HYDEN, Ky. – Mary Simpson doesn’t put her faith in politicians.
She’s relying on God to one day resurrect the coal companies or some other industry that will bring jobs and prosperity to Leslie County.
Sitting at a four-top table in the nearly empty restaurant she and her husband opened in May on Main Street in Hyden, she worries about how they are going to make it.
“This is what it’s like here on a Saturday night,” she said, noting that two of the three people eating there that night were kinfolk.
She’s got her regulars. And she’ll draw some lawyers and teachers and the dentist and her pastor — “I wouldn’t be saved if not for that man’s sermons” — during the week. But she’s struggling to pay bills.
“I’m in debt up to my eyeballs,” she said.
I met Simpson while traveling Kentucky recently to find out what voters think about Tuesday’s gubernatorial election.
Simpson said she’ll probably vote in the election, but she doesn’t know what the main issues are in the race between Gov. Matt Bevin and Attorney General Andy Beshear.
She doesn’t see TV news or the commercials because she gave up television at home months ago so she could afford satellite, including the sports package, for the restaurant and its three wide-screen televisions. She hopes one day locals will pour in to watch University of Kentucky football or basketball games and have a burger or maybe a steak.
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To be honest, she doesn’t know if it matters what the issues are in the governor’s race.
Hyden is 148 miles from Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky, but it might as well be on the other side of the world, as far as Simpson is concerned.
“I feel like we’re too far removed to get help,” she said.
It’s more of the same throughout Kentucky, where people don’t seem to be all that engaged in the governor’s race. For the most part, they seem to be more concerned about national issues, or local issues, or just trying to get by.
Over the course of five days, I drove 1,394 miles in Kentucky. I tried to stay off the interstates and four-lane highways, instead opting for the old two-lane roads that not too long ago were the only way to get around the state.
That was before they were replaced by the wider highways and bypasses that spurred some development like Walmart stores and strip malls but left oh so many small town business districts to die of loneliness.
The roads don’t bring people to the old downtowns anymore. Drivers now have to go looking for the shops and the restaurants that were once a staple of the local economy.
I set foot — or at least wheels — in 55 of Kentucky’s 120 counties over those five days on the road.
I stood on a bluff under a 90-foot-tall cross and saw the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at Wickliffe in the west; and three days later, I watched the waters of the forks of the Big Sandy River — the Tug Fork and the Levisa — flow together at Louisa in the east.
I dodged deer on Ky. 141 in Crittenden County and prayed that no elk came rushing onto U.S. 23 into the path of the old pickup truck in Pike County, or that I didn’t run into horses like the ones that wandered into the roadway in Martin County.
From the flat lands of the west to the mountains of the east, one thing was abundantly clear. For whatever reason, people just aren’t paying that much attention to the race for governor — or if they are, they just aren’t that enthused about it.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, on Wednesday, predicted 31% of registered Kentucky voters will show up at the polls next week. That would put the turnout on par with the 2015 election, when Bevin was first elected and 30.6% of those registered actually voted.
On the other side of the state, in Wickliffe, Kym Endacott, who works as a cook on barges that run up and down the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, said she rarely misses an election.
“I always vote,” she said.
But she doesn’t know if she’ll make it to the polls next week.
Sitting on black metal patio furniture outside her sister’s home overlooking the Mississippi River — a pack of Marlboro and a sweating can of a Cape Line Sparkling Cocktail on the table in front of her, she said she used to be a solid Democratic vote and, in fact, voted for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But three years ago she voted for Donald Trump, and she’s a big supporter of his today.
She doesn’t trust The New York Times or The Washington Post, and it’s clear from just a few minutes talking to her that she trusts the more conservative news organizations like Fox News.
Endacott, 59, isn’t focusing on state issues.
She said her votes now are largely fueled by what she sees as a Democratic Party that has swung too far to the left.
“It seems like they have gone off the deep end,” said Endacott, who spent years living in Arkansas before moving to Kentucky about three years ago to be closer to family. “They’re too politically correct,” she said of the Democrats. “They focus too much on gender and race.”
And, she said, she supports Trump on immigration. “I’m all for asylum and letting people come in who deserve it, but I think we need a border wall,” said Endacott, who acknowledged that Wickliffe and Smithland, where she lives about an hour away, don’t have a big problem with illegal immigration.
But ask her about the governor’s race, and she says she “hasn’t been paying that much attention” and probably won’t vote.
Neither will her sister, Terry Bollinger, a 62-year-old barge cook who said she’s not engaged in the issues in the governor’s race and hasn’t voted since 2016 when the politicians and the television ads “had me so utterly confused.”
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In Pikeville, back in the eastern part of the state, Pike County Judge-Executive Ray Jones sat at the Tudor’s Biscuit World one Sunday morning and ate the low-carb breakfast of eggs, bacon and a couple slices of wheat toast.
Forty years ago, as the coal industry hit its peak, there were more than 80,000 people in Pike County. When the next census numbers come in, he said the population will probably hover somewhere around 52,000.
Jones, 50, said he’s not endorsed either Bevin or Beshear in the governor’s race because he wants to be able to work with whoever is elected to bring state dollars to his struggling county.
But, he said neither of the candidates is talking about the biggest issue he sees — an overhaul of the state tax system that would include a mechanism to adequately fund counties.
State law limits the type of taxes that cities and counties can levy and how much they can raise them without voters being allowed to override the increases. Making it worse are the increased costs local governments are being assessed to cover pension shortfalls.
Pike County, the largest county in Kentucky, has 1,200 miles of roads it must take care of, but only has enough money in its budget to repave 20 miles per year.
“We’re on a 60-year repaving cycle,” Jones said. “We need as much help as we can get.”
Jones said he can’t even afford to provide family health insurance plans for his workers.
Despite all the problems Pike County faces, Jones, a former state senator steeped in Democratic politics, said he’s never seen a governor’s race that inspired less enthusiasm in his community.
That’s sad because Pike County, which is struggling as the coal industry continues its downward spiral, has never needed more help from Frankfort.
One indicator of the lack of interest is the lack of political yard signs, which can often indicate how much enthusiasm voters have.
In fact, driving the entire state, it seems neither Bevin nor Beshear has an abundance of the types of supporters who are willing to stick a sign in their front yards. In the vast majority of counties, on the routes I drove, the number of signs was in the single digits — for both candidates combined.
Along Ky. 254 in northwestern Hopkins County, a casual observer may surmise that Scotty’s Sealcoating was leading the governor’s race. Scotty had more signs out than either of the two main gubernatorial candidates — two.
In Madisonville, Jarred Lafoon said he plans to vote for Bevin.
But he’s really not that enthused about it, and he doesn’t hear either Bevin or Beshear putting forward what he considers a reasonable plan to replace coal mining as the industry continues to decline.
He owns a machine company that makes mining equipment. Lafoon, 37, expects the industry to continue its decline not because of politicians but because of “clean, cheap natural gas.”
Adding to the struggles, Murray Energy, which employed 367 people in mines in Western Kentucky as recently as last year, filed this week for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It’s unclear what the bankruptcy will mean for those jobs.
Madisonville is in the heart of Kentucky’s western coalfields, and Lafoon said the region has depended so long on coal and its high-paying mining jobs that it hasn’t nurtured other businesses.
Why would it?
Other industries couldn’t compete with coal industry wages for years, he said.
“I’m not a big fan of Matt Bevin, but whenever I hear Andy Beshear talk, he sounds just like one of those left-leaning presidential candidates,” Lafoon, 37, said.
In Cloverport, in Breckinridge County, Bill Weatherholt said he’s never seen the nation so divided over politics. At the beer joint he and his family run in the tiny town overlooking the Ohio River, he won’t let his customers talk politics.
But if he did, they almost certainly wouldn’t be talking about the governor’s race.
“Nobody is very excited about it,” he said. “Except the teachers.”
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An old union member and a Democrat, Weatherholt, 67, said he doesn’t support Bevin because of the governor’s stand against labor unions and his incessant attacks on teachers.
His daughter is a teacher.
But he’s pretty much fed up with politicians on both sides of the aisle because, he said, none of them want to work together.
“If the Democrats come up with a good idea, the Republicans won’t do it. And if the Republicans come up with a good idea, the Democrats won’t do it,” he said. “At some point, common sense needs to come into effect.”
Down the road in Calhoun, the seat of McLean County, 35-year-old Republican James Perkins has the same beef.
A former military policeman in the U.S. Army and former school teacher, Perkins is now working 16-hour days trying to get his Big Oak General Store off the ground.
He casts many of his votes on three issues — abortion, guns and immigration — so Bevin’s campaign is speaking to him. But at the same time, he’s worried that the Democrats and Republicans are too entrenched to get anything done for the people.
Perkins said he’s willing to compromise on some things, and he believes that most voters are.
“Like on gun control,” he said. “I’m not for government telling me what type of guns I can own or taking guns away from people, but I could support background checks, or waiting periods or even some of the ‘red flag laws.'”
In Russellville, in Logan County, Jaime Saul isn’t paying much attention to the governor’s race.
The owner of The Flying Pig Coffee Shoppe, Saul is more focused on local issues like preserving the historic buildings downtown and making sense out of a complicated tax system that layers school taxes on top of fire taxes on top of city taxes on top of county taxes.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Saul, 43, who moved to Kentucky about seven years ago from Oregon after she and her husband found a beautiful old Victorian home online.
In Tompkinsville, hard on the Tennessee line, Anita Hamilton Bartlett said state issues are the furthest thing from her mind as the election draws near.
Bartlett, a Tompkinsville city commissioner and the owner of R&S Barbecue, said she’s the only black business owner in Monroe County, and she doesn’t get the feeling that Frankfort cares about anything that goes on in the town.
Former state Rep. Richard Turner, in fact, said people in Tompkinsville do feel a disconnect from Frankfort. They tend to know more about Tennessee politics than Kentucky politics because that’s where most of their news comes from.
Bartlett, 61, has gotten national acclaim for her barbecued pork shoulder — sliced thin, smoked, dipped in a deliciously spicy sauce and then finished over wood coals, the Tompkinsville way — but it’s still tough for a small business owner.
She doesn’t expect any help from Frankfort.
“I just wish I could get a small business loan to pave my parking lot,” she said. “But they don’t care about businesses like this.”
In Hyden, Simpson’s worries are more existential than paving a gravel parking lot. She’s worried about losing her restaurant and her home.
For two decades, she was a freelance court reporter. But there was less and less work as the population dropped and the businesses ceased to exist and, for good or bad, there just weren’t as many lawsuits being filed.
Late last year, Simpson and her husband, a coal miner, decided to give a restaurant a try.
Simpson, 42, had never worked in a restaurant before, let alone try to run one. “But I like to cook and I’m good at it,” she said.
In January, they rented out an old store front that in its better days was a drug store, then a storage facility for the hardware store next door and then, for a short time, a cafe.
There was the initial burst of business that comes with any new restaurant, but then the economy took a downturn. A couple of months after the Eagle’s Landing opened, Blackhawk Mining filed for bankruptcy, and pockets started getting tight around town.
Things got even worse a month ago when Blackhawk announced it was laying off miners there — Simpson’s husband included.
Now, Mary Simpson is working 80-hour weeks and has put her mother, aunt and sister to work and pays them what she can. A local college student comes and works largely for tips.
“I can’t afford to hire anybody,” she said. At least not as long as business remains slow. And she doesn’t see business picking up until people have more money to spend.
“We need jobs here,” she said, “but nobody’s going to build a factory here. We don’t have an interstate running through here.”
Worst of all, she fears that the politicians in the capital don’t understand the problems in places like Hyden.
But she’s not giving up.
“There is always hope,” she said. “We just pray and keep faith in God and we get by somehow.”