Scenes from Elizabeth Warren’s venture into the heart of MAGA country

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Elizabeth Warren

Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Kermit Fire & Rescue Headquarters Station on Friday in Kermit, West Virginia. | Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP

2020 elections

The liberal firebrand draws nods and even a few cheers on a trip through rural West Virginia.

KERMIT, W. Va. — It was a startling spectacle in the heart of Trump country: At least a dozen supporters of the president — some wearing MAGA stickers — nodding their heads, at times even clapping, for liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren.

The sighting alone of a Democratic presidential candidate in this town of fewer than 400 people — in a county where more than four in five voters cast their ballot for Trump in 2016 — was unusual. Warren’s team was apprehensive about how she’d be received.

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About 150 people gathered at the Kermit Fire & Rescue Headquarters Station to hear the Massachusetts senator and former Harvard professor talk about what she wants to do to fight the opioid epidemic. Trump-supporting college students in baggy t-shirts, housewives in pearls, and the fire chief dressed in uniform joined liberal retirees wearing rainbow “Persist” shirts and teachers with six-figure student loan debt.

Kermit is one of the epicenters of the opioid addiction epidemic. The toll is visible. The community center is shuttered. Fire trucks are decades old. When Warren asked people at the beginning of the event to raise their hands if they knew somebody who’s been “caught in the grips of addiction,” most hands went up.

“That’s why I’m here today,” she said.

Warren entered the room from behind a large American flag draped in the station. Roving around a circle of people seated in fold-out chairs, she tried to strike a tone equal parts empathy and fury, while avoiding pity. She went full prarie populist, telling people their pain and suffering was caused by predatory pharmaceutical barons.

The 63-year-old fire chief, Wilburn “Tommy” Preece, warned Warren and her team beforehand that the area was “Trump country” and to not necessarily expect a friendly reception. But he also told her that the town would welcome anyone, of any party, who wanted to address the opioid crisis. Preece was the first responder to a reported overdose two years ago only to discover that the victim was his younger brother Timmy, who died.

Preece said after the event that he voted for Trump and that the president has revitalized the area economically. But he gave Warren props for showing up.

“She done good,” he said.

Others agreed.

LeeAnn Blankenship, a 38-year-old coach and supervisor at a home visitation company who grew up in Kermit and wore a sharp pink suit, said she may now support Warren in 2020 after voting for Trump in 2016.

“She’s a good ol’ country girl like anyone else,” she said of Warren, who grew up in Oklahoma. “She’s earned where she is, it wasn’t given to her. I respect that.”

But Warren didn’t come to rural West Virginia primarily in search of votes. The tiny state likely won’t decide the nomination, and is all but certain to back Trump in the general election.

Instead, Warren was here to try to send a message that she’s serious about tackling the problems of remote communities like this one.

The “opioid war” is a medical problem rather than a behavioral or law enforcement one, Warren argued. Her plan is modeled on the government’s response in 1990 to the HIV/AIDS crisis, as she explained in a Medium post earlier this week.

“But we got a second problem in this country and it’s greed,” she said. “People didn’t get addicted all on their own, they got a lot of corporate help. They got a lot of help from corporations that made big money off getting people addicted and keeping them addicted.”

Kermit was a subject of a Pulitzer Prize winning series in 2016 that found drug wholesalers provided a single pharmacy in the 392-person town with 9 million hydrocodone pills over just two years. Warren’s plan would dole out $100 billion over the next decade to states, cities, and nonprofits, with extra money going to cities and counties with the highest levels of overdoses.

“Right here in Mingo County, people are on the front lines of this opioid epidemic and this is a way to draw attention to the urgency of the moment,” she told reporters after the town hall.

Warren’s four-stop tour Friday and Saturday took her from the small towns of Kermit and Chillicothe, Ohio to Columbus, Ohio and Cincinnati. The latter’s narcotics problem is so bad that the local paper assigned a reporter to the heroin beat.

Warren’s approach to the opioid crisis — which calls for treating victims and punishing perpetrators — largely mirrors her response to the financial crisis, when she called for jailing bankers and providing mass assistance for homeowners.

Her trip is the latest iteration of her campaign strategy to distinguish as the most substantive and well-prepared candidate in the sprawling Democratic field. Each time Warren rolls out a policy proposal — almost invariably with the theme of curbing corporate power and Washington corruption — her team schedules on-the-ground events to draw further attention.

When she announced her plan to break up big technology companies, Warren went to the South by Southwest tech conference and then to Long Island City, New York where Amazon had planned to build a headquarters. She whistle-stopped through Tennessee, Alabama, and the Mississippi delta after she unveiled a housing proposal aimed at closing the racial wealth gap.

A Republican protest — or “Trump support rally” — was organized a few hundred yards away from Warren’s event in Kermit. But inside the fire station was remarkably devoid of partisanship, even if the topic was political.

Asked late Friday what stuck with her from the visit, Warren said it was the moment when she asked who had been personally affected by the opioid crisis and almost everyone’s hands went up.

“I was in the town where the pain of that decision by the government to not interfere was felt hard,” she said.

As Warren posed for selfies after the town hall, several people pressed notes into her hand that she read later in the car. “Help our town of Kermit, West Virginia any way you can to help us be able to reduce the drug abuse,” read one letter.

“A lot of people told me,‘You’re in the reddest of the red here,’” Warren said. But “I like being here.”

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