‘Get some jobs in here.’ Inauguration Day in ‘blue’ Ky. county that flipped for Trump

Elliott County on Inauguration Day

Elliott County residents, who supported a Republican for president for the first time in more than a century, reflected on their hopes for the future as President Donald Trump took the oath of office in Washington, D.C.
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Elliott County residents, who supported a Republican for president for the first time in more than a century, reflected on their hopes for the future as President Donald Trump took the oath of office in Washington, D.C.

As the lunch crowd began trickling into the Frosty Freeze restaurant Friday, owner Judy Pennington stood in front of a television and eagerly awaited the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.

“Even though he’s a billionaire — and that don’t cut no ice with me — he’s for the little people,” she said. “The veterans. The coal miners. The forgotten people.”

Trump’s connection with those “forgotten” working-class white voters put him in the White House and shocked the political establishment. Nowhere was it more shocking than in Elliott County, a place Barack Obama carried twice and one of the last Democratic strongholds in rural Kentucky. No Republican presidential candidate had ever carried this 148-year-old county until Trump got 70 percent of the vote.

With that sort of victory margin, you might have expected a lot of excitement here about Trump’s inauguration. But, aside from Pennington, none of the customers in her restaurant seemed enthusiastic.

It was the same down the road at the Penny Mart, where several people were enjoying the taco salad special and ignoring Trump’s inaugural speech on television.

“It’s just what’s on TV,” said Matt Farley, who was working the cash register and said he wasn’t a Trump fan. “I just try to stay out of it.”

Several people at both restaurants who said they voted for Trump didn’t want to talk about it — or didn’t want to give their name if they did. Most said it wasn’t so much that they voted for Trump as against Hillary Clinton.

“A lot of people didn’t like her because she was a woman,” Pennington said. More than that, though, she just didn’t connect with people here.

“I honestly believe that if (Trump) and Hillary Clinton were out there in the parking lot, he would be the one to come in and talk to people,” Pennington said.

“You never saw any Hillary signs,” said Travis Jones, 28, a construction worker who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary but couldn’t vote for Clinton in November because of “all of her lies and scams and schemes.” Her pro-choice stand on abortion and her comments critical of the coal industry hurt her, too, he and several others said.

“Honestly, I thought Hillary beat herself,” Jones said.

Although he didn’t vote for Trump, Jones said he is hopeful the new president will turn out to be a champion for working people. But he is suspicious of all the rich business executives Trump has named to his cabinet.

“I’m not sure what to expect,” Jones said. “I think he’s going to fight for some of his promises, but he’s going to have some trouble because there are a lot of people who want him to fail.”

Jobs was the biggest issue for voters here. This isolated county of 7,600 people has an unemployment rate of 11 percent, more than twice the state and national average.

This isn’t a coal-mining county, but many miners live here and drive to nearby counties for work when it is available. Elliott is home to many union carpenters and pipefitters who traditionally found work at industries in Ashland, an hour’s drive away. Now, many of those jobs are gone, too.

“A lot of union people voted for Trump even though he was for right-to-work,” Farley said. “Some of them are regretting it already now that the state has gone that way.”

One interesting thing about Trump’s landslide victory in Elliott County was that, unlike other places in rural Kentucky, his popularity didn’t help down-ticket Republicans.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, the Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Rand Paul for re-election, won Elliott County by 12 percentage points. And while 17 Democrats were swept from the General Assembly in the Trump wave, people here re-elected favorite son Rocky Adkins with 85 percent of the vote. Adkins is now the most powerful Democratic legislator left in Frankfort.

James Fraley, a retired union pipefitter, and his wife, Wilma, ignored the television as they ate lunch at Frosty Freeze. They voted for Clinton only because “we had to pick between them,” she said.

“I just want things dealt with,” said Wilma Fraley, who worries many people will lose their health insurance now that Trump is in office. “I just want them to tell the truth about what they’re going to do.”

“I just want Trump to get some jobs in here,” Jones said. “If he brings them, it will help him. But if the jobs don’t come, it will just be like it has been.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen