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Sen. Josh Hawley Likes To Note His Roots In Lexington, Missouri, But It's Complicated

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.
Win McNamee
Associated Press
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett at the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley is divisive. Maybe nowhere more so than in his hometown, Lexington, Missouri.

Josh Hawley sets himself up as an antidote to “cosmopolitan elites,” who he says are ruining America. Hawley draws his rural credibility from growing up in Lexington, a historic town of about 4,500 people on the Missouri River. But Hawley wasn’t born in Lexington, and many say he checked out years before actually leaving town.

Hawley’s family moved to Lexington in the early 1980s when Josh was a toddler. His dad took over as president of a bank, his mom got super involved in the Methodist Church.

“His mother and father were salt of the earth, widely respected, beloved,” says Jim Kenney, a retired insurance and financial services executive, who now serves on the local hospital board. “I mean, it’s a successful, good family.”

Kenney is a fifth-generation Lexington resident. His great-great-grandfather, Matthew Anderson Kenney moved from Lexington, Kentucky, in the late 1860s. Kenney thinks pretty highly of his hometown. He points to the town's role on the Santa Fe Trail, the Civil War battle fought there and its links to the Pony Express. But Kenney says that even in storied Lexington, Hawley stood out.

“I can remember my kids coming home one time and saying, 'Josh Hawley told us all he's going to be president someday,' and that was probably when he was in the fifth or sixth grade at the time,” recalls Kenney. “People remember that around here.”

People also remember that his parents sent him to Rockhurst High school, an hour away in Kansas City.

For many in Lexington that was the last they saw of Josh Hawley. He went on to Stanford and Yale but eventually came back to town to launch his political career. His first advertisement in his 2018 race for U.S. Senate shows Hawley strolling by the picturesque, old courthouse in downtown Lexington, but the ad didn’t sit well with everybody here.

“He tries to portray himself as a good old boy from rural Missouri, and my constituents are all these rural people, and they don’t buy into it at all,” says Tim Crosson, a retired public school music teacher in Lexington, who gave Hawley private voice lessons for years.

His wife Alyson Crosson, who still teaches music in the district and often accompanied young Hawley on the piano, is upset with Hawley for promoting the lie that Donald Trump won the election.

“I think the community is hurt and betrayed by him,” she says.

Willa Beach, the librarian in Lexington, knew Hawley’s father when she was growing up in western Kansas. But she is angry and embarrassed that Hawley put his education to use promoting conspiratorial fictions, and in her view, stoking rage that led to the Capitol riot.

“It was such an ugly thing. It was such an ugly thing,” Beach repeats, searching for the right words. “And I think it really revealed his true character.”

In Beach’s opinion, Hawley showed himself to be a brash opportunist, who is willing to harm the country for his own political gain.

But Beach is probably in the minority. Lots of Lexingtonians adore Josh Hawley. He won 63% of the county's vote in the 2018 Senate race.

“I have no problems with Josh,” says Jim Martin, sitting down to lunch at the Spotted Pig restaurant. “I think he's a good Christian man, and I think he stands up for his principles.”

Ken Jobe is a mechanic and tow service operator. He also is president of Lexington's Rotary Club.

“Josh was in our Sunday school class,” recalls Jobe enthusiastically. “I was working with the youth at the time. He was with our kids. Great kid! I was real proud of when he stepped up to the plate to go into politics, and I'm proud of him, and that he’s taking a stand now,” says Jobe.

Jobe means Hawley’s stand against certifying the presidential election. Despite the lack of evidence, Jobe still believes it was stolen from Trump. So, where some see brash opportunism, Jobe sees true courage.

“Well, I thought he did everything he could,” says Jobe proudly. “The fact that he did, he stuck his neck out there. I mean, politically, unfortunately, it's probably destroyed his career as a politician.”

Hawley did take a hit. His political mentor in Missouri former-Senator Jack Danforth denounced him, and some of his earliest donors asked for their money back. Some in Lexington are still waiting for what Hawley does next.

Kenney says he’s watching to see if Hawley can accomplish something for the town and the entire country, not just for people who believe the same way as Hawley.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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