A Democrat and a UAW member: 'the Lone Ranger' of Clinton County

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

Steve Clark is a double endangered species in Clinton County.

He’s a Democrat who packs a union card.

“Sometimes, I feel like the Lone Ranger,” said Clark, who chairs his county Democratic Executive Committee and belongs to UAW Local 685. “But I’d be proud if I was the only Democrat in the county.”

About 1,300 of 7,400 Clinton County voters are registered Democrats. Union members are about as common thereabouts as August frosts. Donald Trump won 85.4 percent of the eastern Kentucky county’s vote—nearly 23 percent more than the president’s statewide margin.  

Clark drove 264 miles west from his home in Albany, the county seat, to root for Democratic politicians at the 132nd annual Fancy Farm picnic. Held the first Saturday in August, it’s Kentucky’s premier political picnic.

Reflective of the Bluegrass State’s deepening Republican Red hue, Attorney Gen. Andy Beshear and House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins were the only Democrats who spoke. (A former Democratic speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives emceed the speech making but, in keeping with tradition, stayed neutral.)

Sen Majority Mitch McConnell and an octet of other Republicans paraded to the microphone. The other speaker was a Libertarian from Arizona. 

Besides a bounty of bombast from politicians, the picnic features tons—nine this year--of hickory-smoked barbecued pork and mutton. The festivities began as a parish picnic and homecoming in Fancy Farm, a small, rural Catholic community in Graves County, nearly as far west as Kentucky goes.

Before the picnic, Clark feasted on biscuits and sweetmilk gravy at the Graves County Democratic Breakfast in Mayfield, the county seat.

Though Clark is way outnumbered by Clinton County Republicans—most of whom are less than labor friendly—he sticks up for his party and organized labor.

He doesn’t see how any working person could be a Republican or not belong to a union.

“It’s the benefits the UAW got for us—the collective bargaining. If you believe in fairness, the union and the Democratic party is the only way to go.

“Look at the platform of the Republican party. It says if you’re not rich, you don’t count. It says we’ve got ours and you get yours the best way you can.”

Chuck Paisley of Benton, the Marshall County seat, agrees. He’s in Paducah-based Laborers Local 1241 and is a member of the Marshall County Democratic Committee. “I came to support Democratic candidates and visit with friends,” he said.

So did Larry Sanderson of Paducah, a retired UA international representative who heads his hometown’s annual Labor Day Parade program.

“It’s an off year, but there are a lot of things we’re interested in—like taking back the House for the Democrats next year,” he said.

Last Nov. 8, the GOP flipped the state House of Representatives from 53-47 Democratic to 64-36 Republican.

With a Republican governor and a 27-11 edge in the state Senate, GOP lawmakers quickly passed a trio of union-busting bills: “right to work,” prevailing wage repeal and a measure that makes it harder for some unions to collect dues through payroll deduction.

“The Republicans tried to destroy us, but we’re still standing,” Sanderson said. “‘We’re Still Standing’ is the theme for this year’s Labor Day parade.”

Sanderson said he’s been to many Fancy Farm picnics. “I always enjoy it. The politicians roll up their sleeves and get at it.”

Sue Foster, president of Louisville AFSCME Local 4011, came to hear what the politicians had to say about charter schools, which she is against. GOP legislators also approved a charter school bill despite united opposition from Democrats, organized labor, the Kentucky Education Association and other pro-public education groups.

“I want to hear some good political speaking in our direction; that’s what we need,” said Julie Martin, Local 4011 parliamentarian.

Ron Richmond, political director of Indiana-Kentucky AFSCME Council 962, hoped “to connect with some people over the pension issue and to see if anybody will be talking about that today.”

State pensions weren’t a hot topic at the podium, though Gov. Matt Bevin and Republicans in the legislature insist they want to save the program for retired public employees.

The GOP really aims to gut the Kentucky pension system, say Democrats, unions and the KEA.

 “Pensions are the buzz this year,” Richmond said. “We’re hearing 50,000 versions of what’s going to happen.”