POLITICS
05/09/2013 10:00 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2013

Not So Solid South: Democratic Party Survives In Rural Elliott County, Kentucky

Eliot Nelson

SANDY HOOK, Ky. -- In 1988, the band Alabama scored a No. 1 country hit with "Song of the South," Bob McDill's tribute to life in rural Dixie. Twangy and anthemic, the tune entrenched itself in the Southern canon, primarily in jukeboxes and college party playlists. South of the Mason-Dixon line, its opening fiddle lick is no less a catalyst for beer-sloshing revelry than the first piano chords of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."

But lost on a generation of good ol' boys and fist-pumping frat brothers has been "Song of the South's" central theme: Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the fealty to the Democratic Party it renewed among rural, primarily white southerners.

"Well somebody told us Wall Street fell, but we were so poor that we couldn't tell," Alabama's lead singer Randy Owen croons in one verse. "The cotton was short, and the weeds were tall. But Mr. Roosevelt's gonna save us all."

And save them he did. Initiatives like the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, and laws like the National Labor Relations Act, rescued millions from the Great Depression and elevated many into the middle class. As a result, Democratic presidents, from FDR to Bill Clinton, received substantial backing from Southern white voters. It's no coincidence that three of those presidents -- Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Clinton -- were southerners themselves.

This breed of Southern Democrat has almost entirely disappeared, however. "We have lost the South for a generation," Johnson reportedly lamented after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. And indeed, the "Solid South" -- the term used to describe the Democratic Party's near-lock on Dixie in presidential elections -- has become flimsier by the year. Resistance to integration, hostility to social issues like gay rights and abortion, and opposition to taxes and larger government have led to an exodus of southerners from the Democratic Party.

The Republican Party has shrewdly exploited this disillusionment, accelerating the shift in allegiance. From Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" to Ronald Reagan's decision to launch his pro-states' rights 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. -- where civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were slain in 1964 -- the South has been at the heart of the GOP's national strategy.

Yet there remains one last traditionally Democratic bastion in Dixie: Elliott County, Kentucky, a small, sparsely populated area about the size of Chicago situated in the eastern part of the state.

The majority of Elliott's 8,000 residents have cast their ballots for the Democratic presidential candidate in every election since the county was incorporated in 1869 -- the longest continuous stretch of any county in the United States. This despite the fact that Kentucky as a whole has trended Republican over the last several decades. In 2004, Elliott was one of 11 rural Kentucky counties to vote Democratic. In the 2008, that number dwindled to four. In 2012, Elliott became the last county to vote Democratic -- not just in Kentucky, but among all predominantly white counties in the rural South.

Elliott remains the last embodiment in the region of the Democratic principles that "Song of the South" highlighted: a belief in the power of government to help people and improve their daily lives. When the county supports a Republican presidential nominee -- and recent election results suggest that time might be soon -- it will mark the final victory of conservative social values over progressive economic interests in the region, and the end of a once-powerful Democratic voting bloc whose roots can be traced back to the Civil War.

Now the Democratic Party relies heavily on the so-called "coalition of the ascendant," a constituency of minority voters, millennials, women and white-collar workers in urban areas. The Solid South, it seems, has retreated into a small corner of the Appalachian foothills.

ILLITERACY AND ELECTRICITY

The 90-minute drive from Lexington to Sandy Hook, Elliott's county seat, doesn't feel like a trip to America's most steadfast Democratic stronghold. As the city's high-production FM stations crackle and fade, central Kentucky's iconic horse farms and bluegrass fields give way to the densely forested and mountainous terrain of the state's coal region. The interstate narrows to two-lane roads with daunting twists and turns. Churches soon abound, as do dilapidated barns that once housed robust tobacco crops.

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On the way from Lexington to Sandy Hook. Photo: Eliot Nelson

Here, residents don't measure distances in blocks or highway exits, but in "hollers," the regional pronunciation of "hollows." Save for the Penny Mart, Robo's Country Store and a gas station, there isn't much commercial activity. At the Frosty Freeze diner, a greasy spoon with wood-paneled walls and formica counters, the television is tuned to Fox News, below which a passage of scripture is engraved in a wooden plank. Two tablet-shaped pieces of cardboard stamped with the Ten Commandments rest against a wall nearby.

Elliott is anything but diverse. According to the Census Bureau, more than 95 percent of its residents are white, making it the second-whitest county in the country to vote for President Barack Obama in November, after Mitchell County, Iowa. According to residents, many of its citizens are socially conservative, uncomfortable with gay marriage and largely opposed to abortion. The numerous Baptist congregations in the county help shape and reinforce the community's attitudes toward social issues.

Many families can trace their roots in Elliott for generations, and those who leave -- often to Morehead State University, a few miles over in Rowan County -- tend to return. According to the Census Bureau, 85 percent of Elliott residents were born in Kentucky, much higher than the state average.

This kind of isolation and geographic stasis usually doesn't lend itself to support for the progressive policies of the Democratic Party. Yet Elliott's voter registration numbers are staggering: 4,691 of the county's registered voters are Democrats, while just 227 are Republicans, according to the Kentucky Board of Elections.

"Our Democratic principles and how we're registered to vote was handed down from generation to generation," explained Rocky Adkins, who has served as Elliott's representative in the statehouse in Frankfort, Ky., since 1987.

Adkins' father, Jesse Adkins, a retired schoolteacher, voted Democratic in every presidential election, except for 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower's promise to end the Korean War lured him to the opposing side. His father, a Democrat of the Solid South mold and not inclined to vote on policy, was not pleased.

"Twenty-five or twenty-six years later, I got foolish enough that I told my dad about that. He just about whipped me on the spot!" Jesse Adkins recalled.

But it's more than tradition that keeps the residents of Elliott voting Democratic.

The New Deal dramatically recalibrated the county's worldview. For decades voters had sent Democrats to Washington in part because their forebears deeply resented the party of Lincoln. But the changes brought by an expanded social safety net, government-funded improvement projects and the power to unionize galvanized generations of Elliottonians and instilled in them a pro-government philosophy.

"When the New Deal came in, and the works program came in this county, for the first time a lot of men had a job that paid a wage," explained Gayle Clevenger, a part-time real estate agent and administrator at the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture, and a friend of Jesse Adkins. "Normally how people lived was that they lived on their tobacco and they lived all year to sell that tobacco crop, but for the first time they had a paycheck."

Jesse Adkins recalled spending his childhood in the 1930s and 1940s without electricity or running water. His father cobbled together a living driving mules, and meals in those days consisted of bean soup, fried potatoes, cornbread and, on select occasions, hog meat. Refrigerators were nonexistent, and milk had to be stored in wells.

"I didn't even know you could eat a cow until I went to college!" Adkins recalled in a booming, deep-chested drawl.

"Back then we didn't have to worry about electric going off because we didn't have electricity in the first place," Clevenger, who spent her youth in neighboring Carter County, added. "You really appreciated any comfort you had."

"You'd wake up in the morning and snow would be on your bed," she recalled.

Adkins rarely ventured beyond Elliott. Trips to other hollows and towns were daunting, requiring slogs along muddy roads. In winter, goods were often transported by horse and mule-pulled carts and sleds. By high school, only a handful of students were lucky enough to have access to an automobile.

By the late 1940s, however, roads had been blasted through Appalachia's dense hills, schools had been constructed in areas where illiteracy was rampant, and communities had been electrified.

"That was the biggest surprise I ever had in my life when I flicked the switch on the wall and the whole room lit up," Adkins reminisced.

Added Clevenger with a chuckle, "I remember coming home the day we got electricity and I thought, 'That's the brightest thing I've ever seen!'"

frosty freeze
Rocky Adkins, John Clevenger, Gayle Clevenger, and Ronnie Stephens at the Frosty Freeze. Photo: Eliot Nelson

Though Elliott lies on the northwest outskirts of Kentucky's primary coal region, many of its citizens have also labored in the industry, working in mines, driving trucks and transporting equipment. The Wagner Act, another New Deal reform, permitted residents to join the United Mine Workers union, which has also had a profound effect on the county over the years.

"A lot of people here are second, third, fourth-generation labor union people," Frank Olson, a retired school teacher and administrator, said. "A lot of retirees came back here that had been members of labor unions and brought their Democratic voting habits back."

For John Clevenger, the brother of Gayle's late husband, the presence of union jobs notably improved their lives.

"My mother passed away when I was 9 years old, and I doubt if my dad had five dollars in his pocket," Clevenger recalled. "My father got a job as foreman building Highway 7, and that was the first check that I ever saw my father bring home. I didn't understand that you had to get it cashed, because before that everybody worked and when you worked a day they paid you in hens or potatoes or whatever they had handy."

Like most of Eastern Kentucky, Elliott is a poor and relatively isolated place, helping insulate it from the rest of Kentucky's Republican shift. Wage levels are well below state and national averages, and roughly one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment stands at nearly 13 percent. As such, government still serves an indispensable role.

Medicaid beneficiaries make up one-third of the county's residents, as do those who receive food stamps. State, federal and municipal employers -- the county school system and Sandy Hook Correctional Facility -- rank among the county's largest employers.

For these reasons and more, Elliottonians keep sending Rocky Adkins to the statehouse in Frankfort.

Adkins is tall and soft spoken, with a quiet comportment that belies the immense influence he exudes as the Kentucky House of Representatives' majority floor leader, the second-ranking position in the chamber. At the Frosty Freeze, the only distinguishing feature that separated him from the hardy and weather-worn patrons was a neat V-neck sweater, a sartorial choice Gayle Clevenger affectionately said made him look like "a big-city Lexington lawyer."

After making the rounds, shaking hands, inquiring about family members and offering his opinions on the forthcoming legislative session in Frankfort, Adkins echoed the idea that Elliott residents feel a deep, personal connection to the Democratic Party, through the opportunities and assistance the government has provided.

"It was explained to us, 'This is why I'm registered a Democrat,' and they'd point to some reason, be it a road or something else," he explained of a typical Elliott upbringing.

"We still like the word 'earmark' in Elliott County," he added.

rocky adkins st
Rocky Adkins Street in Sandy Hook. Photo: Eliot Nelson

Adkins' political rise and continued success in elected office are emblematic of the tight-knit communal bonds in Elliott that define local politics.

A star basketball player at Elliott County High School and later at Morehead State University, Adkins was a local celebrity by the time he graduated college in the early 1980s. Local party officials, hoping to capitalize on his fame, approached Adkins about running for a recently vacant state house seat in 1986. He won handily.

In the years since, Adkins has solidified support in his district by pursuing an aggressive form of retail politics. Along with his counterpart in the state Senate, Walter Blevins, Adkins has funneled millions of dollars to his district, in the form of municipal projects and infrastructure improvements.

"Our people have seen that our county has really progressed when our people who work -- who've had jobs in the construction industry -- have progressed," Adkins said. "They view that as Democratic administrations being more supportive of how they make a living."

On that note, he speaks highly of the late Robert Byrd, who represented West Virginia in the U.S. Senate for more than 50 years and used his position atop the powerful Appropriations Committee to flood the Mountain State with federal funds.

"What he's done for West Virginia, as far as building new roads, infrastructure and all those things ... I mean we're neighbors, we get the West Virginia news here, and he's just an amazing person to listen to," Adkins said.

One need look no farther than the Rocky J. Adkins Public Library on the corner of Route 7 and Rocky Adkins Street in Sandy Hook to get a sense of his hands-on approach to legislating.

"I think the reason that Elliott County stayed blue is this guy right here," Gayle Clevenger said, motioning at Adkins. "I think that our people are loyal to Rocky and therefore we are loyal to his party. I think that maybe if it weren't for Rocky, we might've gone off, we might've bled red. But we just have such faith in Rocky that I believe that was part of the reason that we stayed true to our party."

ABORTION AND 'THE GAY ISSUE'

Elliott may not stay true to the Democratic Party much longer, however.

Should Hillary Clinton run in 2016, locals said they're confident that she'll sweep the county, and possibly the state.

"She is one of the Democrats who in my opinion can bring the South back to the Democrats," Rocky Adkins asserted. "I believe that with all of my heart."

"If Hillary runs for president," John Clevenger said, "she'll sweep this county."

Though a Clinton campaign likely would extend Elliott's Democratic streak one more cycle, her possible 2016 victories south of the Mason-Dixon line would be less a resurgence of the Solid South and more of a death rattle.

Indeed, the county's status as the country's longest-lasting Democratic stronghold -- and the Solid South's last holdout -- is tenuous. In last November's elections, only 49.4 percent of Elliottonians voted for Obama, while 46.9 cast their ballots for Mitt Romney, the lowest margin of victory for a Democratic presidential candidate in the county's history.

Al Cross, a longtime political columnist for the Courier-Journal newspaper and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, noted that Republican-allied groups, particularly those supportive of the coal industry, stepped up their attacks on Obama and a Democratic agenda it perceived to be hostile to the region's interests.

"In 2008, there were 100 issues that got talked about," Cross said. "In this election, the coal industry made a much more concerted effort to remind people that Obama was anti-coal."

Rocky Adkins, who uses the phrase "war on coal" -- a favorite among industry lobbyists and Republicans -- agreed that there is some daylight between the national Democratic platform and Elliott's residents.

"There's no question that more rural counties have more conservative Democrats, and those social issues do matter, and there are concerns about those issues," said Adkins. "We're Kentucky Democrats, we're not Washington, D.C., Democrats."

The party's stance on social issues has also come under greater scrutiny here. "A lot of it is religion," Gayle Clevenger said. "We have very strong churches in this county and they have very strong beliefs and they really got on this abortion thing -- that became the buzzword."

Ronnie Stephens, a former Elliott County sheriff, added, "I was afraid that Obama would not carry Elliott County when he came out and endorsed the gay right to marriage."

In a phone interview, Walter Blevins spoke passionately about his party's economic platform and "those programs that have made a difference in my life and made a difference to many of the people in my area." But he voiced concerns about Democratic efforts to expand gun control and "the abortion issue and also the gay issue."

That said, Gayle Clevenger remained unfazed by the forces turning her country away from Democratic presidential candidates. "I go to church, I listen, I take what I need, I leave what I don't," she explained. Besides, she added, "If I stop going to church, who will come to my funeral?"

John Clevenger's reaction was swift.

"Vote Republican one time and I won't be there!" he said.

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