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Wooing Rural Voters In North Carolina With Progressive And Populist Policies-- Meet Jason Butler (NC-02)

Jason's a pastor in Wake County, North Carolina who sees the campaign as part of a journey to "recapture our moral courage and push back against the forces of fear that divide and dehumanize us."
Wooing Rural Voters In North Carolina With Progressive And Populist Policies-- Meet Jason Butler (NC-02)

Over the past two weeks I've talked to 7 new candidates running for Congress. One doesn't support Medicare-for-All, the Green New Deal, banning assault weapons or even raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and I told her she was calling the wrong organization and to try the DCCC or EMILY's List. The others are being vetted. The easiest candidate to endorse though was Jason Butler, running in North Carolina’s 2nd district. Jason's a pastor in Wake County, North Carolina who sees the campaign as part of a journey to "recapture our moral courage and push back against the forces of fear that divide and dehumanize us."


Goal ThermometerI asked Jason to introduce himself by writing a guest post that encompasses his vision for this very tough campaign in a very tough district. That's below. Please read it and if you find it as inspiring as I did, consider contributing to Jason's grassroots campaign by clicking on the 2020 Blue America congressional thermometer on the right and donating what you can. But first I want to say a little something about NC-02. The gerrymandered district has a PVI of R+7 and Trump beat Hillary there 53.2% to 43.6%. The incumbent, George Holding (R), is a total Trump enabler who never strays from the party line. Last year, Holding didn't do that great-- just 51.3%. And he lost Wake County, the biggest county in the district, albeit narrowly, and only managed to tie his Democratic opponent in Nash County. The district includes all or part of 6 counties in the northern part of the state-- listed by population: Wake, Johnson, Nash, Harnett, Franklin and Wilson. Trump's reelect numbers are underwater in North Carolina. 2020 is going to be a good year for progressives like Jason Butler running down-ticket-- as long as Cheri Bustos and the DCCC don't insert some conservative, GOP-lite candidate, with nothing to offer voters, as they tend to try to do in districts like this.




The Red-Handed Fleecing of Rural America
by Jason Butler






Part of the American experience that is ingrained in each one of us is the pride of being a fearless people that will defend each other in the face of evil and will always be there for our friends. After all…these colors don’t run. But right now, it seems we are being paralyzed in the face of our rapidly changing future and we are standing frozen, even looking backwards, instead of moving forward with courage.


Yes, the world is changing at an unprecedented pace and if we are honest, we feel a bit uncertain of what lies ahead. There are challenges ahead that we feel unequipped to face and so, we are desperately trying to hold on to the present reality that feels so familiar. Maybe we are a bit like a horse and buggy repair shop at the dawn of the age of the automobile. Those that refused to learn engine repair got left behind but those that embraced this new technological future thrived. We are facing the same sort of reality today and we find this most evident in our rural communities.


Now, I know… there is a lot of negativity coming out of rural white America right now. But we need to be reminded that rural America is just like any other community-- there is diversity there too. There are Latinx and immigrant and African-American and indigenous communities, and there are so many children. I’m not going to give up on them. Here’s the reality-- rural America has been hit with a perfect storm that has left it as a shell of what it once was. We’ve all driven through those towns, seen the abandoned store fronts and thought, “Wow, this must have been an amazing place 40 years ago.” Some of the reasons for this are:

Automation and technological advancement have dramatically cut down on the amount of farm employees, cutting down on the working population;
The promise of high paying tech and medical jobs have attracted the young to cities
CEO’s moved their factories overseas to cut down on costs;
Lack of funding for rural schools leave kids behind;
Lack of environmental regulation and oversight allow companies to dump poison in these communities that make people sick;
But because of lower populations, healthcare options are few and far between;
And even worse…high unemployment and under-employment leave many with no healthcare coverage for them or their children.

And now:

Trump’s trade war is further eroding farming market share and destroying family farms;
And big Pharma exploited the pain of rural America and left an opioid crisis that will affect rural families for generations to come while also overextending already underfunded medical emergency services, first responders, and family social services.

Rev. Dr. William Barber often reminds us that poverty is not a problem isolated to one demographic but affects those with lighter skin and those with darker skin. Republicans know this and that’s why they have worked tirelessly to divide rural white folks from people of color. They have spent massive amounts of time and money to try to convince rural communities that immigration is the problem, or entitlements are the problem, or…or…but this is all a diversion to the real problem-- the real problem is the partnership that rich Republican leaders have made with big business and their reluctance to invest and protect their rural base.


Trump has convinced rural America to trade its economic future for a red hat of hostility. He’s convinced rural folks that pushing others down is the path to power, but the only true path to success is by lifting others up, not by pushing them down. Jesus taught me this.


The sad reality of rural America is that:

Those manufacturing jobs are not coming back.
Coal’s day is nearing its end.
The market for soybeans is gone…for good.
The planet is warming and will make farming more difficult.
Rural children are suffering because of lack of affordable healthcare.

But why do I care? I care because I spent my entire childhood and college years in rural communities-- both in eastern NC and Appalachia Virginia. These are my people. I was raised in church with them, was taught by them in our schools, and still hold them as dear friends and family. Yes, my views on race, religion, sexuality, and politics have transformed over the years but deep down-- I’m a progressive country boy who drives a truck, rides a Harley.


I’m also a pastor. Yes, that’s right. I’m a progressive United Methodist pastor who believes in the dignity and worth of every single person, who fully supports the LGBTQ+ community, who fights for racial justice, who strives to create an equitable economy, who believes our environment is a gift that should be protected, and believes our diversity makes us stronger. I’ve founded 2 non-profits to protect the vulnerable, organized communities to push back on the power of big banks, and spent much of my professional career teaching people to care for one another, empowering them to build diverse community, and inspiring folks to resist the political and religious forces of fear that steal, kill, and destroy.


In my opinion, Republicans have fleeced rural America’s wealth and their religion-- using both to create more power for themselves and their corporate buddies.


Why is my faith important to my campaign? Because conservative politics is tied up with Christianity in America and the only way we are ever going to detangle this fundamentalist faith from the politics of fear and division is to deal with it at the root. Republicans have gerrymandered the evangelical church and promised them power if they forego the basic tenants of Jesus for the pursuit of a conservative Supreme Court. These same folks taught me that the golden rule is to “love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.” But yet, now many of them chant, “send her back,” are supportive of immigrant family separation and child detention, openly fan the flame of racism, fight against the rights of freedoms of the LGBTQ+ community, and vote for policies that hurt everyone, themselves included. I’m running because I believe I can expose these national immoralities and help lead us in a recovery of our moral courage to fight for liberty and justice for ALL.


And the only way we are going to do that is to leave our hate behind, pick up our heads and look boldly into the reality of our future and realize that we have the capacity to creatively solve every problem we face through innovation and hard work.


I’m just getting started in my campaign here in North Carolina’s 2nd district but here are some initial ways I believe we can work together to restore our rural communities. Don’t get me wrong-- this will be hard work, as we’ll have to deal with both economic and ideological brokenness-- and this is not my single issue as I’m also deeply concerned about the needs of those in urban centers as well. But there is an opening for Democrats here! And I’m reminded that the longest journey begins with the first step-- here’s where our first steps need to be:

Invest in the making high speed internet available for all.


This may seem like a simple solution but it’s actually quite a problem and a foundation that all the other parts need to be built upon. In a recent Pew survey 58% of rural Americans say that this is a problem. High speed internet connects communities to broader opportunities, provides further educational opportunities to schools and children, and opens economic opportunities in our “gig” economy. We want stronger and better funded school systems – then kids needs this in their schools and in their homes. Democracy thrives when information is prevalent and engagement is high and as many have said, it dies in the dark. Each of the following points relies on getting rural communities connected, informed, and engaged.


Expand Medicaid.


Healthcare is a human right. We shouldn’t play politics with the health of our children and families because healthcare gives life. On average, about 32% of rural individuals are uninsured. But in states where Medicaid is expanded that number is drastically reduced to an average of 16%. When people have access to insurance it has been proven they live longer, work more, and suffer less. A recent study even linked Medicaid expansion to lower infant mortality rates. Why are Republicans against this again? I’m waiting…


Medicaid expansion works-- it gets people insurance and builds healthier families and stronger communities. Christians should especially be in favor of expanded Medicaid as this helps to build wholeness in our communities-- after all-- Jesus was walking free healthcare as he healed the sick that were brought to him. How could Christians stand against such policies that give life, bring healing, and renew both bodies and families? Isn’t healthcare the most pro-life policy of all? But beyond healthcare as a moral imperative, it also is an economic stimulus.


The Winston-Salem Journal recently published a report outlining the economic benefits of the expansion of Medicaid here in NC saying,

“The overwhelming majority of U.S. rural hospitals forced to close their doors were in states that have not expanded (Medicaid) eligibility,” said Patrick McHugh, the center’s senior policy analyst and report co-author.


“Seventy percent of N.C.’s 80 rural counties are already designated at ‘medical deserts’ for their lack of primary care availability.” The authors said rural hospitals would receive $665 million in new Medicaid payments each year, “which would improve rural hospitals’ net fiscal strength by nearly $140 million.” “By dramatically reducing uncompensated care costs for many rural hospitals in North Carolina, Medicaid expansion is likely the single fastest way to put these facilities on more solid economic ground while addressing a gaping hole in our health-care system,” the authors said.

This allows hospitals to hire more medical professionals which in turn boost local economies. Living with sickness is miserable and we should do all we can to ease the suffering of our neighbors. This investment in just that-- an investment. Economically, there may not be a greater return on investment than making sure every single American has access to quality and affordable healthcare as it ensures more Americans can participate in the economy, can join the workforce, and can have the extra to buy homes and build wealth. No one should have be threatened with bankruptcy and foreclosure because of an illness. Morally, we cannot be a nation where corporations make billions in profit every year and yet, so many vulnerable children, mothers, and families suffer due to lack of health care coverage. We are better than this. There’s more than enough money to do this, our politicians just lack the moral courage to do the right thing.


Declare the Opioid Crisis a National Emergency


Every day 130 Americans die from opioid overdoes. Since 1999 400,000 Americans have died from opioid related overdoses. This is America’s real national emergency and needs to be treated as such. Families are being destroyed every single day-- many in our rural counties – because big pharmaceutical companies like Purdue and others preyed on rural communities by conspiring to push these painkillers on isolated and vulnerable communities. The results have been devastating. Children left without parents, parents grieving lost teens, and communities living in a state of constant shock. This has taken an unknown economic and emotional toll on emergency services, first responders, hospitals, and schools in these affected areas. Not to mention, the toll on families. An article from WebMD states it by saying, “The opioid epidemic appears to be literally tearing families apart. Children are being taken out of their homes at alarming rates because their parents are abusing drugs, a new study shows. The number of kids placed in foster care in the United States due to parental drug use has more than doubled over the past two decades, rising to nearly 96,700 in 2017 from about 39,100 in 2000.”


Where are Republicans when it comes to pro-family policies now? Aren’t they supposed to be the party of “family values?” Then why can’t they stand up to big pharmaceutical companies that have been ravaging rural communities? Oh, could it be the result of the nearly $80 million the pharmaceutical industry spends on lobbying Congress each year? Yes, when operating with decency and seeking the common good, pharmaceutical companies enrich our lives through medical breakthrough and miracle cures-- but when they operate with this sort of nefarious and deceitful motivation then they need to be held accountable and pay for the damage they have caused.


A few years ago, Trump began to recognize this problem and declared a “health crisis” allocating a few billion dollars to the problem but failed to use the money to build the infrastructure needed to tackle this problem and thus little was done. Moving on to “his wall” he left this crisis behind. People are dying “deaths of despair” and we need to respond accordingly as a nation by declaring a national emergency, holding wrong-doing pharmaceutical companies liable, and allocating $10 billion a year in community based opioid recovery assistance. Expanding Medicaid goes hand-in-hand and is essential in this fight as well as these communities need access to both healthcare and mental health care to heal from suffering this epidemic has unleashed.


Green Energy Infrastructure


We are in the midst of an environmental crisis. The planet is warming, our ice sheets are melting, and our weather is intensifying. Over the next 50 years things will continue to get worse which will cause massive displacement of the poor and create both food and water shortages around the world. And our collective political response to this unfolding crisis is almost non-existent. Politicians on the right, along with multi-billion-dollar corporations, try to calm us by saying, “there’s no problem here,” but there is an urgent problem! Our planet is dying, and we are busy re-arranging the furniture. I have three young children and I’d really like for them to have a planet to grow up on. We need immediate and urgent action. I’m all in favor of proposals like the Green New Deal and believe that we need to get such deals in Congressional committees and bring them to life. Yes, Republicans will try to block them-- but here’s where the rural communities are so key. Rural communities form the base of the Republican party, but they can also be the foundation for such grand proposals like the Green New Deal.


Rural communities are a natural fit for the sort of green energy infrastructure that America needs. Rural communities have the land for wind and solar farms, they will greatly benefit from the jobs and economic stimulation that green infrastructure would bring, and they can push their conservative representatives to fight on their behalf for these deals that would bring innovation and economic vitality to their communities. Sierra Club reports on this exact sort of situation in Indiana saying,

“Cleantech is also bringing countless new jobs to struggling areas. In the Midwest, over 8,000 new jobs were added in the clean energy sector alone. In Benton County Indiana, wind investment brought 110 permanent jobs and $17 million in revenue. This has a real influence on local economies.”

As tech companies grow and need more power, they are looking to build energy farms in rural communities that have the space and workforce ready to step in. Mobilizing the Green New Deal in rural communities is a win-win for everyone. It restores the economic viability of our rural communities, provides the energy resources business needs to thrive, and helps to save our planet-- all at the same time.


But yet-- Republicans stand against these green innovative solutions, they stand against the expansion of Medicaid, and they haven’t fought for opioid recovery. Our rural communities are suffering terribly and what are Republicans doing? Very little to say the least. “Let the people suffer” should be their new motto.

Yes-- it’s time we realize that Republicans are being caught red handed-- they have exploited the wealth, religion, and the future of rural communities and left them to suffer alone. We need to change this. We need deep investment in our rural communities-- not so that they will vote for us in the future. Rather, we need to help them because they are our fellow brothers and sisters, our neighbors and our fellow Americans. We need to help because we need to be the party that hears the cries of the suffering and do all we can to ensure a future of flourishing and hope for every single American. Yes, even if we don’t agree with them on everything and even if some are caught in a trap of racism and division right now. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”


Yes, we face new challenges and must respond with new and innovative solutions. We will have to face the future with courage and integrity-- with a commitment to human flourishing-- and be willing to push back against the paralyzing forces of fear to boldly march into our future with the conviction that we can rise above every challenge we face to ensure a thriving future for every single person in this country.


As one much greater than I has said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Maybe those words are echoing through the halls of history for such a time as this.

This is part of our continuing coverage of the 2020 elections.

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