring it a “public health emergency” last October, the Trump Administration has failed to enact any meaningful policies to curtail opioid usage.

“We’ve got a pawnshop here in town, across the road,” says Stephens, who will retire for good in November. “You walk in there right now – it’s full of things that have been stolen and sold. Weed eaters, jewellery – whatever they can get their hands on. Very sad.”

LaShawn Litton still works at the courthouse but has moved up through the ranks under Stephens. She has been made a special deputy over the past year, has taken a course so she can administer the drunk-driver tests – and is standing to become sheriff herself later this year.

“If you want something said, ask a man,” the 28-year-old solo mum says. “If you want something done, ask a woman. That’s going to be my motto.”

Barber George Yates. Photo/Ben Stanley

Litton, who, since separating from her husband, is considering returning to her family name Skaggs, has been relatively happy with Trump’s conduct as president, apart from his unpredictable tweeting.

“I don’t think his Twitter comments hurt him, but I think they do make him sound a bit ignorant at times,” she says.

Stephens, by contrast, reckons Trump is “a nut” who acts like a child on social media. “‘My button is bigger than your button’? That’s crazy,” he says, quoting a recent tweet aimed at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “That’s how you get people to actually start pushing buttons.”

Back at the barber shop, Yates applies a razor trim to Aiden Griffith’s hair. “As far as we know, we still have freedom of speech,” he says, “but I think freedoms are slowly slipping away. I’m just being honest. We’re not the America we used to be.”

In Elliott County, the stories coming out of Trump’s White House have not been received the way they have in more progressive communities. There’s little mention of Robert Mueller or Steve Bannon here; Michael Wolff’s controversial Fire and Fury isn’t brought up.

Yates is sceptical about the recently passed Republican tax reform – “I don’t know if it’s going to be good or bad for me, this bill” – but other policy shifts haven’t moved the needle much for the voters here.

“I know there are smog problems, but I don’t think there is global warming,” says Canaan Whitt of Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord last June. “We’ve just wobbled a little closer to the sun; in another 100 years, we’ll just wobble a little further away.”

Photo/Ben Stanley

Photo/Ben Stanley

Where coal is king

Coal, after all, remains dear to Appalachian hearts. On the campaign trail, Trump beat the drum for it – and is seen to be following through on his promises.

“I know they’re seeing more trucks on Route 23,” says Yates. “Things are starting back up for coal, and I do believe that’s Trump-connected.”

Boosted by sweeping deregulation and increased foreign demand, American coal production grew 6% last year, but according to a recent CNN report, only 500 new jobs were added in the industry.

In August, violent clashes in Charlottesville and Trump’s controversial “blame on both sides” response sparked a red-hot national conversation on race and the legacy of the Civil War, but it barely registered in Elliott County, which was founded by a former Confederate congressman from a hill-country community where Abraham Lincoln was not held in high regard.

“The statues and Confederate flag are part of our history,” says Whitt, a 40-year-old Sandy Hook carpenter. “The protesters – I think it’s just a publicity thing for them. If you go somewhere and something offends you, you’ve got the freedom to leave.”

Even though the Democratic dam finally burst with Trump’s election, the blue side of ballot will still dominate the midterm elections in Elliott County this year.

Five others will line up against Litton in the Democratic primary for sheriff in May. The winner is virtually assured of victory in the main election in November. Of the 5242 voters in Elliott, 4529 are registered Democrats; the number of registered Republicans has doubled since 2014, but there are still only 490 of them.

Yet the ideals of the old-time conservative Democrats are long gone. Elliott was the last Southern county to remain a blue holdout – and it seems unlikely, given the social trends and how both major parties are managing them, that a Democratic president will win here again. Not one voter I spoke to in Sandy Hook regretted voting for Trump.

“The old-time Democrats were not for abortions, which is legalised murder, and homosexuality,” says Chauncey Griffith, a carpenter and part-time Baptist pastor. “Everything has been switched around. That was why I voted Republican: if there’s a man or woman that stands and believes in abortions, I will not vote for them.”

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin.

From the state legislature in Frankfort to the US Senate, the Republican Party is well entrenched in Kentucky, though Governor Bevin could face a gubernatorial challenge from Sandy Hook native Rocky Adkins, the state house Democratic minority leader. But the Republican domination of Kentucky could end up hurting Elliott County folk. Recently, the state became the first to require Medicaid recipients to complete work regulations to retain their basic healthcare.

The New York Times has reported that about 100,000 of the poorest Kentuckians could lose their health cover. With 31.3% living below the poverty rate, Elliott County is one of Kentucky’s most destitute. Last year, Trump proposed sweeping budget reductions to rural economic, infrastructure and aid programmes that would further hurt locals.

Yet despite the possible struggles to come, they still trust Trump here. He’s not Hillary Clinton – and they’re patient enough to see what he can do with his remaining three years.

That said, there are lines that he can still cross. For Whitt, Kim Jong-un is a worry: “He’s a serious old boy – I don’t think you should be antagonising him.” For Yates, the bad language he reminds his customers not to use is a sticking point. “Totally inappropriate,” he says, after news broke of Trump’s vulgar, racially tinged comments about Haitian and African immigrants. “Just a thought – it really shows no respect at all.”

Elliott County doesn’t have the time to get immersed in each day’s episode of the Trump soap opera. More jobs and better healthcare matter here; so does keeping promises.

“I just try to worry about my little slice of paradise in Elliott County,” Litton says. “It might be an ignorant way to think, but I think about the people in my county, how life changes here – and how it affects me and my daughter.”

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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