The thump of hammers, the roar of drills and the sticky, humid air fill a future cabin in western Kentucky as volunteers work in the summer heat, building transitional housing for survivors of the coronavirus outbreak. last year’s tornado in the area.
Camp Graves — a non-profit organization started earlier this year in part to meet these housing needs – saw church members, high school students and many others help build some of the infrastructure and small homes needed at the site in southern Graves County.
But this time, all the volunteers who transpire are from the same party, that is, from the political party. It’s the eve of the annual picnic at Fancy Farm, known for its sharp political speeches from those seeking employment and its boisterous crowds, located about 20 miles north of Camp Graves.
State party leadership and campaign staff for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Charles Booker volunteered last week to give back to Kentuckians in need following the natural disaster about eight months ago , what party leaders on the site say means more than who votes ‘red’ or ‘blue’.
“When you put your boots on the field, when you go out and sweat a little and help somebody, that’s politics,” said Kenny Fogle, deputy political director for the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Camp Graves was founded by two western Kentucky residents — Micah Seavers, a Republican, and Buck Shelton, a Democrat — to help victims who needed a roof over their heads. With the recent deadly floods devastating eastern Kentucky, Seavers helped supply the area in the days following the disaster. For him, it’s not about partisan labels.
“They are Democrats here today,” Seavers said. “No one said, ‘Oh Micah, how did you vote? Nobody says that because they help. You know?”
With the immediate aftermath of destructive flooding on one side of the state and the continued recurrence of tornadoes on the other side, politicians and people across the Fancy Farm Picnic have stressed the importance for Kentuckians to come together to help neighbors and strangers in times of disaster.
It’s a moment of bipartisanship as some see a hardening partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural America.
“People will have their stunt doubles [at Fancy Farm] and things like that,” Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Colmon Elridge said. “But I hope we all recognize that there is real pain and suffering right now, and that despite our differences, if we work together we can help ease some of that pain.”
Despite the disaster, a partisan back and forth
On the Fancy Farm stage the next day, politicians from both sides of the aisle pointed to examples of Kentuckians coming together amid disasters. But that doesn’t mean the event was free of partisan blows.
Kentucky Republican Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles in his speech attacked Governor Andy Beshear as the “shutdown governor” for public health COVID-19 mandates the Democrat imposed at the start of the pandemicthen he told the crowd how he had recently brought supplies east of Kentucky.
“Over the past six days, I’ve delivered over five tons of donated supplies to Eastern Kentucky because I know Kentucky is better when we pull together,” Quarles said during the Democrat chants. “When the going gets tough, we need a governor who is tough enough to unite us all.”
Quarles was one of several Republican gubernatorial candidates campaigning Saturday.
Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, another gubernatorial candidate, mentioned in his speech how Kentuckians “take off our partisan hats” in times of disaster to take care of each other; Cameron too volunteered in Eastern Kentucky assist in disaster relief. He then said that when he is the GOP nominee for governor next year, he will “remove” the Beshear family from office.
Beshear was not at the Fancy Farm picnic because he was in eastern Kentucky dealing with the aftermath of the flooding. While Kentucky Republican Auditor and gubernatorial candidate Mike Harmon said he understood the reason for the absence, he still criticized the Democrat for not originally planning to be at the picnic. Fancy Farm. due to a trip to Israel.
“We appreciate the response to the disaster, but even so, he wasn’t playing to be here somehow,” Harmon said. “He was literally going to leave the country.”
The emcee this year for Fancy Farm’s 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 instead of going overseas.”
There were even partisan squabbles over the flood response in the days leading up to the picnic.
The Louisville Mail Journal reported Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul last week hit out at challenger Charles Booker for bringing supplies to flood-hit eastern Kentucky, saying “the politicians there who are having their picture taken probably aren’t so useful”.
Booker fired back, responding that Paul “speaks like someone who hasn’t been in the field.”
Coming together in difficult times
Yet despite rhetoric from both sides, some politicians and Kentucky people still find moments to come together. Mayfield Mayor Kathy O’Nan said she had “never sensed partisanship” since her town was hit by a violent tornado.
“When it comes to state leadership, when it comes to federal leadership and local leadership, there was no mention of Democrat, Republican, independent. It’s just, ‘We have to work together to take care of these injured people.’ It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen politically.
In eastern Kentucky, longtime Republican congressman Hal Rogers recently rented President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to be the region’s “number one booster”. The state legislature in a bipartisan fashion earlier this year allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to help with tornado recovery in western Kentuckyand another special session is underway 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 hated “that it takes a natural disaster to bring people together.”
“As long as no one is taking advantage of a disaster to, you know, run for political office, that they’re legitimately there to help — I think that’s the most important thing,” Allen said.
For a local educator, what counts among the sometimes divisive politics is that people are ultimately helped after disasters, and politicians with bigger platforms can draw more attention to the plight of survivors.
Janet Throgmorton stands apart from the hustle and bustle of barbecue and politics on picnic day in the shade next to the old Fancy Farm Elementary School. She wears a green Fancy Farm picnic shirt – “IT’S A SMALL TOWN JETTY”, it reads – a tradition she has been attending regularly for decades now.
She was principal of the school for years – eventually seeing it move to a new building down the road – and she considers the Fancy Farm community part of her family.
Throgmorton sprung into action the night of the tornadoes, turning the school into a hub for hot meals, showers, supplies and more for victims who needed help a few miles from Mayfield, some of them they arrive at school still in pajamas with the few personal effects. they still had.
One of the people she remembers who came to the school was from the collapsed Mayfield candle factory, where nine people died.
“He had to sit and wait a bit for a shower to open, and I sat next to him and said, ‘How are you?’ And he broke down and sobbed because he had just seen and been through so much,” Throgmorton said. “I think that was just the first moment when the weight of everything that had happened past came crashing down 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 they represent and that somewhere along the way ‘we mixed that up pretty well’ until politics is sometimes a “struggle for power”. She thinks many politicians finally have the heart to do the right thing when disaster strikes.
She knows how her community in Graves County responded to tornadoes and how Kentuckians are now responding to flooding, people have put politics aside to help each other.
She said it was in state currency.
“You would hope political leaders 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, a cliché in some ways, but on the other hand, it’s so true.
Additional reporting by Lily Burris.