Kentucky at War
LPAC has been a force since the buildup to the war, bringing out hundreds to loudly protest George W. Bush's six speeches in Louisville in the past six years, holding regular street-corner demonstrations, marking every Iraq anniversary and landmark death count with in-your-face panache. They've chartered a plane to fly over the Kentucky Derby flashing an End the War banner. They've commemorated Iraq milestones with displays of empty shoes, empty shirts and--in 2007--4,000 white flags along the Ohio River. They've read the names of Iraqi and American dead from the county courthouse steps. And they've been particularly creative when it comes to getting under the skin of Kentucky's pro-war politicians.
When Louisville's Republican Congresswoman, stubborn Bush supporter Anne Northup, refused to meet with her antiwar constituents, LPAC posted "Missing" posters around the city with smiling images of Northup, labeling her a "lapdog" who "answers to Bush." They staked out her home for seventy-three straight Sundays with "a variety of signs you can't even imagine," says Munro-Leighton, until Northup finally agreed to a meeting. "We had a cardboard Bush with a bubble to show he was speaking, and we changed the message weekly to 'I Love Ann,' or 'My War's Going Great!' or 'I Sold the Country.' On the first anniversary of the war, we made her a cake out of black cardboard and put it on her car. 'Happy Anniversary!'"
Tarred by her unflagging support for Bush and the war, Northup lost her 2006 bid for a sixth term to Louisville's John Yarmuth, an unabashed liberal Democrat calling for withdrawal. With Northup dispatched, Kentucky's peace brigade laid plans to fry a far bigger fish in 2008: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Bush's powerful Iraq War ally, who will be running for a record fifth Senate term.
As summer--and McConnell's recess vacation--approached, two new sets of nontraditional allies materialized to help LPAC bird-dog the senator, who makes his home in Louisville with his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Matt Gunterman, a 30-year-old rural Kentucky native and Yale University graduate student, launched the DitchMitch blog earlier in the year, bringing together a varied band of bloggers from around the state on a composite site with a common goal. And in June, two young native Kentuckians and a Navy veteran opened an Iraq Summer headquarters in Louisville, part of a national campaign by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI) to target key members of Congress with a homegrown antiwar message before they returned to Washington to resume the war debate.
By mid-August McConnell was sending out fundraising letters complaining about being harassed by "the '60s antiwar movement on steroids." But as the Republican kingmaker well knew, the reality was something altogether different from that old stereotype--and considerably more formidable.
Jim Pence is a 68-year-old, Salem-smoking, pickup-driving, self-proclaimed hillbilly from economically devastated Hardin County, retired after thirty-five years in the factory at the American Synthetic Rubber Corporation. Politically inactive until 2004, when Bush's re-election and the war in Iraq spurred him to "vow to fight with every ounce of my strength from then on," Pence now makes some of the freshest, funniest antiwar and political videos anywhere--and as a result, he's become the unlikely heart and soul of Kentucky's DitchMitch campaign.
Linking from his own Hillbilly Report website to DitchMitch and YouTube, Pence puts up snappy vignettes on subjects ranging from Kentucky's annual bipartisan political hoedown at Fancy Farm--where McConnell made a hasty exit this year after being jeered by protesters carrying signs showing him as Bush's hand puppet--to a fanciful take on Bush and Condoleezza Rice's relationship, set to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight," to a hard-hitting series of exposés of liquor-industry fundraising by Ron Lewis, the holy-rolling Congressman from Pence's district. "I don't know, I just disappear into them," Pence says on a dog-day August morning, navigating Louisville traffic en route to the Iraq Summer office. "I stay up some nights till 4 and 5, editing these things."
DitchMitch creator Gunterman, whose postgraduate goal is to fire up an Internet-based "Ruralution," connecting grassroots progressives from rural America to spur political action, sees Pence as a prime example of the passion and wit that generally go untapped by Democrats and urban progressives. "There's no one like Jim in the entire United States," says Gunterman. "Not with his age and his ornery attitude. He is very much a hillbilly, and he's reinvigorated the term."
In his three years of crisscrossing Kentucky to publicize its antiwar and progressive insurgencies, Pence has also stirred up the state's traditionally timid left-wingers. "When I first went out with my camcorder, I'd go up to people at peace rallies and ask them, 'Would you like to say something to Mitch?' and they'd just go, 'Uhhh...' Or even if they would say anything, they'd say, 'But I don't want my picture taken.' I just kept saying, 'The newspaper's not even going to cover this, and if TV does, it'll be for ten seconds. Whereas this video's going up on YouTube tomorrow.'" As Pence kept filming and posting his increasingly popular videos, the activists opened up and embraced this new mechanism for showing that, yes, the military stronghold of Kentucky has a vigorous antiwar effort. "People are stepping out more than they would a few years ago," Pence says. "Now I can't get them to stop talking when they see that camera. People know me now, and for the most part they trust me--whether or not they should!"
While Pence and DitchMitch have inspirited Kentucky activists, they've also pushed the state's more established media to take notice of the progressive groundswell. "DitchMitch gives us the power to hold the media accountable in Kentucky for the first time," says 24-year-old Shawn Dixon, a native of rural western Kentucky who's just started his first year at NYU law school. In 2004, when Dixon was working as deputy policy and communications director for Democrat Daniel Mongiardo's uphill Senate challenge to Republican Jim Bunning, he spent much of the campaign in a state of frustration over Kentucky newspapers' assumption that the incumbent would cruise to victory. "There was no recognition that this would be a competitive election and that this guy was beatable until about a month before the election, when it became impossible to ignore." Bunning wobbled back to Washington with a slender 23,000-vote victory, but this time around, with LPAC continually raising eyebrows and DitchMitch helping to popularize the anti-McConnell movement, "the media don't have a choice," Dixon says. On the same day in late July that Louisville's Courier-Journal ran a column about McConnell's dip in popularity (below 50 percent approval), the Herald-Leader in Lexington ran a story, sixteen months before the election, titled "McConnell Vulnerable."
That's music to Pence's ears. "It's not just what he's done to perpetuate this war," says the high-tech hillbilly. "It's what he hasn't done for Kentuckians, with all his power, on healthcare and so many other issues that really matter to folks at their kitchen tables. We're trying to cut through the kind of moral-values crap that McConnell's been using for twenty-five years to get himself elected. We're doing what we can to show the emperors without their clothes. And show that the folks who don't like Mitch, and can't stand this war, are just regular people like me who finally woke up and spoke up."