Guitarist's new gig is running for Congress

By BERRY CRAIG

AFT Local 1360

Guitarist Alonzo Pennington answers to “International Thumpicker.” He wants to be called “congressman.”

The Caldwell countian tossed his hat is in the ring for the May 22 Democratic primary in the First Congressional District.

Music has been Pennington’s life since he was 13. Twice, the Princeton resident was dubbed “International Thumbpicker.” His full-length record, “Thumbin,’” was the 2011 Thumbpicker's Hall of Fame "Album of the Year." He’s played his guitar at the Grand Ole Opry.

Pennington is accustomed to the stage. He’s getting used to a new gig: the stump.

First, he must get past a primary foe, Dr. Paul Walker, a Murray State University English professor. Both are rookies on the campaign trail; neither has ever run for office. So, they’re busy stumping the district and introducing themselves to voters. It’s a tall order; the First District ambles 300 miles eastward through parts of mostly rural western and south-central Kentucky.

“I’m Alonzo Pennington, and I’m a 100 percent true Kentuckian,” the Thumbpicker said in a statement. “I have lived here my entire life, and I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else.  My grandfather, Norman Pennington, retired as a proud union-card carrying coal miner from Hopkins County, and my father, Eddie Pennington, is known for carrying the torch and continuing to show the world the Western Kentucky-born style of guitar playing known as Thumbpicking.  Being a true Kentuckian runs deep in my soul.  It’s not just a place to live; it’s a place I want my grandchildren’s children to be proud of and to call home.  Like my father, I have traveled the country playing Kentucky music, trying to leave a little of our part of Kentucky in the hearts and minds of all the people I meet.  Of all the places I’ve been, I’ve never seen a more beautiful landscape, nor have I ever met better people than the good folks here in Western Kentucky.”

The primary winner will face incumbent James Comer, a Tompkinsville Republican. Comer is not pro-union.

He hasn’t been in the House long enough to receive a grade on the AFL-CIO’s legislative scorecard. But when Comer ran for governor in 2015, he said passing a “right to work” law would be his first priority.

Comer, too, is a Trump loyalist; the president gave him a ride on Air Force One. Comer voted to gut the Affordable Care Act, and he voted for the Republican Robin-Hood-in Reverse tax bill.

When he’s home in the district, Comer likes to claim he’s an independent-minded lawmaker. Yet he has voted Trump’s way on legislation almost 94 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s online “Tracking Congress in the Age of Trump.”

 Pennington and Walker pledge to be in labor’s corner in Washington. Both oppose RTW.

 We thank Pennington for taking time to answer our questions. (More information about the candidate is available via email at [email protected] and on his Faceoook page, "Alonzo Pennington for Congress:" www.facebook/penningtonforkentucky

 CRAIG: Rep. James Comer is a well-entrenched and well-financed incumbent. You can bet the Republicans will spend whatever they think it will take to keep him in office. The First District seat has been in Republican hands since 1994. So given what seems to be pretty steep odds for any Democrat, why did you decide to run?

 PENNINGTON: I think the people of Western Kentucky deserve a choice.  I think they are sick and tired of the same old rich career politicians, who are out of touch with the reality and the real people of our district.  Also, for the record, I think the odds for me appear steeper that what they really are. Not that it won’t be tough and lots of work, but we have a real shot at winning this election for the first time in many years.  

CRAIG: Name recognition is critical in any election. Comer has it. I read on your Facebook page that you are a singer and a quail hunting guide. Do you think that will give you a leg up in name recognition department? If so, explain.

PENNINGTON: I think my “leg up” on my opponents is that I’m one of the people.  I’ve been here my entire life and have no desire to live anywhere else.  I love this place and I love the people here.  My music career has gotten me some exposure and name recognition, but I’m banking on people to vote for me because I am one of them.  They’ll vote for me because they know I’ll work for them.

CRAIG: Do you or your family have a union background? If so, explain what the union has meant to you or your family.

PENNINGTON: I’ve had several family members that were union members.  My grandfather retired a card-carrying proud member of the UMWA in Hopkins County.  Along with him were his brothers and several cousins.  I vaguely remember hearing stories they told around the dinner table when I was a child of the picket lines and strikes.  Although at the time I didn’t understand what they were talking about, I could always tell they were passionate about it.

CRAIG: As you know, the Republican-majority General Assembly, egged on by Gov. Bevin, passed a "right to work law" and abolished the prevailing wage a year ago this month. When Comer and Bevin ran against each other in the 2015 GOP primary, both said passing a RTW law was their top priority. Both, too, pledged to try to abolish the prevailing wage. On the campaign trail, Trump said he preferred RTW states to non-RTW states. Sen. Rand Paul has proposed a national RTW law. Sen. Jeff Flake has proposed a bill that would suspend Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rules on any construction projects under any infrastructure bill that Congress might pass. Please explain your views on RTW and PW repeal.

PENNINGTON: RTW cuts everything from safety standards to the wages that these hard-working men and women deserve.  Our union halls are one of the best tools for keeping these big corporations treating workers fairly and with dignity.  Without the PW, labor costs may go down, but the quality of the work will also. If I’m hiring a carpenter to build me a new house, I don’t just go with the least expensive bid.  I want someone building it that knows what they’re doing and will do a good job.  I’d rather spend a little more for quality work than for something that isn’t finished, finished correctly, or just won’t last.  I want people to be paid a fair wage for a job well done, and I will fight for those people.   

CRAIG: I live in Mayfield. In recent years, we have lost a large tire plant and an air compressor factory. We used to have three clothing factories, too. Plants are closing all over the district and the country. What would you do to help bring good paying union industrial jobs back to the district?

PENNINGTON: Unfortunately, there are towns all over our district that look just like Mayfield.  I think this is a regional problem.  One of the ways I think we can set ourselves up for better industrial jobs is through investing more in education.  A smarter populous will bring better jobs to our communities.  We need more trade schools and a better way to prepare those high school students that want to go straight into the working population. 

CRAIG: On the campaign trail, Trump claimed he would stop outsourcing and keep jobs in the country. According to Chuck Jones, the former USW president at Carrier in Indianapolis, a record 93,000 jobs have gone overseas since he was elected. Trump and his daughter still make a ton of money from products made overseas. We knew Trump was full of beans (or something else) on trade (and everything else) all along. What would you do to promote meaningful legislation to stop outsourcing and save jobs? 

PENNINGTON: Most of the companies that have relocated outside the country still provide things we consume in the U.S.  We have got to find a way to prove to them that they can improve our country’s poor fiscal state by providing work to Americans who are capable and happy to have the work.  In turn, Americans with money are Americans that spend money.  I believe their return would be much better in the long-run by investing in us.  

CRAIG: I read that you are from Princeton. The coal fields are just to the east of you. Market forces--primarily a shift to natural gas--have shut down a lot of coal mines. Do you think a lot of coal jobs can be brought back? If not, what can be done to help jobless coal miners?

PENNINGTON: This question hits home for me.  I have family and several friends that rely on the coal industry for work.  Coal has been a great resource for many years, but there won’t always be coal to dig in Western Kentucky. Fortunately, the people working in the coal mines are skilled laborers. I believe with minimal training, we transition these people into jobs installing renewable energy resources such as solar panels and wind mills. I believe we are also an excellent region for a plant to manufacture solar panels, parts, and windmills. I’m going to fight for the funding to properly maintain, fix, and update our infrastructure. This will create many jobs that these workers are qualified to do as well. This includes everything from road work, to broadband internet across the district, to the power grid that too easily fails in many of our rural areas.  The ways to prevail through all of this are there.  We don’t have anyone in Washington that cares about fixing our problems and preventing us losing our workforce to other states due to having no opportunity for work.

CRAIG: The Kentucky State AFL-CIO and hundreds of unions across the country have endorsed a single-payer health insurance program. Do you support single payer?

PENNINGTON: I support the idea of healthcare for all. I know there are pros and cons to this type of program, but isn’t some healthcare better than no healthcare, and that’s a “worst case” scenario way to look at it.  How can we promise Americans the “pursuit of happiness”, if we can’t give them the opportunity to be treated when sick, or the opportunity to have preventive care? 

CRAIG: The AFL-CIO endorsed Hillary Clinton. We voted for her. From the start, Trump's entire program has been geared to make the rich richer and shaft those of us in the working class. Chuck Jones calls the president a "con man" and a "liar." Trump carried the First District in a landslide. What can you to convince working class voters that Trump is their enemy, not their friend?

PENNINGTON: I’m not comfortable calling the president our enemy.  I don’t agree with most of his agenda, but I do respect the office of the president.  I don’t think his values and policies represent the working-class voters of Western Kentucky, nor do I believe he has our best interests in mind.  He hasn’t done anything for the coal miners, and the new tax bill isn’t going to do anything for anyone in the working class. I wouldn’t call him our enemy, but I wouldn’t exactly call him our friend either.   

CRAIG: Based on the polls, there seems to be quite a bit of buyer's remorse over Trump nationwide. Do you detect it in the district? If so, what can you do to turn that into Democratic votes in November?  

PENNINGTON: I think there is and should be “buyer’s remorse.” He hasn’t done anything to benefit the working class and blue-collar people.  I think as his term goes on, we are going to see the sea of red turn to a massive wave of blue.  I think the American people are tired of politicians not getting anything done and not being able to work together. 

CRAIG: Do you support raising the minimum wage? Explain.

PENNINGTON: I do support a raise in it.  I think depending on the geographical location, it needs to be somewhere between 12-15 dollars an hour. Even this at 40 hours a week is still a minimal amount to get by on. I also think this will help cut down on the number of people that need food stamps and government help.

CRAIG: When she ran for the Senate In 2014, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, refused to say who she voted for in the presidential election in 2012. Who did you vote for in 2016?

PENNINGTON: I voted for Hillary Clinton.  She was the best choice between the two, but honestly, I wasn’t crazy about any of my options.  I’m still an Al Gore fan, so I’m hoping he may give it another shot one day, but I doubt he will.    

CRAIG: Would you agree to a debate--or debates--with Paul Walker and any other Democrat who might jump into the primary?

PENNINGTON: I would debate Dr. Walker, but honestly, I don’t see that we really need to debate.  We see many of the issues the same way. I believe he is farther to the left than I and the average Western Kentuckian are on some national issues.  I feel that I am a better representative of the kind of people we are in District 1.  I grew up here.  I know these people and they know me.  They are my friends and family and friends of family.  Many are fans of the music my father and I have played over the years.  In our shows, you can see our character and who we are.  We like to laugh, we are wholesome and down to earth.  Just like the people here in Western Kentucky, in my family it’s always been family first, work hard for everything your get, love God, and love our country. 

I know I have an uphill battle, but I’m ready for it.  Our people here are ready for someone that represents who they are, and the understands the life they live.  I promise to go to Washington and make all the noise that I can make until we start getting all the things we need and deserve here in Western Kentucky.  I vow to keep people before politics and through this, I’ll prove to you that I deserve your vote.