‘A new face’: At 19 years old, he leads a political party in Eastern Kentucky

Nicholas Hazelett has all the typical anxieties and excitements of a graduating senior soon to begin his college years: figuring out the dorm situation, choosing courses, making new friends and more.

But the 19-year-old had another item added onto his plate when he showed up to a meeting of the Johnson County Democratic Party early this month.

“Well, we were thinking,” Hazelett recalls the party elders telling him, “we just need a new face.”

That new face was his.

Hazelett, a preternaturally gifted speaker and political junkie-turned-activist, became county party chair just two weeks after he graduated from Paintsville High School on May 24.

Hazelett was made highest ranking Democrat in the Eastern Kentucky County of nearly 23,000.

“It was surreal,” Hazelett said.

Yet the task before him involves coming to terms with a couple harsh realities, and those will come on top of his coursework at Morehead State University.

Despite deep ancestral ties to the Democratic Party, the ranks of elected officials with a “D” by their name in Eastern Kentucky have gotten thinner and thinner. Johnson County is no exception.

Elected partisan Democrats became completely extinct when the county judge-executive, property value administrator and coroner all flipped their registration to the GOP before running for re-election in 2022. In that year’s county partisan elections, the party fielded just one person: a county constable candidate who lost in a 2-to-1 landslide.

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But some Democrats in Johnson County see a path forward for a resurgence, even if it doesn’t mean immediate reversal of the party’s fortunes. That includes Tom Matijasic, a 69-year-old community college professor among the party veterans who picked Hazelett.

“He’s a remarkable young man who seems to have boundless energy, enthusiasm and dedication, and he was very active in the Beshear campaign,” Matijasic said. “To be quite frank, the other members of the executive committee have become quite old.

“It’s so that younger people don’t really see this as a party of the past, but rather a party that’s looking forward and addressing the issues that they’re interested in.”

Hazelett is clear-eyed about the challenges facing his organization and the Democrats in the region writ large. He said growth starts with a strategy informed by Eastern Kentucky natives like himself, not party bigwigs in Washington.

“I’m very sick of hearing the kind of Beltway idea that we have to ‘re-educate’ these voters. No, you lost those voters because you didn’t invest in them,” Hazelett said. “You only coalesced around the suburbs, and you didn’t give them any incentive to stay.”


Hazelett and his family made a choice in the fourth grade: no more sports.

“When you’re a preemie at birth and you develop things like scoliosis and all those things, that’s out the window,” he said.

That’s a big decision in a community like Paintsville, which is anchored by storied programs in football, basketball and baseball.

Hazelett instead focused on academics, politics and community engagement. He was the only member of his class on the school’s academic team, he was active in the Kentucky Student Voice Team and he served on the state commissioner of education’s student advisory council.

Through his father – who, perhaps ironically, once served as the county GOP chairman – he’s also gotten involved in the local Freemason’s chapter and will join the regional El Hasa Shriner’s Club when he turns 20.

It’s there where his political talents were identified early.

Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman shakes Nicholas Hazelett’s hand at a 2023 meeting. Hazelett helped represent Paintsville Independent School District at a meeting regarding grant funds.
Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman shakes Nicholas Hazelett’s hand at a 2023 meeting. Hazelett helped represent Paintsville Independent School District at a meeting regarding grant funds.

“They’ve jokingly called me ‘governor’ for years,” Hazelett said. “These are people that I love dearly, but I know they are in that diehard group of Trump voters. They just like me because of me.”

It’s no surprise, then, that in 2023 he became involved in Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s re-election push.

With two other high schoolers and a community college student, Hazelett led canvassing efforts for Beshear in Johnson County. The group knocked doors up and down city streets, suburbs, deep hollers and all the hamlets in the county.

His election as party chair at such a young age puts him in prestigious company: Lexington realtor and political donor Josh Barrett was in his mid-20s when he was named Madison County GOP chair and Fayette County Public Schools board chairman Tyler Murphy was in his early 20s — youngest in the state — when he earned the role of Greenup County Democratic Party chair.

Most notably, First District Congressman and former commissioner of agriculture James Comer was only 20 when he was selected to finish out his grandfather’s term as Monroe County Republican Party chair.

“Politics comes naturally for James Comer,” longtime Kentucky journalist Al Cross wrote in a 1996 dispatch from the Republican National Convention.

If Hazelett were ever to run for anything himself, and he’s told people he’ll be “on the ballot somewhere” one day, it’d be from Johnson County.

The mountains are home, he said.

“I don’t feel the incentive of ever leaving,” Hazelett said. “I’m the type of ornery person where it’s like, ‘I was born in these mountains, I’m gonna die in the mountains.’”

“My family is so deeply rooted in this county and in our area that I wouldn’t feel at home anywhere else.”

Democratic politics

Hazelett’s sense of place affects his style of politics.

He wanted to hear more about recovery from historic flooding that hit Eastern Kentucky in 2022, as well as tornadoes that wracked the West in 2021, and less about lightning rod social issues in last year’s governor’s race between Beshear and former Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

“I wish we could go back to a day off about policy and right versus wrong in our community, rather than just name calling,” Hazelett said. “I mean, I’m sick of it.

“We weren’t worried about community investment and development, we were worried about trans rights and abortion. I get it, some people have different issues on that, and I respect them. Can we not go back to really what builds communities: Do you have running water? Can you afford basic groceries? Do you have a good road?

“That’s kind of how the governor ran, but in reality, that’s not what anybody wants to talk about.”

He described himself as in the mold of other Eastern Democrats like Rocky Adkins, the moderate Democrat from down the road who finished second in the 2019 primary behind Beshear and is now seen as a potential contender in 2027.

He mentioned Rep. Ashley Tackett Laferty, D-Prestonsburg, and Sen. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, as major influences, too. Those two women are the last Eastern Kentucky Democratic state-level elected officials standing.

But those regional tides could turn, Hazelett posited, once former president Donald Trump is no longer running for president.

Nicholas Hazelett is pictured above following a convention of the Kentucky High School Democrats.
Nicholas Hazelett is pictured above following a convention of the Kentucky High School Democrats.

Trump’s initial run in 2016 was also the year the bottom started to fall out for Johnson County Democrats and Democrats statewide.

Republicans flipped 17 state House seats, going from a six-member advantage to a 28-member deficit. The 25-year House veteran Hubie Collins, a Democrat from Johnson County, was one such casualty.

Trump was a big part of that equation.

“He was able to tell people here for the first time, really, as a presidential candidate, ‘If you’re for me, you’re gonna vote that straight ticket,’” Hazelett said.

“It’s funny because if you talked to people (who voted straight ticket), they couldn’t believe Hubie lost.”

He guessed that the next Republican presidential candidate won’t be as convincing for Eastern Kentuckians given the checkered political track record of non-Trump candidates who have embraced his style and politics.

“If you’re not the man, you’re not the one,” he said.

That could make for some region-wide inroads in the next few cycles. But what does success look like on the more granular, county party level?

For a party with no elected officials to its name, it’s largely about the little things. Recruiting candidates for 2026 is certainly top of mind, Hazelett said. But so is starting a Johnson County Democratic Women’s Club. So is simply showing up and tabling at Paintsville’s Kentucky Apple Festival this fall.

“I’d like to see us, regardless of anything, just be visible.”