Thursday, April 18, 2024

On a Democratic Senate incumbent's election struggle in a purple state

NBC news reported under the headline "Tammy Baldwin fights to maintain appeal in rural Wisconsin amid Democratic slide." The subhead is "The senator has outrun other members of her party in rural areas before. This November, she'll have to manage being on a ballot with Donald Trump."  Here's the gist of the story:  

Baldwin is bracing for a tough re-election race against likely Republican nominee Eric Hovde, a multimillionaire and bank owner who loaned $8 million of his own money to his campaign in the first quarter of the year, according to FEC filings. But she has the advantage of incumbency, and has used it to often outperform other statewide Democrats in rural counties, even as the party as a whole has lost significant ground in rural America in recent decades.
Baldwin is already pouring more effort into rural campaigning this year as she prepares for the challenge of sharing the ballot with one of the forces driving GOP margins in rural areas sky-high. Unlike her first two races for the Senate, in 2012 and 2018, Donald Trump will be running this November, too.

“In Wisconsin, in rural America, I think a lot of people vote straight-ticket, either Republican or Democrat,” said Roecker, who sits on the board of directors for the National Dairy Board, Foremost Farms USA and Dairy Management Inc. “And, you know, like I said, I don’t know how many people go down through there like I do and check her separate.”

Roecker [a farmer from the Wisconsin Dells, also quoted earlier in the story] said he didn’t know much about Baldwin’s Republican opponent, but Hovde’s campaign said it plans to work across the state to tell voters that Baldwin is a “rubber stamp for the Biden administration.” A new Marquette University Law School poll out Wednesday showed Baldwin running a single point ahead of Biden among likely voters and 3 points ahead of the president among registered voters. The likely voter results showed Baldwin and Hovde tied, while she had a small lead among registered voters.
These quotes are from Wisconson GOP Chair Brian Schimming: 
“You don’t talk your way out of that,” Schimming said, speaking about the current economic situation. “I mean, you can talk till you’re blue in the face, but when people leave your talk or turn off your television ad or put down their smartphone, and then pull into a convenience store and pay, you know, a dollar and a quarter more than they’re paying for gas four years ago, they get it.”

Democrats have an uphill battle in the state’s rural areas, as their statewide victories have increasingly relied on wider margins in the state’s most densely populated metro areas.

“They have lost huge swaths of the rural/outstate vote in this state, and they are not going to get them back by running Tammy Baldwin around. They’re just not,” Schimming said. “And it’s a problem endemic for the whole party out there.”

These quotes are from Linda Wilkins, chair of the Green Lake Democratic Party: 

It’s like pulling hen’s teeth to get votes for Democrats in our areas.

Every Democratic vote makes a difference, and we get a few more each time in these extremely difficult red areas 

Monday, April 15, 2024

"Spotlight on rural California" (Part III): Giving rural folks a seat at the table

I want to wrap up this series about the Public Policy Institute of California's "Spotlight on Rural California" with a nod to budget priorities and how rural people and places may not rank high with policymakers having to make hard decisions about cuts.  In this regard, Chris Lopez, of Rural County Representatives of California, commented at the event, "We're going into a tough budget year and we [rural communities] want to be part of the conversation."  Another speaker noted that, in a tough budget year, a 40% cut to a given program means some counties will lose 2 of 5 staffers, but in a tiny county like Alpine, it may close an entire department.  

Ashley Swearengin, who leads the Central Valley Community Foundation, spoke of long-term investments (as in health care) that are needed in rural California, including her region's forested communities east of the Valley.  She observed, too, that the clean energy future we want in California is an industrial future--but with different industries from those associated with the past.  Several speakers observed that rural California punches well above its weight on clean energy. 

Another way to give rural ssembly member James Gallagher essentially called for "rural proofing," whereby new laws are vetted for the particular impact they will have on rural communities--sort of like an environmental impact statement, but instead a rural impact statement.  He mentioned in particular that "rural hospitals are failing" and that the situation has been made worse by the recent increase in the health care minimum wage, to $25, in California.  He also mentioned how California's gas taxes and fees penalize people for driving more--when rural folks have no choice but to drive, as to the grocery store.  

One speaker--I believe it was Swearengin--observed that the only thing keeping rural and urban from collaborating is not having dedicated time and space.  "We must require our local leaders to work together.  They msut determine where there are shared, aligned interests." 

I was reminded of the comments by Lopez and Swearengin when I saw this from a CalMatters newsletter on April 1, which provides a sense of the state's current budget crisis: 

With estimates ranging from $38 billion to $73 billion, the state budget deficit is top-of-mind for the Legislature. In March, Senate Democrats announced early budgetary action to reduce the shortfall by about $17 billion, while also agreeing with Newsom’s January budget proposal to use $12.2 billion of the state’s rainy day fund. According to Senate leaders, the plan would shrink the budget down to a “more manageable” $9 to $24 billion.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the two elected leaders in the Legislature — Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire and Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas — also announced in March that they agreed to seek $12 billion to $18 billion in initial savings ahead of passing the full state budget in June, but with scant details. All three are Democrats.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

President Joe Biden opens 10 field offices in North Carolina, none in a rural county

As reported by Axios, President Joe Biden has opened ten field offices in North Carolina, a crucial battleground state that could decide the 2024 Presidential election. The Biden campaign has focused its efforts on urban and suburban voters, believing that they represent a constituency that could give the incumbent President the state and its 16 electoral votes. Biden only lost North Carolina by 1.34% (or 74,483) votes, and it was the only state that Donald Trump won while also failing to win over 50% of the vote. However, the decision to focus solely on urban and suburban voters represents the Democratic Party's continued neglect of rural communities and abandoning the coalition that built the North Carolina Democratic Party in the post-Civil Rights era.

The late 20th-century North Carolina Democratic Party had deep roots in rural North Carolina, a time during which the Democrats led the way in progressive reforms that allowed North Carolina to distinguish itself as the most progressive Southern state.

Scotland County's Terry Sanford led North Carolina through the Civil Rights Era and refused to join his fellow Southern governors in trying to block racial progress. He raised education funding, championed the creation of what would later become the North Carolina Community College system, and endowed anti-poverty programs.

A decade later, Wilson County's Jim Hunt built upon this progress by continuing to champion education and build programs that promoted student success. Hunt narrowly lost his attempt to dethrone Jesse Helms in the 1984 Senate race and returned to the governor's mansion in the 1990s to continue his work.

North Carolina Democrats also sent Sanford to the United States Senate in the 80s, after his tenure as President of Duke University concluded. Sanford lost re-election in 1992, but Moore County's John Edwards filled his seat six years later.

The consistent theme of the North Carolina Democrats in the latter half of the 20th century was the championing of policies that benefited working-class North Carolinians, which included increases to education funding, infrastructure funding for rural corners of the state, and the continuation of racial progress. Were they perfect? Of course not. But rural voters knew they could trust the Democratic Party to have their back.

Over the last decade, however, Democrats have begun to lose their rural strongholds in North Carolina and seem to be putting little effort into getting them back.

My first direct exposure to politics in 2008 came as a volunteer at then-Senator Barack Obama's campaign office in Lumberton, North Carolina. At the time, my native Robeson County, North Carolina, was staunchly blue. In fact, Richard Nixon in 1972 was the only Republican to ever win there (at least since the end of Reconstruction). In the 2008 Democratic primary, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both had field offices in the county. Obama even carried it by almost 17.5% in 2012. In the 2010s, however, Robeson County politics took a hard turn to the right. We elected Republicans to the county commission and state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Donald Trump won the county in 2016 and 2020. This shift also happened on the state level, Pat McCrory and Dan Forest won Robeson County during their gubernatorial runs.

In 2020, Trump added to his support in Robeson County, likely buoyed by his decision to visit Lumberton in the waning days of the campaign. In fact, Trump gained more support in Robeson County, both in terms of percentage and raw numbers, than he did anywhere else in the state. 

Robeson is not an outlier in rural North Carolina. Six rural counties flipped to Trump in 2016 and remained in his column in 2020: Robeson, Bladen, Richmond, Gates, Granville, and Martin. The loss of Robeson, Bladen, and Richmond represents the loss of perhaps the poorest region of North Carolina. Along with Scotland County, which flipped to Trump in 2020, these counties represent a contiguous strip close to the South Carolina border in the eastern half of the state. All are persistent poverty counties, meaning they've had high poverty rates for at least three decades. These are the people to whom we should be listening.

North Carolina's urban and suburban areas are rapidly growing, so from a mathematical perspective, it seems logical to focus on them. However, President Biden's campaign must not leave rural North Carolinians behind. Rural North Carolina has many long-time activists, who helped power the Democratic coalition in the state for decades. As anyone who grew up in North Carolina in the latter half of the 20th century should know, many of our most progressive leaders came from the state's rural corners. The effectiveness of these activists is enhanced when they have institutional support. If you actually want to enact policies that better the lives of the most impoverished, you must create the infrastructure necessary for them to offer their input. 

It also makes mathematical sense to have a presence in rural communities. In 2008, Barack Obama won North Carolina by just 14,177 votes, and Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020 by just 11,779. 

There are reasons to be optimistic. The 2023 election of Person County's Anderson Clayton represents the infusion of rural ideas to the state party's leadership. Soon after her election, she pledged to remedy the problem that saw Democrats leave 44 state legislative seats uncontested. We'll see how that manifests into campaign strategy for the upcoming election cycle. 

We cannot afford to let the Republican Party have a monopoly on communities like where I grew up. 

Friday, April 12, 2024

Literary Ruralism (Part XLVI): American Spirits

Reviewers have been mostly positive about Russell Banks' last book, American Spirits, which was published posthumously a few months ago, and  I recently got around to reading it and found the insights regarding rural folks, including their attachment to place and to the land, quite compelling.  The book is comprised of three stories, each set in Sam Dent, a fictional small town in New York's Adirondacks.

This excerpt is from the first of the book's three stories, "Nowhere Man," which involves a man, Doug Lafleur, who, with his sisters, sold their interest in the land they inherited from their father (Guy Lafleur) in the rural Adirondacks to a man from New Jersey, Yuri Zingerman, a mysterious figure.  

Zingerman’s shooting range was a half mile farther up the narrow gravel lane that passed in front of [Doug’s] and Debbie’s ranch house. When he and Debbie got married, Doug’s father, Guy Lafleur, sold him the eight-acre lot for one dollar as a wedding present, and on weekends over the next three years Doug and his brothers-in-law, Roy and Dave, built their house where the lane ended and their land began. After Doug’s dad died, Doug and his two sisters, Nina and Tracy, and their husbands, Roy and Dave, his brothers-in-law and hunting companions, sold off the rest of the old man’s land, all 320 acres. It was the last large tract of undeveloped forested land inside the town limits. They sold it to Yuri Zingerman from New Jersey. He said he wanted it for a private hunting preserve, but promised Doug that he and Roy and Dave could continue to hunt on the property. Zingerman said he was a veteran of the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, but he talked with a regular American accent. He ran a company in New Jersey that provided security for celebrities and professional athletes and business executives. It was impressive when he named who they were. 

 

Doug, who worked as a full-time caretaker for summer residents and a part-time handyman in the winter months, spent his share of the cash sale of his dad’s land on a new Dodge Ram pickup and paid off the mortgage on the house. Without the mortgage hanging over them, he figured he could support the family with his caretaking and seasonal work as a handyman, and maybe in a year or two he could build a third bedroom onto the house and the two-car garage Debbie wanted. They could get off food stamps and buy health insurance. When the twins were old enough for Debbie to go back to waitressing full time instead of part time, which should be soon, they’d be sitting pretty. That’s how he put it to anyone who’d listen, with his lips pursed in an air kiss. Sitting pretty. (pp. 10-11)  

This is after Zingerman orders Doug not to hunt on the family property, Lafleur Woods, any longer.  Doug is speaking initially to his wife, Debbie, who pushes back against his plan to continue hunting:

“He can go straight to hell if he thinks I’m not hunting on Pop’s land.” 

 

“Who? It’s not Pop’s anymore, remember?” 

 

“No. It’ll always be Pop’s. Just like it’ll always be Grandpop’s. That’s why people call it Lafleur’s Woods. Those two old boys, Pop and Grandpop, they’d roll over in their graves if they thought me and Roy and Dave couldn’t hunt that land. Max, too. Max’s gonna get his chance to hunt those woods, just like I did when I was his age. And my dad before me. And Grandpop. That sonofabitch Zingerman, he can have his hunting camp out there if he wants, he paid for that right, but he can’t keep me from tramping across those ridges and creeks that I know like the lines of my own hand and killing a deer once a year and busting up a few coveys of partridges and quails. It’s my goddamn birthright.” 

 

She was silent for a moment. She knew that he’d had three gin and tonics and had been publicly humiliated by Zingerman, but even if he were stone-cold sober and Zingerman had managed to be polite and had apologized for posting the land and barring him from hunting it, Doug would be threatening to kill his deer over there anyway. He was a man. That’s what men do. She knew that by tomorrow he’d be trying to talk Zingerman out of his decision, and by Monday he’d be grumbling about Zingerman’s decision, and when hunting season opened, he’d meet up early with Dave and Roy, and they would hunt on somebody else’s land, not Zingerman’s. Not Pop’s and Grandpop’s.  (p. 22) 

 * * * 

“We’ll just go in there early the first day of the season and take out our deer, and the hell with him,” he told Debbie. “He’ll never even know we done it.” 

 

“Doug, that’s about as dumb a thing as you’ve ever thought of doing.” 

 

“Sometimes you got to do a foolish thing in order to do the right thing,” he said. 

 

“I’m not letting Max go with you.” 

 

“Whoa. When it comes to educating the boy to hunting, I’ll say when he’s ready. It’s a lifelong process, and it starts now for him. He’s ready to drive the deer, or at least watch how it’s done. He won’t carry a gun for four more years, but he’s got a lot he can learn before then. I started carrying a gun a lot younger than that, y’know. Of course, that was before the government started chipping away at the Second Amendment,” he added. 

 

“Please, don’t start,” she said. 

 

“What if Zingerman…?” “What if Zingerman what? Worst he can do is call the state police, and by the time they arrive, we’re back here at the house butchering a deer we can say we shot in the yard from the deck in our stocking feet.” 

 

“What’s that going to teach Max? That it’s okay to lie to the police?” 

 

“The staties all know me and Roy and Dave. They don’t care where we shot our deer. They don’t like Zingerman any more than we do. Actually, the one I want to be teaching is Zingerman. He’s the one needs a lesson. Coming into our town like this and snatching out of circulation three hundred twenty acres of prime hunting grounds. And I want Max to know we aren’t gonna let him get away with it. I want the whole damn town to know it. And the state police, too.” 

 

“You’re the one who sold him the land. You and your sisters.” 

 

“Yeah, but we had a deal. It’s him who changed the rules. And I’m just saying no, that’s all. No, dammit. No.” 

* * *  

[Debbie]  didn’t buy Doug’s sudden sentimental attachment to his father’s and grandfather’s land. Where’d that come from? He’d been all too happy to join his sisters, Nina and Tracy, when they had the chance to sell the land to Zingerman, and they would have done it even if Zingerman hadn’t promised not to subdivide or develop it and hadn’t given them permission to hunt there. Doug wanted the money. He needed the money, not the land. They all did. (p. 24) 

 Then there is this powerful passage about Doug's attachment to the property:    

For seventy-some years this forest was the Lafleur family’s private hunting preserve. Before that, for a hundred years it was a Boston-based timber company’s wilderness cache of uncut trees, part of the land across the region that got auctioned off in the 1930s and ’40s for pennies an acre when the company shifted operations south, and in 1947 Doug’s grandfather had bought a chunk of it. Before that, before the American settlers and the British and the French Canadians and the Dutch, for ten thousand years it was the Mohawks’ and Mi’kmaqs’ home ground. Doug liked thinking about that. He liked calling up that long line of woodsmen and hunters. He liked to believe that he was descended from them, that his relation to this piece of the earth matched theirs, that he knew in all seasons its streams and brooks and swamps, its glacial forests changing from hardwoods to dark conifers to ferny sunlit patches, that he knew it fully as well as those old-time hunters did, and he knew the man-made trails and paths laid down over centuries on top of the trails and paths followed for millennia by the animals before the humans made their way here, and he knew the behavior and habits and needs and desires of all the animals and birds that lived in the forest. 

 

Without that ancient connection to the land, who was Doug Lafleur, anyhow? No one. Nothing. Just a not very talented amateur musician hanging around this small town for a lifetime, finding easy ways to house and feed his wife and kids and spending too much time at the local tavern amusing his neighbors with tall tales and dumb songs, a man with no good reason to be living and working here instead of somewhere else. Christ, anywhere. And no matter where he lived and worked, wouldn’t it be the same? 

 

A nowhere man, that’s what he’d become. Like the guy in the Beatles’ song. 

 

It was a mistake to sell the land to Zingerman, he said to himself. A mistake to sell it to anyone. He and his sisters should have clung to it for another generation for Max and his cousins to grow up on. It wasn’t fair to blame the old man, but Doug’s father had started the process by selling Doug the eight-acre pie-shaped corner adjacent to Route 50. The old man at first didn’t want to sell off the flat, birch-covered stretch of ground, but Doug, newly married, wanted to build his own house, even if he had to borrow fifty thousand from the bank to do it. He talked the old man into signing over the eight acres for a dollar an acre so he could use the appraised value of the land, a thousand times what he’d paid for it, to guarantee the bank loan. Doug and his father thought they were outsmarting the bankers.

 

They never should have done it, though. No one outsmarts the bankers. With help from his brothers-in-law over the next three years he built the one-story, two-bedroom bungalow with a full basement, and though he knew he could have done it cheaper with a double-wide set on cinderblocks, he wouldn’t have been able to expand on a double-wide, someday adding a third bedroom and a two-car garage with a tool room, the same as he could on a regular house. With his meager income from caretaking the homes of summer residents and handyman work over the winter, the mortgage payments turned out to be more than he could afford—several years into it and he was still paying mostly interest, and the principal was down barely seven hundred dollars from the fifty thousand he’d borrowed, and recently he’d been falling behind and was being charged penalties for late payments. 

 

After the old man died he never should have agreed with Nina and Tracy to sell the rest of the land in order to pay off the bank loan with his third of the inheritance. He could have somehow figured out a way to make the mortgage payments by taking a night shift at one of the resort hotels or a factory job in one of the larger towns downstate. Or he and Debbie could have sold the house instead and rented an apartment or a house in town. They might have saved enough that way to afford health insurance. And after they sold their father’s land, he shouldn’t have bought the new pickup. 

 

He could have squeezed a couple more years’ use from his old rust bucket of a truck. He and his sisters would still own the Lafleur Woods, the headwaters of Blackstone Kill, the sedimented shale slabs cut crosswise by the kill and the ridges and gullies, the moraines and eskers and erratics and the rock-strewn till left behind by the retreating glaciers ten thousand years ago. He’d still be able to hunt on his ancestors’ land. This love of the land, this irrational claim on it, was Doug’s strength, and it was his weakness.  (pp. 28-31) 

 Then (spoiler alert!) there is a show down between Doug and Zingerman, each wielding a gun:  

 Zingerman said, “Lafleur, you’re a fucking dead man.” 

 

Doug said, “I’m a nowhere man.”  (p. 60)

Thursday, April 11, 2024

How vouchers are decimating Oklahoma's rural schools

This story by an Oklahoma television station caught my eye on Twitter, where Jennifer Berkshire, a podcaster writing about education and politics had posted a link with this quote and comment, 

*If it’s not any better than this year, I think our rural schools will cave,” she said. “I think that’s probably the purpose—that if we have less schools, then the monies can go to privates and charters.* Incredible reporting from Oklahoma.

Interestingly, Heather Cox Richardson, the historian, had retweeted the Tweet (which is how this matter actually caught my eye), with this comment:

This is an astonishing story, illustrating what happens to a political system when one party can rule without oversight.

Berkshire also observed that this had happened quickly in Oklahoma, given that just six years ago the state had "booted GOP incumbents who were seen as insufficiently pro public education."  

The story at the link introduces readers to Pamela Smith-Gordon, who had been superintendent for Caney Public Schools in Bryan County, population 46,000 on the Texas state line.

She spent most of her career as an educator working in rural, public schools, where she became intimately familiar with a unique role those schools play for their communities.

“That’s where people meet people,” Smith-Gordon said. “That’s where people get to know each other’s kids. That’s where community members get together to commune. Oftentimes in small communities, especially those little communities that don’t even have a stoplight, those communities, they keep each other in check because everyone knows everyone. It’s really unique. And we are blessed in Oklahoma to have those types of communities throughout the state.”

For her, every dollar the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) allocated to her district mattered immensely.

“There’s not a tax base,” she said. “When you don’t have a stoplight in your town, you might have one gas station. That doesn’t provide you a lot of tax money from your communities.”

If there’s a second thing to know about Pamela Smith-Gordon, it’s that — like many Oklahomans — she describes herself as a Christian, conservative Republican.
“I am a God lover,” Smith-Gordon said. “I’m not crazy about liberal agendas.”* * *

From time to time, she thinks about what she would do if she could wave a magic wand and find herself calling the shots from the big office down that secured hallway on the first floor of the Hodge building.

“First of all, I would be there, definitely be there, but I would hire Oklahomans,” Smith-Gordon said. “I wouldn’t go out of state to hire people… I would utilize those people who have been in these schools, in these rural schools, the administrators that have been in these rural schools, teachers that have been in these schools that have faced these obstacles, that know what works and what doesn’t…they have a huge array of value to set initiatives and policy. I would hire Oklahomans to take care of Oklahoma. I also would offer help before humiliation.”

But magic wands don’t exist. And the fact is: Walters is only a little more than a year into his four-year term. That scares Smith-Gordon.

“Our schools did not receive allocations, some of them, not until January,” she said. “If we do this for the next three years, our schools will cave. Department heads have left and there are departments that are being closed down… all of those departments were utilized to answer questions for our schools. If we don’t have people in those departments that can answer questions, how are schools supposed to know?”
* * *
The more she thinks and reflects, the more she wonders: maybe this was the plan all along?

“If it’s not any better than this year, I think our rural schools will cave,” she said. “I think that’s probably the purpose—that if we have less schools, then the monies can go to privates and charters.”

That may concern her more than anything else.

“Parents need to realize that when we fund the private and charter schools, they have a different set of rules that they go by,” she said.

Other posts about rural schools in relation to vouchers, aka "school choice", are here.   And here's a piece on the last Democratic candidate for governor of Oklahoma, who made saving rural schools a centerpiece of her campaign.  

Here, George Will, the conservative columnist, writes in favor of school choice, asserting that it is working well in Arizona.  I see no mention of rural schools in his column.  

Friday, April 5, 2024

Two hard-hitting critiques of "White Rural Rage"

I wrote about Thomas Schaller and Paul Waldman's new book, White Rural Rage, in February, just after its publication.  I followed up with this.   Now, two more critiques of the book have been published back to back.  

The first, by Tyler Austin Harper, was published in The Atlantic yesterday under the headline "An Utterly Misleading Book about Rural America."  An important part of Harper's attack centers on definitions of "rural," but he also does a deep dive into how the authors of White Rural Rage committed what he calls academic malpractice.  Here's a key excerpt:  
White Rural Rage illustrates how willing many members of the U.S. media and the public are to believe, and ultimately launder, abusive accusations against an economically disadvantaged group of people that would provoke sympathy if its members had different skin color and voting habits. That this book was able to make it to print—and onto the best-seller list—before anyone noticed that it has significant errors is a testament to how little powerful people think of white rural Americans. As someone who is from the kind of place the authors demonize—a place that is “rural” in the pejorative, rather than literal, sense—I find White Rural Rage personally offensive. I was so frustrated by its indulgence of familiar stereotypes that I aired several intemperate criticisms of the book and its authors on social media. But when I dug deeper, I found that the problems with White Rural Rage extend beyond its anti-rural prejudice. As an academic and a writer, I find Schaller and Waldman’s misuse of other scholars’ research indefensible.
Then, today, Nicolas Jacobs, co-author of The Rural Voter, published this in Politico:  "What Liberals Get Wrong About 'White Rural Rage'--Almost Everything."   Here's an excerpt that focuses on the same theme Harper hits--basically how progressive media outlets and institutions have been fooled by this Schaller and Waldman book. 
This latest obsession with rural rage is nothing new. After 2016, when rural voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania put former President Donald Trump over the top, Democrats tried to figure out why they had gone so sour on the Democratic Party. Some liberal thinkers called out the left’s reflexive condescension and dismissal of rural voters that escalated during the George W. Bush administration and peaked with Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her dismissal of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Some said the party should increase attention to rural issues and nearby rural communities.

But don’t be misled. The publication and widespread celebration of White Rural Rage among progressive circles is doing something different than those post-2016 post-mortems. It is not an attempt to understand the needs and concerns of rural America. Instead, it’s an outpouring of frustration with rural America that might feel cathartic for liberals, but will only serve to further marginalize and demonize a segment of the American population that already feels forgotten and dismissed by the experts and elites.  

Sunday, March 31, 2024

"Spotlight on rural California" (Part II): Defying rural stereotypes

I wrote last week about the Public Policy Institute of California's "Spotlight on rural California" event, and I am circling back now to provide more information about what was discussed there.  I want to highlight how the rural politicians who participated in these events defied certain rural stereotypes--in particular the stereotype of buy-in to conspiracy theories, complete antipathy to the federal government, and denial of climate change.  

James Gallagher of Yuba City, the Assembly minority leader who has made himself a vocal foe of Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, was insistent that climate change is "aggravating" environmental challenges facing rural California.  He resisted, however, the notion that climate change is "causing" these environmental challenges, e.g., early snow melt, flooding, and wildfires.  This seems like a minor semantic distinction to me--that is, if climate change is aggravating environmental challenges then it is causing them to a degree.  (As a historical note in support of his position, Gallagher noted that California's worst flood occurred in the late 19th century, before the era of industrialization).  But "aggravating" is something--it's not denial.  And regarding that aggravation, Gallagher talked sensibly about managing forests because they are the fuel for wildfires.  

Gallagher also talked about failing rural hospitals, a problem he said is made worse by the recent increase in the health care minimum wage, from which Newsom has since backed off.  Gallagher also noted that rural hospitals are struggling because of low Medicare reimbursement rates.  At the same time, he praised what can only be called government subsidies for health care delivery, citing in particular Federally Qualified Healthcare Clinics (FQHC) and Indian Health Services as "vital."  Given federal support for both FQHC and Indian Health Services, it's indisputable that Gallagher was crediting the U.S. government--not exactly a position associated with the most extreme anti-government positions.  

I'd put state Senator Shannon Grove of Bakersfield in the same category as Gallagher.  I've associated her with the right side of the culture wars, but when it came to being an advocate for rural California and her district in particular, she was pragmatic.  Grove gave a brief spiel--I'll stop short of calling it a rant--when asked about the COVID-19 pandemic as setback and opportunity.  She criticized government regulations and the impact they had on businesses and on students' educational progress, both fair critiques to my mind, especially with the aid of hindsight.  She also stated clearly that the pandemic was "real," perhaps specifically aiming to put the cabash on conspiracy theories that the pandemic was a government-generated myth to justify controlling people.  

All of this is to say that the PPIC event on California left me thinking our state is less polarized than I'd previously thought.  

Thursday, March 28, 2024

On spatial inequality in Maine's juvenile justice system

The New York Times today published a second story in a series on Maine's juvenile justice system, this one expressly calling attention to differences in rural and urban:   "For Young Offenders in Maine, Justice Varies by Geography."  Journalist Callie Ferguson reports as part of a year-long investigation into the system, as part of the Times Local Investigations Fellowship.  Here's an excerpt leading with the nature of Aroostook County, the legendary county in the state's far north:   

Aroostook County, in Maine’s far north, is the largest county east of the Mississippi, a sparsely populated region of fields and forests with just two small cities and about 50 smaller towns. Police chiefs describe their jurisdictions as sleepy, with little serious crime.

Even so, the county has sent a disproportionate number of adolescents in recent years to the state’s only youth prison.

The data show that Aroostook sent 20 youth to that juvenile prison between 2017 and 2023, and that's twice the number sent by York County, in the Southern part of the state, which has three times as many residents.  Ferguson describes York County as including "wealthy coastal communities and former mill towns that help make up Maine's largest metropolitan areas."  There, harsh sentences like the ones doled out by Aroostook County are rarely imposed.  Indeed, the story notes that Maine has, in recent years, emphasized rehabilitation in its approach to juvenile offenders, consistent with national trends. And that's where differences show up between rural and urban.

Aroostook was also an outlier for using short prison terms, known as “shock” sentences, to punish young offenders, handing them down at some of the highest rates statewide before the practice began to wane.

But the differences between Aroostook and York Counties show that the effort has played out unevenly, resulting in justice by geography. The disparity appears to stem from philosophical differences over the appropriate response to teenagers who get in trouble, the varying availability of services across the state and the unequal distribution of lawyers and caseloads, according to interviews with defense attorneys, law enforcement officials and former corrections officials.
York stood out even beyond its low commitment rate. Adolescents there were far less likely to end up with a felony record than anywhere except for neighboring Cumberland County, according to a data analysis by The New York Times and The Bangor Daily News. Between 2017 and 2022, those counties reduced 93 percent of felony cases that resulted in a guilty plea to misdemeanors. At the low end, two central Maine counties reduced them only about half the time; in Aroostook, that rate was 64 percent.

Ferguson quotes Sarah Branch, a former juvenile prosecutor who knows directs the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law:  

Justice should not be defined by where in the state a child lives. What we have right now are barriers for some children that don’t exist for others. 
* * * 

Justice by geography isn’t unique to Maine. Across the United States, the idiosyncrasies of local courts affect case outcomes, and variation is especially likely in the juvenile system with its emphasis on individualized treatment. Last year, a nonprofit advocacy group in Massachusetts identified wide-ranging differences depending on which police department, district attorney and court handled a case. Similarly, a 2005 study of Missouri’s juvenile system found that teenagers’ odds of confinement changed with where they lived.

One issue is the lack of staffing, expertise, and resources in rural counties, which may see only a dozen juvenile cases a year.   One aspect of that shortage is so-called legal deserts:  too few attorneys. 

And while there are not nearly enough lawyers to represent poor defendants in Maine, the problem is acute in rural areas. Last year, the state created a special team of public defenders to combat the shortage in Aroostook, Penobscot and Washington Counties.

An earlier installment in this Maine juvenile justice series is here.  You can read more about Aroostook County and York County, Maine in these prior posts on a wide range of topics, including the rural lawyer shortage in that state and Senator Susan Collins, who hails from Aroostook County.  Here are some photos of a jail in Wiscasset, Maine (also coastal, towards the south of the state), in a post discussing the rural incarceration boom.  And here are some other photos of southern Maine.  Aroostook County features in Elizabeth Strout's novel Oh William!, as summarized here.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Politico reports on California's new legislative leaders, both with rural roots, representing rural districts

The headline is "Rural California can finally claim both legislative leaders as its own," and Camille Von Kaenel reports on the topic I took up here.  She does so, however, with the resources of a journalist who has more time to gather details of the symbolic meaning and possible real-world consequences of Robert Rivas' ascension to chair of the California Assembly and Mike McGuire's recent taking the reins of the California Senate.  For the first time since 1969, both of California's legislative leaders are from rural-ish areas.  Indeed, both also rose from modest means.  Rivas is the son of farmworkers in San Benito County, population 64,000, and McGuire was raised by his mother and grandmother, also engaged in agricultural pursuits, in Sonoma County, population 488,000.  His district, however, is quite sparsely populated as it stretches north along the coast to the Oregon state line.   

Some excerpts from the Politico story follow, elaborating on the possible significance of : 

Sen. Mike McGuire’s sprawling North Coast district encompasses some of the state’s most famous redwood forests, salmon fisheries and Sonoma County wineries. Speaker Robert Rivas represents a Central Coast region known as the salad bowl of America and grew up in farmworker housing. They’re both a far cry from their immediate predecessors, Sen. Toni Atkins of San Diego and Assemblymember Anthony Rendon of south-central Los Angeles.
For Chris Lopez, the current chair of the Rural County Representatives of California [RCRC], which includes 40 of California’s 58 counties, the representation alone is powerful.

“When Robert was sworn in as speaker, having a mariachi on that floor playing music spoke to my heart,” said Lopez, who has close ties with the speaker because both came up through San Benito County politics. “It wasn’t just about having a Latino, but having a Latino who grew up rural in farmworker housing.”
The story provides this example of urbanormativity (my word, not the journalist's) in California lawmaking:
RCRC has long sought an exemption from CA SB1383 (15R), former Sen. Ricardo Lara’s 2016 law requiring counties to reduce the amount of organic waste that goes into landfills and decomposes into methane, a potent global warming gas. Lopez argues that remote areas don’t have enough access to composting facilities and is sponsoring Assemblymember Jim Wood’s CA AB2902 (23R), which would indefinitely extend the exemption for rural jurisdictions.

The law is one instance of how cities’ grip on political power has made some of California’s most iconic climate policies not work as well for rural areas, Lopez said.

Here's a direct quote from Lopez:  

Our communities need longer runways, they need a little bit more assistance on the technical advisory side.  I know we have got folks there now who understand that.

Then there's this bit of California history: 

The last time both leaders hailed from rural districts was in 1969, when Democrat Hugh Burns of Fresno County led the Senate and Republican Bob Monagan of San Joaquin County led the Assembly, according to Alex Vassar, California State Library communications manager. The most recent rural Assembly speaker was Cruz Bustamante, a moderate Fresno Democrat who led the Assembly from 1996 to 1998 before becoming lieutenant governor.

In California, rural areas tend to elect Republicans.  That has limited these regions' political influence in a state where Democrats enjoy a super majority.  

McGuire has made wildfire preparedness a priority, and has outlined the most detailed plan of any lawmaker to right the state’s troubled property insurance industry after catastrophic losses, some to fires in his district.
* * *
Rivas, for his part, is one of the Legislature’s biggest champions of the potential climate benefits of landscapes like farms and forests to absorb carbon. He co-authored a bill in 2022 requiring the state to set first-in-the-nation emissions targets for natural and working lands.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

"When you say 'California,' rural is not one of the adjectives that comes readily to mind."

Near the San Bernardino and Kern County line
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
That is one of the most memorable comments from today's Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) event, "Spotlight on Rural California."  It was made by PPIC president and CEO, Tani Cantil-Sakayue, former Chief Justice of the State of California, and it's one I appreciate given how difficult it seems to be to draw attention to rural issues, rural people, rural needs here in the Golden State.  It's an issue I've written about occasionally here on the blog, but more commonly ranted about verbally to friends and anyone who would listen.  One problem with people not thinking about the rural character of big swaths of California is that rural places don't command legislators' and policymakers' attention.  They don't seem important in the scheme of all the other things going on economically and culturally in the Golden State, but if the speakers are today's event are to be believed, rural California is absolutely critical to the success of its more urban counterparts.   
Wind turbines over Tehachapi Pass, Kern County
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
Thus I found this event really helpful and hopeful, a sort of bridge-building affair.  It featured Cantil-Sakayue in conversation with California Assemblyman and Republican leader James Gallagher (R) of Yuba City, one-on-one. Cantil-Sakayue then convened a panel that included California State Senator Shannon Grove (R) of Bakersfield, Chris Lopez of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and Chair of Rural County Representatives of California, and Ashley Swearengen, Executive Director of the Central Valley Community Foundation.  I found all to be excellent and thoughtful speakers and advocates for rural California and what the state's rural reaches need.  All touched in one way or another on how rural places support and prop up urban areas, but in ways that typically go unseen, unacknowledged.     

The themes that came up over and over again were
  • Rural and urban interdependence:  the food, fuel and fiber supplied by rural California, including green energy that comes from places like Kern County and permits urban areas like Los Angeles to claim green designations (see photo above of wind turbines over Tehachapi pass).  Grove asserted that 52% of California's clean energy comes from her district.  She mentioned, for example, a 6,000 acre solar installment, something you "can't put in Santa Monica," she quipped.
  • The closure of rural hospitals and the threat of more closures, as well as other geographic inequities in health care.  As Grove mentioned, for example, the hospital in Ridgecrest recently closed its labor and delivery unit, a move that has national security implications because of nearby Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.  She says that installation won't be able to attract young talent without health care access.  The nearest hospital with labor and delivery is 70 miles away, and those are not an easy 70 miles, Grove noted, with a ravine off to one side and a granite all on the other.  
    The number of Tesla superchargers in Mojave 
    may be the highest per capita in California.  
    (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

  • The cost of living for all California families, including rural families, who tend to face non-negotiable transportation costs--to work, the grocery stores, and such.   They don't have the option of public transportation, and electric vehicle technology and infrastructure are not fully viable there--at least not yet.  The housing shortage was also addressed; Lopez, for example, mentioned thousands of industry-built units for farmworkers near Salinas, behind what he called "the lettuce curtain."  The rising cost of insurance--"if you can get it," Gallagher noted, is another concern.  
  • The significance of green energy infrastructure--such as those thousands of acres of solar panels (noted above) and hydrogen-fueled airplanes being developed in Mojave.  (I wondered why there were so many Tesla chargers in Mojave--dozens of them--when I drove through last month; perhaps energy is especially cheap there and Tesla wants good charging infrastructure en route to Death Valley and other other remote points up Hwy 395 into the Eastern Sierra).
  • The need for regional collaborations between rural and urban places.
  • The struggle to staff rural law enforcement; Grove noted that only one law enforcement officer serves the entire "west side" of her district.  (I'd be interested to know where that officer is based, but I notice that the town of Maricopa, south of Taft, is the western-most point in Grove's district).
  • The importance of rural tourism to California's economy--as well as its unrealized potential, including in the north state. 
I will come back with more details in a future post, but I wanted to provide at least this teaser, for now, about an event I found encouraging, an event that left me optimistic than I typically am about rural California's future and the possibility that state government might invest in it. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Right-wing political movement losing ground in California's rural-ish north state

Hailey Branson-Potts and Jessica Garrison report for the Los Angeles Times from Shasta County, California, a recent hotbed of election denialism and similar conspiracy theory madness.   (You can read some related past posts here, herehere, here, and here).  The headline is "One far-right leader ousted. Another barely hangs on. Is Shasta rejecting MAGA politics?, and the gist of yesterday's Times story about the March 5 election results follows:    
Shasta County voters have booted from office a key figure in the county’s hard-right shift, even as the fate of a second far-right crusader on the powerful Board of Supervisors still hangs in the balance.

Patrick Jones, a former chair of the five-member board, was soundly defeated in the Super Tuesday election, according to results released by the county registrar Friday afternoon. With 98% of the vote counted, Jones’ opponent, Matt Plummer, a nonprofit adviser, was winning outright with nearly 60% of the vote.

It marked a stunning turn for Jones, a gun store manager who in his one term in office has emerged as a leading voice in an ultraconservative insurgence that transformed this largely rural Northern California county into a national poster child for hard-right governance and election denialism.
In recent months, Jones led the conspiracy-laden charge to dump Dominion voting machines and return the county to hand-counting its ballots. He helped push through a county resolution pledging fealty to the 2nd Amendment and a measure to allow concealed weapons in local government buildings, in defiance of state law.

More broadly, he worked with militia members and secessionists on campaign efforts that dramatically reshaped governance in a county long run by mainstream Republicans.

In another closely watched primary race, Jones’ political ally, Supervisor Kevin Crye, was surviving a recall election by just 46 votes. Crye made headlines last year when he enlisted support for nixing Dominion machines from Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive and pro-Trump election denier.

Postscript March 30, 2024:  Supervisor Kevin Crye survived the recall effort by 50 votes, out of about 9,300 cast.