HAZARD — Perry County Central High School has had voter registration drives before, but nothing like this.
Senior Derek Jorge Campbell started asking his fellow students what party they registered with, and why, at the start of this school year, and too many didn't know, he said. So he started organizing.
On Wednesday, two Democratic Party activists and two Republican Party activists told Perry County juniors and seniors about where each party stands on certain issues, why they decided to join the parties, and why students should put some thought into their registration.
The speakers were put on the spot about Ashley Judd, marijuana legalization, poverty and jobs — but most of all, about the future of the coal industry in a county that is the state's No. 2 producer.
"A lot of people learned a lot of things," Derek said as at least 59 students filled out voter registration cards. Anyone who will turn 18 by Election Day, Nov. 2, is allowed to register and vote in the May primary.
"They were able to identify with the party they chose," he said.
Derek is a Republican in a county that is 4-to-1 Democratic. The county is represented by a Republican state senator, Brandon Smith, and a Democratic representative, Fitz Steele.
Derek said politics have been a hobby in his family for years, and he said he wanted to help register voters because it's important that students put thought into their party and don't merely follow their parents' picks.
"I'm not committed to a particular party," said activist Don Pinson, a Republican. "I'm committed to a set of values."
Pinson is the CEO of Heritage Ministries and lobbies for Christian values in government. He spoke to students about the religious values of the nation's founders and urged them to listen for God's voice in making political decisions.
The other speakers were more explicit.
Chad Aull, political director for Gov. Steve Beshear's 2011 campaign, said the Democratic Party is a big-tent party — "That's why so many Perry countians are Democrats," he said.
The idea that Democrats are free to disagree with each other resonated with Chasity Williams, 18, of Leatherwood, who registered Wednesday. And "I was raised around Democrats," Williams said.
But on one issue that garnered the most questions and interest from students, Republicans are "in lockstep," said Holly Harris, special counsel to the leadership of the Kentucky state Senate and former general counsel to Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's 2008 re-election campaign.
That issue is coal.
"Now the coal industry is completely under siege," by regulators and environmentalists, Harris said, when asked why coal has become an important political issue now.
She pointed to Tuesday's election of a Republican U.S. senator in Massachusetts as evidence of the nation's fury over President Barack Obama's plans for a federal health care system and a cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
Republicans "are not going to let it happen," Harris said.
Perry County Clerk Haven King, on hand to register voters, said the Democratic party is divided — the national platform is for cap-and-trade programs, but state Democrats are vocally pro-coal. He said Beshear "didn't get started well" on coal but late in 2009 decided to hire dozens of state mine permit inspectors to help coal mining companies do business.
And Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a Perry countian who is running for the U.S. Senate, has long favored surface mining that flattens mountaintops, saying it provides land that can be lucratively developed.
"If you want to vote for Mongiardo in the primary, register as a Democrat," Aull told students.
King, who heads the coal industry trade group Coal Mining Our Future, told students to attend rallies and call legislators to tell them how they feel about coal. He also told them to make sure their families fill out U.S. Census forms so the county can be eligible for more federal grants.
Asked about Ashley Judd's stance on coal, King delivered the line that got the biggest laugh: "I'd like to put Ashley in front of a herd of elk ... and see if she can survive when they run over her." Judd spoke at a rally against mountaintop removal mining in Frankfort; the rally was part of the reason King started Coal Mining Our Future, he has said.
Coal mining is one reason Joshua Bailey, 18, registered Wednesday.
"My stepdad works in coal, owns some mining jobs," Bailey said. So he registered as a Republican.