Sunday, July 31, 2022

In southern Ohio, four members of one family set to go on trial for murdering eight members of another

Six years ago, the execution style murder of eight members of the Rhoden family in rural southern Ohio grabbed headlines.  I recall discussing it at the Rural Sociological Society meeting that year, with at least one criminologist convinced that drugs must have been behind the horrific crime.  Turns out, child custody was the motive.  Four members of another family, the Wagners, have been charged with the murders.  Jake Wagner, who had a child with Hannah Rhoden, wanted sole custody of their toddler. 

Here's an excerpt from Chris Graves story, in the Washington Post, about the pending trial:  
Prosecutors say they know exactly who executed the eight family members, and they are gearing up to present their case to a jury when the first trial in Ohio’s most costly and complex criminal investigation starts in late August. The trial will give onlookers a front-row view into a corner of America known more through stereotypes than complex realities: a place where, often, family protects family at all costs and where love and loyalty trump all else.

“A lot of this, and I don’t mean this in any kind of derogatory way, is the code of the hills,” said Mike Allen, a Cincinnati-based criminal defense lawyer who has monitored the case from the start. “Family sticks together.”

* * * 

Special prosecutor Angela Canepa has portrayed the Wagners as an insular family that lived together their entire lives, worked together, were home-schooled together, commingled their money and voted as a group on everything, including the decision to kill Hanna Rhoden, the mother of Jake Wagner’s young daughter, and seven of her family members.

Canepa has painted the family as controlling to the point of violence toward anyone — notably the three women involved with the two Wagner sons — who threatened to disrupt the family’s intimate bond. Jake Wagner’s former wife, whom he met and married in Alaska, is expected to testify for the prosecution in the trial, as is George Wagner’s ex-wife, who relinquished full custody of their son years before Jake’s daughter was born. Both women, Canepa alleges, fled for their lives from the Wagner family.

After two and a half years in jail, Jake Wagner confessed to five of the eight murders and agreed to be a witness against his family members, including brother George Wagner IV.  Empaneling a jury in this rural locale is shaped by both poverty and the lack of anonymity associated with rural places:   

Before the trial of George Wagner IV begins on Aug. 29, lawyers must narrow a jury pool in Pike County, where nearly 20 percent of its 27,900 residents live in poverty, according to the 2020 Ohio Poverty Report. Many could face two months without pay if the trial stretches as long as 60 days, as some estimate it could. The county summoned 1,000 potential jurors who were expected to answer a detailed questionnaire. Lawyers narrowed their pool and will continue questioning individual jurors on Aug. 8.
“We were told … that approximately 20 to 25 percent turnout is typical of those summoned to appear for jury duty,” said John Patrick Parker, one of George Wagner’s attorneys. “That’s simply not acceptable if we’re going to have a fair cross section of the community. And when you factor in how notorious this case is … we anticipate there are going to be several factors that are going to make it difficult, if not impossible, to get a fair jury in this county.”

A motion for change of venue was denied.  Parker, the lawyer for the younger George Wagner, has expressed concern that the prosecutor will try to convict his client based on family reputation:

“A large part of the state’s argument we anticipate is: ‘He’s a Wagner, and this is how the Wagners operate,’ ” Parker said. “The jury needs to understand the basic premise of our criminal justice system is as follows: Our law punishes people for what they do, not [for] who they are, and so the jury will need to focus their attention on what the evidence proves that George did or didn’t do.”

Parker continued in court: “And he can’t be convicted on what his other family members may have done, or may have testified about.”

The rest of Graves' story about this case is well worth a read.  The whole tragedy has a certain Hatfield and McCoy vibe, and it's .  It's sure to be an intriguing trial.   

Saturday, July 30, 2022

On re-opening a California gold mine

Hailey Branson-Potts reports for the Los Angeles Times from Nevada County, California.  The headline is "A California gold mine’s toxic legacy: Inside the fight over reopening a treasure trove."  Here's an excerpt:  
Five years ago, Canadian mining executive Ben Mossman came to this little Gold Rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, planning to strike it rich.

His company bought the abandoned Idaho-Maryland mine — an 1860s-era treasure trove that once was one of the most productive gold mines in the country.

He has tried to sell the idea of reopening the mine to locals by promising to create more than 300 good-paying jobs in rural Nevada County, where references to the Gold Rush — the Mine Shaft Saloon, the Gold Miners Inn, the rusty ore carts and stamp mills decorating street corners and parks — are everywhere.

* * *

The project has sparked fear that precious groundwater will be sucked dry and has re-opened historic wounds in an Indigenous tribe, the Nisenan, who were displaced from their ancestral land by the first wave of gold miners.

The saga has turned into one of mutual dislike, with Mossman saying local activists perpetuate virulently anti-mine “conspiracy theories” and bog him down with bureaucracy. He figures they will wear down. Eventually.

“It’s been dragging out,” he said. “They’re probably even getting tired.”

In turn, some residents think Mossman acts as though he’s stumbled into a mix between Mayberry and “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Here's a post about a similar dilemma a decade ago in a town two counties south of Nevada County. This story is out of Amador County, and the nine is also on the state's historic Highway 49.  

Friday, July 29, 2022

New commentary on Dirt Road Revival and how a place-based focus can win rural voters

Kal Munis and Robert Saladin write in the Washington Monthly, "The Democrats Rural Problem." The piece opens provocatively:

Democrats face a five-alarm fire in rural America, but no engines have been dispatched to extinguish the flames. Much of the party’s elite—ensconced in urban enclaves—doesn’t see the blaze.

* * * 

Equally important, party elites need to allow rural candidates to run their way. This means giving candidates the space to build their brands in a way that comports with their districts. Moreover, the nomadic hoard of volunteers and consultants needs to adapt to rural terrain. Frequently, there is a significant cultural divide between campaign staff and volunteers—to say nothing of activists—and rural voters. But for the voters Democrats have been hemorrhaging, the issues that galvanize many progressives—climate change, identity politics, gun safety—can be downright poisonous. The issues that fire up the younger, better-educated types who often staff campaigns have, at best, an indirect effect on improving the economic standing of lower-middle-class rural voters.

Of course, progressives care about such things as working-class wages, but when they do, it’s often down their list of priorities. Still, others find it distasteful to solicit voters they regard as racist, misogynistic, and so on. Rural Democrats need the leeway to court rural voters by distancing themselves from progressive urban priorities.

Localized campaigns offer the best hope for breaking out of the nationalization trap. Political psychology research suggests that emphasizing local issues of particular significance to voters’ districts is Democrats’ best shot at resonating with rural voters. It allows candidates to connect with voters based on a shared love of place, building trust and allowing Democratic candidates to get beyond the contentious national political conversation.

Local media sources can also help, as they are more trusted than their national counterparts.

This is the latest in a recent series of votes on the rural vote.  Find more here at the rural vote tag and the rural politics tag.  

Meanwhile, here's the latest I've seen on Beto O'Rourke's increasingly robust rural outreach in his run for Governor of Texas.  It's from KHOU-TV in Houston.  The New York Times also wrote this week about O'Rourke closing in on Greg Abbott in the polls.  Interestingly, the latter does not use the word "rural" or "small town," but it does mention his 49-day "Drive for Texas" as in O'Rourke's "comfort zone," an apparent reference to his earlier tack during his run against Cruz for the U.S. Senate seat.  

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CLXXXII): On the shortage of public defenders in Oregon's rural reaches as court systems play catchup after pandemic

This story is by Garrett Andrews for The Bulletin (Bend, Oregon):  "Another tough year ahead expected for Oregon public defenders."  Here's an excerpt that focuses on the shortage of public defenders in rural Oregon:  

Rural public defense offices, down bodies when COVID-19 hit, got by during the court slowdown from 2020-2022. They’ve found their current staffing levels are inadequate to meet demand created by the justice system. This has led to where the state is now: 39 inmates statewide without representation and 65 out-of-custody defendants, as of last week.

When COVID-19 hit, to limit jail population for social distancing, Deschutes County judges set aside signed arrest warrants in less-serious cases. But police have now started arresting people based on those warrants and hundreds of new cases are expected to hit the docket.

* * * 

Though not limited to Oregon by a long stretch, the state is among the hardest hit by the problem. Earlier this month, a majority of Oregon’s public defense providers refused to sign their latest contract with the state, citing workloads so extreme they risked violating their professional ethics by taking new cases. Concessions were made to win over holdouts, and officials are meeting regularly to address the issue of unrepresented inmates. The lack of public defenders has exposed larger issues in the justice system, which looks ripe for another tough fiscal year ahead.

In his pitch to prospective hires, Erik Swallow leans into the idea his office is essentially a training ground for larger and better-paying firms. The director of Umpqua Valley Public Defenders in Roseburg [population 24,000] stresses the area’s natural amenities: small-town friendliness and the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond.

This "training ground" pitch reminds me of a commonly used label on this blog "urban use of the rural." 

The office has been rocked by vacancies since the Oregon justice system erased its pandemic-related backlog earlier this year, the result of retirements and younger lawyers leaving to work at state agencies and firms in more urban areas.

To help explain why 10 people now sit unrepresented in the local jail, Swallow provided a rundown of his recent staff departures to the board that oversees public defense contracting in Oregon, the Public Defense Services Commission, at a recent board meeting.

Despite spending $3,000 a month on recruiting in national publications, the Umpqua Valley office has received just one application for one of three open positions over the past six months. Now, the office no longer takes new minor felony cases.

I couldn't help think of this Oregon story in relation to this national piece that ran last week in Pro Publica.  Alec MacGillis reported from Albuquerque, New Mexico and Wichita, Kansas, contrasting how courts in the two different cities managed court proceedings during the pandemic. Wichita tried to maintain case processing, while Albuquerque's court system essentially shut down.  In both the Pro Publica story and the Oregon story in The Bulletin, we see court systems responding to conditions dramatically changed by the pandemic and the public health dictates that flowed from it.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

More militia activity in California, this time in the shadow of the Oak Fire

The San Jose Mercury News reports from Mariposa, California (population 17,131), where the Oak fire has spread rapidly since it started on Friday. Ethan Baron reports:  

The appearance of camouflage-clad militia members in the small Sierra foothills town of Mariposa as the Oak Fire raged nearby has sparked a furor in Mariposa County, with the local sheriff’s department praising the group for its help while some residents accused the militia of exploiting the disaster.
The California State Militia 2nd Regiment — whose website features pictures of men in military fatigues, helmets and assault-style rifles preparing for “the unrest yet to come” — set up a mobile kitchen trailer from Saturday evening through Monday morning in the parking lot of a lumber store in Mariposa, just southwest of the blaze that as of Monday morning had driven nearly 4,000 people from their homes while burning almost 17,000 acres.

There are about 150 members in the militia across California, and about 20 of them, including several Mariposa-area residents and others from nearby counties and one from Bakersfield, showed up to help feed evacuees and offer other services, said militia member Daniel Latner.

This is interesting because I don't believe I've previously been aware of this militia.  The story continues with a quote from Latner, a 44-year-old resident of Mariposa County who works in logistics:  

We’re part of the community.  We’re watching our own community burn down, and even though a lot of the members that came to help, they’re spread out, we’re all part of the same unit, and this is what we do.

 Baron's story continues:  

Latner estimated that his group fed about 20 families, with food including “local farm fresh eggs and goat milk,” pancakes, turkey sausage, sandwiches and fruits and vegetables. Militia members rustled up a three-horse trailer to help people evacuate livestock but didn’t end up using it, Latner said.

But not all residents were happy with the activities of the militia, which parked two large green military-surplus trucks beside their kitchen operation.

“The last thing I’m going to do is take a free tri-tip sandwich from a right-wing extremist group,” said one resident, who did not want her name used because she said she worried about provoking “armed and dangerous” people.

“We’re very angry that they would choose to come in at a time of real gravity to try to turn this into a political move,” said the woman, who works remotely as a program manager for an energy-efficiency company and accused the group of “trying to recruit people in a disaster.”

The U.S. militia movement gained a higher profile during the administration of former President Donald Trump, who received 58% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election in Mariposa County, to President Joe Biden’s 40%. Federal prosecutors have charged a leader of the Oath Keepers militia with seditious conspiracy for allegedly coordinating with members of the Three Percenters militia and the violent extremist group the Proud Boys before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Baron then quotes a Facebook post by the Mariposa Sheriff's office:  

 We had received multiple notifications inquiring why we had ‘activated that militia.’  The militia has not been activated or requested to act for any purpose by the Sheriff’s Office or any agency working the Oak Fire.

We are not unsupportive of community groups helping those affected by the Oak Fire … they are acting on their own courteous accord,” the post continued. “We appreciate their efforts and any … efforts of other private groups or entities helping our community.

The Mariposa Sheriff’s Office did not respond to the journalist's request for comment.  Here's more from Baron's story:  

The California State Militia 2nd Regiment’s website calls assault-style rifles the “primary weapon” for members, who the website says are “always required to remain proficient in the maintenance and safe operation of the rifle and to have a minimum of 400 rounds of ammunition and 150 rounds per sidearm available.”

Latner emphasized that despite rumors to the contrary, members were not armed while providing services in Mariposa. The militia is intended to defend U.S. soil from foreign aggression or “if the whole world’s collapsing” and would also help local authorities if called upon to help handle any looters trying to prey on the property of evacuees from the Oak Fire, Latner said.

* * * 

Another member [of the militia], who identified himself as “Major Piper Brown,” told the Fresno Bee that the group was in Mariposa solely to help the community. “We’re not racist. We’re not militant. We’re not here to overthrow the government,” he said.

This reminds me of a podcast featuring George Goehl as guest, Why Is This Happening? with Chris Hayes.  Goehl, who is a progressive organizer focusing his efforts in rural places, talked about the presence of right-wing groups in rural America and the need for progressives to also be there with counter messaging.  

Of course, it also reminded me of the presence of the Cottonwood militia in Shasta and Tehama counties in far northern California.  That militia has been much in the news for several years, most recently here.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

My rural travelogue (Part XXXI): Apache County, Arizona

Apache County office in Chinle, Arizona,
District 1
I have been intrigued with Apache County, Arizona, population 71,518, since 2010, when I started writing a law review article about the delivery of indigent defense services in Arizona.  That piece, called "Justice Deserts: Spatial Inequality and Local Funding of Indigent Defense," was published in a symposium issue of the Arizona Law Review on "Funding Justice."  

Navajo Nation Corrections
Chinle, Arizona
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2022
Apache County, dominated by Native American land, was one of the counties I studied, and I was struck by its sparse population, the small size of its handful of population clusters.  I was also struck that the county seat, St. Johns, was far in the southern part of the county, more than 150 miles to the Utah State line.  
Canyon de Chelly from Junction overlook

I was excited this spring to have the opportunity to visit parts of Apache County.  From several days in Moab, Utah, we headed south for a few nights in Chinle, population 4518, which would be our jumping off point for visiting Canyon de Chelly.  We crossed into Apache County from San Juan County, Utah, population 14,746.  Like Apache County, AZ, San Juan County, UT has a significant native population, dominated by the Navajo nation and a great deal of the Navajo land. (These are two of the famous four corners, the others in Montezuma County, Colorado and San Juan County, New Mexico.)   
Apache County Offices
Canyon de Chelly did not disappoint us (see photos), and the Navajo hospitality was terrific.  On my last morning in Chinle, I drove around to take photos of the infrastructure--including that related to government and health care.  I'm sharing some of those photos here. They are of local government buildings associate with both Apache County and the sovereign Navajo Nation.  As the Apache County sign (above) indicates, among the services at the county's District 1 office in Chinle are a Roads Department, Sheriff Joseph Dedman, an "Elections" office, a "Justice of the Peace," and a "Motor Vehicle Division."  The Supervisor for the district also keeps and office there.  In the same compound (which is behind a chain link fence and locked outside business hours) are several road maintenance vehicles. 

A massive school complex dominates the town of Chinle, but sadly I didn't manage to capture any good photos of it.  I did capture several photos of the housing for the teachers, which sits across the road from the Navajo/Dine Justice Center.  Like the Justice Center, much of the housing is recent construction.  

A 2008 trip through some of these parts (including parts of Apache and Navajo County) is here.  The Moab, Utah, leg of this 2022 trip is the topic of this post.  

All photos are Chinle and environs, (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2022 (April)

Sign at Canyon de Chelly from North Rim

Canyon de Chelly from North Rim; sign above overlooks canyon floor

Canyon de Chelly, Chinle

Defunct Navajo Nation Courthouse, Chinle

Arizona Dept. of Transportation Office, Chinle

Apache County Government Office, Chinle

Navajo Nation Courts and Justice Center Offices
were close due to pandemic, even 2 years on

Monday, July 25, 2022

The Guardian reports on recent unrest in far northern California

Dani Anguiano's story is titled, "Inside the remote California county where the far right took over: ‘Civility went out the window.’"  Here's an excerpt of the story out of Shasta County, which is metropolitan with a population of 180,000, but which is largely viewed as reflecting a rural culture: 

Political tensions intensified across the US during the pandemic. But the ferocity of the conflicts in Shasta county surprised much of California.

Anger over Covid-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates culminated in rowdy public meetings and vicious threats against officials. Both Donald Trump’s campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election and the recall effort against California’s Democratic governor the following year found widespread support. And in February, voters threw their weight behind a recall campaign against one of the five county supervisors, effectively giving control of the local government to a majority backed by the area’s thriving far-right movement.

Since then, the new majority has embarked on what it considers a badly needed “course correction”.

The board has fired the county health officer. The county CEO, under pressure from a conservative supervisor, has resigned. Amid the chaos and political division, the director of the health and human services agency retired.

The bitter tensions and the departures of top officials leading agencies responsible for child welfare, county management and the pandemic response have fueled concerns among some residents.

Other posts about Shasta County are here, here and here. Search also "State of Jefferson" here on Legal Ruralism. 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Seen in the Foothills (Part V): Community loses battle to keep out Dollar General

Fairplay, California 
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2022

I wrote last year about an El Dorado County community's effort to resist a Dollar General store at a place called Gray's Corner, between Somerset and FairPlay.  That battle was lost, and the community is now home to this sparkling new Dollar General.  Behind the photo of the sign, you can see a largely abandoned commercial building--it was abandoned before the Dollar General was approved.  Beyond that is Gray's Market, which is a convenience store that sells gas.  I guess that'll be the business hardest hit by this new competition. 
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2022

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Wisconsin town addresses rural housing crisis with funding to convert old school

 Here's the story from Wisconsin Public Radio, out of Mayville, population 5154.  The headline is: "Vacant school building offers solution to a rural town's housing shortage."  Here's an excerpt:  

For two decades, the former high school in downtown Mayville in Dodge County has sat vacant.

Now, this community of 5,000 people, located an hour drive northwest of Milwaukee, hopes to use the old red brick school building to help solve a common problem in rural Wisconsin — a shortage of housing.

This week, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation announced it's awarded the city $250,000 to turn the building into a 20-unit complex called the Albrecht School Apartments.

"Mayville is an example of one of Wisconsin's amazing communities that is rebuilding and reinvesting in their downtown, and helping local businesses get started," WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes said. "And so we wanted to provide support in one of the critical areas of need that we're seeing all around the state, which is new housing. "

According to a 2019 study by the Wisconsin Realtors Association, the state hasn’t been building enough homes to keep up with population growth. The resulting shortage makes it harder for businesses to recruit and retain employees, because workers struggle to find affordable, decent housing near their workplace. One way to help solve the problem, the study notes, is building more multifamily housing, like apartments.

Building new housing, though, can be difficult for rural areas, Hughes said, because many developers are hesitant to invest in those parts of the state.

"If you build in an urban community, you have a guaranteed market. You have the opportunity to do many more units at once, and you know you're gonna fill them," she said. "If you are investing in a rural area, you have the same costs as you have in the urban area, but you might not be able to recoup as much in rent or in sales price. "

Friday, July 22, 2022

Worth its own post: Beto O'Rourke is in Muleshoe, Texas (pop. 5,158) right now

He is appearing at the Bailey County Electric Co-op, these institutions being quintessentially rural institutions.  Muleshoe's population is 5,158.  I'm impressed at the depth and breadth of this candidate's #rural outreach.  Read more here.  

Yet another story on Democrats' woes in rural America, this one with a focus on religion

Searcy County, Arkansas
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2012

Alan Greenblatt reported this week for Governing, which "provides news, analysis and insights for the professionals leading America’s states and localities."  The headline is "How Rural America Learned to Love the Republican Party."  

It’s not only economic issues that have pushed voters in Muhlenberg County, along with much of rural America, away from Democrats and into the arms of Republicans. “I’ve seen so many people that were strong Democrats but changed because they felt that Democrats were not Christian,” says Greenville Mayor Jan Yonts. (She’s a Democrat but her office is nonpartisan.) “They feel that Democrats are baby killers.”

Along a commercial corridor in Central City, which is the most populous city in Muhlenberg County, a Baptist church is fronted by a 50-foot tall lighthouse with the name “Jesus” spelled out in enormous black letters along two sides. Churchgoers in Central City have plenty of other choices for places to worship. “Religion makes a big impact here,” says Jack Reno, who chairs the Muhlenberg County Democratic Party. “Rural Kentucky is very much religion first, guns second.”

Reno credits Republicans with doing “a fantastic job” of tying all Democrats to national party figures such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi who don’t play well in rural Kentucky. Just under 31,000 people live in Muhlenberg County, making it possible for local candidates to make themselves known and liked by enough voters to win office. But it’s become increasingly difficult for them to carve out identities that separate them enough from national Democrats to win.

“I’ve had a lot of discussions with my neighbor and he was actually surprised I was a Democrat,” says Brittney Hernandez-Stevenson, the party’s candidate for state House seat in the county. “Some of the support that I think I would get, I may not, unless they pay attention to me as a person and the things I’ve done, versus my party.”

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Inflation hitting rural folks harder

NPR reported yesterday on this study out of Iowa State University, featuring rural sociologist and economist Dave Peters in a story headlined "Why rural Americans feel inflation's effects more than people in cities and suburbs."  Here's an excerpt from Steve Inskeep interviewing Peters:  
PETERS: ... it costs rural households $2,500 more for gasoline than it did two years ago.

INSKEEP: And I guess you're just not in a situation generally where you can drive less or take the bus?

PETERS: Yeah, there is no public transportation. Exactly. People don't buy fuel efficient or electric cars or hybrids. But, yeah, I mean, it's - you have to drive. And people are trimming elsewhere. They're taking it out of savings right now, at this point. So that financial cushion that I like to call it, that extra money after all their expenses and taxes are paid, they're dipping into that. And so that's down to about $5,000 right now for the typical rural household.

INSKEEP: You're saying the average person had $10,000 on hand a couple of years ago. And they've been losing money.

PETERS: Right. And so they're dipping into savings now. But if these prices continue, they're soon going to expend whatever discretionary income they have. Then they're going to start going into debt, likely credit card debt. But a lot of people here in the upper Midwest, what they're doing is they're beginning to take out home equity lines of credit because their home values have gone up. And that's particularly dangerous if home prices fall back down, you know, then they're left with a mortgage that, you know, the value of their home doesn't cover.

INSKEEP: What other significant factors are there besides the transportation costs that you mentioned, which have been driving some people into the red?

PETERS: Fuels for heating your home in rural areas. So most rural homes have to buy tanks of liquefied petroleum or liquefied propane. Or they have to get fuel oil. And those have really risen in costs as well. That's, I think, something like $1,000 more. And then health insurance costs have really increased, as well as veterinarian services (laughter. So rural areas, a lot of livestock, a lot of horses, a lot of kind of animals - and veterinarian services and supplies has also increased more for rural households.

* * *

PETERS: ... there are people that I've talked to in Iowa and in Nebraska... they're really trying to do that financial calculation, you know? They would love to work and get city wages, but they can't commute. It's too expensive with the gas prices. And the, really, thing that's holding them back is the cost of homes. It's not so easy to pick up and move to an urban area because housing costs are expensive.

But a lot of people are really beginning to say - think, if I have to continue to drive for everything and these fuel costs remain high and my wages aren't going up as fast as they are in cities, some people are contemplating moving closer to a city, moving to the suburbs or moving to, you know, a small community, you know, 45 minutes from a city. So yeah, it'll probably, if it continues, accelerate rural depopulation in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains.
Here's a related story about the impact of rising gas prices in upstate New York.

Houston Chronicle takes up Texas' rural voters in wake of party's Democratic convention last weekend

I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago after Texas Monthly published a big feature, and now Jasper Scherer for the Houston Chronicle is making some.of the same points in a story about the Texas Democratic Party's convention last week.  

[R]ural Texas remains a bulwark for Republicans as their support continues to erode in urban counties and the fast-growing suburbs. Statewide Democratic nominees, acknowledging they can’t afford such lopsided rural losses, insist they’re making a more concerted push this year outside the cities. They’re focusing their messaging in rural areas on less partisan issues, including shoring up the state power grid, building more rural hospitals, preventing private school vouchers and expanding broadband access.

The story quotes David Currie, chair of the Texas Democratic Party's "Non-Urban/Rural Caucus."   (Would love to hear the story behind that name and what it includes)

The Republican branding has been incredibly effective, that Democrats want to take your guns, that Democrats are not people of faith.  I like to talk about four things: education, health care, jobs, and Jesus. The Democratic Party gets labeled as a secular party, and I just don't think that's true. There's a lot of us that are here, because our faith says this is the way we can work with government to help people.

 Back to the recent Texas Democratic Convention, where delegates again elected  Gilberto Hinojosa of Brownsville, who has been chair since 2012.

Hinojosa’s main challenger, retired Air Force colonel Kim Olson, contended that the party has poured too many of its resources into cities and, in doing so, neglected rural areas where Democrats are struggling to recruit down-ballot candidates or even elect local party chairs.

At a meeting of the Non-Urban/Rural Caucus Friday, Hinojosa acknowledged the state party hasn’t provided enough support to local chairs and party activists outside the cities and suburbs, though he attributed part of the failure last election to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Not that I haven't tried, but maybe I haven't tried hard enough,” Hinojosa said.

* * *

Currie, a former chair of the Tom Green County Democratic Party, has also encouraged candidates — especially those with less spending power than O’Rourke — to promote their campaigns on the small radio stations and newspapers in rural communities, where ad space is affordable.
The rural weeklies, take a half-page ad out. They don't cost anything,” Currie said. “In San Angelo, you could get a minute commercial on Spanish radio for $10. They ought to be running those things all over the Spanish communities, the rural communities. … Everybody out there, they’re listening to those little country radio stations.

I found this interesting because it's what Matt Barron, a Democratic consultant specializing in rural races, has talked about as a no-brainer, in part because this sort of outreach is so inexpensive. 

But even with a more aggressive effort, cutting into the GOP’s rural dominance poses a challenge to Democrats, who will have to overcome President Joe Biden’s woeful approval among rural voters — and the deeply entrenched antipathy toward Democrats in those areas, built over years of political neglect.

Early Texas polls, however, have found O’Rourke and other Democrats are within striking distance of their Republican foes... And some Democrats said they have found rural voters — including Biden skeptics — are willing to hear them out, especially if they’re running for positions that are less partisan in nature.

Read the rest of the story for the cool idea of a "rural dance hall tour" from the Democratic candidate for land commissioner. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

More rural-urban contrast in the context of gerrymandering

I wrote about an example of extreme gerrymandering in Texas a few days ago, and now the New York Times has given us another one, this one out of North Carolina.  Columnist Frank Bruni writes from Clayton, population 24,887
For a tidy snapshot of our messy country, you could do worse than North Carolina’s newly redrawn 13th Congressional District, where suburb yields to exurb and fields of tobacco and sweet potatoes somehow hold their ground. I had to drive only 15 miles of it to see two versions of America — and to see them at war.

I began in Garner, on the edge of Raleigh, at the Full Bloom coffee shop. The barista had rainbow-colored hair. The menu advertised a vegan bagel sandwich and a “From the Hive” selection of drinks — an orange blossom latte, a lavender blossom latte — made with local honey.

Garner is in Wake County, a Democratic stronghold, and I headed south and crossed into Johnston County, a Republican one. I passed lyrically named residential developments (Annandale, Avery Meadows) that had just gone up or were about to rise. I spotted the C3 megachurch (“real hope for real people in a real world”). And then, just beyond it, I saw the signs, a little thicket of them, positioned proudly in front of someone’s house in the town of Clayton.

“Wake Up People.” “Trump Robbed.” The complaints went on in that dyspeptic vein, and above them fluttered several flags, including one each for two saviors: Jesus Christ and Donald Trump.

But there was also something else, a retort scrawled in white spray paint across the busy two-lane road. “I Love Joe Biden,” it said. To make that declaration, its authors must have taken great pains, working very late at night or very early in the morning. Otherwise, they’d be roadkill.

Bruni reveals in the piece that he moved to North Carolina recently, from Manhattan.  He also mentions that he attended UNC as a college student.  He writes:  

A year after moving here from the People’s Republic of the Upper West Side, I realize that I didn’t so much turn my back on New York City as turn my gaze toward a broader, truer portrait of America right now.

I guess by broader, truer portrait, he's not saying North Carolina is "real" or "ordinary" America--something that seems always to get the backs of city folks up.  Instead, I think Bruni is saying the conflict and contrast is broader and truer--and I suppose more evident--once you're outside New York City.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

New Rural Capacity Index from Headwaters Economics

This caught my eye from Headwaters Economics last week, a new "rural capacity index," which is described thusly: 
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the largest investment in climate resilience in U.S. history. The $1.2 trillion in funding will create transformative opportunities for local governments that own and maintain most of the nation’s infrastructure, but first state and federal agencies must ensure the resources get to the places that need it the most. To help identify communities that need support but may lack staff and expertise to compete for federal funding, we have created a first-of-its-kind Rural Capacity Map.

Communities will need capacity—the staffing, resources, and expertise—to apply for funding, fulfill onerous reporting requirements, and design, build, and maintain infrastructure projects over the long term. Many communities simply lack the staff—and the tax base to support staff—needed to apply for federal programs. Even communities that can put together applications are often outcompeted by higher-capacity, coastal cities. The places that lack capacity are often the places that most need infrastructure investments: places with a legacy of disinvestment including rural communities and communities of color.

* * *
Where is capacity limited?

To help identify communities with limited capacity, Headwaters Economics created a new Rural Capacity Index on a scale of 0 (low capacity) to 100 (high capacity). The Index is based on 10 variables that can function as proxies for community capacity. The variables incorporate metrics related to local government staffing, community education and engagement, and socioeconomic trends. (Read more under Data Sources and Methods below.)

I have to admit that I was surprised, as I danced my cursor across Arkansas, in particular the northwest part of the state where I grew up.  I was surprised to see my home county, Newton County, designated metropolitan (its population is 8,000 and it is part of the Harrison/Boone County Micropolitan area at best), while neighboring Searcy County to the east, with very similar demographics, is nonmetropolitan.  (I did check out the definitions link above, but it doesn't shed any light on Newton County's categorization as metropolitan).  I'm also skeptical that 20% of adults in Newton County have higher education because as of 2011, only 12.4% had. bachelor's degree or higher.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15.9% of residents now have a bachelor's degree or higher in Newton County.  This Rural Capacity Index shows a higher education rate of just 12% for Searcy County, while the Census Bureau indicates 10.9% have at least a bachelor's degree.  

County-level map of northwest and north central Arkansas

Both Searcy and Newton have long been designated persistent poverty counties, though these snapshots show a much lower percentage of families in poverty in Newton County (9%) than in Searcy County (17%).  The number of households with broadband is the same (60%), and people without health insurance is low, at 5% and 6% respectively.  Income stability scores are very similar, but voter turnout is much higher in Searcy County, 76% compared to 61% in Newton.  Both counties have lost population in the last two decades.  

Even more puzzling is how these counties, both south of Boone County, look in comparison to Boone, which is the regional center (has a hospital and a Walmart), as well as how all of these north central Arkansas counties look in relation to the fast-growing population behemoths in the northwest corner of the state, Washington County, home of the University of Arkansas (flagship campus at Fayetteville), and Benton County, home of Walmart Corporation.   Both of the latter have highly educated populations. Bottom line:  Hard to believe Boone County (90) is stronger than Benton County (89), but on this index it does.    

Meanwhile,  Madison County, which lies between Newton County and Washington County, is part of the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metro because within commuting distance. Its index is 77. Its neighbor to the north, Carroll County, which lies between Boone and Benton counties, is not metropolitan (though it is otherwise similar to Madison County in terms of population growth, voter turnout, and broadband access, and I'm sure many of its residents also commute to the metro area) and thus scores lower, at 69.  Yet in spite of hits higher score, Madison has more families below the poverty level than Carroll County, as well as fewer adults with higher education.  This makes the metro designation look like a very influential factor in the rural capacity index.

Also of interest in all of this:  the smallest and poorest counties (Newton and Searcy) are the ones with the lowest levels of people without health insurance--presumably because Medicaid covers more of their populations.  The highest percentage of people without health insurance is in Washington County, which is otherwise quite salubrious.  

Further, income stability is highest in the less populous counties, and it's lowest in most populous, Washington, which may be related to its status as home to the flagship University of Arkansas.

Broadband is highest in Boone County (81%), than Washington County, which has the second highest rate of broadband (79%).  Benton County comes in third (71%).  The smallest and poorest (Newton and Searcy) have a broadband rate of 60%.   Carroll is at 69%, Madison at 65%.  

Finally, since this is a post about rural capacity, I'm linking to a 2008 blog post on that topic that specifically discusses Newton County's lack of human capital to help it navigate grant-seeking opportunities and otherwise plan for its future.  

Monday, July 18, 2022

A rural populist Democrat's campaign for U.S. Senate seat from Missouri

Stephanie Akin reported for Roll Call last week about the candidacy of Democrat Lucas Kunce for the U.S. Senate seat from Missouri.  Here's an excerpt focusing on the rural vote: 

Rural voters receptive

Aftyn Behn, the campaign director for, one of several Democratic groups focused on winning rural voters that has sprung up in the aftermath of Trump’s first election, said their research shows that rural voters are receptive to populist messages.

“Rural voters aren’t looking for a more corporate candidate,” she said. “They’re looking for a candidate who will fight for small businesses, fight corruption. They really want authentic messagers.”

The group has been advising Democrats to adopt “hyperlocal strategies,” hire local campaign teams and not skirt identity issues, like support for abortion rights, that their polling says are popular in rural areas, contrary to a lot of assumptions. Those are all things Kunce is doing.

He brags that 14 of the 18 people on his staff are from Missouri. And he says outlawing abortion on a federal level will create a “two-tiered system” under which “country club Republicans” will still fly their wives and daughters and mistresses to get legal abortions.

“That’s un-American,” he said, adding that he wants to get rid of the filibuster to codify Roe v. Wade.

Daniel Ponder, a Drury University political scientist, said Missouri voters have shown their receptiveness to progressive issues even in areas that have become deeply Republican. In 2018, the same year Hawley won the Senate race, Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed measures to legalize medical marijuana and raise the minimum wage, for example.

“I do think that Democrats are going to claw their way back into it, and I think Kunce is on to the right strategy,” he said. “Whether that takes root in 2022 or not is the question. I kind of doubt it. We’re still in a polarized era. Maybe over the next few election cycles.”

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Smithsonian Magazine features Buffalo National River at 50 (and my hometown)

Buffalo National River
Between Ozark and Pruitt
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2015
Boyce Upholt's story, "What Makes the Buffalo River the Jewel of the Ozarks?," is a profile of the nation's first and only national river at the 50th anniversary of its founding.  Along the way, you get a few visual and verbal vignettes of Newton County, where I grew up, along with two photos of Jasper, the county seat where I went to school.  Photos accompanying the story are by Rory Doyle.  Photos shown on this post were taken by me when I floated the river with my mother and my son in 2015.  

Here's the lede for the Smithsonian Magazine story: 
Three Generations 
of Pruitts at 
Pruitt, Arkansas, BNR

If smoothed out flat, the rough mountainous terrain of Newton County, Arkansas, would prove “bigger’n the whole state of Texas,” a local resident once proclaimed to a folklorist. That may be an exaggeration, but the wrinkles of the topography have certainly kept this corner of the Ozarks quiet. Fewer than 8,000 people live scattered across Newton County’s 820 square miles. The place is mostly known for a waterway. Near the county’s western border, a trickling stream grows into the Buffalo River.
For a long time Arkansans couldn’t agree on what the river should be used for, and some even fought over it. In the 1940s, with the local timber felled and the zinc and lead operations floundering, state tourism officials started promoting Newton County as a wilderness destination. The county was home to nearly half of the Buffalo River watershed, and outdoors enthusiasts considered the mountain stream one of the finest in the region, if not the country; it was a rare, free-flowing waterway, perfect for rafting or canoeing. Some local leaders wanted to turn the watershed into a national park. Others wanted to dam the river, which could provide hydroelectric power and form the kind of placid lake that had spurred the development of lodges, restaurants and retirement homes elsewhere in the Ozarks.
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2015

Upholt further details the history of the river's designation--including local resistance.  He also talks about the industrial hog farm built in the watershed in 2013, which the state eventually bought out and closed in 2019.  I wrote about that matter in the Journal of Rural Studies in 2016, and you'll find many posts about it here on Legal Ruralism.  
Buffalo National River
Near Ozark Campground
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2015

Saturday, July 16, 2022

On the housing shortage in the flyover states (and, as one consequence, being Black and moving to a rural, mostly white place)

America's housing shortage got lots of attention this week due to a new report from Up for Growth, "a network of industry groups, academics, public officials, environmental and racial-justice organizations working to solve the U.S. housing shortage."  

NPR did a fabulous and really textured story, prompted by the report.  Among others with housing woes, they featured an African-American couple from Atlanta, Danielle and Colin Lloyd.  Disappointed at their inability to buy a house in Atlanta where the market is really hot, they wound up doing what is called "drive til you qualify."  In their case, that took them an hour from Atlanta to the community of Walnut Grove, population 1,330. Here are their comments about that experience:  

They can both mostly work remotely, so they're not too worried about the commute.

They just moved in a couple of weeks ago. And they are feeling a little apprehensive about being an African American family moving from the city into a tiny rural town that is nearly 90% white, according to census data. There's a bit of a culture clash too.

"Moving to country Georgia where there's an ammo shop down the street, it's like a constant in your face," Danielle says.

But the couple says the neighbors seem friendly. There are other families with kids. So they're feeling hopeful.

"I love the idea of like when the kids are a little older saying, 'Yeah, go play at your friend's house.'" Danielle imagines what it will be like watching them run over to the neighbor's place: "I can see them, like, at the corner, you know. 'I'll watch you ride over there,'" she says. "I love that."

The story also features quantitative data on where the housing crisis is worst.  Not surprisingly, all of the places featured are metropolitan, though some are associated with rurality. In Texas, these include Laredo,  along with McAllen and Brownsville in the Rio Grande Valley.   In California, they include Salinas, Modesto and Oxnard/Thousand Oaks.  Also listed is Gainesville, Georgia, which is exurban Atlanta, and home to massive poultry processing infrastructure.  Indeed, many of the places I've listed here are associated with agricultural work and agribusiness.  

The New York Times also published an analysis of the Up for Growth report, along with an interactive map, under the headline, "The Housing Shortage Isn’t Just a Coastal Crisis Anymore."  Here's the lede for Emily Badger and Eve Washington's story:  

San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Washington have long failed to build enough housing to keep up with everyone trying to live there. And for nearly as long, other parts of the country have mostly been able to shrug off the housing shortage as a condition particular to big coastal cities.

But in the years leading up to the pandemic, that condition advanced around the country: Springfield, Mo., stopped having enough housing. And the same with Appleton, Wis., and Naples, Fla.

Among the less well known (albeit not rural) places mentioned in the NYT story: Muskegon, Michigan; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Yuma, Arizona; and Merced, California.  

Bloomberg also picked up this Up for Growth report.  Their headline was "Can I Buy a Home?  Shortage of Housing Becomes Crisis Across the United States." 

Meanwhile, you'll find the blog has lots of past stories on rural housing issues.  

Friday, July 15, 2022

Small-town government run amok (Part XI): Entire police force in southeastern Colorado town resigns

Jesse Paul reports from Springfield, Colorado, population 1,451 and the county seat of Baca County, for the Colorado Sun:  

The entire three-person police force in the small southeastern Colorado town of Springfield, including the police chief, abruptly resigned this week.

The resignations were announced Friday in a letter to the community from Springfield Mayor Tyler Gibson and Baca County Sheriff Aaron Shiplett. They wrote that it was a “time of turbulence within the Springfield Police Department,” but didn’t elaborate.

A representative from the Baca County Sheriff’s Office told The Colorado Sun that the letter, posted on Facebook, would be the only information released on the situation.

The Springfield Police Department has been at the center of controversy in recent years.

The Sun reported in 2019 that the police department had removed its then-police chief after he was accused of unprofessional behavior and paid $50,000 to settle claims that one of its officers acted inappropriately toward a 15-year-old girl. It then fired another officer for “intimidating or threatening behavior” and for his “relationship with the public” less than six months after he was hired despite being terminated from his previous law enforcement job for a host of alleged transgressions.

The Baca County Sheriff's Office issued a letter that included this language:  

We also want to make this message very clear to anyone thinking this is an opportune time to commit crimes or victimize anyone in Baca County. You are free to test that assumption at your convenience, however, we will warn you that the community is fed up with it, law enforcement will be here in force (and) they will exhaust every resource at their disposal in finding you.

Sharp rural-urban contrast in story about Texas gerrymandering

Jesse Wegman's piece is titled "Gerrymander USA," and it features a photo of a two-lane road stretching through a rural area in West Texas.  The piece is about how gerrymandering reconstructed Texas' 13th district to include Denton, which is part of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.  It contrasts that urban part of the gerrymandered district with its most rural stretches at the New Mexico state line, a town called Texline, population 507.    
The downtown of Denton, Texas, a city of about 150,000 people and two large universities just north of Dallas, exudes the energy of a fast-growing place with a sizable student population: There’s a vibrant independent music scene, museums and public art exhibits, beer gardens, a surfeit of upscale dining options, a weekly queer variety show. The city is also racially and ethnically diverse: More than 45 percent of residents identify as Latino, Black, Asian or multiracial. There aren’t too many places in Texas where you can encounter Muslim students praying on a busy downtown sidewalk, but Denton is one of them.
Drive about seven hours northwest of Denton’s city center and you hit Texline, a flat, treeless square of a town tucked in the corner of the state on the New Mexico border. Cow pastures and wind turbines seem to stretch to the horizon. Texline’s downtown has a couple of diners, a gas station, a hardware store and not much else; its largely white population is roughly 460 people and shrinking.
It would be hard to pick two places more different from one another than Denton and Texline — and yet thanks to the latest round of gerrymandering by Texas’ Republican-dominated Legislature, both are now part of the same congressional district: the 13th, represented by one man, Ronny Jackson. Mr. Jackson, the former White House physician, ran for his seat in 2020 as a hard-right Republican. It turned out to be a good fit for Texas-13, where he won with almost 80 percent of the vote.

This was before the 2020 census was completed and Congress reapportioned, which gave the Texas delegation two more seats for its growing population, for a total of 38. State Republicans, who control the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, were free to redraw their district lines pretty much however they pleased. They used that power primarily to tighten their grip on existing Republican seats rather than create new ones, as they had in the 2010 cycle. In the process, they managed to squelch the political voice of many nonwhite Texans, who accounted for 95 percent of the state’s growth over the last decade yet got not a single new district that would give them the opportunity to elect a representative of their choice.
Denton offers a good example of how this played out. Under the old maps, downtown Denton, where the universities lie, was part of the 26th District — a Republican-majority district, but considerably more competitive than the 13th. If Texas politics continue to move left as they have in recent years, the 26th District could have become a tossup. The liberal residents of Denton could have had the chance to elect to Congress a representative of their choosing.

Now that the downtown has been absorbed into the 13th District and yoked to the conservative Texas panhandle, however, they might as well be invisible.

The story features lots of photos of Denton, fewer of the rural reaches of the Texas panhandle, including Texline, Shamrock, Groom and Amarillo.  

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Legal scholarship: On the pandemic's impact on delivery of legal services

Jude Schmit and Rachel Albertson, lawyers with Legal Aid Service of Northern Minnesota, have published an article titled "WITNESSED FROM THE JUSTICE BUS: COVID DROVE EQUAL JUSTICE OFF THE ROAD, BUT TECHNOLOGY GRABBED THE WHEEL AND IS STEERING US INTO THE FUTURE."  It is in the Mitchell Hamline Law Review.   Here's the part of the Introduction that focuses on rural difference:  

Taking time off work, paying for babysitters, finding someone to care for an elderly person in your charge, often needing to travel considerable distance, minimal internet access, lower education levels, unfamiliarity with the legal process, and a lack of other resources--including money and knowing people in the system--all weigh more heavily on people seeking equal justice in rural areas.

Although advocates for access to justice helped level the pavement across the country, not enough time and too much distance have a huge impact on staffs with limited resources and a growing population needing legal assistance. The more time clients spend on the road, the more burdensome the experience. The more time advocates and lawyers spend on the road, the fewer clients they can help. In rural America, the expanse exasperates the problem, and COVID-19 has made that isolation all the more troublesome.

This Article spotlights Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota's (“LASNEM”) response to the access-to-justice crisis in the age of COVID-19. The first part briefly summarizes the civil justice gap, focusing on potholes littering LASNEM's roads. The second part discusses the initiatives adopted by LASNEM since the pandemic struck, including the Justice Bus, Legal Kiosks, and the partnerships made with the courts and community partners to participate in eviction-diversion pilots. In short, this Article argues that bridging the access-to-justice gap in rural Minnesota requires a multidimensional approach utilizing technology as the vehicle.