Yarmuth Cheered in Deep Red Western Kentucky

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Congressman John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, brought an unabashedly liberal message to arguably the most conservative corner of the Republican Red Bluegrass State.

His listeners seemed to love it.

“We cannot be afraid of being pro-government as Democrats,” he challenged the crowd of about 300 at the annual Alben Barkley Democratic Dinner in Paducah Thursday night. “We cannot buy into the Republican orthodoxy that the government is the problem and not the solution.”

He delivered the same left-of-center message to about 200 people at the Mike Miller Democratic Bean Dinner on Friday night at Kentucky Dam Village State Park in Marshall County.

Both feeds feature political speaking. They are warmups for Democratic politicians bound for the state’s premier political picnic at Fancy Farm. The picnic, in nearby Graves County, is always the first Saturday in August.

Other speakers at the Barkley dinner included Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear; House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins of Sandy Hook; State Reps. Gerald Watkins of Paducah and Will Coursey of Benton; and Sam Gaskins of Hopkinsville, an announced Democratic candidate for congress in the First Congressional District. Atkins, Watkins, and Coursey spoke at the Bean Dinner.

Barkley, from Paducah, was a congressman, Senate majority leader, and Senate minority leader. He was also vice president under President Harry Truman. The McCracken County Democratic Executive Committee sponsors the Barkley dinner, which includes some of the “the Veep’s” favorite food, notably chess pie.

Miller died in 2014 after serving as county judge-executive for 40 years. The Marshall Democratic committee hosts the supper where this year, the traditional bill-of-fare was expanded to include fried fish and hushpuppies.

At Paducah, Yarmuth said government was “the way we organize our responsibilities to each other. As Democrats, we believe we have responsibilities to each other—our neighbors, our fellow Kentuckians, our fellow Americans, our fellow human beings. We should be proud of that message.”

“Government is the way we organize our responsibilities to each other.” - John Yarmuth Click To Tweet

Most of his listeners in Paducah and in Marshall County came from deepest western Kentucky—the Jackson Purchase and adjacent Pennyrile counties. Trump won 66.4 percent of the vote in McCracken County. He piled up 73.8 percent in Marshall County and 76.4 in Graves, according to Politico.

In fact, Trump pocketed all but two Kentucky counties—Jefferson, which includes Louisville, and Fayette (Lexington). Beyond the state’s two largest cities, most elected Democrats distance themselves from the national party and eschew the liberal label.

No matter, the Barkley and bean dinner crowds warmed to the congressman from “Liberal Louisville.” They repeatedly interrupted his speech with more than polite applause.

The Paducah crowd at the city’s Walker Hall whistled and cheered when Yarmuth declared, “I’m a strong believer in Medicare for everybody.”

The Bluegrass State’s sole elected Democrat in Washington, Yarmuth is a co-sponsor of HR676, the Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act.

The Democrats who gathered in Paducah chowed down on ham and fried chicken and feasted on Yarmuth’s rapid-fire roast of Trump and the Republicans. (He reprised some of the jokes at the bean dinner).

  • “I now know why Ringling Brothers gave up the circus business. They couldn’t compete with Washington.”
  • “The only people doing well in Washington right now are the chiropractors because everybody is walking around shaking their heads and wondering, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Everybody’s neck is sore.”
  • “I have a lot of material prepared about the Trump administration, but you never know who’s going to be in the Trump administration from half-hour to half-hour. So just assume that I had a lot of really good lines about Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, but they’re gone.”
  • “The Trump administration is kind of like Kentucky weather. You know what we used to say, ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait around a half hour, and it will change.’ I hope there’ll be a big change at the top of the Trump administration, and I think it might happen a lot sooner than later.”
  • “I used to be a journalist. I wrote a lot of columns, and I still write from time to time. I’m used to employing adjectives, but I’ve run out of adjectives to describe what’s going on in the Trump administration. They’re going to have to start making up words. The regular ones don’t work anymore.”

Yarmuth, who’s been in Congress since 2007, told the faithful that during a recent appearance on MSNBC TV, the host asked him if he thought Trump would lie under oath.

“And I said, of course. Donald Trump is incapable of telling the truth. He is a pathological liar.

And when I said that, I started thinking to myself, ‘Should I really call the president of the United States a pathological liar on national television?’”

“Yes!” the Paducah crowd chorused before he could finish the story.

Yarmuth paused, smiled and deftly delivered the punch line: “And then I realized after a day or two it wasn’t even newsworthy.”

The congressman poured it on the president: “He’s raised the bar for insanity in a public official.

I make a lot of jokes about it, but it really isn’t funny any more.”

Yarmuth said Trump “is a dangerous person in the ultimate power position in the world. He has destroyed our reputation around the world. He has created fear and anxiety among all of our allies. This is a very, very dangerous man, and unfortunately in Kentucky we have a double-whammy because we have a mirror image of him in Frankfort.”

Everybody in the Paducah meeting hall knew Yarmuth meant GOP Gov. Matt Bevin. “He’s not quite as dangerous in the sense that he can create international conflict. But he’s every bit as dangerous as to the impact on the citizens of this commonwealth.”

Having preached to the choir, he urged everybody to vote the Democrats back into power in the state House of Representatives in November, 2018 and elect a Democratic governor the November after that one.

“Don’t worry about Washington. Washington is dysfunctional and probably isn’t going to get any better. For anything you’re interested in, there are probably 500 lobbyists already.

Spend your time and energy and passion at the state and local level.”

He said that, except for the Affordable Care Act, “every significant change in American over the last 15 or 20 years has happened at the state and local level. This is where the battles are, where the opportunities are and where the threats are.”

For example, he said cities and states across the country are raising the minimum wage on their own. He added that local and state governments legalized gay marriage, liberalized marijuana laws, and are sticking with their plans to reduce carbon emissions based on the Paris climate accord, through Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement.

He said at the same time, states have engaged in regressive policies. “Where’s all the voter suppression happening? It’s in states that are run by Republicans.”

Yarmuth also said that restrictions on reproductive rights are happening at the state level nationwide.

Thus, he said state and local government are “where the battles are, where the threats are, and where the opportunities are.”

He said threats to Kentucky’s working families include the new “right to work” bill and the measure repealing the prevailing wage law. The GOP General Assembly passed both measures in January, and Bevin eagerly signed them.

Yarmuth called the legislation “incredibly, incredibly depressing and wrongheaded.”

The congressman recalled that Bevin campaigned in 2015 against Kynect, the state health care exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act. About 500,000 of Kentucky’s 4.4 million people got health insurance through the program–about 425,000 under Medicaid.

“I remember thinking at the time, ‘How in the world can a candidate for statewide office campaign on taking health care away from half a million people?”

He said a Republican consultant provided the answer at a GOP meeting in Lexington. He “got up and said, ‘It’s not a problem. Those people don’t vote.’ It was publicly reported; I didn’t make it up. It’s not fake news.

“He was right. They didn’t vote.”

Yarmuth suggested that they probably shunned the polls on election day because they thought Bevin couldn’t win or that his “threat was not reality. Now it is reality. Gov. Bevin is trying to take healthcare away from Kentucky citizens.”

He also said grassroots activism derailed the GOP’s attempt to destroy the ACA and give millions of dollars in tax breaks to wealthy people.

Yarmuth said that in Frankfort, Washington, and everywhere else, Republican policy rests on a pair of “fundamental beliefs” he likened to religious tenets.

“One is that the free market solves every problem. The second is that government, the federal government anyway, can’t do anything right. Now that they’re in charge of the federal government, how can you expect them to make the federal government work for anybody?”

He said Democrats know how to make government work. He added that a Democratic-majority Congress under President Obama delivered the ACA, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street and Consumer Reform Act “and created the longest expansion in the American economy in terms of job growth in the history of the country.

“We cut the unemployment rate by more than half and” pulled the country from the brink of depression, he said.

“We understand that government can be an important way to make peoples’ lives better. In some cases, it’s the only way.”

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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.