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An impoverished Obama stronghold, waiting for the nation to change

FRENCHBURG — Menifee County was never part of the boom, but it is surely part of the bust.

It's a county that stands out by several measures. With fewer than 6,800 people Menifee is sparsely populated and rural, sometimes even remote, heavily white — and full of Obama voters waiting for their world to change after the new president is inaugurated on Tuesday.

Menifee's Obama vote sets it apart in Kentucky, which was a McCain stronghold in the 2008 presidential election.

Says Gwen Mayer, a longtime Frenchburg resident who volunteers at the town's Baptist church and serves on the county school board: "We want the best, and it's our turn."

Menifee County residents invest a particular set of expectations in the president-elect. Here, hope is not just a vague kind of happy idea about how life will be after Obama's inauguration, but instead quite specific: Bring us some kind of jobs, voters say. Free us from the unfunded tyranny of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind. Show us that rural doesn't mean poor, and disenfranchised, and hopeless.

Menifee County doesn't really have an economic base. The school system, the county's largest employer, aims high and teaches enthusiastically. But schools are hampered by a lack of money for building upgrades and the challenge of teaching special-needs and low-income students to the standards-based federal school accountability program.

But it's unfair to call Menifee County "yellow-dog Democrat" country. First-time voter Ashley Tincher says she thought hard about her first presidential vote and then voted Obama, because she thought electing the Illinois senator offered the best chance to improve her home county's schools and economic prospects.

Tincher, of the Means community in the county's western end, is a poster student for Menifee success. A high school senior already accepted at the University of Kentucky with a full scholarship and an interest in civil engineering, she drives 20 minutes to her part-time job at H&R Block in Mount Sterling.

By Menifee standards, her commute is modest. The average Menifee job commute is 36 minutes, according to census bureau statistics. Workers commute to Mount Sterling, Morehead and sometimes even to Lexington.

Tincher says her success only reminds her of how hard school can be for her fellow students — "our school doesn't have the electives" it needs, she says — and how she'd like things to be better for her 13-year-old sister.

Fellow senior Brittany Caudill, a cheerleader who lives among cabins scattered along a gravel-roaded ridge and hopes to work in a technology job, also voted for Obama because "for small places like this, it's hard for us. ... I see it, first-hand. I can't find a job myself, right now. I'm looking forward to a better place."

Says Brittany's mother, Dede Caudill Burnett: "This is a good community, with hard-working people. But there are no options. Give us a chance."

The lack of options is reflected in Menifee's lack of cash.

County income pales next to state and national averages: $11,399 versus $18,093 for Kentucky and $21,587 for the nation. By any standard — be it per capita income or median household income — Menifee is among the poorest places in the nation.

Still, the county went for Obama in the presidential election — setting it apart from much of Kentucky. Among Kentucky's 120 counties, urban counties such as Jefferson and Fayette went for Obama, but in Eastern Kentucky, only Menifee, Wolfe, Rowan and Elliott counties were carried by Obama.

One of the nicest buildings in Frenchburg, the county seat, is the new library, and newish cabins dot the countryside. But if Menifee County is ever going to come into its own, its voters say it's going to need help — and not just directives — from far outside Frenchburg.

Menifee school superintendent Charles Mitchell dislikes the all stick and no carrot approach of No Child Left Behind because "it's a one-size-fits all approach."

Mitchell voted for Obama because he thinks the president-elect's heart is with public education, even in counties like Menifee, where funding is scarce and children need extra teaching, extra books, extra help in getting hold of life's essentials. "Poor communities need more money for education, not sanctions and not less."

He looks wistfully down the road at the relative affluence of Montgomery County, with its recently expanded elementary schools and renovated high school with an $8 million gym.

If his district had $8 million, Mitchell said, his district would build a new elementary school. It doesn't have the money.

Lori Franklin, the school district's community education director, pilots the district's "scary school van" around the county's twisting two-lanes and talks about how the school administration constantly reconciles its aspirations with what it can afford. "They want to give these kids the same things kids get in other counties."

Edward Bryant, mayor of Frenchburg — which claims a population under 700 and operates primarily to provide water and sewer service — wanted to attend the Obama inauguration but couldn't get a ticket.

"The economy going, that hurts us big time here," he said. "People looked at Obama and thought if he could turn this economy around, it would help us."

In the 2004 presidential election, Menifee County voted Democratic, although it did narrowly go for George Bush in the 2000 presidential race.

"We're a very Democratic county," Bryant said. "We stick together pretty close"

And about the "yellow-dog Democrat" tag, referring to those who would vote for a yellow dog if it were running as a Democrat: Rhea Harper doesn't mind if fellow Menifee Countians call her that.

Her four-pound black poodle was nicknamed "Obama" by a townsperson who saw Harper's husband Dennis walking the effusively happy black pup through Frenchburg. She think it's funny rather than offensive: "It doesn't bother me one bit."

Rhea Harper was an early partisan for Hillary Clinton — "we had pretty good times under (Bill) Clinton" — but now she is vocally pro-Obama: "He's young, he has a good heart, he wants to do what's right."

Harper says she's discouraged by Menifee County's persistent economic woes and sees the new president as the only way out.

"Anything," she says, "to get rid of Dick Cheney and Bush."

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