East Oregonian : E.O. (Pendleton, OR) 1888-current, December 28, 2017, Page Page 8A, Image 8

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    Page 8A
East Oregonian
Thursday, December 28, 2017
In the heart of Trump Country, his base’s faith is unshaken
Associated Press
regulars amble in before dawn and
claim their usual table, the one next
to an old box television playing the
news on mute.
Steven Whitt fires up the coffee
pot and flips on the fluorescent sign
in the window of the Frosty Freeze,
his diner that looks and sounds and
smells about the same as it did when
it opened a half-century ago. Coffee
is 50 cents a cup, refills 25 cents. The
pot sits on the counter, and payment
is based on the honor system.
People like it that way, he thinks.
It reminds them of a time before the
world seemed to stray away from
them, when coal was king and the
values of the nation seemed the same
as the values here, in God’s Country,
in this small county isolated in the
foothills of the Appalachian Moun-
Everyone in town comes to his
diner for nostalgia and homestyle
cooking. And, recently, news
reporters come from all over
the world to puzzle over politics
— because Elliott County, a blue-
collar union stronghold, voted for
the Democrat in each and every
presidential election for its 147-year
Until Donald Trump came along
and promised to wind back the
“He was the hope we were all
waiting on, the guy riding up on the
white horse. There was a new energy
about everybody here,” says Whitt.
“I still see it.”
Despite the president’s dismal
approval ratings and lethargic
legislative achievements, he remains
profoundly popular here in these
mountains, a region so badly battered
by the collapse of the coal industry
it became the symbolic heart of
Trump’s white working-class base.
The frenetic churn of the national
news, the ceaseless Twitter taunts,
the daily declarations of outrage
scroll soundlessly across the bottom
of the diner’s television screen,
rarely registering. When they do,
Trump doesn’t shoulder the blame
— because the allegiance of those
here is as emotional as it is economic.
It means God, guns, patriotism,
saying “Merry Christmas” and not
Happy Holidays. It means validation
of their indignation about a changing
nation: gay marriage and immigra-
tion and factories moving overseas.
It means tearing down the political
system that neglected them again
and again in favor of the big cities
that feel a world away.
On those counts, they believe
Trump has delivered, even if his
promised blue-collar renaissance
has not yet materialized. He’s
punching at all the people who let
them down for so long — the pres-
idential embodiment of their own
“He’s already done enough to
get my vote again, without a doubt,
no question,” Wes Lewis, a retired
pipefitter and one of Whitt’s regu-
lars, declares as he deals the day’s
first hand of cards.
He thinks the mines and the facto-
ries will soon roar back to life, and
if they don’t, he believes they would
have if Democrats and Republicans
and the media — all “crooked as a
barrel of fishhooks” — had gotten
out of the way. What Lewis has now
that he didn’t have before Trump is
a belief that his president is pulling
AP Photo/David Goldman
Chesla Whitt, right, talks with employee Angela Whitley in the Frosty Freeze restaurant Whitt runs
with her husband in Sandy Hook, Ky., Dec. 13. Whitt isn’t quite sure how much faith to put in Trump
to improve things in her own life. She liked him on “The Apprentice.” She liked that he was funny and
knew how to make money, and so she thinks everyone ought to calm down and give him a chance.
AP Photo/David Goldman
AP Photo/David Goldman
Steven Whitt checks the date on a tombstone he
needs for a document as part of his funeral home
business in Sandy Hook, Ky, Dec. 14. In addition
to running a restaurant, also owns a local funeral
home, and he’s the county coroner — elected as
a Democrat.
Chesla Whitt, right, takes off a helmet her nine-
month old son, Tommy Joe, must wear after be-
ing born with a rare condition where his skull
bones didn’t fuse together properly, at their
home in Sandy Hook, Ky., Dec. 14. The helmets
cost around $4,000.
for people like him.
“One thing I hear in here a lot is
that nobody’s gonna push him into
a corner,” says Whitt, 35. “He’s a
fighter. I think they like the bluntness
of it.”
He plops down at an empty table
next to the card game, drops a stack
of mail onto his lap and begins flip-
ping through the envelopes.
“Bill, bill, bill,” he reports to his
wife, Chesla, who has arrived to
relieve him at the restaurant they
run together. He needs to run home
and change of out his Frosty Freeze
uniform, the first of several work
ensembles he wears each day, and
put on his second, a suit and tie. He
also owns a local funeral home and
he’s the county coroner, elected as a
The Whitts, like many people
here, cobble together a living with
a couple jobs each — sometimes
working 12 or 15 hours a day —
because there aren’t many options
better than minimum wage. There’s
the school system, and a prison,
and that’s pretty much it. Outside
of town, population 622, roads
wind past rolling farms that used to
grow tobacco before that industry
crumbled too, then up into the hills
of Appalachia, with its spectacular
natural beauty and grinding poverty
that has come to define this region in
the American imagination.
Whitt slides a medical bill across
the table.
“One thing I hear in here a lot is that
nobody’s gonna push him into a corner. He’s a
fighter. I think they like the bluntness of it.”
— Steven Whitt, restaurant and funeral home owner
“Looks like this one is the new
helmet,” he says, and his wife tears
the envelope open and reports
the debt: $3,995. They will add
it to a growing pile that’s already
surpassed $40,000 since their son
was born nine months ago with a
rare condition. His skull was shaped
like an egg, the bones fused together
in places they shouldn’t be. Tommy,
their baby boy with big blue eyes,
has now outgrown three of the
helmets he’s been required to wear
after surgery so his bones grow back
together like they should.
They pay $800 a month for
insurance. But when they took their
baby to a surgeon in Cincinnati,
they learned it was out of network.
In-network hospitals offered only
more invasive surgeries, so they
opted to pay out of pocket. At the
hospital they were told that if they’d
been on an insurance program for
the poor, it would have all been free.
This represents the cracks in
America’s institutions that drove
Whitt, a lifelong Democrat, from
supporting President Barack Obama
to buying a “Make America Great
Again” cap that he still keeps on
top of the hutch. Many of their
welfare-dependent neighbors, he
believes, stay trapped in a cycle of
handouts and poverty while hard-
working taxpayers like him and his
wife are stuck with the tab and can’t
get ahead.
“Where’s the fairness in that?” he
But Whitt doesn’t blame Trump
for the failure this year to repeal
the health care law and replace it
with something better. He blames
the “brick wall” in Washington,
the politicians he sees as blocking
everything Trump proposes while
“small people” like them in small
places like this are left again to
A third of people here live in
poverty. Just 9 percent of adults have
a college degree, but they always
made up for that with backbreaking
labor that workers traveled dozens
of miles to neighboring counties
or states to do, and those jobs have
gotten harder to find.
Many here blame global trade
agreements and the “war on coal” —
environmental regulations designed
by Obama’s administration to curb
carbon emissions — for the decline
of mining and manufacturing jobs.
When Trump bemoans the “Amer-
ican carnage” of lost factories and
lost faith, it feels like he’s talking
to the people in these Appalachian
hills. When he scraps dozens of
regulations to the horror of environ-
mentalists and says it means jobs are
on the way, they embrace him.
Coal has ticked up since Trump
took office; mining companies
have added 1,200 jobs across the
country since his inauguration,
more than 180 of them in Kentucky.
But industry analysts say that was
tied largely to market forces and
dismiss Trump’s repeated pledges to
resuscitate the coal industry as pie in
the sky. Coal has been on the decline
for many decades for many reasons
outside of regulation: far cheaper
natural gas, mechanization, thinning
Appalachian seams.
Whitt leans back in his chair and
ponders whether his community has
so far sensed any relief.
“I don’t think we’re seeing
anything yet,” he says, and asks
around. “Do you?”
The stock market is surging, one
of his regulars at the next table says.
The tax reform plan will help them,
they hope. The unemployment
rate here has dipped slightly to 7.6
percent, still higher than the state
and national average but better than
it had been.
“With the opposition he’s had,
I think he’s pulling the plow pretty
good,” offers Wes Lewis from the
card table. A few months ago, he
says, he saw four brand-new coal
rigs going through town. “For the
longest time, under Obama, all we
saw were trucks being pulled on
wreckers, because people turned
belly up, they went broke.”
Lewis says he’s heard about
friends of friends being called back
to work. He’s noticed new trucks in
people’s driveways, too, which he
takes as evidence that his neighbors
are feeling confident about their
futures. These tiny signs stack up to
him as proof. Lewis fishes the tag
out of the bib of his overalls: “Made
in Mexico,” it reads.
“Trump’s bringing them back,”
he says.
Lewis, a registered Democrat,
trusts Trump because he trusts his
values. And because of that, he
trusts Trump’s other promises — so
strongly he can’t think of anything
that would shake that faith in him. If
the factories and mines don’t come
back, he’ll blame the opposition.
If there isn’t a wall on the Mexico
border, he says, it won’t be because
Trump didn’t try. If investigators
find his campaign colluded with
Russians, it’s because so many
people are so determined to bring
him down.
He watches all the news stations,
he says, toggling back and forth as
he performs his own calculations to
figure out what he wants to believe.
He almost always sides with Fox
News and anchors who dismiss
allegations of Russian collusion as a
“witch hunt” and tout the president’s
declarations of accomplishments.
The people against Trump are, by
extension, against people like him,
too, Lewis figures.
“They don’t care if we starve to
death out here, because they don’t
care the first thing about anybody
other than their pockets being full,”
he believes. “Donald Trump doesn’t
care about that because Donald
Trump’s pockets are already full.
That’s the reason I’ve stuck with
LAWS: Minimum hourly pay in Portland
climbed from $9.75 to $11.25 in July
DEPOSIT: 64 percent of beverage containers
eligible for a deposit were redeemed in 2016
Continued from 1A
Continued from 1A
self-fueling to 24 hours in
15 Eastern Oregon counties,
with populations of less
than 40,000. The expansion
of the law was primarily
designed to keep solo gas
stations such as Heppner’s
in operation. Some stations
were in jeopardy of going
out of business because
owners couldn’t afford
to hire enough pumping
attendants, said Rep. Cliff
Bentz, R-Ontario, the bill’s
Stations are still required
to have at least one attendant
between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.,
but customers could pump
their own gas if the atten-
dant is busy and a cardlock
machine is available.
“Now, I think a lot of
that impact is off because
(motorists) don’t have to
sit and wait for someone
to pump their gas so they
flow through a little better,”
Wright said.
Minimum wage
The state’s landmark law
to increase in the minimum
wage for seven consecutive
years was enacted in 2016,
but the greatest jump in
wages happened in 2017.
Minimum hourly pay
“Life in the Portland metro area
continues getting harder for people
with entry- to mid-level wages.”
— Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley
in the Portland metro area
climbed from $9.75 to
$11.25 in July of this year,
after a 50-cent increase last
year. The minimums were
lower in other parts of the
state, an acknowledgment
from lawmakers of the
variety of economic real-
ities and cost of living in
different parts of the state.
Rep. Janelle Bynum,
owns four McDonalds
franchises in the Portland
area, supported the mini-
mum-wage hike, despite the
added cost to her business.
“I’m going to be honest
here. It is hard,” Bynum said
of balancing the increase
in payroll with her family
“Life in the Portland
metro area continues getting
harder for people with
entry- to mid-level wages,
so it’s good that raising
the minimum wage helped
give some relief to working
However, Bynum said
raising the minimum wage
fails to address the root
cause of why so many
families are struggling to
make ends meet: the cost
and availability of housing.
Full-day kindergarten
began in Oregon in 2015,
thanks to funding approved
by the Legislature, but the
law continues have to ripple
effects, both for children’s
long-term education and
families’ short-term finan-
cial outcomes.
For instance, students in
full-day kindergarten are
more likely to read profi-
ciently in the third grade,
a critical benchmark for
reaching on-time graduation
in high school, Sen. Mark
Hass, D-Beaverton, has
Plus, the longer children
are in school, the less child-
care parents have to pay for
or work they have to miss.
Drop centers is processed
in Oregon. That means
plastic containers such as
juice bottles that have been
headed to landfills in recent
weeks can go back to being
“The inclusion of new
beverage products in the
bottle bill is a testament
to the enduring success of
Oregon’s bottle deposit
system,” John Anderson,
president of the OBRC,
said in a statement. “We’ve
worked hard to prepare so
that Oregonians will expe-
rience a smooth, hassle-free
According to the OLCC
website, in 2016 a total
of 64 percent of beverage
containers eligible for
a deposit refund were
returned for a refund in
A full list of included
and excluded beverage
containers for 2018 can
be found online at www.
SETZER: Couple met as Peace Corps volunteers
Continued from 1A
reached the driveway. Ice
initially prevented the
moving truck from reaching
the house, however — the
movers drove to Seattle to
drop off other cargo before
coming back to unload.
Despite this inauspicious
beginning, Setzer and her
spouse rapidly fell in love
with their new town.
“Everyone was incred-
ibly welcoming,” she said.
“People went out of their
way to be friendly.”
The Indiana native noted
that Pendleton and Wind-
hoek (a city of 350,000)
have similar rough-hewn
beauty. The couple’s view of
the Blues from their living
room window is similar to
the one from their Namibian
home. The animals roaming
the country, however, were
quite different. In Namibia,
they saw giraffes, elephants,
lions, leopards, zebras,
ostriches, hippos and others.
“Warthogs and baboons
are the mule deer of
Namibia,” Setzer said.
In Africa, Jim helped
the Namibian government
strengthen the country’s
health information system.
Kathy’s visa wouldn’t allow
her to work for pay, so she
volunteered in an after-
school program.
Kathy had met her
when they both worked as
Peace Corps volunteers in
Zaire (now the Dominican
Republic of the Congo).
They married in 1980 and
raised two daughters. Over
the next few decades, the
couple also lived in Kenya
as well as Namibia. They
both speak fluent French.
In Pendleton, Kathy
works for CAPECO as a case
worker, helping low-income
clients beef up their résumés
with education and work-
force development training.
In their new home, the
Setzers have found opportu-
nities to spend time outdoors,
as well as enjoy the thriving
art and music scene. They
like to listen to music at the
Great Pacific or attend local
symphony or choral concerts.
“We are blown away by
the amount of talent in this
community,” Setzer said.
Contact Kathy Aney at
or 941-966-0810.