Ohio’s Poorest County Continues to Vote Democrat, Remaining Blue in Sea of World Changes

By Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Ohio.
March 28, 2022 Updated: March 30, 2022

SOUTHEAST OHIO—In the heart of southeast Ohio’s Appalachian region is Athens County, the state’s poorest area with a 31 percent poverty rate.

Most of the people living in Athens county at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains near the border of West Virginia—from farmers, professionals at Ohio University, or the working poor—all seem to know their county’s notoriety, but don’t really seem to mind too much.

They also believe that nearby Meigs and Vinton counties aren’t far behind them.

Within its 11 cities amid scenic hills and plains—mostly along U.S. Route 50’s Appalachian Highway and U.S. Route 33—poverty hasn’t so much been an acquired situation it is more a way of life in the region that has voted mostly Democratic for decades.

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Athens County in southeastern Ohio’s Appalachian region is the poorest county in the state with a 31 percent poverty rate. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

As for politics, Lorinda LeClain, the local history and genealogy librarian at the Nelsonville Public Library, told The Epoch Times she heard there was a lot of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, but those were in some of the smaller areas of the county.

Surrounded in her office by old photographs and artifacts of what the area used to be LeClain said, “We lack jobs here. We don’t have as much as we used to. There used to be something in every building downtown.

“We have a lot of tourists come through the area,” LeClain added. “We just need more businesses and jobs that suit the area.”

The last time a Republican presidential candidate won Athens County was in 1984 when Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale, 11,548 votes to 10,201, according to the Athens County Board of Elections.

The county, which has a population of slightly more than 62,000, has a median household income of $34,221, slightly below the federal poverty rate for a two-income household.

There are also 9,272 residents on the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and 16,910 on Medicaid, according to information from the Athens County Job and Family Services.

It is a mix of the past, present, and future, according to information from the county.

The area was built by multi-generational families and Ohio University was founded in 1804 in the county seat of Athens (pop. 24,998). The university, which is known for cutting-edge classes in various disciplines, has an enrollment of 21,000 students today.

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American educator William Holmes McGuffey served as the president of Ohio University in Athens from 1839 to 1843. (Photo Wikipedia)

Part of the university’s history includes William McGuffey who served as its president from 1839 to 1843.

He was the American educator who authored “McGuffey’s Reader”, a series of school textbooks beginning in 1836.

Through his books, McGuffey provided messages of morality and religion that helped frame the purpose of a good public education, especially during the second half of the 19th Century.

McGuffey’s books still are in use today, and he often is remembered during National Right to Read Week in early March.

The county’s largest employers now are Ohio University and Athens County itself.

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Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, helps set the county apart as being a Democratic stronghold in the Appalachian region. The university was founded in 1804, and has a student population of 21,000, according to information from the college. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

The once-bustling coal-mining industry that gave Nelsonville its reputation of being the biggest little city of black diamonds—it reportedly was the second-largest coal-producing region in the world at one time—has stopped.

The booming brick manufacturing business that once included world-famous Star Bricks, has long crumbled.

These days, whether the price of gas and groceries go up, fertilizer more than doubles in price, or one has to pay more for a smaller load of wood to put in the wood-burning stove that heats their home, the people just keep on keeping on.

“Inflation and high prices are just everywhere,” said a fourth-generation farmer on the edge of Athens County who isn’t happy with the state of affairs in the world.

“It’s at the gas pump. It’s at the grocery store. It’s getting to the point where people won’t be able to afford anything.”

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Lorinda LeClain, the local history and genealogy librarian at the Nelsonville Public Library in Athens County, Ohio. LeClain said the region needs more jobs. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

In the 16 presidential elections since 1960, Democrats have won the county 13 times.

In addition to Reagan winning in ’84, Republican Richard Nixon won in 1960 when he defeated Democrat John Kennedy, by 10,747 votes to 7,542. Nixon won the county again in 1968 when he beat Democrat Hubert Humphrey, 7,837 votes to 7,351.

Of the 38,797 registered voters in Athens County, 6,639 are Democrats, 2,663 are Republicans and 29,488 are independents or have no party affiliation.

“I really can’t recall Athens County ever being Republican,” Athens County Board of Elections deputy director Tony Brooks told The Epoch Times. Brooks has worked there for the past 27 years.

“It’s what people believe and how they feel about the candidate,” Brooks said. “It’s more or less status quo here.”

In fact, all three Athens County commissioners are Democrats and it’s been that way for a long time, an elections worker told The Epoch Times.

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Pumpkin has been the mascot or house cat in the Athens County Board of Elections Office in Athens, Ohio for nine years. Although the residents in southeastern Ohio’s Appalachian region mostly vote Democratic, elections office workers insist that Pumpkin is an Independent voter and is loved by many. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

The sentiments of Cheryl McKee of Athens echoed those from Brooks.

McKee, who voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential Election—said she’d likely vote for him again in 2024 if he runs—although she isn’t completely happy with the job he’s doing.

“The war in Ukraine needs to stop,” she said. “Now, that’s ridiculous.”

With inflation, McKee has said she has had to cut back on “everything,” and tighten her already limited budget.

McKee, 64, works part-time three days a week at the Burger King restaurant in Athens for $12.45 an hour and takes care of her ailing husband at home.

She is among at least 31 percent of Athens County residents living in poverty. There’s also the county’s 5 percent unemployment rate which is on par with the national level, according to numbers from the county and state.

“Omigosh, I hope warm weather comes sooner than later,” McKee said as she was leaving the Kroger grocery store on March 21 with her son, Derek, who works cleaning tables in the cafeteria at Ohio University’s Boyd Hall.

“About a year ago, I was paying $60-70 for a load of wood,” McKee said. “When the price of gas went up, the price of wood went up. Now, I’ve paid as much as $225 for a load of wood—and you don’t get as much.

“I can’t afford to heat my house with gas, so we heat it with our wood-burning stove. It’s getting to the point where I can’t afford a load of wood.”

McKee, who said she watches political news on television, but doesn’t comprehend all of it, went on to say that the issues in the county that need to be addressed mostly are related to infrastructure.

“Down here, we need to improve our roads,” McKee said. “We need to have better water quality.”

McKee said that she often goes up in the hills of Buchtel to fill jugs with drinking water that comes from a spring.

“I just turn on the faucet or pipe coming out of the ground,” she said. “That’s the best water in the world.”

Although county residents are quick to say the region is limited in jobs, they note it is strong in natural resources.

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Lake Hope State Park in McArthur, Ohio, is one of the popular state parks in Vinton County neighboring Athens County. Despite Athens being the poorest county in the state with a 31 percent poverty rate, the scenic region is a tourist draw for its world-class hiking and biking trails and people are drawn to the region for recreation. (Photo Wikipedia)

Stroud’s Run, Burr Oak, Lake Hope, and Athens West state parks cover thousands of acres with world-class hiking and biking trails as do Wayne National Forest and Gifford State Forest.

There also are nine rivers that run through Athens County including the Ohio River.

In the nine presidential elections since 1988, Athens County has supported the Democratic candidate in the presidential election, and heading into future elections—gauging by opinion and political make-up of the region—it doesn’t show any signs of changing.

In 2020 Democrat Joe Biden defeated Republican Donald Trump, 14,722 votes to 10,862.

In 2016 Democrat Hillary Clinton defeated Trump, 16,370 votes to 11,354, according to the Athens County Board of Elections.

Going back farther, Pete Couladis, the chairman of the Athens County Republican Party for the past 15 years, couldn’t remember the last time a Republican won in Athens County.

“This is a very Democratic area, and very poor,” Couladis told The Epoch Times. “It’s just an ongoing problem. People will have to realize what we have isn’t working and we need to look in a different direction.”

When Walmart came into Athens a few years ago, Couladis was disappointed to see the protests against the superstore that took place. Athens County residents had been traveling to Jackson County to shop at the Walmart there.

“People didn’t realize the jobs it was going to create, the payroll taxes and income taxes that it was going to generate for Athens,” Couladis said.

“We need to have more private businesses to help expand our tax base to create jobs and more income tax revenue,” said Couladis, 73, who grew up in Athens.

“Instead of trying to get people off of public assistance, they are offering more programs and ‘help,’ to secure more votes, but we can help people by creating more jobs and getting them off public assistance.”

Couladis noted that more of the poverty can be seen in smaller rural areas of the county such as Jacksonville, Trimble, Glouster, and Chauncey. The coal mines were in those areas and when they closed decades ago there’s been nothing to replace them, he said.

“There are groups who want to keep it that way because they can keep controlling people,” Couladis said. “Overall, Congress needs to look at ways to reduce the national debt instead of adding to it by expanding and creating more programs.”

John Haseley, chairman of the Athens County Democratic Party, did not return phone calls.

A fourth-generation farmer, who worked in another profession in a number of other states before returning to Ohio to work in the family business 12 years ago, said he hopes to pass the family farm on to his children.

Admitting he was a Republican who voted for Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections, the farmer did not want to give his name.

That’s because he does most of his business in nearby Athens, which people have described as “the little blue dot in the county,” because of the university and the way the community and its active student population vote.

The board of elections does not break down the number of university students that vote in elections, but an official told The Epoch Times if the students want to vote in any election they must live in the county, and change their home address to where they live near the university.

The farmer, whose both sides of the family are staunch Republicans, didn’t mince words when asked what he thought about the state of affairs in the United States and the world.

“It sucks,” he said. “I don’t like socialism or the outlook of the future of our country for my kids at the moment.”

He believes the current administration is establishing a socialistic government “at breakneck speed,” which his family opposes because of its hard-work ethic and what they are establishing for its next generation.

“We work our ass off seven days a week, but we choose to,” the farmer told The Epoch Times. “Not everything is monetary. We’ve created a world that we want our kids to take over if they so choose.

“Agricultural education has been important to pass down,” he added as the sounds of tractor engines can be heard.

“In how many professions can you learn the life cycle of animals, how to build a campfire, and learn how to work a day outside in the rain? Everything I’ve done in my lifetime has prepared me for what I’m doing now.”

What the farmer is currently learning more about is how the state of affairs around the world affects his family’s business.

“I never thought the stuff going on in Ukraine would affect us,” the farmer said. “We buy fertilizer in bulk and we’re having to strategically budget for it.

“About a year or so ago, we were paying $25,000 to $28,000 for 70 tons of fertilizer. Now, it’s going to cost us $62,000 to $65,000 for the same amount.”

The farmer noted that although petroleum is used in part of the fertilizer manufacturing process, potash, and phosphorous, made in other countries such as Russia, European Union countries, and in Canada, are becoming more difficult to acquire and pricier.

Although the farmer noted that some local dairies have opened up in the past few years such as the Snowville Dairy which provides milk to businesses in the area, and local companies that make salsa, and spaghetti sauce, he believes there’s still a big disconnect between people seeing the bigger picture.

“We need to stop relying on bigger or foreign sources for certain things,” he said. “If we all lived in the city, where would our food come from?

“We have survived because we have adapted and changed with the times. I’m open to hearing different viewpoints. I always like to hear someone else’s train of thought to see if there’s something I might’ve missed.”

“We’re taught to love our country and defend our country so we can protect the way we live,” he added. “If you’re willing to work, what challenges would you face if you lived within your means? We just want to own some land, make a decent living and keep on loving what we do.”

The sentiments of Ty Halley, who grew up in Athens and recently returned there from Portsmouth, were the complete opposite of the farmer.

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Ty Halley, an in-home healthcare provider who grew up in Athens, voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.  (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

“I voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election, and I’d probably vote for him again,” Halley, 35, said. “I think the Democrats could help their applause point better by doing something about the things they say they support—raising [the] minimum wage, improving the environment, canceling student debt …

“I like the social issues,” Halley added. “I’m pro-gay marriage, support raising the minimum wage, and think transgender kids need more protection. I’m pro-choice when it comes to abortion and believe labor unions are important.”

Halley said he didn’t believe that Trump had the best interest of America at heart, but had his own personal interests at heart.

“I just didn’t think Donald Trump was on my side,” Halley said. “In some ways, he’s unpredictable.”

Although Ken Dobo, who has lived in Athens for more than 30 years, told The Epoch Times he is still believed or considered to be an outsider. He once tried to open a coffee shop in town but said he ran into a lot of roadblocks and restrictions even though he had received his permits. He closed the coffee shop to focus on his full-time job.

An IT Specialist at Ohio University and filmmaker, Dobo owns an older house on 28 acres of land on the edge of Athens with chickens, sheep, dogs, and cats.

He’s looking forward to setting up at the local farmer’s market starting in the spring. He and his three sons take advantage of the hiking at the state parks.

On the state of affairs, Dobo is not happy with what is happening in Ukraine.

“What’s happening there is unforgivable and there’s no excuse,” he said.

He notes that the county really doesn’t have a central company or industry, but doesn’t see it as poor. He had considered leaving the area, but the downtown area of Athens has seen some independent eateries and microbrews open in recent years.

“I think that high poverty rate number can get kind of skewed,” Dobo said. “I’d say that’s because of a lot of the unemployed students who are living on trust funds. This is a beautiful area and a nice place to live.”

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Although Ken Dobo has lived in Athens, Ohio, for more than 30 years and said locals still see him as an outsider, he doesn’t believe the county is the poorest county in the state. (Courtesy Ken Dobo)
Michael Sakal is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Ohio.