Senate Dems are Listening
by Matt L. Barron
When Democrats expanded their majority last year in the U.S. Senate they did so by winning in some very rural areas. Freshmen like Jeanne Shaheen (NH), Kay Hagan (NC) and Mark Begich (AK) each hail from states which are more than a third rural. And President Obama polled seven points better with rural voters than John Kerry had in 2004.
As she has done since 2005, U.S. Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is again the point person in the upper chamber to carry the Dems rural message. Now serving her second term, Lincoln has a palpable passion for getting her party’s rural agenda onto the radar screen of her congressional colleagues.
Last year, Democrats wrote and passed their first Farm Bill since 1990, legislation with some important reforms. Since the November election, rural America has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. A December 2008 report by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 282,000 jobs had been lost in rural counties. Lack of public transportation means those of us who live in the boonies have to drive to work and elsewhere so our pain at the pump is that much more severe than our subway-riding friends in the cities.
Yesterday, Lincoln convened a national conference call with rural organizers and activists to show off a new website (more on that tomorrow from our own Miryam Williamson) and allow people to bend her ear on a host of issues. She was told that in the state of Washington, the extension service has been cut 70 percent in the state budget and that $50 million for agricultural research was wiped out of the final version of the stimulus bill passed in late February. Native Americans want access to the soon to be expanded energy grid to sell renewable power and rural educators want to restructure funding formulas for Title 1.
Senator Lincoln noted that she will be vocal in advocating for the issue of better rural health care from her seat on the Finance Committee and for reauthorizing child nutrition programs on the Agriculture Committee. “Arkansas is one of the top states in the nation for participation in the school breakfast program,” she told those on the call.
While the economy has justifiably taken up much of the new administration’s attention, Senator Lincoln pledged to lobby President Obama and his staff to make good on his campaign promise to convene a rural summit. Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln is a good listener, but even more importantly, she’s strong voice and formidable advocate for rural communities across America.