Amid divisive Kentucky politics, natural disaster recovery seen as a bipartisan moment
The loud thwack of hammers, the whirr of drills and the sticky, humid air fill a soon-to-be cabin in western Kentucky as volunteers work in the summer heat, building transitional housing for survivors of last year’s tornado outbreak in the region.
Camp Graves – a nonprofit started earlier this year in part to meet those housing needs – has seen church members, high school students and more help build some of the infrastructure and tiny homes needed at the southern Graves County site.
But this time, all the volunteers breaking a sweat are from the same party — political party, that is. It’s the day before the annual Fancy Farm picnic, known for sharp political speeches from those seeking office and raucous crowds, located about 20 miles north of Camp Graves.
Leadership with the state party and staff with Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Charles Booker’s campaign volunteered a few hours last week to give back to Kentuckians in need following the natural disaster about eight months ago, something that party leaders at the site say means more than who votes “red” or “blue.”
“When you get your boots on the ground, when you get out and get a little sweaty and you're helping somebody, that's what politics is all about,” said Kenny Fogle, the deputy political director for the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Camp Graves was founded by two western Kentucky locals — Micah Seavers, a Republican, and Buck Shelton, a Democrat — to help victims that needed a roof over their heads. With the recent deadly floods that devastated eastern Kentucky, Seavers helped take supplies to the region in the days after the disaster first struck. To him, it isn’t about partisan labels.
“They're Democrats out here today,” Seavers said. “Nobody said, ‘Oh Micah, how’d you vote?’ Nobody says that because they’re helping. You know?”
With the immediate aftermath of destructive floods on one side of the state and the ongoing recovery from tornadoes on the other side, politicians and people throughout the Fancy Farm picnic emphasized the importance of Kentuckians coming together to help neighbors and strangers alike when disasters strike.
It’s a moment of bipartisanship as some see a hardening partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural America.
“Folks will get their one liners [at Fancy Farm] and things like that,” said Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge said. “But I hope that we all acknowledge that there's real pain and real suffering right now, and that, despite our differences, if we work together we can help ease some of that pain.”
Despite disaster, a partisan back and forth
The next day on the Fancy Farm stage, politicians on both sides of the aisle highlighted the instances of Kentuckians coming together amid the disasters. But that doesn’t mean the event was free of partisan jabs.
Republican Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles in his speech attacked Governor Andy Beshear as the “shutdown governor” for COVID-19 public health mandates the Democrat imposed early on in the pandemic, and then he told the crowd about how he recently brought supplies to eastern Kentucky.
“The past six days I've delivered over five tons of donated supplies to eastern Kentucky because I know Kentucky is best when we unite together,” Quarles said over chants from Democrats. “When things get tough, we need to have a governor who's tough enough to unite all of us.”
Quarles was one of several Republican candidates for governor campaigning on Saturday.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, another gubernatorial candidate, in his speech mentioned how Kentuckians “take off our partisan hats” when disaster strikes to take care of each other; Cameron also volunteered in eastern Kentucky helping with disaster relief. He then said when he was the GOP nominee for governor next year, he would “retire” the Beshear family from office.
Beshear wasn’t at the Fancy Farm picnic because he was in eastern Kentucky dealing with the aftermath of the flooding. While Republican Kentucky Auditor and gubernatorial candidate Mike Harmon said he understood the reason behind the absence, he still criticized the Democrat for originally not planning on being at the Fancy Farm picnic due to a trip to Israel.
“We appreciate the response in the disaster, but still, he wasn't playing to be here one way or the other,” Harmon said. “He was actually literally going to leave the country.”
The emcee this year for the Fancy Farm political speeches, Republican Kentucky House Speaker David Osborne, said he appreciated Beshear and his administration’s work on the flood response and “for making the decision to stay here in Kentucky rather than go overseas.”
There has even been partisan bickering on the flood disaster response in the days before the picnic.
The Louisville Courier Journal reported last week that Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul had knocked challenger Charles Booker for bringing supplies to flood-stricken eastern Kentucky, saying that “politicians out there having their picture taken probably isn't that useful."
Booker fired back, responding that Paul is “talking like someone who hasn't been on the ground.”
In the days following Fancy Farm, the Kentucky Democratic Party has attacked Republicans for anti-transgender rhetoric in picnic speeches and defended Beshear for being in eastern Kentucky.
Coming together during trying times
Yet despite rhetoric on both sides, some Kentucky politicians and locals are still finding moments to come together. Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan said she’s “never felt partisanship” since her city was hit by a violent tornado.
“As far as the state leadership goes, as far as the federal leadership goes and local leadership, there has been no mention of Democrat, Republican, Independent. It's just, ‘We got to work together to take care of these hurting people.’ It's been one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen politically.”
In eastern Kentucky, long-time Republican Congressman Hal Rogers recently praised President Joe Biden, a Democrat, for being the region’s “number one booster.” The state legislature in a bipartisan fashion earlier this year allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to aid tornado recovery in western Kentucky, and another special session is in the works to allocate similar funding for flood recovery.
One of the Fancy Farm picnic attendees, Fred Allen, who works for a chemical company in Calvert City, said he hates that “it takes a natural disaster to bring people together.”
“As long as nobody takes advantage of a disaster to, you know, just showcase themselves running for a political office, that they legitimately are there to help — I think that's the most important thing,” Allen said.
For one local educator, what matters among the at times divisive politics is that people are ultimately aided after disasters, and that politicians with bigger platforms can draw more attention to the plight of survivors.
Janet Throgmorton stands away from the bustle of barbecue and politics the day of the picnic in the shade next to the former Fancy Farm Elementary school. She’s wearing a green Fancy Farm picnic shirt — “IT’S A SMALL TOWN THROWDOWN,” it reads — a tradition she’s attended regularly for decades now.
She was the principal of the school for years – eventually seeing it move to a new building up the road – and she considers the Fancy Farm community as a part of her family.
Throgmorton flew into action the night of the tornadoes, turning the school into a hub for hot meals, showers, supplies and more for victims that needed help just miles away in Mayfield, some of them arriving at the school still in pajamas with the few belongings they still had.
One of the people she remembers who came to the school had come from the Mayfield candle factory that collapsed, where nine people died.
“He had to sit and wait a little bit for a shower to open up, and I sat next to him and I said, ‘How are you doing?’ And he just broke down and sobbed because he had just seen and been through so much,” Throgmorton said. “I think that was just the first moment that the weight of all that had happened just crashed on him, and it was heartbreaking.”
Throgmorton – now the principal of Graves County High School – said she believes elected leaders are meant to serve the communities that they represent and that somewhere along the way “we muddled that up pretty good” to where politics is sometimes a “power struggle.” She believes that many politicians ultimately have the heart to do the right thing when disaster strikes.
She knows from how her Graves County community responded to the tornados and how Kentuckians are now responding to the floods, people put aside politics to help one another.
She said it’s in the state motto.
“You would hope that those in political leadership would see that being unified — still having your own agendas that you represent — but unified, we can accomplish so much more,” she said. “United We Stand, Divided We Fall’ is, you know, cliche in some ways, but on the other hand, it's so very true.”
Additional reporting by Lily Burris.