December 2, 2016; Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH)

When the author of Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance, sat down for an interview with Henry Gomez, political writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, you’ve got to figure something’s up. The news? Bestselling author Vance is starting up a new nonprofit in his home state of Ohio.

From the interview and other news stories, the plans for the new organization seem a little vague. During the interview, Mr. Vance and his colleague, Jai Chabria, backed away from announcing the name of the nonprofit because they might be going to change it. To Gomez’s question, “What ideally will your new Ohio organization accomplish? What’s the mission?” Mr. Vance gave a three-paragraph response, citing domestic violence, the opioid crisis, social and economic mobility, and family stability. Certainly not an “elevator pitch.”

What makes this story more than a puff piece is that Gomez is a well-respected political writer who hails from Youngstown, the metro area closest to the heart of the Trump Democrats in Ohio. Accompanying Mr. Vance in the interview was Jai Chabria, a former advisor to Ohio’s governor, John Kasich. With all of Ohio’s statewide offices and most city mayors on the ballot in November 2017, the timing seems more than coincidental.

Reporter Gomez noted that Mr. Vance is a conservative and did not vote for President-elect Trump, supporting Evan McMullin instead. In the interview, Mr. Vance talked about the need for Republicans to have a real, practical agenda for white working-class families.

I’ve been arguing for four or five years that the party has to get better when it comes to working-class policy. I have been waiting for someone to come along and tap into that very real frustration that exists in a very large segment of the working-class Republican base. And no one had done it until Donald Trump. I very clearly saw a void, and I knew somebody would fill it. And the moment I knew he had filled it, I knew he would win the nomination.

Vance has roots in Southwest Ohio and Eastern Kentucky, but his nonprofit will work across Ohio and across ethnic lines: “It’s definitely a statewide, across-demographics effort. A lot of the things I grew up around exist in communities that are different than mine.” With his bona fides from Yale and the financial services industry in San Francisco, he could be a bridge-builder between the two cultures. Creating a nonprofit (with a publicist) in Ohio gives him a real-time presence in Ohio without moving from San Francisco.

How could political reporter Gomez resist asking if Mr. Vance planned to enter politics? His answer was characteristic of anyone who is testing the waters. “I want to land, and I want to be part of the community before I think of doing something like that. But a lot of people have asked me in the past few months. Ten years from now, maybe.”

For the next year or so, Mr. Vance will most likely be seeking speaking gigs at conferences, civic forums, and events. Maybe he scores an appointment to a state advisory committee on Appalachia. Don’t be surprised if some Democrats who are running for a statewide office in 2017 try to cozy up to him. After all, Mrs. Clinton won only eight of Ohio’s 88 counties…and they were all counties dominated by metropolitan areas.

Besides scorn from national progressive magazines like the New Republic, Mr. Vance’s book drew two critical reviews in the Daily Yonder, a progressive website that focuses on rural issues. Bill Turner’s article, “Review: Another Take on ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’” proclaims, “J.D. Vance’s Elegy pigeonholes poor whites into neat categories of dysfunction and disaffection. It’s a treatment that ought to sound familiar to African Americans. Let’s hope the result is different.” Just a week earlier, James Branscome wrote in “Review: Lamenting ‘Hillbilly Elegy’” that Mr. Vance’s conclusion is that what “the Scots-Irish need is a sharp kick in the ass.”

In his Plain Dealer interview, Mr. Vance acknowledges that his reception “back home” has been a little rocky. “There’s a concern that maybe I’m presenting too negative a view of Middletown. My response to that has been, look, I’m explicit as I can be that this is not a description of every person who lives in Middletown.” On the other hand, StephanieRose Miles offers a vote of confidence in Mr. Vance’s credibility: “If you read the book and you’re from Eastern Kentucky, I caution you to remember, even if you decide afterward that J.D. Vance is a son-of-a-bitch; he’s one of our own.”

This ambivalence about J. D. Vance’s social message may be why he hedged his bets in a Time magazine interview in late November. Saying that it would be great if people would return to the communities that they came from, he added, “Folks should be encouraged to return home—but in the broadest regional sense. It’s not just that somebody who’s from southwest Ohio needs to go back to southwest Ohio. People should be encouraged to go back to so-called ‘middle America.’”—Spencer Wells