Despite hailing from Vermont, former Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders attempted to shine a light on poverty in middle America this weekend with a stop in West Virginia. Sanders held a town hall in McDowell County for an MSNBC taping of “All In with Chris Hayes.”

For about two hours, Sanders, Hayes, panelists and a crowd of about 350 discussed issues affecting the area, which Sanders says is a microcosm of rural America.

The event was originally scheduled for February at the National Guard Armory in McDowell County but was abruptly canceled.  Representatives of the state said the U.S. Department of Defense prohibits the use of military buildings for political or campaign purposes.

When host Chris Hayes opened the show, he asked the crowd if McDowell County was “Trump Country.” The crowd reacted with a disapproving and collective “no.” Others in the crowd murmured words like “unfortunately.”

(Photo: Courtesy of MSNBC)

In reality, Trump took 74 percent of the vote in McDowell County in the November election and handedly won West Virginia as a whole. But Sanders’ sustained popularity in the area is a result of his 2016 campaign stop at a local food bank and his consistent efforts on the trail to bring light to the issues facing many in the community: poverty, few jobs and a lack of access to education.

Sanders took more than 55 percent of McDowell County’s vote in West Virginia’s May 2016 primary — beating out the inevitable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in all of the state’s 55 counties.

Hayes, Sanders and a group of more than a dozen panelists discussed a wide range of issues Sunday, touching on everything from a sluggish coal economy to health care, education and infrastructure. These issues, they say, aren’t exclusive to McDowell County, but are relevant in rural communities across the country.

While MSNBC did not allow other media to record audio or video, Sanders told reporters after the event the most powerful moment for him was when Hayes asked the crowd if anyone had been personally affected by the opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, McDowell County has the highest rate of drug-induced deaths in the country at 141 per 100,000.

“When I saw so many hands went up for people who had lost loved ones as a result of the opiate crisis, that is just chilling. That is just incredible,” said Sanders.

“This is an epidemic and —  by the way, again — not just in West Virginia. It exists in Vermont. And we have got to get a handle on it in a number of ways. We need more treatment. But, also, we need to give the young people opportunities so that drugs are not what they are seeking out,” he added.

Delegate Ed Evans of McDowell County was a member of the panel. Despite being a Democrat, Evans says he voted for Trump because of his promise to revive the coal industry. During the taping, Evans said he doesn’t believe Trump will focus on the opioid crisis and help bring an addiction treatment center to the area that’s been so stricken by the problem. Evans said that, because of coal’s rich past, government should be looking to help his county – one he said that’s given America so much in the past.

“McDowell County doesn’t need to be left behind — we need to be included. We need we need drug rehab. We need it so badly. We need jobs. We need infrastructure. We need drinking water that’s clean. We need housing. There are so many things,” said Evans.

“West Virginia was built on the backs of McDowell County coal miners. Now, whether people believe that or not — it’s true. This was the billion dollar coal fields. The coal that came out of here that made the steel across America, the tanks for the war.”

Following the taping, Hayes also spoke to reporters, saying that his hope for the town hall was to shine a light on issues affecting McDowell County, but also to show that the same problems exist elsewhere.

“In the city of New York, in the borough of Staten Island, you’ll see the opioid crisis is intense and severe and acute and it’s got people spinning their heads around in the same way it does here, right? So, things that are happening here whether it’s people’s economic struggles or whether it’s people’s health care struggles. Those are applicable,” said Hayes.

“And I think, part of the idea is — in America right now — in the political conversation we have with each other a lot, we tend to reduce places to a stereotype and some part of what we’re trying to do is get past that.”

Sunday’s event was taped for an hour-long special episode of MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes.” The program airs Monday, March 13 at 8 p.m.

Header photo: F. Brian Ferguson / The Charleston Gazette-Mail.

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