Journey to the southern border (of Kentucky): No immigrant hordes, but plenty of real issues | Opinion
Here on the southern border, a cirrus-streaked sky stretches over placid fields and low gray hills. The quiet is broken only by an occasional car as a turkey buzzard circles above, an empty and looted Express Mart next to the fading wooden front of the defunct Uncle Jack’s BBQ. No caravans, no wild-eyed rapists, no shady drug dealers with pockets stuffed with fentanyl. Just Clinton County, Kentucky on one side of the road, and Pickett County, Tennessee, on the other.
Here on the Kentucky side, we’ve been hearing from some candidates for governor that we should be very very worried about our southern border. “Joe Biden and Andy Beshear are ignoring the border crisis,” Kelly Craft said in a recent ad. “Criminals and illegal drugs like fentanyl are flooding into our state, ravaging our communities.”
Others, like Ryan Quarles, have picked up on the theme, figuring rightly that the combination of immigration demagoguery and the pairing of Biden and Beshear is an electoral winner. Beshear, Quarles said, has been “unwilling” to address the border crisis, as if Beshear has anything to do with people trying to get into the U.S. through Texas.
These musings, of course, are the work of pollsters and political “consultants” who think they know what plays best for neophyte candidates like Craft (hint, don’t tell a state with one of the highest overdose rates in the country that an empty chair at the table is anything but a death) but maybe don’t. They think the real needs and concerns of flyover country are quaint. As I often point out in this space, a lot of politicians prefer hot buttons (immigration, transgender children) to real policy issues.
But if they bothered to talk to folks in Albany, the county seat about five miles from the border, they might hear about some real concerns, like the need for better jobs, better roads to bring jobs there and oh, say, a functional water system.
Albany Mayor Steve Lawson said the Christmas cold snap further damaged the city’s old and decrepit water system. Like the stories we hear out of Martin County, people in Albany and the surrounding county frequently go a day or two without water, and it could get worse.
“We’re real close to being without water,” Lawson said. “Our pumps are close to breaking down and we’re without a generator. We need a whole new system.”
Old pipes mean water leaks, and it’s hard to find exactly where. “We’re losing money because we’ve already treated that water,” he said. As a 12-year veteran of city council, he didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem until he took the top job. “It was a lot bigger problem than I thought. It’s unthinkable that in 2023 people have to go without water.”
But in a largely rural county whose population has dropped at least 1,000 people in the past few years, according to the 2020 census, and where the median household income is about $35,000, tax revenues are not going to be enough to pay for new water systems. Lawson said he’s working with the Kentucky League of Cities and the area development district to find grant to help pay for improvements, but many of them are matching grants that the city can’t match.
“This is a poor area,” he said. “We haven’t raised rates in years. It’s just a huge problem and not one that can be fixed overnight.”
J.D. Chaney, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, said that while few municipalities are in as bad a shape as Clinton or Martin Counties, “there is a lot of aging infrastructure, a lot of communities that still have clay pipes. There’s a lot of band-aiding that goes on.”
Between ARPA and Biden’s infrastructure bill (which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted for), the governor’s office could be directing a lot of money toward those kinds of needs. So whoever that person is, they will need to know what the real as opposed to specious, issues are.
Clinton County sits smack dab between two huge tourist attractions, Lake Cumberland and Dale Hollow Lake. But Monticello got a jump on houseboat production, and for some reason, lake tourism seems to have passed Albany by.
“We need better roads and we need to enhance our tourism, and we need better roads to do that,” said Clinton Circuit Court Clerk Jake Staton. While Staton oversees the workings of court business, his real passion is Politics with a capital P. And infrastructure, which is long, slow, boring and hard to get, doesn’t seem nearly as much fun as political kingmaking.
As a visit to his office or his Facebook page will show, Staton is full on Team Craft, not because she’s got big plans for Clinton County, but because he thinks she can win, despite beginner problems like her first ads.
“I think she’s got a broader wisdom and the resources to access more avenues of wisdom from other people,” he said, artfully referring to Craft’s billionaire husband, Joe Craft.
Craft has tons of support down here on the southern border, partly because it’s close to counties like Barren, her home, to Monroe, home of major backer and Congressman Jamie Comer and the senate district of her running mate, the widely popular Max Wise.
Although fentanyl is not brought in through illegal immigration but by drug traffickers, as columnist and Clinton County native Al Cross pointed out last week in this column about Craft’s ads, she did hit on the important issue of drug addiction. Clinton County is a kind of flash point in that discussion, too, thanks to former county coroner Steve Talbott, who owns Talbott Funeral Home (where Mayor Steve Lawson happens to work because this is, after all, a small town.)
Alarmed by the huge increase in fatal drug overdoses, Talbott kept bugging state police about the source of the drugs killing people, and became the subject of a huge Washington Post story in 2019 after federal databases pointed to nearby Shearer Drug, “located less than two miles from the funeral home that Talbott runs in Albany, Ky. The family-run pharmacy purchased nearly 6.8 million pills that contained hydrocodone and oxycodone from 2006 through 2012 — enough to give 96 pills each year to every person in the county of roughly 10,000 residents.
“During this period, Shearer Drug procured more opioid pills on a per capita basis per county than any other retail pharmacy in the United States, according to The Post’s analysis of the federal database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration.”
Things have improved. According to the 2021 Kentucky Overdose Fatality Report, Clinton County reported fewer than 5 overdose deaths for that year.
Between the overall effect of drugs, plus COVID, Clinton County’s labor participation rate is about 49 percent. Immigration isn’t hurting Clinton; at the county’s biggest employer, a Tyson Food chicken plant a few miles outside of Albany, about 5 percent of the union workers are immigrants, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227.
People are always trying. Norma Anderson recently retired back home after many years of working in Tennessee, and opened the Albany Arts Studio and Gallery in Albany’s main square. It’s a gamble, she said, an art gallery in such a small town, but so far, she’s filled three sets of classes and a waiting list from people who want to learn the kind of portraiture that she does.
“I’m retired, and I wanted to give something back,” she said.
But the main problem is “so few job opportunities,” she said. “Because we’re so far from the interstate, we need more industry here.”
The gallery is filled with her portraits, of her grandchildren, of older folks, of the little Afghan girl from National Geographic with the startling green eyes. She’s working to create an arts community in Albany, which she says she can do partly because she retired. And partly because her husband still works. About an hour and a half away in Tennessee.