What kind of president would Mitt Romney be for rural America?
There wasn’t much discussion of rural issues in last week’s debate, but the void in the debate got me thinking, and then remembering. It was mid-October 2005, and torrential rains pelted New England, creating a massive flood that left a path of destruction across Massachusetts.
Our governor was Mitt Romney. He had been in office since 2003.
In the hilltown hamlet of Middlefield (pop. 542), Clark Wright Road was washed away as was a bridge over Glendale Brook. In Franklin County, Huckle Hill Road in Bernardston (pop. 2,155) disappeared from the floods, causing concern, as the road is an alternative evacuation route should an accident occur at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant across the state line.
The neighboring town of Leyden (pop. 772) saw several roads rendered impassible. Rising waters also swept away an entire mobile home park in Greenfield, victimizing dozens of residents and leaving them homeless.
Springfield television stations captured the surreal scene of thousands of orange pumpkins floating down the Connecticut River from their flooded fields, depriving farmers of an important cash crop soon before Halloween. As worried highway superintendents and local officials called the governor’s office in Boston to request state aid for threatened dams and devastated roads, they found to their dismay that Gov. Mitt Romney was out of state.
Making matters worse, Romney issued a statement offering the services of the Massachusetts National Guard to New Hampshire.
Folks looking for insight into how Mitt Romney would treat rural America as president can learn from our experience. When the Massachusetts Legislature passed a sweeping economic stimulus in 2006, Romney vetoed rural broadband access provisions designed to bring high-speed Internet service to the hinterlands.
He also chopped $3 million for an agricultural innovation center at the University of Massachusetts.
Luckily for rural Massachusetts, the House and Senate overrode those vetoes by huge margins.
While just 9.2% of Massachusetts residents are considered rural, we cover a lot of geography and the rural economic engine fuels a significant work force. Other New England Republicans, such as ex-Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell and former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, stepped up to help save dairy farmers in their states, but Mitt Romney turned his back on Bay State dairy producers struggling to stay on the land. He turned a deaf ear to our cranberry growers, whose signature crop contributes more than $50 million in payroll to Massachusetts’s workers and employs some 5,500 people.
Mitt Romney has a history of nonsupport for the rural community. His 2002 gubernatorial campaign detoured around rural Massachusetts as he avoided any talk of closing the digital divide, protecting the working landscapes of our farms and forests, or real solutions to encourage rural economic development.
As governor-elect, he signaled little interest in having rural voices in his administration. Only one of 97 transition team members was from a rural community.
One month after taking office in 2003, Romney created six “regional competitiveness councils” as the cornerstone of his economic revival strategy. Councils included representatives from agriculture, the forest and wood products and tourism sectors, and the hope was to devise a strategy for boosting local economies.
A year later, Romney dissolved the councils and his director of economic development, who championed the idea, resigned.
Things got much worse for small towns and rural communities as Romney’s term progressed. The governor’s annual budget shortchanged critical local aid accounts such as payments in-lieu of taxes that reimburse communities for tax-exempt state lands and facilities and regional school transportation payments. Rural towns host huge tracts of state forest and park land which are off the local tax rolls, and rural school districts with almost no commercial tax base had to pay ever-increasing bus and van costs for transporting students across multiple towns, many with dirt roads.
Romney’s smart growth initiative penalized rural towns from the outset. Dubbed “Commonwealth Capital,” the program placed heavy emphasis in calculating a community’s score on such factors as “transit-oriented development” and “commercial infill” even though dozens of rural towns have no public transportation service or town centers with commercial districts. My town of 1,200 has a general store. Period.
Romney tied a town’s score to its ability to compete for state environmental funds for farmland and open space preservation, programs that had been successful stand-alone entities since the 1970s. Rural towns were shut out because their CommCap scores were so low.
And it never got better. Voters would do well to pay close attention to Mitt Romney’s long trail of flip-flops and u-turns on policy positions as he campaigns in Iowa with promises to be a great president for rural America.
Here in rural Massachusetts, we know better and no amount of “Farmers 4 Mitt” signs drawn by campaign staffers can paper over Romney’s abysmal record as governor when it comes to helping our Commonwealth’s 6,000 commercial farmers.
Matt Barron is a former reporter who is now a political consultant. He lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.