24 –year-old Will Hurst of the Democratic Party and 61-year-old Republican Bobby McCool, the current state representative for the 97th District, are focusing on various key issues that separate their candidacies in hopes of winning the upcoming Nov. 3 election.
Hurst, a single man born and raised in Wolfe County and the son of a recently laid-off coal miner described himself as an individual passionate about helping people and learning history.
“I’m definitely not your run-of-the-mill political type. I can tell you that,” he stated.
Hurst currently teaches both History at Wolfe County High School and Arts and Humanities at Wolfe County Middle School. He also leads a Media Club, Chess Club, and Debate Club at the high school. He also serves as an assistant to an E-Sports club at both schools in which he is employed.
Hurst’s opponent, McCool, was also born and raised in Eastern Kentucky. He and his wife of 35 year, Debbie, reside in Van Lear and are proud of their two sons- Jared and Caleb.
The son of a miner as well, McCool spent the earliest part of his life growing up in Letcher County. After High School, he himself worked in the mines. After being laid off, McCool joined the United States Marine Corps.
“I thought that was the thing to do, so I left and that was a very good thing for me,” he said.
After receiving an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, McCool returned to Eastern Kentucky to look for work during a time when there were no jobs to be had. He moved to Lexington and finished his education. As a welder, McCool soon became a welding instructor in Mount Vernon, which one day afforded him the opportunity to teach at Mayo (currently known as Big Sandy Community and Technical College) in Paintsville.
“I’m so grateful,” he said. “After thirty years of service I am a retired teacher. I enjoyed that quite well. Later on I got into administration. I ended up being the vice president of the college.”
McCool said his passion for teaching was centered on helping students.“
Somewhere in between coal mining and working as an instructor and college administrator McCool also “flipped burgers,” which he stated was a “hard job”, and made biscuits for Hardee’s. McCool joked,
“I hope some of the voters out there today haven’t eaten any of my former biscuits because they weren’t very good,” he said.
Aside from serving as state representative for the 97th District, which includes Johnson, Morgan and Wolfe counties, McCool also serves as a deacon at the Van Lear Freewill Baptist Church and has done so for more than 20 years.
“All I know is to be a servant and to do my best and hope everything comes out just fine,” he stated.
When it comes to initiatives, Hurst stated that his focus would be on equal education for students in disproportionately affected areas.
“To justify my position, I have my undergrad degree in economics from Western Kentucky University and so I spent a lot of my time in college working with my professors and doing things on the economic impact of education,” Hurst said. “My main initiative is to ensure that all students in the state of Kentucky who graduate high school or who don’t can obtain a GED by the age of 20, that they will have a full tuition scholarship to any of the schools in the KCTCS system.
“Not many people know this, but we have one of the top five technical college systems in the U.S.,” Hurst said. “It’s not really taken advantage of and we have so many qualified teachers and professors at those places and we have a lot of kids graduating who want to learn, but that financial cost is just too much for so many kids, especially in our district.
“I went to school with a of of bright young minds ad a lot of them couldn’t even afford to start college and a couple of my best friends had to drop out of college because they couldn’t afford to go into that much debt and they needed to help to provide for their families,” Hurst continued. “I think that is the first step in moving our state into the new age economy and to build up what little economy we have here in Eastern Kentucky. We don’t have the most fundamental thing provided to set people up for success, which is education.”
For McCool, the main initiatives he will focus on during the upcoming session, should he win the election, will be focusing on another one year budget and economic development.
“That’s critical because, if you’re looking at the census, we’re losing wonderful people because they’re having to leave,” McCool said. “I know what that’s like. I know what it’s like to come back home and not be able to go to work because there are no jobs and having to leave. For those that want to do that, that’s fine, but to be forced to do that is a different story.”
McCool’s plan for working on economic development is centered on improvement of infrastructure like water, sewer, technology and roads to attract business and industry to Eastern Kentucky.
“One of the things I’m passionate about and that we’ve been working on for the past two years is making headway on getting U.S. 460 on a six-year road plan to be a four-lane access point going from Paintsville to Salyersville,” he said. “Now that doesn’t take away from the Mountain Parkway project at all, but what it does is give four-lane access to our area including Floyd County, Martin County and Lawrence County going east, which is something that we don’t have. It’s one thing you’ve got to have to bring industry.”
For Hurst, there is no such thing as “restoring” Eastern Kentucky’s economy because of how crippled it has become due to the loss of the coal mining industry.
“With coal severance money gone, we need to go outside of our comfort zone with our economic investments,” Hurst said. “I think that starts with offering scholarship to students who graduate high school or obtain their GED, but I also think we need to explore rural farming like in days long ago.”
Hurst specifically argued that Eastern Kentucky could benefit from growing crops like hemp and marijuana.
“I think we need to legalize recreational and medial cannabis and hemp,” he said. “A small hemp farm on average can earn $30,000 to $40,000 per acre annually and it’s very similar to the numbers of tobacco, which way back before our generation was small tobacco farms. Hemp is essentially the same environment and same process and we can convert all this land we have sitting around that could be used for farmland. People in our area can grow hemp and cannabis for medical and recreational or industrial use. That is not a fix-all for the economy, but that definitely gives us the footwork to go ahead and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”
He also noted that job transition programs to help out of work coal miners and industrial workers that have dissipated due to budget cuts need to be revitalized.
“What little training we did have to help get people into a more modern economy is starting to fall by the wayside because of national politics,” Hurst said. “It’s not the flashy thing to say, ‘Let’s allocate a few million dollars to Eastern Kentucky so poor people can feed themselves.’ And so we sort of get left behind. We don’t really have a voice in Frankfort fighting for those things right now.”
When it comes to the role their parties will play in their decision making, Hurst and McCool have completely different stances.
“I don’t know if this will help me or hurt me, but I don’t really listen to what the Democratic Party says because it seems like the leading voices for the Democrats and the Republicans are all coming out of Washington and coming from people that have not stepped foot in Johnson County, Wolfe County, Morgan County or have driven by one of these trailer parks where kids don’t have shoes in the winter,” said Hurst. “It breaks my heart because I was raised in a very strong Democratic household and it really pains me to see that the people I was told care about the people just sort of put us by the wayside because we don’t have money to give them and we don’t have power to offer them. All of the decisions I make will be guided by the people of the counties and experts in whatever field we’re dealing with.”
He concluded, “I don’t think politics should be guided by the letter after our last name. We should always be fighting for what’s good and what’s decent and the people that we live around in our communities.”
McCool stated that the Republican Party fully supports him will play a major role in his decision-making.
“In order to get anything passed, you have got to build rapport and relationships with other legislators because sometimes it’s very difficult to get a bill through or to get any support on major infrastructure like US 460 without having that relationship. Right now we currently have a Republican party that holds the majority and if we can maintain it, it gives an even greater outlook that some of these goals can be achieved. It’s been this way for how many years now? It’s really important to have the party’s backing and supporting on things like this.”
McCool concluded, “I just hope people give me an opportunity to go back, to finish some more work and let’s see what we can do for Johnson County, Morgan County, Wolfe County and all of Eastern Kentucky. I’m proud to live here in Van Lear in Johnson County and I’m proud to be their servant as state representative.”