Friday, August 29, 2008

Sen. John McCain has a rural running mate who was once a journalist: Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin began her political life as a member of the city council of Wasilla, Alaska (near center of Encarta map), in 1992. She was elected mayor in 1996. In 2000, the town had 5,469 people, but it was growing, and flush with sales-tax revenue that allowed Palin to cut property taxes. That, and her good looks and speaking skills, drew the attention of state Republican officials. As she moved up the state political ladder, she confounded the party establishment and earned marks for challenging the longstanding coziness of policymakers with the oil and gas industry, while not broadly opposing the industry.

Alaska's population is 34 percent rural, and even Anchorage has a rural tinge; moose are often seen in the city. But McCain's selection of Palin is much less about rural voters than about capturing the votes of women, who account for most of the undecided vote nationally -- especially moderates who wanted to see Sen. Hillary Clinton be the Democratic nominee. "It turns out the women of America aren't finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all," Palin said today.

The selection will please and motivate social conservatives, because Palin is a pro-lifer who not only talks the talk but walks the walk, this year bearing a child that she knew had Down Syndrome. Her oldest son is in the Army and ships to Iraq on Sept. 11, and she is a life member of the National Rifle Association. All those factors should have rural appeal. Additionally, her youth, her looks and curiosity about her should add some excitement and volunteers to the McCain campaign, both of which it badly needs. But will the selection meet the traditional test of "do no harm"? That probably depends largely on her performance in the debate with Sen. Joe Biden.

And we must add that Palin (Associated Press photo) was once a journalist. After graduation from the University of Idaho in 1987, she was a TV sports reporter. She has also been co-owner of a commercial fishing business and a dealer of watercraft, snow machines and all-terrain vehicles. Pretty rural.

Site of record immigration raid, Mississippi plant uses federal program to check workers' status

The Laurel, Miss. transformer plant that was the scene of the largest immigration raid in U.S. history uses "a federal system to check new hires' work documents, a program whose expansion the Bush administration has made a cornerstone of its fight against illegal immigration," The Washington Post reports.

While the E-Verify program "can determine whether a Social Security number presented by a worker is valid, it often cannot determine whether the number belongs to the applicant," write Post reporters Spencer S. Hsu, Alejandro Lazo and Darryl Fears.

"Major U.S. employers assailed the expanding crackdown, saying it creates a Catch-22. If businesses fail to enroll in E-Verify, they run the risk of a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said. But if they sign up, they face added costs, labor disruptions and discrimination complaints -- as well as the risk that flaws in the program won't stop all illegal hiring or prevent government raids, they said. ... A spokeswoman for ICE noted the investigation began two years ago, before Howard joined E-Verify."

ICE said it was deporting 475 workers; "106 were released for humanitarian reasons to tend to a child or a medical condition pending court appearances; nine were juveniles transferred to a refugee resettlement agency, and eight face charges of criminal identity theft," the Post reports. (Read more)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Farm income forecast to set new records, but livestock producers get squeezed by grain prices

The Department of Agriculture predicted today that this year's net farm income will be a record $95.7 billion, 10 percent above last year's total of $86.8 billion. Most of that comes from crops; while livestock receipts are up, meat producers' costs are up, too.

USDA economist Larry Salathe told Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network that crop receipts are up $15 billion and livestock receipts are up $7 billion from February, thanks to “very strong exports, very strong domestic demand, of course supported by ethanol.” But the ethanol-driven increases in grain prices are the major squeeze on livestock producers.

Farm production costs "are also projected to be a record high, $300 billion," Meyer reports. "Salathe says that is a $40 billion increase over last year and comes on top of a $20 billion jump in 2007. Fertilizer expenses are up 58 percent, fuel expenses are 39 percent higher, and feed prices increased too. "Bottom line, increases in crop receipts are well ahead of the increase in expenses but livestock producers are being squeezed." (Read more)

USDA says, "The value of crop production ($188.8 billion) is forecast to exceed the 2007 record by $38 billion, a 25-percent increase. . . . Net cash income, at $101.3 billion, is forecast to be $13.9 billion (16 percent) above 2007, which was the previous record. Net cash income is projected to rise more than net farm income because of the carryover of 2007 crops being sold in 2008." For forecasts from USDA on individual commodities and states, click here.

VA tries to improve care for veterans in rural areas

Veterans often face health challenges as they return from active duty, but rural veterans face the added obstacle of getting to Department of Veterans Affairs health centers, often far from their homes. The VA has started a pilot project to alleviate some of those challenges.

A VA press release Wednesday said the department is creating mobile health clinics that will bring primary care and mental-health services to rural areas far from VA hospitals or outpatient clinics. The Rural Mobile Health Care Clinics will begin in 2009 with four clinics dispatched to counties in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Maine, Washington, and West Virginia. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Dr. James B. Peake said, “Health care should be based upon the needs of patients, not their ability to travel to a clinic or medical center.”

This announcement was made only a few days after VA announced it would open three Veterans Rural Health Resource Centers on Oct. 1. These centers will try to "identify disparities in health care for rural veterans and formulate practices or programs to enhance the delivery of care."

Sen. Leahy tells convention about rural needs

When U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont took the stage at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, he used his brief time to accuse the Bush administration of ignoring issues facing rural Americans and claim that John McCain would to do the same. "We are struggling from eight years of the Bush-Cheney economy," said Leahy, adding "Rural communities face disproportionately high unemployment rates, violent crime is up, and no one is hurt by record high energy prices more than we are."

Leahy, who lives in a small Vermont town with a population of 1,8oo, spoke of the ways that Barack Obama would help struggling rural Americans. "H
e will lift our economy immediately by taking some of big oil's windfall profits and returning $1,000 to the pockets of working families. He will invest in what rural America needs most of all, good new jobs, with a clean energy initiative that will move us away from oil and put 5 million Americans to work." To read Leahy's remarks as prepared for delivery, click here.

Democrats organize to get rural votes for Obama

"If organization and effort is any indication, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama could win more of the rural vote than many of his recent predecessors," Sara Wyant writes in her Agri-Pulse newsletter after attending meetings at the national convention and interviewing Todd Campbell, the campaign's rural vote director.

Wyant notes that Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg, who has done many rural surveys, told the My Rural America meeting that Obama needs to "reassure voters who have doubts about his experience and abilities; address the poor economy and the 'anger and frustration' of those left behind; and address the significant concerns that voters have about his positions on national security and his patriotism." Greenberg told Wyant that she wasn't referring to farmers, currently enjoying high incomes and land values, because farmers are "such a small percentage of the electorate." Wyant writes:
Perhaps that explains why some long-time Democratic activists are frustrated over what they view as Obama’s senior campaign staff’s failure to actively court the farm vote. “The real question is why Barack Obama is not up 10 to 20 points in farm country,” one leader told Agri-Pulse. “John McCain has given farmers and ranchers absolutely no reason to vote for him,” said another long-time Democrat. “There’s no reason every major farm group isn’t endorsing Obama---but this campaign doesn’t seem to get it.”
McCain opposes ethanol subsidies and said he would have voted against the new Farm Bill. Obama wasn't as enthusiuastic about the bill as Sen. Hillary Clinton but voted for it.

Campbell said the campaign's rural strategy is based on Obama's experience in community organizing in Chicago: “neighbor talking to neighbor, listening to people’s concerns and asking for their votes.” But our guess is that the effort will be concentrated in states the campaign thinks it can win, especially larger states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Agri-Pulse is a subscription newsletter but offers a free trial.

Natural gas leasing boom is likely to spread

The recent boom in natural gas leasing and drilling is likely spread beyond some of the areas previously reported, such as the Haynesville Shale in the Ark-La-Tex area and the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachians, reports Clifford Krauss of The New York Times. (NYT map)
Prospectors have "identified at least two dozen shale beds in North America that could contain large amounts of gas," Krauss writes. "Real estate speculators are becoming overnight millionaires in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Texas by buying up parcels of land and flipping them to companies that drill for natural gas. Wildcatters are ordering every rig they can get their hands on, and paying signing bonuses of $25,000 an acre to drill below houses, schools and churches. Pipeline companies are building as fast as they can to get the new gas to market."(Read more)

There is a concern among landowners that many companies looking to drill for natural gas are attempting to lease land for less than the leases are worth. Steven Christ of Wealth Daily reports that some individuals are leasing their land for as little as $100 and acre, while other individuals have negotiated "leases up to $2,500 an acre along with 15 to 18 percent royalties."(Read more) The normal oil and gas royalty is 12.5 percent, or one-eighth.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Democratic convention hears a rural voice

A surprise hit last night at the Democratic National Convention was Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. "A cattle rancher who strode into office wearing cowboy boots," writes Paul Wallsten of the Los Angles Times, "Schweitzer has succeeded by connecting with the values of Western voters. Yet he also embraces key Democratic policies, supporting abortion rights, energy conservation and environmental regulation. ... He raised the roof at the Pepsi Center by exhorting thousands of party activists to 'get off your hind end' and cheer for the demise of GOP rule." (Photo from The Associated Press)

Schweitzer's speech focused on energy policy. "It was purely partisan red meat on a pocketbook issue -- exactly what some Democratic strategists have said was lacking from the convention when the sagging economy is at the forefront of voters' minds," Wallsten writes. "His appearance in a coveted time slot during network television coverage easily overshadowed a staid keynote address delivered earlier by former Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Senate candidate who was expected to play a starring role here.And it couldn't have come at a better time for the Democrats -- just when Barack Obama needs to start connecting with the kind of white, rural and working-class voters that might be inclined to listen to Schweitzer." (Read more)

Schweitzer became governor in 2004 while George W. Bush was carrying the state by 20 percentage points. Mark Sundeen of The New York Times writes, "Schweitzer’s 'Montana miracle,' in which Democrats took back the governor’s seat after 16 years and ended 12 years of Republican majorities in both state chambers, has been cited as evidence that the Republican bastions in the Western states are losing ground to a new, Democratic brand of libertarian-tinged prairie populism." (Read more)
Schweitzer said after the speech that it was the first he had ever given from a prepared text; he added much material to the text. For Mike Dennison's story from the Billings Gazette, with Schweitzer's prepared remarks, click here. UPDATE, Aug. 29: One Democrat called Schweitzer "our side's Huckabee," according to the Evans-Novak Political Report's convention wrapup.

Alaska voters choose mine over fish, defeating measure to protect salmon-rich streams

For months, Alaskans have been debating, in effect, what is their more valuable resource: the salmon that fuel a $300 million-a-year industry, or the copper and gold located in the watershed of salmon-rich Bristol Bay, metals that could be worth up to $300 billion. Yesterday, in a statewide referendum on a measure to put new limits on mining, that industry won, by a margin of 4 to 3.

The fishing industry worried that the proposed Pebble Mine could cause irreparable damage to the salmon population. Proponents argued that Measure 4 would create additional legal hurdles to jump through, while not changing the environmental standards already in place. (Los Angeles Times map)

The referendum was, as William Yardley writes in The New York Times, "an initiative intended to increase protections for streams where salmon live." The debate was among the most expensive in state history. Elizabeth Bluemink writes in the Anchorage Daily News that "fundraising by the two sides for TV, radio, print, mail and other advertising had hit at least $10.6 million." The issue appeared to become clouded by the substantial debate between the two groups. (Read more)

Yardley points out that "while the metals are a finite discovery, the fish have replenished themselves for millenniums" and many who voted no on Measure 4 felt that legislation designed to protect streams from mining pollution already existed and further legislation was unnecessary. (Read more)

UPDATE, Aug. 28: Bluemink reports that voters in the Bristol Bay area, downstream of the proposed minE, overwhelmingly voted in support of Measure 4. (read more)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Immigration raid nets hundreds, this time in Miss.

UPDATE, Aug. 27: The number of detainees is now 595, making it the largest immigration raid ever in the U.S., and it could go even higher. The Laurel Leader Call quotes ICE Communications Director Barbara Gonzalez as saying: "This is probably the largest single site target for law enforcement."

For the second time in three months, a major immigration raid has led to the holding of 350 or more suspected illegal immigrants. This latest raid, which follows the May detention of a record 389 workers at a food processing plant in Postville, Iowa, took place at a transformer plant in Laurel, Miss., a town of 18,000. Warrants were also served at the company's local headquarters. "The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed 350 people suspected as being illegal immigrants working at Howard Industries were found during a raid Monday," reports Jason Niblett of the Laurel Leader Call.

The paper notes that on Friday, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance warned of an impending raid in the area: “A series of preparations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the Gulf Coast has local advocates on edge about the possibility of yet another worksite raid .. " Bill Chandler, the executive director of the alliance, said the group is now "responding with humanitarian aid to the family members of the arrested.” (Read more)

Adam Nossiter of The New York Times notes that the Iowa raid "was a significant escalation of the Bush administration’s enforcement practices because those detained were not simply deported, as in previous raids, but were imprisoned for months on criminal charges of using false documents."

Appalachian income is up, but more are in poverty

Median income in Appalachia increased last year, but remained less than four-fifths the national median, and more people in the region were in poverty, according to a Census Bureau survey released today.

"Median incomes were up in all the 13 states that make up Appalachia except Kentucky, where the median income was $39,678," The Associated Press reports. "However, with the exception of Maryland and Virginia, those incomes across Appalachia still were below the national median of $50,233."

The number of Appalachians with household incomes below the federal poverty line grew 114,000 to 13.3 million, reports AP's P.J. Dickerscheid. That and the income data suggest that income inequality is growing in Appalachia; the national Census report said "Income inequality decreased between 2006 and 2007."

More from the national report: "Real median household income in the United States climbed 1.3 percent between 2006 and 2007, reaching $50,233, ... Meanwhile, the nation’s official poverty rate in 2007 was 12.5 percent, not statistically different from 2006."

The numbers come from the bureau's American Community Survey, a large-scale poll. "In the 2007 ACS, among states and the District of Columbia, poverty rates ranged from 7.1 percent for New Hampshire to 20.6 percent for Mississippi," the bureau said in a news release. (Read more)

Income inequality has been growing nationally for decades, Steven Pearlstein writes for The Washington Post. To read his analysis, click here.

Convention Obama's last shot to make broad rural appeal? Strategic calls loom as time runs short

With a compressed calendar facing the candidates, this week's Democratic National Convention may be Sen. Barack Obama's "last shot at building rural support," Robert T. Garrett writes in the Dallas Morning News. Garrett says Obama "will stress pocketbook issues this week to woo voters in the wide open spaces," but still has to resolve a key strategic question: whether he will pursue or abandon "his campaign’s springtime swagger that it would 'expand the map,' challenging John McCain in reliably red states where rural voters may be key."

For months, Democrats have been telling Obama that he can attract rural voters if he will spend time with them, but with only two months left until the election, more disinterested experts say he should limit such efforts to key battleground states. His rural strategy could depend on what Republicans do in the coming week to 10 days, former former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, a Panhandle cotton farmer, told Garrett. "Some of it is going to depend on who McCain picks; it’s going to depend on what kind of rural program that Obama’s going to have and what kind of rural program that McCain’s going to have," Laney said.

Yesterday, at a meeting of the Rural Caucus at the Democratic convention, "Obama surrogates talked jobs, health care and rural highways," Garrett reports. "Outdoors TV show host Tony Dean, a lifelong Republican, said he’s switching parties to head a Sportsmen for Obama group. Mr. Dean said he’s '99 percent sure a President Obama isn’t going to infringe on gun rights.' Austin author and rural online newsletter editor Bill Bishop, though, said Mr. Obama won’t make much headway on issues alone." In his recent, well-reviewed book The Big Sort, Bishop "argues 'lifestyles' have crowded out philosophy as the key factor in voters’ decisions." (Read more)

In his own publication, the Daily Yonder, Bishop notes that Sen. Hillary Clinton "ran strongest in rural communities" and "One worry among Democrats is that Obama has failed to consolidate support among Democratic voters." He cites this comment to The Washington Post's Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane:
"Jim Beasley, the commissioner of Ohio's Department of Transportation, did not have high hopes for Obama in his area of southern Ohio. "Ahhh, well. Rural Ohio will be difficult," he said. "Rural areas are difficult for him.'"
MacGillis and Kane talked to swing-state delegates at the Rural Caucus and other gatherings and found that some "do not share Obama's confidence that he can overcome the resistance many voters may have to electing a black president with an unusual background and name." From their story, here's another example from Ohio:
Sarah Hamilton, a Clinton supporter who works for the Ohio Federation of Teachers, linked Obama's challenges in the state to the resistance that other Democratic presidential candidates have faced in trying to trump social issues with economic ones. "I really think it still has to do with 'Gods, guns and gays.' You bring in his race, and the Muslim rumor, all these things are factors that are easy to play out in the rural areas," she said.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Iowa governor blasts packer hit by nation's largest immigration raid; state alleges safety violations

Iowa's governor is winning kudos for an op-ed piece sharply criticizing the operators of the kosher meatpacking plant that was the site of the largest immigration raid in U.S. history. "Several business and political experts said the governor's words were justified," reports Tony Leys of The Des Moines Register, which published Gov. Chet Culver's article Sunday.

The Democratic governor, elected in 2006, went so far as to compare the Agriprocessors Inc. facility in Postville (Encarta map) to the plants exposed 100 years ago by novelist Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. "There will be no industrial 'jungles' in Iowa on my watch," he wrote. To read his column, click here. Today, the company invited Culver to the plant, Leys reports.

Culver took Agriprocessors off state job-listing services, saying the company "has chosen to take advantage of a failed federal immigration system. ... Before the federal raid, Agriprocessors already had a history of sanctions by Iowa's state regulatory agencies for water pollution, as well as health and safety law violations. ... This company's owners have deliberately chosen to take the low road in its business practices." The state has proposed a $101,000 fine for 31 safety violations at the plant. For the Register's story on that, click here.

Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Julie Myers "said the agency and industry need to partner to ensure compliance with the related laws," Tom Johnston of reports from a directors' meeting of the National Meat Association. "Though she acknowledged that effective immigration law is lacking in the United States, Myers said companies are best to approach ICE and demonstrate the intent to cooperate and legalize their labor forces." (Read more)

Big Maine papers eliminate bureaus in capitals, but rural papers have own statehouse reporter

The Blethen Maine Newspapers, which are for sale, are some of the latest to cut back on their capital bureaus, in Washington and the state capital of Augusta. That means the state's largest paper, the Portland Press Herald, has no reporter in the statehouse, an hour away. But a couple of small dailies and five weeklies in Maine do. And some of those weeklies are feeding stories to the Press Herald!

When the Portland paper closed its bureaus in the capitals, as well as those in Bath and Biddeford, as part of cutting 12 of its 100 jobs in news, Editor Jeannine Guttman told readers that it would "get reporting help from our sister newspaper in Augusta," assign a Portland reporter to cover the state's "part-time legislature" and cover the state's four-person Washington delegation from Portland.

Jonathan Kaplan, who lost his Washington job after having it for only seven months, wrote in The Washington Post this week that the demise of regional reporters in Washington amounts to an incumbent-protection program, because readers won't know Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and the two House members are doing. "They'll probably never learn that, at a press conference in May, just minutes before a vote on a massive farm bill, Collins praised a provision in the measure to close the so-called Enron loophole. She then headed straight to the Senate floor and voted against the bill. We regional reporters put readers in rooms like that and give them a voice. But we're disappearing fast, and it's not clear who can pick up the slack."

But in the state capital, Maine readers have a full-time watchdog in the person of Victoria Wallack's Statehouse News Service, funded by the daily Brunswick Times Record and the Journal-Tribune of Bitteford, both owned by Pemnnsylvania-based Sample Newspapers, and six weeklies -- including the venerable Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, whose publisher, Alan Baker, organized the group. Baker told us in an interview that when he was growing up, "Daily newspapers covered the statehouse like a blanket. When I moved back here was amazed at how bad the coverage was."

But Baker and his buddies are interested in public service beyond their own readership. Some of them send stories to the Press Herald, which publishes them in "Maine Reports" on Sundays, with byline credits and links to their Web sites. Seems like such rural-metro cooperation could do a lot of good in other states. Go for it!

UPDATE, Sept. 12: Not all the regional coverage news is bad. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recently added a part-time reporter, Jane Fullerton, to its Washington bureau.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

As Obama looks for rural votes in swing states, Southwest Virginia is a key area, and a tough one

(Map from As Democrats begin their convention, they wonder if Barack Obama can make any inroads among rural voters -- particularly in Appalachian areas of the big swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Almost all of Appalachian Virginia lies in the 9th Congressional District, and with Gov. Tim Kaine not on the ticket, the state's 13 electoral votes could be decided by John McCain's margin there, Laurence Hammack writes in The Roanoke Times.

"Democrat Rick Boucher, the district's longtime representative in Congress, believes Obama must capture at least 45 percent of his district's vote if he is to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia since 1964," Hammack writes. Obama has four campaign offices in the district, but that could be a tall order; Obama lost the 9th to Hillary Clinton by 32 percentage points. (It was the only district she won; Boucher supported Obama.)

Hammack's 2,740-word story starts with the typical examples of people in the district blaming race for Obama's poor showing and poor prospects, and those who say they believe he is a Muslim. But he asks a good question: "When residents of such a predominantly white area say they can't vote for a Muslim, could that be another way, perhaps a more acceptable way, of saying they can't vote for a black?"

"As much as I wish that I could not say this, the realistic part of me agrees that yes, [Muslim] is to some degree a code word" for race, said Stephen Mooney of the Appalachian Studies Program at Virginia Tech. He grew up in Dickenson County, on the Kentucky border, which gave only 12 perecent of its votes to Obama. But he said it's more about culture than race. In Appalachia, he said, "There is a very ironic fear of the 'other,' the different, which is ironic because mountain people have long been perceived nationally as one of the great American 'others.' So you would think that mountain people would be very careful not to 'other' other people [including Obama, he said]. But at a very deep-set level, there is culturally a fear ... to venture into the unknown."

When Doug Wilder was elected Virginia's first black governor in 1989, he won 48 percent of the vote in the 9th District, but he was able to spend much more time campaigning there than Obama can. They key, Democrats say, is bridging the cultural divide with economic empathy. "Appalachia, ideologically, is at war with itself," Mooney told Hammack. "You have a deep-set conservatism and a deep-set liberalism. Co-existing simultaneously you have a region that has rebelled against American political and economic ideologies and a region that has probably the most deeply felt sense of patriotism than any other place in the nation." (Read more)