Politics & Government

Bevin spoke at Hillbilly Days this weekend. The crowd wouldn’t stop booing.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin took the podium at Hillbilly Days in Pikeville to tell the small crowd why he should be reelected to a second term.

It was a pitch that touted his close relationship with President Donald Trump and his decision to address Kentucky’s pension crisis, and ensure that lawmakers fully-funded the state’s ailing pension system.

Of course, it was difficult to hear over the chorus of boos.

“I find it ironic that people who talk about thugs and bullies are screaming and yelling and acting like thugs and bullies,” Bevin could be heard saying while his opponents, most of whom were wearing Rocky Adkins for Governor stickers, were catching their breath.

“Bevin is not for the working people,” said Johnny Wright, one of the Adkins supporters, who said booing the governor was “better than sliced bread, in my book.”

Bevin was one of the five major gubernatorial candidates speaking at the annual Eastern Kentucky festival Saturday. As his Republican primary opponent and potential Democratic opponents made their own three-minute speeches, Bevin stood in the doorway of the Pikeville Courthouse as each one took shots at his record.

Gov. Matt Bevin listened as democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Edelen spoke to a crowd at the Pike County Courthouse Saturday during Hillbilly Days in downtown Pikeville. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

The frosty reception comes in a week when Bevin is particularly politically isolated. On Wednesday, he criticized lawmakers from his own party when they expressed disappointment in Bevin for vetoing a bill that would provide relief from soaring pension payments to universities and quasi-governmental agencies, such as community health centers and mental health departments.

Meanwhile, he remains unpopular statewide for his effort to reform the ailing pension system, and some of the things he said about opponents of the effort.

Adkins, the House minority floor leader from Sandy Hook who was campaigning on his home turf in Eastern Kentucky, said Bevin’s reception was exactly what he deserved.

“Governor Bevin has treated others the way he was treated here today,” Adkins said. “He has well earned and well deserved the reception he received here today.”

Gov. Matt Bevin spoke to the crowd over opponents of his message at the Pike County Courthouse Saturday during Hillbilly Days in downtown Pikeville. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Following his unwelcome reception at Hillbilly Days, Bevin spoke at a town hall in Inez, where he again promised economic growth in Eastern Kentucky and defended his actions regarding the state pension system.

Bevin briefly addressed Martin County’s ailing water system and said his staff will attempt to secure additional grant dollars from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands fund to strengthen the Martin County Water District.

One attendee held a sign that read “Matty Boy, Before you go, drink our H2O.”

Martin County’s water district came under heavy scrutiny last year from state regulators for a history of financial mismanagement that brought it to the brink of collapse.

Like many Eastern Kentucky water districts, the Martin County district loses a majority of the water it cleans through leaking pipes and aging infrastructure before it ever reaches customers, and many citizens do not trust the quality of water.

According to the latest report from the Environmental Protection Agency, Martin County meets federal Safe Water Drinking Act quality standards, but residents report that dirty and discolored water often flows from their taps — a result of broken service lines.

Bevin’s main focus on economic development in Eastern Kentucky revolved around Braidy Industries, which plans to build an aluminum mill near Ashland that has promised 600 jobs at an average salary of $70,000. Bevin said the company’s economic impact will ripple down into places like Martin County, where just a few employers hold most of the available jobs.

On Monday, the Russian aluminum giant Rusal announced it would partner with Braidy by taking a 40 percent ownership stake in the company. Rusal was previously blacklisted by the U.S. Government in sanctions issued in retaliation for Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election and its military operations in Ukraine, according to The New York Times. The company’s partial owner, Oleg Deripaska, is still under sanctions, and sued the U.S. Government last month to challenge those sanctions, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Braidy Industries received an unusual $15 million capital investment from the state in 2017, making all Kentuckians partial owners of the company. Braidy also benefited from a $4 million Abandoned Mine Lands grant to help build support piers and columns at its industrial site.

One crowd member, Neil, Mollette, compared Braidy Industries to Enerblu, a proposed battery manufacturing plant in Pikeville that suspended its plans earlier this year because of a lack of capital.

“They ain’t coming, you know they ain’t coming,” said crowd member Neil Mollette, during a question-and-answer session.

According to SEC filings published last year, Braidy Industries still needed $300 million to $500 million of investments before it could begin construction on its $1.7 billion plant.

Aside from a few opponents, the crowd in Martin County was notably more friendly toward Bevin than those in Pikeville — Martin County has about twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, while Pike County has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

At the beginning of his Martin County speech, Bevin said someone had asked him earlier that day whether he was comfortable in Pike County

“I feel like I’m home,” Bevin said.

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.
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Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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