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By Adam Beam
MOREHEAD, Ky. — The last place Lincoln Caudill expected to see his eastern Kentucky hometown was on a television in a Philadelphia restaurant, yet there it was in the summer of 2015, flickering back at him from a newscast about a defiant county clerk refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.
The U.S. Supreme Court had just declared same-sex marriage legal. But Kim Davis, the local clerk, denied some gay couples licenses because she said it violated her religious beliefs to have her name on them. For the next few months, satellite trucks, Bibles and bullhorns would dominate Morehead, Kentucky, as it became the focus of fierce national debate.
Two years later, Caudill is back in Morehead, campaigning for the county’s top elected office and trying to talk to as many people as he can. But like many people in town, he doesn’t want to talk about Davis.
“I know she’s created a controversy in the county, and the farthest I can stay from giving an opinion on it, that’s what I plan to do,” he said.
He might not be able to avoid it much longer. Davis announced last week she would seek re-election in 2018, facing the voters for the first time since the controversy landed her in jail, made her a martyr in the eyes of some and rang up $220,000 in legal fees that could end up billable to Kentucky taxpayers. Her lawyers have said she was unavailable for an interview.
For some Morehead residents, news of Davis’ re-election campaign signaled a return of arguments among friends and neighbors and the unwanted glare of the national media.
“There is going to be some fallout, just people getting angry all over again,” said Lois Hawkins, a Morehead native who works as executive secretary to the county’s top elected official.
On a recent chilly morning, a few men gathered at restaurants for breakfast scowled when asked about Davis. Others laughed. Most would not give their names. It was the same story at a barber shop on Main Street and a drugstore with a throwback soda counter. Both places were filled with strong opinions, but no one harboring them was willing to share publicly.
“Everybody knows everybody’s business,” said Maggie Shire, who has lived in Morehead for three years. “They know who is getting a divorce; they know who is getting an inheritance. They know everything in this town.”
Unlike some small-town elections, voters here will have a choice. The most tantalizing matchup would be between Davis and David Ermold, a gay man who was refused a license. A video of his encounter with Davis shows him asking her under whose authority she was denying him. When Davis replied, “under God’s authority,” the quote appeared in headlines across the country.
Ermold has said he is considering a run against Davis.
Davis would ultimately spend five days in jail for refusing to obey a federal court order to issue the licenses. After her release, the state removed clerks’ names from the licenses.
Elwood Caudill, who has worked across the hall from Davis for 21 years in the Property Valuation Administrator’s Office, is running against her. He lost to her in the 2014 Democratic primary by just 23 votes out of about 4,000 cast. Caudill — no relation to Lincoln Caudill — said if he had been clerk, he would have issued the licenses and the controversy never would have happened. He said he does not plan to make it a campaign issue but it might become one anyway.
“A lot of people are tired of it. They don’t want to talk about it. It is what it is, and it’s done,” he said. “I don’t think I have to (bring it up), because everybody already knows.”
Oddly enough, Davis could pay a bigger price in Rowan County for switching parties to become a Republican. Although Rowan County voters overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016, most local elected officials are Democrats and have been for years.
“A lot of it will be because she switched parties,” said Ray McClurg, a registered Democrat. “I’d say her mother wouldn’t even vote for her right now.”
But Ed Kidd disagrees. The 66-year-old isn’t sure he agrees with Davis’ decision to not issue the marriage licenses. But he has known her for years, and every time he walks into the clerk’s office she greets him with a smile. When he forgets some of his paperwork, she takes care of it so he doesn’t have to make multiple trips. And she has saved him from a trip to the state capital to register his truck several times.
“I don’t care what anybody thinks; I’m going to vote for her,” he said.