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DNC’s council session focuses on rural issues

Kim de Burbon
The Hagstrom Report
The panel discussion about "How we win back America" included Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Getting out to hear what rural voters have to say was the campaign mission emphasized by a diverse group of leaders who spoke during the Democratic National Committee’s Rural Council virtual session Tuesday afternoon as part of the party’s 2020 national convention.

There was more discussion of the issues — health care, broadband Internet access, climate change, renewable fuel, economic decline — and how to reach conservative voters than there was of any specific policies put forth by former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.

Nevada Lt. Gov. Kate Marshall, who noted that her family emigrated from Mexico a century ago, talked about the “need to meet rural voters where they are.”

Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., saying she comes from a “long line of family farmers,” emphasized the need for broadband, saying there are students who — after completing their chores on the family farm — have to drive to a school parking lot at night in order to have access to the Internet and do their homework.

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christy Vilsack, and former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. (Espy is running for Senate against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., who won a special election to fill Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat when Cochran resigned because of illness.)

Two former Agriculture secretaries — Tom Vilsack, who served throughout the Obama administration, and Mike Espy, who was President Bill Clinton’s first ag secretary — were asked to explain what is at stake for rural America in the election.

Vilsack’s wife, Christy, a teacher and former adviser to the U.S. Agency for International Development, also spoke briefly before heading out to help with relief efforts after the storm that devastated parts of Iowa last week.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, is now CEO of the Dairy Export Council. Espy, who served three terms in Congress, is running for Senate against Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., who won a special election to fill Sen. Thad Cochran’s seat.

“At stake is survival,” Espy said, saying that the country is losing rural hospitals at an alarming rate and telling the story of a rural woman who died of an asthma attack last year because the local emergency room had closed.

Vilsack pushed for rebuilding the rural economy by pursuing renewable fuels and investing in infrastructure. “Make U.S. agriculture the first net-zero agriculture in the world,” he said, by converting ag waste into a variety of products and “understanding the significance of renewable fuel.”

Vilsack reminded those watching that when running for president, Donald Trump promised Iowa he’d support renewable fuels, but that since he took office he’s allowed waivers to the Renewable Fuel Standard, “siding with Big Oil.”

Espy addressed trade, saying rural Republicans have become disenchanted with the Trump administration’s policies. “We grow and produce amazing crops in the U.S. But when we have unfair trade practices and trade policies closing markets that we’ve dominated for so long, we become noncompetitive and lose those markets.”

“Farmers want fairness,” Espy said. “Just open up those markets and let us compete.”

TRADE WAR

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., is running for reelection this year, and also emphasized trade war problems.

“We all know that our farmers don’t want bailouts,” Jones said. “They want their markets. And it’s not just the farmers. Everyone in rural America is hurting.”

“We need to get those rural votes,” Jones said. “Call your friends. Get farmers to rally, and to listen to us, and to put aside the ‘D’ and the ‘R’ and work on the issues.”

Rural Council Chair Betty Richie, a Texas member of the Democratic National Committee, asked “two of the rising stars of the party” to talk about rural diversity.

Tina Yoo Clinton, a Texas criminal district court judge running for the state Court of Criminal Appeals, said she has learned that conservative rural areas are “not necessarily against Democrats,” but are “starved for someone to come out and hear them, and listen to their voices.”

“We as Democrats have the opportunity to go out and make sure our communities are heard,” she said.

Jaime Harrison, a former lobbyist who is challenging Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in an increasingly tight race, told of knocking on the door of a man who said politicians have been promising to pave his road since Ronald Reagan was president, and that until either party paved it, he didn’t want to deal with any of them.

Calling himself a “dirt road Democrat,” Harrison said the story was symbolic of broken promises that have been made to rural America for generations, and he challenged his party to take “these words that we say are our values and turn them into action.”

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, a member of the House Agriculture Committee who is running for reelection, described herself as “fifth-generation Iowa,” and someone who grew up spending summers on the family farm.

“We have to go out and listen,” Axne said. “To hear what matters most to the people,” no matter where they are from or what party. “We have to level the playing field so we don’t leave rural business, children and health services behind.”

The last group to speak was asked to discuss “How we win back rural America,” and consisted of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, and Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

“You don’t have to win every precinct in every county, you just have to get as many votes as you can,” Stabenow said. “For me it’s health care, rural hospitals, veterans. It’s our way of life. Hunting and fishing as well as farming. And high-speed Internet.”

“Frankly, what the pandemic has shown is the great digital divide,” Stabenow said. “We have to talk about all those things.”

Tester, a third-generation farmer, didn’t hide his disdain for Republican leadership.

“I wish [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [of Kentucky] becomes retired in this cycle. He’s been nothing but an obstruction,” Tester said.

Reminding people that he represents “a deeply red section of the country,” he offered suggestions on how to get conservatives to vote Democratic.

“We haven’t done our due diligence in rural America,” Tester said. “We need to show up, we need to show up, we need to show up.”

“We need to listen,” he said, and not just tell voters what Democrats want to say.

Beshear said he was most concerned about the economy, noting that Kentucky is hoping to become a world leader in agritech.

“Listen. Empathize. Help,” Beshear said. “Be ‘you’ — what I’d tell any candidate. With this pandemic, we all realize that these differences aren’t as important as we thought they are.”

DNC Chair Tom Perez closed the session reminding Democrats of the party’s “Every ZIP Code Counts” initiative.

“We will win on the strength of what we do in rural America,” Perez said. “We’ve invested more than ever before, because we believe we can do it. We have to keep climbing that mountain. We must continue those investments. That’s the tone and tenor I have tried to set at the DNC.” ❖


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