Voices: J. D. Vance wouldn’t know what to say to a real Appalachian like me. Ohio deserves better

Election 2022 Senate Ohio (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)
Election 2022 Senate Ohio (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

I sometimes joke that J.D. Vance is my evil twin. Born a year and a half before me, Vance and I are both the grandchildren of Appalachian out-migrants. He is the first in his family to obtain a university degree, and so am I. He grew up about 30 miles from where I grew up in the decaying Rust Belt cities between Dayton and Cincinnati. Jackson, from where his grandmother hailed and from whence J.D. claims his Appalachian identity, is 45 miles from my grandmother’s home town — and where I spent much of my childhood and graduated high school — in Hyden.

That, however, is where the similarities end. I will be going to Jackson — Vance’s ancestral hometown, not mine — next week to continue my reporting on the devastating summer flooding in that county, a tragedy which has claimed at least 40 lives across eastern Kentucky. Having written two in-depth pieces on the flooding in Breathitt County (of which Jackson is the county seat), I am taking a small film crew to make a short documentary on the recovery efforts.

Despite it being his claim to Appalachian identity and thus his claim to fame, Vance hasn’t even tweeted about Breathitt County. Yet on Monday, Breitbart ran a piece claiming J.D. Vance “channels his Appalachian roots” in a campaign stop.

That burns me up. Appalachian identity is a complex and nebulous thing, and who is and isn’t Appalachian can be a source of debate. What I am sure of, though, is Vance has no claim to that identity. Like countless outsiders before him, Vance has exploited and misrepresented our region without a thought for the people or the land left behind. And Vance may be a lot of things, but he is not Appalachian.

In a way, though, I can forgive Breitbart for the mistake. Vance, who was in southeastern Ohio and thus in Appalachia, made his name off Appalachia despite never having lived here a day in his life. Hillbilly Elegy propelled him to national fame and the cusp of the Senate, but since its publication in 2016 he has done nothing to support the region.

Last week, news broke that AppHarvest, an Appalachian indoor farming company Vance funded through his venture capital firm and had promoted, is being sued for duping investors and misleading regulators. Vance is likely to defend himself by pointing out he is no longer on the board of AppHarvest, which is true. What he probably won’t tell you is that they kicked him off the board last year after he wrote a series of offensive tweets.

Some may argue that is of no consequence to the people of Appalachia. Rich people screwing over rich people is better than them screwing over poor people. But then there’s “Our Ohio Renewal”, a charity Vance founded in 2016 that, in its own words, intended to “make it easier for disadvantaged children to achieve their dreams.” As the New York Times reported earlier this month, Our Ohio Renewal only raised about $220,000 and has no discernible accomplishments. Vance shut it down after receiving the Republican nomination for Senate, which leaves me to wonder: Did he set up the charity primarily to help people, or did he primarily set it up to boost his political prospects?

To understand how ghastly this is, though, you must understand Vance’s claim to fame. For those of you unfamiliar with Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, it centers on his experience growing up the child of an addict mother. Appalachia itself has long been the epicenter of the opioid crisis, with OxyContin in particular ravaging the region from the late 1990s. The House Reform and Oversight Committee found that Purdue Pharma “played a central role in fueling one of America’s most devastating public health crises” — the opioid crisis — and that the company generated more than $35 billion in revenue since the introduction of OxyContin.

As I wrote last year, a confidential Justice Department report published by the New York Times found that the Sacklers (the family behind Purdue Pharma) “were aware of the addictive nature of OxyContin as early as the late 1990s, and that they were made aware of the extent to which the drug was being abused.” Yet Vance, through his charity, sent an “addiction specialist” with ties to Purdue Pharma — the very folks responsible for the OxyContin epidemic in Appalachia — to the region.

That said, let’s not pretend that Vance’s Democratic opponent, Tim Ryan, is perfect. His campaign has accepted $27,000 from drug companies. That’s worth acknowledging. But so too is Ryan’s record, as a Congressman, of voting to lower prescription drug costs and standing up to the Sackler family and other drug companies.

That is more than I can say for Vance, whose transformation from Trump critic to acolyte shows he has a heck of a lot of moral flexibility. Ryan, at least, has a record we can turn to for some reassurance.

My sister and nieces, as well as countless aunts and cousins, still call the Buckeye State home. They deserve someone representing their interests. So do you. Tim Ryan might not be perfect, but at least he has a proven record of caring for Appalachia and Ohio.

Unlike Vance, who has made millions by slandering us Appalachians as a violent, backwards, ignorant, and lazy people, I have committed to challenging that misrepresentation. It is why I am getting a Masters degree in Appalachian Studies, and why my journalism will continue to focus on and advocate for the people of this region.

Somebody needs to correct the narrative Vance distorted and say to him: Enough. That’s me today. On November 8, let it be the people of Ohio.