On Dec. 12, the people of Alabama found themselves in a tenuous position. Would they dismiss the sexual assault allegations leveed against religious conservative Roy Moore, and vote in support of their Evangelical, pro-life, pro-gun past?
Or would they pull the lever for pro-choice, economic progressive Doug Jones and bank on their future?
When I looked at the Alabama senate race, of course I saw the allegations of sexual abuse against Moore, but I focused on the personal and religious commentary that is just as common here in Kentucky: Democrats are baby killers who want to take away our guns; Muslims hate “our Christian way of life”; gay marriage is wrong/evil/an abomination; outsiders don’t understand our heritage; the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights; can you prove Barack Obama was born here?
I moved to rural Kentucky from California’s Silicon Valley in 2014. One of the first questions people asked was, “where do you go to church?” They talked openly and often about guns and the Second Amendment. Obama and his wife were the butt of jokes. Any mention of women’s reproductive rights were conversation killers. And people voted accordingly.
What we need are jobs. Coal is not coming back. Factories are not coming back. Whether we like it or not, Kentucky needs non-southerners, companies from other places —places like Silicon Valley — to take a chance here and invest in us.
Yet it remains hard to convince them to come.
In Silicon Valley, my husband worked in high tech, and his company often looked to make investments in states like Kentucky and Alabama, states that had an available, trainable, workforce, but there was often a social roadblock.
A story about Louisiana stands out.
The governor was on a mission to bring new industry to Louisiana, and he was using both state funds and the federal disaster relief monies they’d received after Hurricane Katrina to do it. Louisiana had so many displaced people from New Orleans and elsewhere who needed homes and jobs, and they’d partnered with the local community college for high tech training. The local Barksdale Air Force Base helped with community outreach and support.
A government task force there had built a data center in Bossier City, just across Red River from Shreveport, close to the Texas border, and my husband agreed to look at the exciting possibility of opening a new office.
Unemployment was high, education levels low, and job prospects few outside the Air Force. But Louisiana had invested their state and federal funds well, erecting a a new, first-class building with state-of-the-art networks and power grids.
Before the trip, a representative of the task force called and asked what he’d like to do to get a feel for the place: go to the horserace track, gamble on the river boats, or fire weapons at a shooting range. The last option was to take a tour of Barksdale Air Force Base, which is what he opted to do.
The task force director took my husband on the tour of Barksdale AFB in his Suburban, the back filled with rifles and shotgun cases. At one point, the director proudly pulled a big revolver from between his driver’s seat and console to show it off, along with a special bullet he said he used to shoot coyotes and other wildlife. He said, “Of course, it works on criminals, too!”
When they drove up to a security gate at the AFB, they were not stopped, just waved through. It is important to note that Barksdale AFB is where they keep nuclear war heads, old and new, stored in rows of bunkers. Hundreds of them. Barksdale is where long-range, supersonic bombers, B2’s, operate, loaded and ready to take off with nuclear payload at any instant.
They drove in their suburban, unchecked, past a runway where bombers sat with their engines running. All without bothering with security.
Then came dinner with task force members, all men, where the night’s conversation went to guns, hunting and fishing, derogatory remarks about Middle Easterners, and jokes about women.
My husband and I are not naive, nor are we Californians. Between the two of us, we have lived in a dozen states from Texas to Minnesota to Iowa to Washington, and we were both raised in similarly conservative, rural areas — Rush Limbaugh and I share the same hometown, after all — where families go to church on Sundays, men carry guns in their trucks, and factories have long-since shuttered their doors.
But now we lived and worked in California, a place where jobs are so plentiful they can’t fill them, and what my husband knew immediately (and sadly) during his tour and dinner with the Louisiana task force was this: he would never be able to convince his best managers — who might be Indians, Iranians, Asians, Muslims, Atheists, African-American or Hispanic women — to relocate to Bossier City with their families to run the office, no matter the state-of-the-art building or how plentiful the workforce.
What if the best person for the job happened to be a Lesbian. Could she move there, with her wife and children, and be welcomed, respected, accepted?
The Louisiana governor might have been ready for outside companies and progressive industry, but the culture was not.
Watching the Alabama senate race play out — and seeing the jaw-dropping Vice video where Frank Luntz asks voters to share their views —I remembered Louisiana. Like Bossier City, small towns in Alabama and Kentucky desperately need jobs to come in from the outside, but there is little to no tolerance for outsiders, for those who do not agree with local views on religion, abortion and guns.
President Trump and members of Congress basically threw up their hands in the run-up to Alabama’s special election, dismissing Moore’s accusers, but also remaining silent on the hot issues like guns and abortion.
Alabamans, they said, did not want or need a bunch of outsiders telling them what to do.
The reality on the ground is this: our towns are dying. We can no longer survive — our communities will not survive — if we continue to cast single-issue votes on the Bible, guns and abortion that have nothing to do with policy and economic growth.
On Dec. 12, Alabama broke with tradition. They voted to try something new.
Come the 2018 elections, those of us in the south and the so-called flyover states would do well to follow Alabama’s omen, their brave and progressive lead. If we truly want to make our towns great again, we have to open our doors and our minds. We have to stop clinging so hard to the past that we cannot reach forward for our future.