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Waynesboro: An open invitation to Barack Obama

Column by Chris Graham

So now the world knows how badly Waynesboro wants its Obama-Biden signs. I wasn’t aiming at getting coverage on the front page of the Washington Post’s Virginia section, but sometimes these little crusades that you start at 2 in the morning trying to post an item on what you assumed was an obscure blog end up going a lot further than you intend.

Ahem. So we’ve got to make this right. How about a visit from the man himself to Waynesboro? And yes, yes, I know he’s quite busy running for president and all, but hear me out.

The reason we’re having such a demand for Obama-Biden yard signs is because Waynesboro is hungry for some Change We Can Believe In. Thirty years ago, Waynesboro was the economic envy of Western Virginia, with thriving industries that employed thousands and made it possible for people to live comfortable middle-class lives with a high-school degree, or in the case of my father even less. But then came the ’80s – and yes, Reaganomics. Trickle-down economics for us meant our industries and jobs trickling down from the Blue Ridge to Mexico and China. My dad and my family were among the casualties. I remember the hardship when he was laid off from General Electric when I was 11 and the divorce of my parents that I expect resulted from the economic struggles two years later. He eventually got his job back at GE’s successor, but it later moved most of its business down to Mexico in 1997, pushing Dad back out into the job market in his mid-40s with no high-school degree and really not a lot of prospects in these parts given that pretty much everybody else that paid decent had themselves moved on.

Dad died earlier this year, and it was his passing that pushed me into local politics, when I realized that life is too short to assume that there will be another day to do what you can do to get things moving in the right direction. I ran for city council on a platform that I have been working on for years as a journalist here in my hometown, aimed at figuring out a way to devise a new economic-development policy that takes advantage of our physical and human infrastructure here in Waynesboro, both our industrial properties that are just waiting to be used at full capacity again, and our workers who are similarly waiting to be a tapped resource once again.

I fell short in my run for city council, but I’m not giving up on the idea that there are things that we can do to get Waynesboro moving forward again. Which is why I threw myself full tilt into the ’08 campaign, taking over as chair of the Waynesboro Democratic Committee mainly because I see in the words and deeds and actions of Barack Obama and Mark Warner, our Senate candidate, the same blueprint for change that I have laid out as my vision for the future of Waynesboro.

The news here is not good. Unemployment is at 6.1 percent, as high as I can remember anytime in recent years, anyway. And I think the rate itself could be deceptive when you consider the economic development that we’ve seen here in recent years. The Waynesboro economy is making the in my mind uncomfortable shift from that industrial economy of 30 and 40 and 80 years ago to that of a retail and service economy that provides sales-tax revenues for the local school system but doesn’t do much of anything to provide employees a living wage. Which is reflected among other places in our numbers of schoolchildren on free and reduced lunch, which is at 45.9 percent according to figures from the Virginia Department of Education.

We need to get Waynesboro moving forward, and I’m convinced that Yes, We Can get things moving here again. I want to tap into the ideas being advocated by Obama and Warner to have America stand at the forefront of the green technology revolution, and I think Waynesboro is poised to be a foot soldier in that revolution with our location basically equidistant to the research engines that are the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and James Madison University and SRI International in Harrisonburg. Waynesboro can and should be a leg in a developing Virginia Research Triangle, the working hub, if you will, connecting the goings-on at UVa. and JMU and SRI and bringing their research initiatives into market fruition.

Another item from Obama that will get us moving is his push for tax cuts for the working and middle class. We’ve born the brunt of Reaganomics and its redistribution of wealth to the superwealthy here over the past 30 years. It’s time that we return to the economics of the New Deal that emphasized building up the working and middle class and putting money in their hands and creating an environment where they can find sustaining employment that in the end make us all better off, including, yes, the superwealthy, who really never have a bad day even if the upper income-tax bracket goes up a few percentage points.

Obama’s desire to extend health-insurance coverage to millions more Americans hits particularly close to home for me. I left the world of employment six years ago to start with my wife our publishing company, and as you can guess it hasn’t been all roses getting an advertising-driven business going in what has been an extended period of economic downturn here in Waynesboro, our base of operations. Which is my long way around saying we’ve had to cut some corners, and not having health insurance is the big one of them. People ask me when I tell them that I am one of the 50 million Americans without health insurance what I do when I get sick, and laugh at the answer: I don’t get sick. Which is of course a misrepresentation, but I’m not the only small-business owner who lives in the wealthiest society that has ever existed and can’t afford to pay the exorbitant monthly premiums that we have as our only options in health care right now.

This all occurred to me as I was getting ready to come into the office this morning. All politics, as Tip O’Neill liked to say, is local, and the White House ’08 race is no different a beast than any other politics.

So whaddya say, Barack? I remarked to somebody yesterday that this whole silly sign flap with your people here in Virginia had me so mad that the only thing that would make me feel better was, as I alluded above, a visit from the man himself. I’ve been making the case here that it would definitely be worth your while to drop in and say hi.

Consider this an open invitation. If you need me, your people know how to find me.