McCain passes through Inez

INEZ, Ky. — The town hall meeting in Inez was more crowded than usual as presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain made a campaign stop in the small Eastern Kentucky town yesterday during his tour through rural America.

More than 450 people crowded inside the community’s courthouse and nearly 100 more gathered around its entrance on Main Street to welcome the Republican, whose tour bus pulled up just after 11 a.m.

“We’re not a town that gets many political candidates passing through,” said Inez Mayor Terry Fraley. “But we’re excited to welcome Senator McCain, and we’re excited that he’s here to listen to what the concerns of Eastern Kentuckians are.”

Those concerns included immigration, recession, the war in Iraq and the rising cost of oil.

“I have concerns about local issues, but there are bigger national problems that keep me awake at night,” said Edna Williams, 46, a resident of Inez. “Just because I’m from a small town doesn’t mean that I don’t have concerns about gas prices, the war and where the economy of this country is going.”

McCain offered his plans for addressing these issues, starting with his strategy to ensure that illegal immigration is stopped. He suggested better technology at the country’s borders to increase security for those people entering and leaving the country.

“Our foremost obligation to our country is securing our borders,” McCain said.

He also proposed a “tax vacation” between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day in mid-September, which would eliminate the tax on gas during that window, bringing prices down nearly 18 cents a gallon. This cut, along with other economic stimulations, will help bring the country out of the recession “that the numbers show we are already in,” he said.

McCain, a former prisoner of war, also expressed his support for the Iraq war and the “victory the U.S. is accomplishing there.”

“I believe the war is succeeding, and if you set a date for withdrawal, it’s a date for surrender,” McCain said.

But not everyone at the meeting was concerned with national problems.

“A lot of the problems in this country start right here,” said Henry Jacobs, 86, a resident of Martin County, which includes Inez. “There aren’t good jobs and we’re not making good money. Some say people in small towns have a chip on their shoulder because they’re poorer than the rest of the country. But we don’t have a chip on our shoulders because of some rough times. If we have a chip, it’s because no one seems to care to fix these tough times.”

Jacobs said he remembers when President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Inez in 1964 to announce his War on Poverty.

“I remember I stopped to hear him speak on my way to the mines,” said Jacobs, a coal miner for 61 years. “It was hard times then. It’s getting to be hard times now. Johnson brought hope to these parts, and we’re looking for that same hope today. Whoever can give us that wins my vote.”

McCain said his main goals for rural towns in the country are increasing communication and technology to improve education and to bring more job opportunities to smaller communities.

“We need to take advantage of community colleges that offer training and technical programs to help ensure that even the most rural areas have access to the same technology and education as the biggest cities,” McCain said.

Big Sandy Community and Technical College is just more than 20 miles from Inez and offers a partnership with local coal companies to train students for employment programs, Frayley said.

Increased access to community colleges and large hospitals came with the expansion of four-lane highways and access to free Internet has started improving residents’ quality of life in Inez, Frayley said.

Still, per-capita income is comparatively low for the town with an average of just above $20,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Unemployment and school dropout rates are higher in Martin County and Eastern Kentucky than in the rest of the state. Many in the county of just more than 12,000 still lack access to sewer systems and public water.

“It may have been acceptable to live like this in the past,” Jacobs said, “but I’m an old man now, and even I know that times have changed and we haven’t kept up.”

McCain said he is committed to ensuring that no small town in America is isolated from technology, communication and education.

“I’ve never been here before,” McCain admitted to the crowd. “But I will not make this my last visit to Inez. I will come back and ask you to hold me accountable for the promises I made and the decisions I make.”