Trump won Kentucky in a landslide after promising to reopen Appalachia’s coal mines and put its miners back to work. But here, along the banks of Paint Creek in eastern Kentucky’s legendary coal fields, some displaced workers are pinning their hopes instead on Silicon Valley.
The celebrity of the moment is California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who came from the Valley’s deep-blue heart last week to see what this emptying corner of coal country might have to offer the technology industry — and how Appalachia can reap its benefits in the form of jobs and tech training.
“It’s just exciting for them to think what we’re doing is interesting enough to make the trip,” former coal worker and budding app developer Steve Bowling said in a cinder-block classroom in Paintsville — referring to Khanna and, by extension, the tech industry itself. “That means a whole lot to us.”
The 40-year-old freshman congressman and son of Indian immigrants might seem an unlikely ambassador to a conservative region: He supports what he calls “common-sense” gun laws, not to mention the Obama-era energy regulations that the coal industry blames for shuttering dozens of coal plants in the past decade. But he hopes that by expounding upon the Silicon Valley success story across the U.S., he might help boost the economic prospects of places like Paintsville. And if he can convey the woes of non-coastal regions to leaders back home, the tech industry might find a way to steer where the country goes from here.
“The election was a wakeup call about how much discontent there is from technological progress and globalization, that it’s not just all a clear good thing,” Khanna said in his still-bare Capitol Hill office just before his trip, where he visited a training program for mobile app developers at Big Sandy Community & Technical College. And it’s time, he said, for an industry that has played a role in shedding American jobs — by advancing artificial intelligence, among other things — to invest in helping communities like this one share in the upside.
“There’s got to be greater empathy among those in Silicon Valley for some of the pain that has been caused,” he said.
At the same time, he’s looking to spread Silicon Valley’s aspirational spirit around a country in need of big thinking. “It’s just getting people to dream that they can go try to be like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs,” Khanna said.