CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Elizabeth Warren is set to visit a state that hasn’t been friendly to Democrats lately to pitch her plan to combat the opioid addiction crisis by boosting taxes on the wealthy.
The Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate will travel to Kermit, West Virginia, on Friday before moving on to Chillicothe and Columbus, Ohio. By starting in West Virginia, she’ll be in a place that President Donald Trump carried by 42 points in 2016, but one that is suffering from the nation’s highest death rate from prescription drugs.
She’s hoping that reality will help her message resonate with people who may otherwise be skeptical of her brand of politics. At a time when many in the party are debating how to court rural voters, Warren’s trip could give her an opportunity to demonstrate an ability to connect with voters beyond the party’s traditional liberal base.
“I’m glad she is coming,” said Kermit Fire Chief Tommy Preece, who lost a brother to an opioid overdose. “It surprised me. She’s coming right into the middle of Trump country.”
Warren’s plan would spend $100 billion over 10 years on battling the public health consequences of addiction, modeled on a 1990 law passed to help fight the spread of AIDS.
She is visiting Preece’s volunteer fire department a few blocks from a now-closed pharmacy in Kermit where wholesale drug distributor McKesson Corp. shipped an average of 9,650 hydrocodone pills per day in 2007. A decade later, the town of 360 people along the Kentucky border fought back, suing McKesson and four other drug wholesalers, saying they illegally flooded Kermit with millions of prescription pills.
The lawsuit, one of many filed by municipalities throughout the state against drug distributors, seeks to recoup the costs of dealing with opioid abuse.
Last week Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced the state reached a $37 million settlement in its lawsuit against San Francisco-based McKesson. Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, say the settlement was minuscule compared to the harm inflicted on West Virginians.
In 2017, Preece’s brother, assistant Kermit fire chief Timmy Dale Preece, died of an overdose. Timmy Preece had been taking medication to help deal with the pain from a broken neck.
Tommy Preece, a Democrat, is open to Warren’s proposal because he believes the opioid crisis needs America’s fullest attention, especially in the two counties his department serves.
“It’s bad, it really is,” Preece said. “We have a lot of young kids in our community and we don’t want to see them go down this route.”
The scope of the epidemic predates their generation. Preece’s father, the late fire chief Wig Preece, was convicted in the 1980s of selling marijuana, pills and other drugs from a trailer parked near the Kermit town hall and police station. A sign posted on the trailer at one point by the elder Preece read, “Out of drugs, back in 15 minutes.”
Wig Preece’s wife, six of their 14 children and their son-in-law, Police Chief David Ramey, also were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Kermit is located along the Tug Fork in Mingo County, which dubs itself “The Heart of the Billion-Dollar Coalfield.” But West Virginia continues to be one of the poorest states in the nation, ranking 49th in per capita income and is among those to lose thousands of jobs in the coal industry’s downturn this century.
Mingo County’s coal employment dropped from 1,750 jobs in 1997 to 764 last year, while production fell from 22.4 million tons to 5.1 million over the same period.
As the jobs have left, so too have the people. West Virginia’s population has dipped every year since reaching 1.86 million in 2012.
The county’s bloody history dates back to the Hatfield-McCoy feud that started in the late 1800s. Much of it has been intertwined with the fortunes of the coal economy.
In 1920, 18 coal company detectives tried to evict striking miners from their company-owned homes in Matewan, a Mingo County coal town. Gunfire broke out when the detectives produced a warrant for the arrest of police chief Sid Hatfield. Seven detectives, two miners, and Mayor C.C. Testerman died in what became known as the Matewan Massacre. Nineteen people were indicted in the massacre but there were no convictions.
In the 1980s, as the coal economy weakened, jobs began to disappear and people increasingly turned to crime and drug abuse to fill the void of economic despair. The federal government stepped in to help clamp down on political corruption in the county, resulting in multiple arrests and convictions.
In 1996, a man who admitted killing a high school homecoming queen to settle a $2,000 drug debt and keep her from testifying about a local drug dealer was sentenced to at least 20 years in prison.
In 2013, Sheriff Eugene Crum was fatally shot while eating lunch in his cruiser. Later that year a Mingo County circuit judge, the county prosecutor, and a county commissioner were charged and later sentenced to federal prison for their roles in corruption schemes.