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Searching for clues, answers in Trump Country

Judy Pennington voted for Barack Obama in 2008, decades after her grandfather dug up and sold coal from his property. Elliott County, Kentucky, had followed the rest of the country into a deep recession, and Pennington “thought somebody young could bring new ideas in for the country.”

“But we didn’t get new ideas. We didn’t get anything,” she says.

On Nov. 8, Pennington was one of the voters who helped the county shift from voting for Democrats since its founding in 1869 to choosing Republican Donald Trump in 2016. Seventy percent backed Trump in a county Barack Obama won twice.

In interviews with The Associated Press, Elliott County residents provided clues to the results that handed Trump the presidency: They felt left behind the nation’s recovery, disappointed in Obama and infuriated by Clinton’s vow to put coal miners “out of business.” They like the way Trump talks and they like what they heard him say: That he’ll create jobs, and correct what they see as the wrongs of NAFTA and corrupt government. The New York City businessman made the sale with these rural voters who still reject congressional and state Republicans when there are other choices.

“If Trump was able to win in Elliott County, that really underscores how his message resonated across the country,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s longest-serving U.S. senator — who has never been able to win Elliott County in his 31-year Senate career. “He ended up being able to do what most of us thought was impossible, which was to appeal to significant numbers of white working-class voters, many of them, I suppose, never had voted for any Republican before.”

In theory, Pennington and her neighbors could be the best-represented Americans in Washington next year.

They are Trump’s base — nearly all-white and working class. Despite vexing McConnell with its “resistance,” the county by definition has as its advocate the most powerful man in the Senate. The House of Representatives and the White House are also Republican.

But what residents of the county’s hollows want from those soon to be in power is rooted in its coal-infused past. The aftermaths of the Civil War and the Great Depression hit hard here, offset by the New Deal’s government-supported projects, organized labor, agriculture and the coal industry — now more a cultural influence than the economic engine it was for generations.

That’s why Clinton’s remark at a town hall event in West Virginia — “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” stung — even after she apologized, said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents the county.

“The super PACs did an excellent job of playing that quote over and over and over, and that’s all anyone could think about after a while,” said state Rep. Rocky Adkins, a Democrat who represents Elliott in the state House. “That tells people, ‘That person is against me. That person is not for my family.”

Over the last decade while most of the country pulled itself out of the recession, Elliott County did not. AK Steel, one of the largest employers in the region, idled its plant in nearby Ashland. The Big Sandy power plant in Louisa, which once propped up the eastern Kentucky economy with its massive coal purchases, started using natural gas. Now one of the county’s largest employers is a state prison just outside of town, and many of the county’s residents have to travel out of state to find work. Unemployment in Elliott County stands at 11 percent, more than twice the national rate of 4.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median household income is just north of $28,000, a bit more than half of the national median.

More than 85 percent of registered voters in Elliott County are Democrats. Republicans make up 8 percent.

In the 2016 election, Elliott went with other parts of the state to elect Trump and send Rogers, who was unopposed, back to Washington. But it’s still a rebel county in some ways. Trump was the only Republican to win a contested race in Elliott County. Jim Gray, a gay, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, beat Republican Sen. Rand Paul by more than 12 percentage points in the county, while Paul won re-election. And though 17 incumbent Democrats lost their state House seats and handed Republicans control for the first time in 96 years, Elliott County re-elected Adkins with more than 85 percent of the vote.

With Trump, Pennington said she finally found a candidate she believed spoke directly to her.

“He talked and talked like the other candidates would have liked to have said, but they never did. He was just plainspoken,” she said.

For Phillip Justice, Trump fits snugly into his worldview. The 54-year-old retired state worker and small business owner sees injustice everywhere, whether it is who starts for the local high school basketball team or his son’s ability to get a college scholarship.

“I’m tired of putting in my 8, 10 hours a day and being dependable, and you go home and your neighbor has got as much or more that don’t do nothing,” he said. “I look for (Trump) to say, ‘Hey, you people that are on the draw, you are going to go to work and earn your check.’”

Justice is not a Republican voter, although he votes for Republicans.

Eugene Dickerson, an Elliott County native who owns a coal mine in West Virginia, has been voting for Republican candidates since 2000. He said Trump’s surprising surge there could be attributed to the county’s conservative mindset, abetted by its abundance of churches, that unites people around issues like abortion and gay marriage.

“I think appointment of Supreme Court really was the driving force behind Donald Trump carrying Elliott County,” he said.

Others see Trump as someone who represents their interests.

“I’m not expecting (Trump) to be a pastor,” Justice said. “But I’m not expecting him to be a dictator.”

DOMA challenger: Fight is bigger than ‘marriage’

At age 83, Edith Windsor gets plenty of compliments for her courage to take on the federal government in a landmark case that has put attitudes about gay America squarely before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the Philadelphia-born former IBM executive scoffs at how much gumption was necessary to go to court at a time when societal views of gay relationships are shifting.

“The world has progressed,” Windsor says. “At the beginning of World War II, they really did think we had horns.”

Windsor’s lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan is one of two that the Supreme Court agreed to take up Dec. 7 when it announced it would hear arguments over California’s ban on same-sex unions and Windsor’s dispute about federal benefits for legally married gay couples.

“It’s very joyous,” Windsor said in a recent interview at her apartment on Fifth Avenue in lower Manhattan. “I feel like everybody’s treating me like a hero. Everybody thinks it takes enormous courage.”

It was a moment she could not fathom when her heart nearly gave out after the 2009 death of her spouse, Thea Clara Spyer, less than two years after their marriage in Canada.

Windsor suffered an attack of stress cardiomyopathy, also known as broken heart syndrome, that was so bad that her heart stopped.

“I was ready to go. I didn’t care,” she recalls. “I had a wonderful life.”

Now, she’s found new reason to live.

“I keep saying, ‘Keep me alive until after the Supreme Court’” arguments in March, she said. “It’s a very important case. It’s bigger than marriage, and I think marriage is major. I think if we win, the effect will be the beginning of the end of stigma.”

The court case was a simple set of facts. Windsor maintained that the federal government’s insistence in the Defense of Marriage Act that a marriage can be only defined as a relationship between a man and a woman meant she was not entitled to a marital deduction on Spyer’s estate.

That meant, she said, that she owed $363,053 in taxes that she would not have to pay if the law did not unconstitutionally discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

The threat of discrimination was not new. Early in her life, she kept her sexuality from her family and friends, mindful of the dangers. Eventually, revelation of the truth brought sharp criticism from a sister.

For a time, she was married to a man she considered her hero after he left the Army just as she was about to enter college. But she told him she was gay, and they eventually divorced.

In the early 1950s, she moved to New York City from Philadelphia and obtained a master’s degree in mathematics from New York University in 1957. She then joined IBM and worked for 16 years in senior technical and management positions.

In 1963, she met Spyer at a Greenwich Village restaurant known for its friendly attitude toward lesbians. Though they arrived with others, Spyer and Windsor were almost inseparable on the dance floor that night and by evening’s end, Windsor had danced a hole in her stockings.

The dancing marathons continued sporadically over the next two years, usually when Spyer and Windsor met by chance at parties and usually to the frustration of their dates.

It was not until the spring of 1965 that they got together. Windsor suggested they date for a year and consider engagement for another year if that went well.

And, as she said in an affidavit in her court case, Windsor told Spyer: “‘And if it still feels this goofy joyous, I’d like us to spend the rest of our lives together.’ And we did.”

The engagement stretched for 40 years.

Spyer, worried an engagement ring would unintentionally reveal Windsor’s sexual orientation to her IBM colleagues, gave her a circular diamond brooch she wears to this day.

“Our choice not to wear traditional engagement rings was just one of many ways in which Thea and I had to mold our lives to make our relationship invisible,” Windsor said in her affidavit.

“We both faced pressures not only in the workplace and in society at large, but also from family and friends,” she added. “Like countless other same-sex couples, we engaged in a constant struggle to balance our love for one another and our desire to live openly and with dignity, on the one hand, with our fear of disapproval and discrimination from others on the other.”

In 1968, Spyer, a psychologist, and Windsor brought a small house together on New York’s Long Island and traveled frequently.

They hosted parties where Spyer displayed her culinary skills and grew ever closer, a tight bond tested repeatedly after Spyer was diagnosed in 1977 at age 45 with multiple sclerosis.

Spyer went from using a cane to crutches to a manual wheelchair and eventually to a motorized wheelchair she operated with one functioning hand. When Spyer could no longer swim, Windsor held up her body in the water so she could at least feel the water and splash.

Windsor, who had heart trouble, said they went to Toronto to marry when they realized they might not live long enough to wait for New York to approve same-sex marriages.

Windsor’s apartment is filled with photographs of the couple, including a life-size picture of a youthful Spyer, and Windsor’s favorite, a picture of them dancing together ago when Spyer was in a wheelchair, swiveling with Windsor in her lap.

Windsor marvels at how their lives, once hidden from nearly everyone they knew, are increasingly accepted. She never really expected such changes in her lifetime.

“Did I ever think we would be discussing equality in marriage? Never. It was just so far away,” she said.

Still, she said, she hopes the Supreme Court rules in a way that can lift the gay community, especially those who are plagued by the effects of prejudice.

“I grew up knowing that society thought I was inferior,” she said.

Now, Windsor hopes to enjoy a legal victory with a street party in front of a gay center, aware that it would be too large to be held beneath a roof.

“There are hundreds and thousands of people who would want to celebrate,” she said.