Hal Rogers’s Kentucky Kingdom

Hal Rogers’s Kentucky Kingdom

The second-longest-serving Republican in the House isn’t as well-known as Mitch McConnell, but he has pioneered a model of political economy replicated to grim effect across rural America.

Hal Rogers and Mitch McConnell in 2013 (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This year marks Harold “Hal” Rogers’s twenty-first consecutive electoral victory in Kentucky’s Fifth Congressional District, making him the second-longest-serving Republican in Congress. He rode into office on the wave of the Reagan Revolution in 1980, and the governing style he’s employed in the Fifth District—which covers the rural, mountainous, Appalachian region of southeastern Kentucky—can mostly be described as Reaganite: pro–War on Drugs, pro–prison expansion, anti-regulation of extractive industries, and pro-family. The congressman has had to improvise a little over the years in response to changes in the economy and political system, but he’s well-positioned to do so: as a former Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the elite “College of Cardinals” that manages the government’s budget, and the ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, he’s one of the most powerful men in Washington. Rogers has extraordinary discretion over where and how the government exercises power domestically and overseas, especially within the border regions; he can coerce other lawmakers to support his policies by withholding funding; and, crucially, he can funnel tons of “pork” back to his home district.

If you were to mention that to the average American, however, you’d probably be met with confusion. Hal who? Most people, when they think of powerful politicians from Kentucky, think of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who over the last decade or so has singlehandedly reshaped how Congress functions, and has all but ensured the prioritization of corporate interests within the federal judiciary. So you’re telling me there’s another powerful congressman from Kentucky who has control over virtually every aspect of my life? That is indeed what I’m telling you, my friend, and it’s no coincidence that both of these men come from the mostly rural state of Kentucky.

How did Kentucky come to mean so much at the national level? McConnell’s story isn’t that compelling. He is deeply unpopular statewide, but every six years he hyper-focuses on a handful of places in the state—Paducah, the Cincinnati suburbs in Northern Kentucky, the rural counties around Louisville (his hometown), and the rural counties in southern Kentucky—and makes enough empty promises and assurances to carry him to victory. He then launders his success as a success story for all of Kentucky, claiming that it allows the state to punch above its weight at the national level against states like New York and California. His voters eat this up, and McConnell plays off of it to increasingly cringe results (see: “Cocaine Mitch.”) At the end of the day it’s a pretty standard story of electioneering, manipulation, and voter suppression; Kentucky consistently ranks among the bottom ten states in terms of “electoral integrity.”

But whereas McConnell is motivated by the long-term viability of corporate domination of the United States, Hal Rogers is motivated by the long-term viability of corporate and personal domination of southeastern Kentucky. Make no mistake that this benighted region—long one of the poorest in the country—is Rogers’s personal dominion, his fiefdom. The fact that his name is on just about everything you see should be enough evidence to support this claim. To enter and exit the region you have to travel on the Hal Rogers Parkway, which used to be the Daniel Boone Parkway until Rogers renamed it after itself. Want to take your family on a weekend getaway vacation? You can check out the Hal Rogers Family Entertainment Center in Williamsburg, which contains a wave pool, water slides, and a mini-golf course. Or perhaps you’re addicted to drugs? Rogers has just the thing for you: the Hal Rogers Appalachian Recovery Center, which has outposts all across the region.

This last “amenity” that Rogers so graciously offers—drug rehabilitation centers—is rich with irony. In 2003 he created a program known as Operation UNITE (Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education). UNITE is a brilliant form of rural social control. It ruthlessly enforces drug abstention through the traditional methods of law enforcement—undercover policing, kicking down doors—and, at the same time, encourages community members to snitch on fellow community members who they suspect of being involved in drug activities. The result is that no one trusts anyone: everyone is a suspect, all of the time. UNITE is the sort of program that engenders alienation, making it less likely that people will mount meaningful political challenges against the region’s political institutions, such as Rogers himself.

But Rogers’s UNITE program is even more ingenious than that. It sweeps you up in raids and undercover stings, and then sends you to treatment (likely in a building with Rogers’s name plastered on it), and then uses you as an example to the rest of the community about the harms of drug abuse. You will become a poster child, an educator, a warning from the future: Do not become me; I was lucky enough to make it out alive, and even then it was only through the help and compassion of good old Hal Rogers. In other words, Hal giveth and Hal taketh away. He is simultaneously good cop and bad cop, or, if you’re feeling biblical, the Old Testament God of Vengeance and Wrath and New Testament God of Redemption and Forgiveness. If you’re a drug user in southeastern Kentucky, you will eventually come under his all-seeing eye.

Of course, if you do not make it to (and through) the rehabilitation stage, you can go to prison, in which Rogers is also deeply invested. When southeastern Kentucky’s coal economy started going south in the 1980s and ’90s due to mechanization caused by an increase in strip mining (facilitated by Rogers’s loosening of environmental regulations), Rogers became the biggest advocate for prison expansion in the region. During his career he’s brought no less than three federal prisons to his district, and he’s currently working on bringing a fourth, to Letcher County, right on the border of Kentucky and Virginia. Either in jail or on the anti-drug education circuit, your story will eventually be used for Hal Rogers’s personal glorification.

This does not mean that all power is consolidated within the person of Rogers, however. The intricate system that’s slowly grown to facilitate the expansion of drug courts, rehabilitation centers, jails that counties rely on for revenue, and prisons is its own network of feudal control and peonage. Hang around outside any county courthouse in eastern Kentucky for long enough and you’ll see, like I have, people begging judges to sign off on this or that paper granting them this or that level of re-entry into their community (previously restricted as a result of being caught with this or that drug). Or hang around outside any drug counseling office long enough and you’ll hear, like I have, people casually discussing which local judges are the strictest and which are the most lenient. A lot of people’s lives are tied up in a system that is ruled mostly by whimsy and fiat.

If and when Rogers ever kicks the bucket—and this will have to be the way he leaves office, because he will likely never be defeated at the ballot box—all this will have been his legacy. Not just the buildings and highways and rehabilitative centers with his name on them. Not just the prisons and the beefed-up law enforcement agencies. Not just the ominous office building in Somerset, known colloquially as the “Taj Ma-Hal,” which houses a number of nonprofits with boring names like “Center for Rural Development” that Rogers helped create in order to vacuum up federal grant money from agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission. It’s all these things, but it’s also something bigger: the remaking of rural political economy. Rogers’s model has been exported across the United States.

As the nation’s rural regions experienced deindustrialization, out-migration, drug-assisted suicide, or a combination of all the above over the last three or four decades, rural elites had to figure out a way to maintain control over their constituents. Many of them turned to Rogers’s example. For example, when Rogers launched UNITE in 2003, John Walters, then the White House drug czar, said that it would “serve as a model for the rest of the nation.” It doesn’t go by the name “UNITE” in every community, but if you go anywhere in rural America and listen long enough, you’ll hear the voices of people who are trapped within similar systems of manipulation, coercion, and foreclosure on the future. And you’ll also see, lording over them, the names and faces of men who have carved out their own kingdoms, which from the outside seem impervious to pressure from below. But that’s the thing about power: it doesn’t last forever, and it can always be beaten. It’s up to us to figure out how to do it.

Tarence Ray is a writer and cohost of the podcast Trillbilly Workers Party based out of Whitesburg, Kentucky.