Welcome to Grundy, Virginia - the town that loves Donald Trump the most

There was nowhere in America where the tycoon performed better in the primaries

Andrew Buncombe
Grundy, Virginia
Sunday 06 November 2016 19:34
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What next for Grundy?

There are so many campaign signs hammered into the roadside or plastered onto fences in the valley that follows the Levisa Fork River, that it is pointless to try and count them all. Yet the only ones that mention Hillary Clinton, are those suggesting she should be sent to jail.

There are a lot of places where Donald Trump’s quick-fix political message - about bringing back jobs from overseas, against immigrants and about defending traditional industries - have resounded powerfully with voters.

But there was nowhere that topped Virginia’s Buchanan County when it came to voting for the New York tycoon in this year’s primaries. This Appalachian community, tucked away in the mountains near the borders with Kentucky and West Virginia and coloured by the reds and rust of autumn leaves, is officially the "Trumpiest" place in the country.

Nancy Looney and Jeanette Matney said there were only a few well paid jobs still in Grundy (Andrew Buncombe )

“I will vote for Trump,” said Jeanette Matney, 46, whose husband until last year had a job in a coal mine she said paid $10,000 a month. After being unemployed for a year, he how works as a correctional officer at the Keen Mountain Correctional Centre she said now earns $1,700.

“The mining used to be booming. The place where my husband was a miner probably now has no more than 100 people,” she said.

“When you lose that sort of money, you live on a budget, you send things back. You go to the grocery store and only get the things you need.”

Buchanan County, which has an estimated population of 22,776 and of which Grundy is the county seat, came to the attention to political pundits earlier this year when it gave Mr Trump his biggest margin of victory during the Republican primaries. The 70-years-old may not have come within three hours of the county, but on March 1 people delivered him 69.7 per cent of the vote.

Of the 2,278 votes cast for Republicans, 1,588 went to Mr Trump, 313 for Marco Rubio and 266 for Ted Cruz. Ms Clinton won 523 of the 744 votes cast for Democrats.

Miners in Grundy can earn more than $90,000 a year

It is not hard to see why this small rural community, with a population that is 95 per cent cent white, rallied around Mr Trump with such intensity. It is one of many across the country that have seen the good times go, to be replaced by hardship, unemployment and depopulation.

At the heart of the community was the mining industry. It was hard, unhealthy and dangerous work; employees frequently suffered broken limbs, wore out their joints or else fell ill to black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis.

One former miner, Paul Yates, who worked in the industry for 22 years and who was eating breakfast in a diner, demonstrated how he used to eat his sandwiches while lying horizontally.

But people said that workers took those risks after calculating they would be able to provide for their families with the healty salaries they provided.

“There used to be no problem getting a job in the mines in the Seventies and Eighties,” said Tim Ellswick, who was sitting next to a statue of a miner that stands outside the Buchanan County courthouse.

Virginia has seen mining jobs fall by almost 40 per cent in the last few years (Andrew Buncombe )

The 54-year-old said he was not planning to vote on Tuesday; he said he had ever voted in a presidential election. But one of his friends, Lonnie Looney, said he would be casting his ballot for Mr Trump.

He did not think greatly of either of the candidates, but he believed Mr Trump was the best chance people here had to see the mines restored, and well-paid manufacturing jobs returned to America.

“During the Seventies and Eighties, this place was booming,” he said. “You could not walk down this street there’d be so many people on it, and shops and stores.”

He said he thought Ms Clinton was guilty of having lied to the FBI. “If I’ve done something wrong, I have to pay for the consequences. I don’t think she is any better than us,” he said. “In five years, in this community, everybody will leave. If you have money, you can stay. But if you need to work, you will have to leave.”

The decline of the mining industry is not something unique to Buchanan County. As it is, the mountains here are a rich source of metallurigucal coal used in steel making. But reports have pointed out that Australia and Russia are also major providers of this type of coal, the price of which has tumbled by up to 75 per cent since 2011.

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The Roanoke Times-Dispatch said that between 2011 and 2015, the number of coal mining jobs in Virginia fell from 4,867 to 3,033 - a loss of around 38 per cent. Earlier this year, one of the largest employers in the county, CONSOL Energy, sold its mine and assets in a $420m deal with Coronado IV.

Local people said that nothing had arrived to take the well-paying jobs provided that the mines provided. The only options for work were now in places such as Wal-Mart, or fast-food restaurants which pay minimum wages and and are rarely full time.

Unemployment in Buchanan County officially stands at more than 12 per cent, while a remarkable 20 per cent of residents under the age of 65 are on disability payments. Around 23 per cent of people live below the poverty line Obesity and diabetes are rife. The Atlantic magazine last year described Grundy as the “sickest town in America”.

People here feel Ms Clinton will do nothing to help. Indeed, they seize on a comment she made in a town hall meeting in March in which she said she was the only person with a “policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country”.

There were only signs for Republican candidates in Grundy (Andrew Buncombe )

“Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right,” she had said. “And we’re going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people laboured in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.”

The people of Buchanan County did not appreciate the comment, which Ms Clinton said was spun out of context. In May, she was confronted by an unemployed miner, Bo Copely, who asked: “How you could say you are going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs, and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend?”

Dirk Hall said listeners to his radio station were mainly supporters of Mr Trump (Andrew Buncombe )

By contrast, Mr Trump has sought to portray himself as a friend of the mining industry and promised to cut back on regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’re going to bring the coal industry back 100 per cent,” he said in a speech before the Virginia primary. “If I win, we’re going to get clean coal and that technology is working. I hear it works.”

A powerful insight into the views of the residents of Grundy was provided courtesy of the local radio station, WMJD, which plays a lively mix of classic country. One recent morning, the station’s owner, Dirk Hall, invited The Independent to sit in and take calls from listeners.

One after another talked of the need to restore the mining industry, if the community was to have any chance of surviving. And they believed Mr Trump, and not Ms Clinton, was their best shot.

One woman caller said: “Good morning…Welcome to the United States of America, of which we are still very proud. But if Hillary gets in, it is going to be a different story.”

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