I sometimes joke that JD Vance is my evil twin. Born a year and a half before me, Vance and I are both the grandchildren of emigrants from Appalachia. He is the first in his family to graduate from college, and so am I. He grew up about 30 miles from where I grew up in the decaying Rust Belt towns between Dayton and Cincinnati. Jackson, where his grandmother is from and where JD claims his Appalachian identity, is 45 miles from my grandmother’s hometown – and where I spent much of my childhood and my high school diploma – in Hyden.
However, that is where the similarities end. I’ll be traveling to Jackson — Vance’s ancestral hometown, not mine — next week to continue my reporting on the devastating summer floods in that county, a tragedy that left at least 40 people dead in eastern Kentucky. After writing two in-depth articles about the flooding in Breathitt County (of which Jackson is the county seat), I take on a small film crew to make a short documentary about the recovery efforts.
Despite claiming Appalachian identity and therefore fame, Vance hasn’t even tweeted about Breathitt County. Yet on Monday, Breitbart published an article claiming that JD Vance is “channeling his Appalachian roots” during a campaign stop.
It burns me. Appalachian identity is a complex and nebulous thing, and who is and isn’t Appalachian can be a source of debate. What I am sure of, however, is that Vance has no claim to that identity. Like countless outsiders before him, Vance has exploited and twisted our region with little regard for people or land left behind. And Vance may be many things, but he’s not from Appalachia.
In a way, however, I can forgive Breitbart for the error. Vance, who was in southeast Ohio and therefore in Appalachia, made a name for himself in Appalachia despite never having lived here a day in his life. Hillbilly Elegy propelled it to national fame and the Senate cusp, but since its publication in 2016 it has done nothing to support the region.
Last week, news broke that AppHarvest, an indoor farming company in Appalachia funded by Vance through his venture capital firm and promoted by him, was being sued for misleading investors. and mislead regulators. Vance is likely to defend himself by pointing out that he is no longer on the board of AppHarvest, which is true. What he probably won’t tell you is that they kicked him off the board last year after he wrote a series of offensive tweets.
Some would say that this has no consequences for the inhabitants of Appalachia. The rich fuck the rich, it’s better that they fuck the poor. But there’s also “Our Ohio Renewal,” a charity founded by Vance in 2016 that, in his words, aimed to “make it easier for underprivileged kids to achieve their dreams.” As the New York Times reported earlier this month, Our Ohio Renewal has only raised about $220,000 and has no discernible achievement. Vance shut it down after he received the Republican Senate nomination, which leaves me wondering: did he start the charity primarily to help people, or did he start it primarily to improve his political outlook?
To understand how awful it is, however, you have to understand Vance’s claim to fame. For those of you unfamiliar with Vance’s hit memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, it focuses on his experience growing up the child of a drug-addicted mother. Appalachia itself has long been the epicenter of the opioid crisis, with OxyContin in particular ravaging the region beginning in the late 1990s. The House Reform and Oversight Committee found that Purdue Pharma” played a central role in fueling one of America’s most devastating public health crises” – the opioid crisis – and that the company had generated more than $35 billion in revenue since the introduction of ‘OxyContin.
As I wrote last year, a confidential Department of Justice report released by the New York Times found that the Sacklers (the family behind Purdue Pharma) “were aware of the addictive nature of OxyContin as early as the late 1990s and had been made aware of the extent of drug abuse”. Yet Vance, through his charity, sent an “addiction specialist” with ties to Purdue Pharma — the same people responsible for the OxyContin outbreak in Appalachia — to the area.
That said, let’s not pretend that Vance’s Democratic opponent, Tim Ryan, is perfect. His campaign accepted $27,000 from drug companies. It is worth recognizing. But so does Ryan’s record as a congressman voting to cut prescription drug costs and standing up to the Sackler family and other drug companies.
That’s more than I can say for Vance, whose transformation from Trump critic to sidekick shows he has some serious moral flexibility. Ryan, at least, has a file we can turn to for reassurance.
My sister and nieces, along with countless aunts and cousins, still call Buckeye State home. They deserve someone to represent their interests. You also. Tim Ryan may not be perfect, but at least he’s proven himself taking care of Appalachia and Ohio.
Unlike Vance, who made millions slandering Appalachia as a violent, backward, ignorant, and lazy people, I am committed to challenging this misrepresentation. That’s why I’m getting a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies and why my journalism will continue to focus on and defend the people of this region.
Someone needs to correct Vance’s twisted narrative and tell him: Enough. This is me today. November 8, let it be the people of Ohio.