Democrats Turn to Rural Issues

Rural, Midwest Democrats Promote Infrastructure and Divergent Strategy From Trump Years

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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The National Corn Growers Association held an event Tuesday afternoon focusing on stewardship initiatives with Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va. Also on the event were Jon Doggett, CEO of NCGA, (top left) Robert Bonnie, a former USDA climate adviser (top right), and Nebraska farmer Brandon Hunnicutt. (DTN image from livestream)

GLENWOOD, Iowa (DTN) -- Rural leaders in the Democratic Party took to Zoom and other livestream events on Tuesday to spotlight, among other things, problems with broadband and infrastructure in rural America.

The Democratic National Convention held events throughout Tuesday with its Rural Caucus and "Leaders of American Agriculture" where they highlighted former Vice President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan. Democratic leaders put a heavy emphasis on rural broadband and health care while criticizing the Trump administration and President Trump directly on trade, biofuels, climate change and the pandemic response.

A western Pennsylvania soybean and hay farmer who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 spoke at the Democratic National Convention on Monday. "The last year has been the biggest challenge, financially, that I can remember," said Rick Telesz of Volant, Pennsylvania.

The tariffs China imposed on U.S. farm products in retaliation for the tariffs that Trump placed on Chinese goods have had a trickle-down effect, Telesz said.

Trump "was a hell of a salesman," he said. "But all you've had to do was watch television every day and ask yourself, 'Why did I vote for this guy?'"

"You can't blame anyone for the virus," Telesz said, but added he believes Trump was "totally incompetent in not informing the public earlier of what was coming."

While the DNC is holding a series of virtual events, Trump has countered with trips to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Arizona in a mix of official events and campaign stops. In Iowa, Trump touted disaster relief and in Arizona he criticized Democrats on immigration and highlighted the border wall with Mexico.

Farmers outside of the convention also have been championing the Democratic ticket in different ways. Justin Jordan farms corn, soybeans and hay in south-central Iowa. He partners with a livestock farmer in the area, providing hay and pasture for the operation. Jordan also focuses on climate issues and sees more volatile weather patterns as a big concern for farmers in the future. Last year, Jordan hosted Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris on his farm during different events.

"What attracted me to Harris -- and I was actually a Harris supporter from the get-go -- is her energy," Jordan told DTN. "We have some really major, big problems in this country and we need someone who has got the drive and energy to tackle these issues."

Jordan said he was thrilled when Biden picked Harris as his running mate, and he quickly wrote an op-ed in the Des Moines Register. He noted Biden's "Build Back Better Plan" would invest in farmers, ranchers and rural America to address climate change. "I'm confident that their leadership will create new opportunities for my farm to be more sustainable and successful," Jordan wrote.…

Regarding Trump, Jordan said he feels as if programs in the Trump administration such as Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments have turned farmers into "pawns" for the re-election campaign.

"Let's face it, the next president is going to write the next farm bill and farmers need to ask who do we want to write the next farm bill?" Jordan said. "I don't really see a lot of good, long-term concrete ag policies coming out of the Trump administration."

Early Tuesday afternoon, the Democrats' Rural Council held an event stressing the importance of rural voters to Biden's campaign. Democratic leaders focused heavily on the need to upgrade rural infrastructure in different ways, whether rural broadband to help schools and learning from home, or Medicaid expansion to address health care challenges. They also pointed out President Trump has talked repeatedly about an infrastructure plan, but never delivered one.

Hitting on the broadband theme, Democrats repeatedly brought up children going to parking lots in rural areas to get wifi signals to do schoolwork.

"Our kids have been sitting in parking lots trying to get homework done," said Kriss Marion, a candidate for the Wisconsin state assembly.

Speaking at the Rural Council event was Mike Espy, a former USDA secretary under President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, and now running for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi. Espy highlighted the poor economy across Mississippi that has led to declining industries and poor rural broadband. A greater challenge, Espy said, is the loss of 130 rural hospitals over the past decade, including five hospital closures in Mississippi. Espy said the closures were tied to lack of Medicaid expansion, which meant there is a large swath of people in rural Mississippi and other states too afraid to deal with health-care costs because they cannot afford to cover hospital bills. Hospitals face too many unpaid bills and rural residents then have greater risk of chronic health conditions such as diabetes or hypertension because they do not get treatment.

"So this is all because of the lack of Medicaid expansion," Espy said, saying some states decline to expand Medicaid because it is tied to the Affordable Care Act. "It makes no sense." Espy called on Mississippi and 13 other states to improve health care by expanding Medicaid. "It will make sure these rural hospitals remain open."

Former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack under the Obama administration was on the Rural Council call as well as an event for rural Wisconsin Democrats. Vilsack stressed rural America is important "for the soul of this country" and Democrats need to speak more directly to rural voters. Vilsack highlighted Biden's "Build Back Better" infrastructure plan. As he's prone to do, Vilsack talked about a bio-economy and agriculture that creates a market to pay farmers for conservation practices. Vilsack laid out what he sees are steps to rebuild the rural economy.

"Let's pay farmers to sequester carbon," Vilsack said. "Let's pay farmers to capture methane and turn it into energy. Let's pay farmers to use their agricultural waste and truck it down the road to a bio-manufacturing facility that creates jobs in rural America, and converts that agricultural waste into a variety of products and new chemicals and the new materials and new fabrics and fibers and energy and fuel."

Vilsack added, "Let's make sure we've got an administration that understands the significance of renewable fuel and energy and invests in it."

In separate, "virtual rooms" on Tuesday afternoon, groups such as the National Corn Growers Association held different discussions on agriculture. NCGA leaders talked about the Soil Health Partnership and the value of stewardship practices such as carbon sequestration. Iowa farmer Mark Recker highlighted the importance of ethanol, not just to the Iowa economy, but also as a fuel strategy to help address climate change because ethanol has a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels.

"We, as farmers, know ethanol can play a big part in that because it has a low carbon footprint and it's getting lower every year," Recker said.

In a later Zoom event with rural Wisconsin Democrats, Vilsack also criticized the president's response to the coronavirus pandemic, pointing out Wisconsin has had more than 66,000 cases, which is 10,000 more cases than the entire country of Japan with a population of 120 million.

"It's really hard to make the case as President Trump tries to make, which is he's done a phenomenal job and bears no responsibility for the mismanagement here," Vilsack said. "Too many people have gotten sick, too many people have died and far too many are unemployed. And for that reason, and that reason alone, we need to change."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, kicked off the "Leaders of American Agriculture" virtual event in the late afternoon, an event sponsored by several major farm groups and agribusinesses. Stabenow said the Trump presidency "has not been kind to agriculture and, frankly, I know in Michigan we can't afford four more years of this."

Stabenow added that farmers have enough challenges with weather, but she said Trump's policies have disrupted agriculture in trade and domestic markets.

"The chaos that Donald Trump brings every day has hurt us," Stabenow said. "When we look, it's great to have lip service but the truth of the matter is, you know, the chaotic trade policy."

Stabenow pointed to the battle over the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), but then the president put tariffs on steel and aluminum that directly hurt businesses such as Michigan auto manufacturers.

"The chaos and unpredictability is horrible," Stabenow said.

Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said farmers in her western Illinois congressional district are continuing to struggle and "Donald Trump has betrayed congressional districts like mine in downstate Illinois."

Bustos added to the biofuel theme. "He's turned his back on biofuels by handing out these small refinery waivers like he's handing out candy on Halloween, and in pursuit of a trade policy that no one can really comprehend."

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana was part of an evening event Tuesday leading up to the DNC's prime-time speeches. Tester said last year he was selling crops for the same price his farm got in 1978. He said the Trump administration has been "trying to buy us off with checks."

"Those of us in production ag have seen a miserable trade war roll out over the last three and half years with no end game," Tester said. "And by the way, we've got no allies to join us because he's pushed all those away too. So we're in it alone."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, in a recorded video, also challenged Trump on small-refinery waivers and trade. "Sometimes I feel like every single day I'm just working against Donald Trump and all of those waivers he gives to big oil companies, and then he goes back to Iowa and says, 'Oh yeah, I'm gonna fix it.' Yeah, right."

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, asked Trump at an event related to the derecho storm to address the EPA and the small refinery exemptions. In an exchange, Trump said he would talk to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler about it. "We'll speak to them. I'll speak to them myself," Trump said.…

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Chris Clayton