Voices: I never liked JD Vance. But now he’s won, I have something to tell him

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

I don’t like JD Vance. I’ve spenta lot of time and energy explaining why. So, considering my own bias might get in the way, I asked my friends what they thought of Ohio’s newest US Senator, who last night declared victory over Democratic challenger Tim Ryan.

“JD Vance is using the demise of Middletown to market himself,” my friend Jessica – who, like me, grew up in Dayton – said. “He’s simply a kid who was enabled by the women in his family to make the life he wants no matter the cost to others… I’m worried for the future of Ohio and our obsession with sycophants.”

Ashley, a teacher, was likewise forlorn. “Disheartened. Mad. Worried,” she said when I asked how she felt. “His comments on women and our rights in marriage and health care are distressing.” Last year, Ashley found out her wanted pregnancy would not be viable and went through a medically necessary termination procedure. Vance’s stance on abortion and women’s rights, she says, “would have rather seen me die than get the [procedure] I needed for a missed abortion. My body wouldn’t miscarry, and I could have gotten sepsis.”

These are not blue state pundits. They are Ohioans who are understandably afraid of what sending a man who “flips and flops on stances and issues to appeal to a base that feels stuck and discarded, and in turn has turned hateful and power-hungry” – as Ashley put it – to the Senate. “I don’t know what kind of Senator I’m going to get other than he’s going to only do what’s good for him,” she added.

I don’t know what kind of Senator Ohio is getting, either. Vance came to national prominence with the 2016 publication of Hillbilly Elegy, a book which regurgitated the worst – and most discredited – tropes about Appalachia, a region he never lived in. A vocal critic of Donald Trump, Vance would later change his tune, endorse the mango megalomaniac from Mar-a-Lago, and proceed to, in Trump’s own words, “kiss his ass.”

“JD Vance’s most prominent trait is his malleability,” Ohio sportswriter Craig Calcaterra memorably tweeted, of the writer-turned-politician. “He’s a cipher who will do whatever powerful people tell him to do. First Senate leader to get him in DC owns him, I suspect.”

I suspect so, too – which is why I have some small glimmer of hope as an Appalachian. As chance may have it, I just returned from Breathitt County, Kentucky. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy (and I wouldn’t recommend it), you know that is from where Vance’s claim to Appalachia comes. His grandmother was born there but moved away when she was young. Neither Vance nor his mother ever lived in Kentucky.

Breathitt County was also devastated by flooding earlier this year. At least 10 people in the county died, and one remains missing. Many, many more lost their homes, their churches, their possessions. That’s why I was there, filming a short documentary about the recovery efforts. It was my third report on Breathitt County. As someone who graduated high school just down the road in Leslie County, I’m committed to making sure that the people of eastern Kentucky are not forgotten as they recover and rebuild. They need a lot of help, and right now they’re not getting it. They need a champion in Washington.

This is where JD Vance comes in. No, he isn’t a Senator from Kentucky, but he wouldn’t be anywhere without his tenuous connection to Breathitt County. He made his name in the national media off his ancestral ties. Breathitt County made JD Vance. Now, it’s time to return the favor.

The people of Breathitt County and eastern Kentucky need a champion. Even Vance’s own supporters seem to understand that champion isn’t Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. “Congratulations on your win,” one supporter tweeted. “But if you vote for McConnell for Senate leader I will never vote for you again.” Another supporter asked Vance to “stop with the Trump adulation,” adding that while the former president “had some good policies… his time has come and gone.” She ended with the exhortation: “Do us proud!”

As an Appalachian, I would love nothing more than for Vance to do us proud. Rarely has someone who so readily identifies as one of us ever been sent to the Senate, let alone with such a massive national profile. Even the Senators from West Virginia – the only state entirely within the Appalachian region – don’t have the same kind of caché that Vance has. That puts him in a prime position to truly help the people of our region, some of whom are now his constituents.

Thus far, Vance’s only accomplishment has been sending a doctor with ties to the opioid industry into southeastern Ohio. Clearly, things are not off to a great start. There’s time to fix that, though.

Vance should make it a priority to champion the needs of our region in the Senate, becoming the voice for a people who he claimed just six years ago were forgotten but who now seem forgotten by him. He should start by directing federal aid into rebuilding Breathitt County and eastern Kentucky, working with Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell and whoever else he needs to make sure creeks and rivers are dredged, flood prevention methods (such as levees and dams) are constructed, and that roads and schools and other infrastructure are not only rebuilt but upgraded.

Then, he should turn his attention to working with the Appalachian Regional Commission to improve health equity and economic opportunities within the region – including southeastern Ohio, which he will represent in the Senate. Coal isn’t coming back, contrary to what Trump claimed, and Appalachia – from Pennsylvania on down to Alabama – will need to diversify its economy. Ensuring that those industries are not extractive and exploitative, as they have been in the past, will be key. Vance, as a Senator from an Appalachian state, has a role to play.

So, too, does he have a role to play in helping to destigmatize our region. For too long Appalachia has been a national punchline. We are the region onto which the rest of the country projects its own flaws and insecurities. Vance should make it a point to lift up Appalachian voices, not just in Congress but in the media which he has so adeptly used in his rise to power.

Nothing in Vance’s history as a public figure has led me to believe he cares about anyone or anything other than himself and his own ambition. He didn’t even thank Donald Trump, the man who got him elected, in his victory speech. I suspect Craig Calcaterra is right, and that Vance will soon take on whatever principles and views whoever gets to him first in DC has.

If that’s someone with a conscience, though – if any of them are left in the Republican Senate caucus – that could be good for Appalachia. Vance helped the nation rediscover our region. Now, it’s time for him to help us.