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This past week, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards led a three-day, eight-state “Road to One America” Tour, reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 visit to Southern Appalachia. As he traveled from urban New Orleans to rural Prestonsburg, KY, Edwards discussed poverty in the context of values, not economics — as an issue deeply intermingled with the nation’s morality.
As Edwards traveled from the Appalachian Media Institute Youth Forum in Whitesburg, KY, to Prestonsburg, where he delivered a speech to a crowd of over five hundred, I had the chance to accompany him. Riding in a rented minivan, I questioned Sen. Edwards about poverty, rural America, and the meaning of his campaign for our country.
A native of Robbins, South Carolina, Edwards is no stranger to rural issues. During his term in the United States Senate, he advocated for rural policies including salary incentives to bring teachers to rural areas, increases in broadband Internet, and tax credits to encourage community development. Last April, Edwards became the first — and still the only ““ presidential candidate to propose a broad plan of action to address issues from drug addiction to bank discrimination and lack of clean water, all problems facing rural America. Although he has been counseled by his rural liaison, Mudcat Saunders, and has conferred with community organizers and rural Americans on the campaign trail in developing his proposals for small towns, Edwards told me, “I chose what to use, because I know what is going on in rural America on a personal level, I grew up there, my parents still live there, and I know that we need a president who actually pays some attention to the challenges of rural America.”
As we drove through the mountains, Edwards discussed his Rural Recovery Act and the relationship between rural and urban poverty. “One obvious difference is farming plays a significant role in a lot of rural America. Small family farmers are being driven out of business by big, vertically integrated, multinational corporate farms.” Edwards also spoke about “the access to broadband, high-speed technology” which, he described as ” very different in urban areas than it is in rural areas.” He pointed out the “huge deficiency in the availability of capital in rural areas,” saying this discrepancy was the reason behind his proposed rural capital fund, REACH. “But there are similarities,” between big city and small town problems, Edwards said. “The schools struggle in both places, which is why I’ve suggested we give bonus pay, incentive pay, to teachers who will come to the more difficult places both in cities and rural areas.”
John Edwards spoke after meeting with students in the Appalachian Media Project
at Appalshop in Whitesburg, KY
Photo: Shawn Poynter
Finally, I asked Edwards if he would join Senator Clinton, who at the National Rural Assembly was excited by the idea of changing the name of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Rural Affairs. Edwards responded, “To be honest with you I haven’t paid much attention to names, I am more interested in the substance of what needs to be done to strengthen rural areas.”
Edwards was clearly worn from seventy-two hours traveling across America even though he still presented himself as upbeat and ready for action. He told me that this experience had affected him personally, and would motivate him. “I mean, the stories I have heard, like I heard from James earlier this morning,” Edwards said, referring to a mine worker he had met earlier in the day at a health clinic in Wise, Virginia. This mine worker, James, had an untreated cleft pallet for the first fifty years of his life and was unable to communicate. Edwards also mentioned an Appalachian Media Institute student who had asked why drug addicts were able to receive insurance to cover their prescriptions but she, a working college student who was not pregnant, can’t afford to see a doctor when she’s sick. “Those young people that just spoke including the young woman who doesn’t have any healthcare coverage, you don’t forget them,” said the Senator. “They stay with you and they give you a strength when you need it.”
Even if the former North Carolina senator were nominated as the Democratic candidate (he now runs third in the polls, behind Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), would he have enough political capital to convince the rest of America to support rural policy initiatives? Edwards is not concerned, he told me. “I think that there will be a natural strength in the country for doing something about this. I think it can be done because most of America has some strong connection to rural America — not everybody, but a majority. Because they either come from rural America, their parents came from rural America, or they have friends and relatives who live there.”