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Excerpted from: KENTUCKY DEATH MATCH. By: BINELLI, MARK, Rolling Stone, 0035791X, 5/22/2014, Issue 1209 - via Biography Reference Bank -
Johnny Cummings is the mayor of Vicco, population 334. Deep in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky, the town itself is little more than a half-block of storefronts that includes city hall, a post office and an old theater that's now a flea market. Back in the day, however, Vicco was "the Dodge City of the East," a wild drinking and gambling town servicing the booming coal industry. The name of the town is an acronym for Virginia Iron Coal and Coke Company; there were once about seven mines within a two-mile radius.
Even today, in the nearby county seat of Hazard - inspiration for The Dukes of Hazzard - open-top boxcars spilling over with coal line the railroad tracks. Some people drive around with all-black license plates that read FRIENDS OF COAL or bumper stickers with slogans like COAL GUNS FREEDOM - MINE EVERY LUMP! The winding two-lane roads up here offer lovely views of the mountains, as well as glimpses of sagging homes and trailers tucked into remote hollows, reminders of the desperate regional poverty that has vexed politicians for the past 50 years.
LBJ came to eastern Kentucky in 1964 to promote his War on Poverty. Four years later, Bobby Kennedy visited Hazard as part of a "poverty tour." Bill Clinton made a similar stop. Most recently, President Obama designated southeastern Kentucky as one of five inaugural Promise Zones - areas of entrenched poverty set to receive federal assistance focused on reviving the economy - a move which earned rare bipartisan support from McConnell and Paul.
Not much of this national largesse has ever trickled down to Vicco. When I stop by city hall at the end of the workday, I find Mayor Cummings in his cluttered office, just past a display case of vintage mining equipment. He's chain-smoking and sipping a mixed drink from a plastic cup. Cummings is 50 years old, with a lean, ropy build and signs of hard living around his eyes. Like everyone I meet in these parts, he speaks with a thick Appalachian accent. After a while, he unbuttons his shirt to reveal a black T-shirt underneath that reads DEFEND APPALACHIA above a picture of a machine gun. Cummings grew up here. His father, a local political fixer, "one of those semi-Mafia men who had some businesses that weren't entirely legal" - John Cummings Sr. was eventually murdered, a case that's still unsolved - kept the family garage filled with pints of Wild Irish Rose and Kesslers. "I always thought politics was handing out bottles of liquor - that was how they'd get out the votes," Cummings recalls.
After spending 10 years serving on Vicco's City Commission, the younger Cummings was appointed mayor when his predecessor stepped down in 2012. The fact that Cummings was openly gay didn't strike him as a big deal. Everyone in town knew, had always known. Because of his father, his first boyfriend called him Mafia Princess. "He said that's how come I could go to the redneck bars and not get whupped, because my dad was such a badass," Cummings says. When it came time for an official election, Cummings, who is also the town hairdresser, received 75 percent of the vote.
Since then, he's successfully petitioned for government funds to repair the local roads, which hadn't been repaved in over a decade, and has begun work on a sewer system on the verge of collapse. Still, the town faces a major budget shortfall, as revenue from Kentucky's coal severance tax - levied on coal removal, with a portion of the money set aside for coal-producing communities like Vicco - has shrunk alongside the industry. Cummings is scrambling to make up the difference.
Under Cummings, Vicco has also become the smallest town in the country to pass an LGBT-anti-discrimination law. When the news broke nationally, 27 production companies called to entice Cummings to appear on their shows. He turned them down, all except a "People Who Are Destroying America" segment on The Colbert Report.
Colbert Nation: People who are Destroying America - Johnny Cummings. Aug 14, 2013http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/y58ew9/people-who-are-destroying-america---johnny-cummings
Sewers, Curfews and a Ban on Gay Bias. New York Times, January 28, 2013