Story by Chris Graham
It was a midday Thursday event in Waynesboro featuring a former Mississippi governor stumping for Barack Obama. You wouldn’t expect to see more than a handful of people on hand, right? So then when 55 people show up to see Ray Mabus talk about what Obama wants to do to help cities like Waynesboro compete in the 21st century economy, you have to figure that there might be something going on out here in the hinterlands, wouldn’t you?
“I think Democrats in the past, not all of them, but some of them, have ignored small-town America and Rural America, to their detriment. And the values that we have, and the things that we’re talking about, ought to resonate in Rural America and small-town America. And I think it’s going to make a difference in the election in a lot of places. Republicans cannot count on this vote anymore,” said Mabus, who served as governor of Mississippi from 1988 to 1992 and later served as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, after the town-hall meeting at the Rosenwald Community Center on Port Republic Road Thursday afternoon.
Mabus is on a 15-state general-election swing through Rural America for the Obama campaign, after stumping in 20 states during the nomination contest that ended in June. He hears a lot of the same as far as message from the small groups that he gets to interact with on an almost daily basis. “People are hurting,” Mabus said. “It’s like I said about gas prices – people in Rural America are more affected by gas prices than anybody else. Because you don’t have an option. You don’t have choices for how you get around. If you live in Acona, Miss., you’re going to have to get in your vehicle. If you live in Waynesboro, you’re going to have to live in your vehicle.”
Mabus heard a lot of that from the participants in the Waynesboro town hall – from concerns about Medicare and Social Security to high gas prices and more general trends in the macroeconomy. “Twice as many Virginians are unemployed as when George Bush took office. And Virginia still has a pretty low unemployment rate, but it’s almost doubled in the last eighr years,” Mabus said of the Virginia economy, which though relatively strong compared to the rest of the nation is also going through a bit of a bumpy stretch right now. “You’re seeing a lot of jobs – almost 80,000 manufacturing jobs have left. And if you’re not moving toward a new economy, something like renewnable energy, green-collar jobs that you can do in Rural Virginia and Rural Mississippi and Rural America, if you’re simply sticking with the status quo, people are worried, and after this last week, they’ve got a real reason to be worried.”
Obama has made reaching out to Rural America a priority in his campaign – advocating for improved broadband and cell-phone access in rural areas so that rural citizens don’t get passed by on the superhighway of today, in addition to pushing for tax credits for new and existing small businesses in small-town America and raising the rates of reimbursements for health-care providers in Rural America so that care is not compromised for rural dwellers.
“I think overall the fact that his campaign is spending this much time in small-town America and Rural America and talking about agriculture policy, and the fact that he voted for the agriculture bill, and John McCain didn’t, and McCain denigrates agricultural research, and voted against the making Medicare reimbursement formula more fair. The fact that Barack Obama has spent as much energy and resources shows that he’s not going to forget Rural America, and we’re the people he’ll be beholden to when he becomes president,” Mabus said.
That’s why Virginia is in play, Mabus said. Because Obama has made it a point to listen and learn, and because as a person Obama is more like the average Virginian than you might think if you watch Fox News all day long and half the night.
“He’s a different kind of candidate. For one thing, he’s run a grassroots-up campaign. He’s had people out talking to folks. He’s drawn on his career as a community organizer to do it from the grassroots up instead of from the top down. And giving people an opportunity to get involved, and giving them a reason to help, and a way to help,” Mabus said. “But I also think the things he’s talking about, the things he cares about, his personality and his character, what he has done with his life, raised by a single mother and grandparents, getting through college on student loans and scholarships, he’s the most normal person I’ve seen run for president in a while. And he hasn’t been in Washington so long that he’s lost that, that he’s lost touch with what average people go through every day.”