Sign up for our newsletter
A coalition of rural community organizing groups has launched a campaign to educate rural voters in 72 counties they say are key to winning federal elections.
The groups, which have united around a theme of “progressive populism,” will work in 10 states, including swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
The counties are primarily ones where Donald Trump won a majority of votes in 2016 – some by as much as 10 points. Special focus will be on 28 “pivot counties” – where a majority voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but which moved into the Trump column in 2016.
The coalition will focus on health care for all, better public education, corporate accountability, a stronger working class and economic justice for family farmers. The organizing strategy will speak against corporate greed, hate and white supremacy, according to the report.
“The billionaire class is working their tails off to divide poor and working class communities with race as the leverage point,” said George Goehl, director of People’s Action, the national group helping to coordinate the rural organizing efforts.
“We see this in rural communities all the time. Now we are launching a campaign to fight back, by organizing tens of thousands of new people in rural communities to join the progressive movement.”
Goehl, who grew up in a rural working-class family in Indiana, joined dozens of rural organizations and community leaders in Washington, D.C., last week to announce the campaign and to release their report outlining campaign background and political analysis.
(DISCLOSURE: Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, was part of a group of advisers that reviewed the report at the request of the coalition. Davis, who is publisher of the Daily Yonder, also spoke at last week’s announcement of the campaign.)
“We will unite urban and rural communities up and down the ballot in 2018 around a bold populist agenda,” Goehl said. “We will not concede the rural vote to the right, or to centrists for that matter.”
The report also documents policy priorities from more than 2,200 individual conversations with rural and small town residents conducted by participating organizations so far. Thousands more are planned in coming months, according to report. Preliminary results, according to the report, show:
- There is higher support for progressive solutions like health care for all, raising wages and public education than for conservative proposals like cutting government regulations.
- When it comes to assigning blame for current social problems, four times as many rural people blamed the role of big-money and corporate donors in government for problems in their communities than blamed immigrants.
- Poverty and suffering are widespread. More than half the people said keeping a roof over their head or food on the table concerned them often or a great deal of the time.
The survey took place in 72 counties in 10 states across the Midwest, Northeast and South. Trump won 64 of the 72 counties and in 52 of the counties he won by more than 10 points, according to the report. The same localities will be the focus of the rural organizing campaign. These counties are diverse in race, ethnicity and economic make-up. The rural regions include African American communities, American Indian lands and areas with significant immigrant populations.
Participants in the event announcing the campaign included grassroots leaders from rural Appalachia, family farmers from Iowa, tribal leaders from Indian country, small town residents from the Rust Belt, Heartland and South. Members of Congress, philanthropic leaders, and heads of national movements for racial, economic and gender justice also joined.
“It’s clear to me that within our agricultural system there are a lot of inequities,” said Laura Frerichs, a Land Stewardship Project member and organic vegetable farmer from Hutchinson, Minnesota. “I see it in my community of Hutchinson and I saw it growing up in rural Minnesota. Not a lot of people of color are landowners—they are more involved as laborers, not as farmers and owners. For us, this is a core value; we can’t move forward if we leave so many people behind.”
Frerichs explained the need for farm groups to engage with diverse rural groups. “We need to end deeply embedded systems of racism, and instead fully open up to farmers of color as well as white farmers like me access to land, credit and markets. We need to do this in order to improve our food and farming system, and our communities. There is no sustainable agriculture, there are no healthy communities, without racial justice,” Frerichs said.
Jess King, a candidate for Pennsylvania’s 11th Congressional District from Southeast Lancaster County, explained her concerns about corporate control of the economy and lack of income growth for working families. “The biggest barriers that I see with the small businesses that I’ve worked with is the fact that half of working families don’t have enough money to actually spend to support local economies and those small businesses in their communities,” King said.
“The other competitor is monopoly power and corporate interests, and the fact that small businesses that employ the majority of Americans cannot compete in this business environment. We do not have the political will to enforce the laws that we actually already have on the books. So I’m stepping up to run for Congress because I’m sick and tired of working my heart off to support small businesses working their hearts out to not get any further ahead,” King told the crowd.
Citizen Action of Wisconsin is working to get more citizens involved in the democratic process. “Our members are so excited and energized to be part of this effort,” said Wausau’s Joel Lewis, an organizer for the group’s North Central Organizing Co-op. “One of our counties, Lincoln County, is one of those ‘pivot counties,’” Lewis said. Lincoln County supported President Trump by a 20.8% margin after voting to elect Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“We heard again and from our members that we support universal health care, but we really care about the environment,” Lewis said. Citizen Action members have helped to pass local ordinances that enable a property-tax financing program for solar energy (PACE), protect water health and quality from the growth of the mining industry and are working on a Community Agreement with Associated Bank to spend billions of dollars to finance solar energy development.
The People’s Action Report states that, “of the more than 136 million votes cast in the 2016 election, 77,744 votes in three states—Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—effectively decided the election. Trump had a margin of victory of 176,478 in the counties where People’s Action member organizations are building their Rural and Small-Town Organizing Strategy in those same states. Building progressive organizing capacity in these counties creates a clear path to shifting the balance of power in those states and profoundly impacting the future of the country.”