VICCO, Ky. — In a former pool hall that is now the municipal building for a coal smudge of a place in eastern Kentucky called Vicco, population 335, the January meeting of the City Commission came to order. Commissioners and guests settled into patio chairs, bought at a discount and arranged around a long conference table. Those who smoked did.
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
The Commission approved the minutes from its December meeting, hired a local construction company to repair the run-down sewer plant and tinkered with the wording for the local curfew. Oh, and it voted to ban discrimination against anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity — making Vicco the smallest municipality in Kentucky, and possibly the country, to enact such an ordinance.
After that, the Commission approved a couple of invoices. Then, according to a clerk’s notes, “Jimmy made a motion to adjourn and Claude seconded the motion. All voted yes.”
Admit it: The Commission’s anti-discrimination vote seems at odds with knee-jerk assumptions about a map dot in the Appalachian coal fields, tucked between Sassafras and Happy. For one thing, Vicco embraces its raucous country-boy reputation — home to countless brawls and a dozen or so unsolved murders, people here say. For another, it is in Perry County, where four of every five voters rejected President Obama in the November election.
But the Vicco Commission’s 3-to-1 vote this month not only anticipated a central theme in the president’s second inaugural speech (“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law ...”), it also presented a legislative model to the nation’s partisan-paralyzed Capitol, 460 miles away.
You discuss, you find consensus, you vote, and you move on, explained the mayor, Johnny Cummings. “You have to get along.”
Mr. Cummings, 50, runs a hair salon three doors down from the City Hall storefront. He spends his days hustling between the two operations, often wearing a black smock adorned with hair clips. One moment this wiry chain-smoker is applying dye to a client’s hair; the next, he’s dealing with potholes and water lines.
Now back to assumptions.
For a good chunk of the last century, Vicco was the local coal miner’s Vegas, its narrow streets lined with bars and attractions that ran on money earned the hard way in the subterranean dank. The city’s very name derives from the initials for the Virginia Iron Coal and Coke Company.
But as the coal camps folded, Vicco emptied out. Away went the car dealerships, the schools, the department store, the A&P, and even the Pastime theater, whose farewell film is said to have been “10,” with Bo Derek. In 1979.
Into the Vicco void came abandonment, drug abuse and budget deficits so dire that the city could not afford a police officer. There was also the requisite touch of public corruption. A few years ago, a mayor and his son, a city commissioner, were charged with using thousands of dollars in city money for their personal use. They both entered Alford pleas, in which they did not admit guilt but conceded that the case against them was pretty darn good.
The next mayor stepped down last year for health reasons and was replaced by one of the city commissioners, the hairstylist down the street, Mr. Cummings.
Cummings is a longtime Vicco surname. Johnny Cummings’s mother, Betty, was a schoolteacher; she has some dementia now and spends most days in his salon, telling him she loves him. His father, John, ran several businesses, including a bar; he died from a blow to the back of the head in 1990. One of those unsolved Vicco murders.
Mr. Cummings is gay, an identity he has never hidden, and the occasional rude encounter while growing up was nothing that he and his protective friends couldn’t handle. After high school, he was offered a scholarship to a beauty academy in California, but he returned after two months. Other than a brief spell in South Carolina, he has been planted here in Vicco, where, for the last quarter-century, he has co-owned a salon called Scissors.
“I make 20 trips a day” between Scissors and City Hall, he said recently. “Right now I have a lady with color in her hair.”
As mayor, Mr. Cummings inherited a skeleton-crew city that could not afford to keep all the office lights on. What’s more, the creaky pipes in its water system, which generates money for the city through sales to area customers, were leaking more than 40 percent of the water, or revenue.
“How do you fix this?” Mr. Cummings remembers thinking. “I’m just a hairdresser.”
He began by making amends with government agencies that had long since written off Vicco, hiring back the maintenance whiz who knew the city’s pipes better than anyone and securing public grants to pay for the work. Now, he says, the repaired pipes are creating enough revenue to hire more workers and restore some color to Vicco’s dreary black-and-white.
For example, he paid $600 for the bold blue metal bench that now sits in front of City Hall, emblazoned with the city’s name. He also hired the city’s first police officer in years: Tony Vaughn, a former detective and one of Mr. Cummings’s protectors back in high school.
“We have five drug dealers here, and everyone knows it,” said the barrel-chested Mr. Vaughn. “I’ll ask ‘em nicely to stop, and then I’ll put ‘em in jail.”
This place-in-progress called Vicco was one of a handful of municipalities to receive a request last year from the Fairness Coalition, a Kentucky-based advocacy group for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Mr. Cummings happens to have a sister, Lee Etta, who is active in the coalition.
The coalition’s request: to consider adopting an anti-discrimination ordinance.
The city’s forward-thinking attorney, Eric Ashley, trimmed the coalition’s 28-page ordinance proposal down to a couple of pages. Then the mayor and the four-member Commission, all heterosexual men, met in December for a first reading and a discussion that ended with a 4-to-0 vote in favor of adoption.
The Commission’s agenda for its January meeting, two weeks ago, included the second reading and the formal vote on the anti-discrimination proposal. This time, representatives of the Fairness Coalition took patio seats in the smoke-filled room.
The commissioners hashed through their questions and doubts, which Mr. Ashley did his best to answer and allay. But one commissioner, Tim Engle, who has known Johnny Cummings since forever, said he needed to change his vote.
“Tim stated that due to his religion, that he had to vote no to the above-mentioned ordinance,” a clerk’s notes of the meeting said.
“There are things we’re not going to agree on, and that’s perfectly fine with me,” Mr. Engle said, according to the local newspaper, The Hazard Herald. “That’s what the debates are for ... that’s what this group’s here for. I want them to do what they think’s right and what they think they need to do.”
Because the mayor votes only to break a tie, Mr. Cummings mostly just listened to the discussion. Yes, it was a little shocking to hear an old friend change his vote on grounds of religion. But it was also gratifying, even crystallizing, to hear another commissioner say simply: Everyone should be treated fairly.
Claude Branson Jr., 56, a retired coal miner who sits on the Commission — and the only commissioner, he proudly notes, with a mullet haircut — said recently that Mr. Cummings’s presence had not played as much of a factor in the vote as had “the whole broad perspective of the world.”
“We want everyone to be treated fair and just,” he explained.
In Vicco, at least, officials just assumed that such a belief is self-evident and therefore not that big of a deal. Besides, this tough little city has other matters on its collective mind.
The maintenance supervisor is tackling problems with the sewage plant. The new police chief wants to revisit some of those unsolved murders. And the mayor is planning to transform an empty lot into a park, open to all.