Fancy Farm 2017: Observations from the Crowd

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The Fancy Farm picnic crowd seemed to reflect the recent Gallup Poll that put Donald Trump’s approval rating at 53 percent in Kentucky.

When a speaker invoked the president’s name, about half the throng cheered and the other half jeered.

Krystal Ball and baby

Seated in a portable canvas chair under shade trees about 30 feet from the madding crowd was a well-known TV commentator, Democratic activist, and author.

“I had a lovely time,” said MSNBC’s Krystal Ball of her first picnic.

A small, rural Catholic parish in Graves County, Fancy Farm hosts Kentucky’s premier annual political picnic the first Saturday in August. The festivities feature down-home pit barbecue and old-fashioned stump speaking, both spicy hot.

The picnic is the unofficial start for Bluegrass State election campaigns. Crowds are generally smaller in non-election years; this one was no exception.

But the weather was atypical. Usually, everybody swelters in steamy heat. This year, the thermometer climbed no higher than the low 80s, and a light breeze seemed to chase away sauna-style humidity.

Ball, who lives in Louisville, heard the speechmaking over loudspeakers. The amplified oratory and the raucous crowd reactions failed to stir her baby daughter, Ida Rose, who was fast asleep in a stroller parked next to Mom.

“The barbecue was good; the weather was lovely … and McConnell left early,” said Ball, a former co-host of MSNBC’s The Cycle. She still makes regular guest appearances on AM Joy and other political programs on TV.

The Senate majority leader had decamped before the Democrats spoke, triggering a tsunami of catcalls and boos from the Democratic side of the throng.

Earlier in the day, McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, rolled up in a shiny black SUV accompanied by a police escort.

Mitch McConnell speaking

He eschewed a senatorial suit-and-tie for studied casual duds– de rigeur blue jeans and a matching blue, open-collar sports shirt.

As expected, Kentucky’s longest-serving senator rallied Republicans and riled Democrats in the crowd. He dissed the opposition as the “Democrat” party, employing a favorite conservative epithet popularized by GOP Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

McConnell touted a trio of Kentucky Republicans: First District Rep. James Comer, Gov. Matt Bevin, and Jeff Hoover, the new House Speaker.

McConnell bragged that he helped President Trump “stop the war on coal in its tracks.”

Bevin was absent, but the GOP lineup included Hoover and Comer, whose district encompasses Fancy Farm, in the Jackson Purchase. Other Republicans who paraded to the podium included a pair of local lawmakers, State Sen. Stan Humphries of Cadiz and State Rep. Richard Heath of Mayfield. GOP Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles and Auditor Mike Harmon also spoke.

Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook were the whole Democratic team, though the emcee, who is supposed to be neutral, was former Democratic House Speaker Bobby Richardson.

McConnell, who won his first term in 1984, glanced toward Beshear and Adkins and jabbed, “the first time I came to Fancy Farm, on this side there were governors, former governors, senators, former senators, representatives, state senators, and over on the Republican side it was me and a couple of county chairmen.

“My, how times have changed, right?”

While the GOP faithful whooped and hollered at the slam, some Democrats yelled “John McCain!” and “How’s the healthcare bill?”

They were referring to the Arizona Republican senator whose No vote killed the Senate measure to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Adkins and Beshear gave as good as they got. The attorney general claimed that Bevin would “be here today, but he’s really busy making Facebook videos that attack Baptist preachers, teachers, judges, legislators, the press and, let’s face it, whoever angered him over his Cocoa Puffs this morning.”

The speaking wrapped up with Libertarian National Committee Chairman Nicholas Sarawak.

Ball, 35, who once ran for Congress in her native Virginia, said she’ll probably return to Fancy Farm next year. Meanwhile, she suggested that if politicians at the picnic and elsewhere read her book, “they would see the dire moment we are in…and the way the economy is changing and leaving folks behind.”

The book is titled Reversing the Apocalypse: Hijacking the Democratic Party to Save the World. It came out last spring.

She hopes Reversing the Apocalypse gives readers “some ideas on how we can come together as a nation and try to figure this thing out.

“I think we have lost the thread of what we are about as a country, and that’s part of why we are coming apart at the seams. … We’re not going to be able to solve any of these big problems until we get back together.”

Before the speaking started, Ball joked that the picnic might not be the best venue for political unity “because we are all going to be yelling at each other in good fun, right?”

But she got serious again, warning, “We need to remember that we are all patriots; we are all Americans. We all want to feed our families and be able to have a good life and hope for the future.

We’re going to get a lot further in the country if we remember that.”

Meanwhile, Ball has started the People’s House Project to encourage working-class mean and women to run for congress as Democrats. The Amazon.com plug for Reversing the Apocalypse cites the project and quotes Ball as vowing that living in Louisville “with my husband and three children…is even more fun than having goats.”

Goat wasn’t on the picnic bill of fare, which featured 19,000 pounds of hickory-smoked pork and mutton. The event began as a parish picnic and homecoming 132 years ago. It remains so for many people, though the picnic is synonymous with politics.

“I came because my family lives here,” said Katelyn Givens of Bowling Green. She hobbled around the picnic grounds with one foot in Birkenstocks and the other in a gray plastic walking cast.

“I have tendonitis,” explained the teen who seemed more interested in playing a game called tab bingo than in the political oratory.

Mary Jane Littleton supporting healthcare for all

Octogenarian Mary Jane Littleton of Murray drove in from Murray with a homemade sign demanding “Health Care for All!”

“Why did I come to Fancy Farm?” she smiled. “Just because it’s here.”

Rosalind Bryant of Lexington brought a half-dozen youths. “I wanted them to have this experience and get to know early on how politics affects their lives,” said the Kentucky Education Association staffer.

Like father, like son

Harold Steele Jr., and his son, Blake, both of Versailles, again stood out in the crowd with their bright blue, left-leaning tee shirts and matching baseball caps.

“I had them made up in a tee-shirt shop in Versailles,” Harold said.

He and his offspring have attended four straight picnics. Their shirts—“Democratic blue,” according to Harold—say “LIBERAL” on the front and “PROGRESSIVE” on the back. The messages are reversed on the headwear.

Harold said most people who comment on the apparel are fellow liberals. “They like them and want to know where we got them.”

He added that, so far, the worst responses he and Blake have gotten from Republicans are nasty looks. “Usually, they turn their heads and keep on walking.”

Harold is 67; Blake is 37. “I’ve always been political, and he’s always been around me,” Dad said.

Steve Clark, Dem chair of Clinton County

Few Democrats are around Steve Clark, Clinton County party chair. Only about 1,300 of 7,400 voters are registered under his party’s label. Trump won 85.4 percent of the county’s vote (76.4 percent in Graves County).

“I sometimes feel like the Lone Ranger,” shrugged Clark, a member of the United Auto Workers.

Chuck Paisley is on the Democratic Committee in Marshall County. Trump carried the county, though Democrat Will Coursey represents Marshall in the state House. “I came to support Democratic candidates and visit with friends.”

Non-partisanship motivated Anthony Davis to travel 236 miles from Louisville with his wife, an activist in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “I just wanted to get out of the house,” he confessed.

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Berry Craig
Berry Craig of Mayfield is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and the author of five books on the Civil War in Kentucky. The last one, soon to be published by the University Press of Kentucky, is about the Courier and the rest of the state’s rebel press in the secession crisis of 1860-1861.