A couple of months ago, I began tracking the approach our gubernatorial candidates – incumbent Republican Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams – were taking toward rural Georgia and its mounting problems. I started doing this after reading that Abrams had launched her campaign in Cuthbert, Ga., a tiny town near the Alabama line in southwest Georgia. My first reaction was that Abrams had somehow gotten lost, but it turns out she did this on purpose.
After that, I scoured the Kemp and Abrams campaign websites for evidence of their approach to rural Georgia and eventually reached out to the Abrams campaign with two requests. One was to talk with the campaign team members helping to craft her rural policies. The other was to interview Abrams herself. Over a period of a few weeks, I had a couple of conversations about rural issues with campaign staff members and volunteers.
Then last Friday I interviewed Abrams herself, and one thing became quickly apparent: the person crafting Stacey Abrams’s rural policies was Stacey Abrams herself.
The interview ran just under less than an hour and yielded more material than I could possibly cram into a single post. In the course of the interview, we covered a range of topics in some depth – education, healthcare, economic development, and the complicated politics facing any Democrat trying to harvest votes in bright red rural Georgia these days. Over the next few days, I plan to post several posts reporting on Abrams’s views on these subjects.
To open the interview, I threw her a softball. Talk to me, I said, about how you view the complicated set of problems facing rural Georgia, and about how you would tackle them. Does state government have the tactical tools it needs to help rural Georgia? Or do we need a new strategic approach?
I hereby yield the floor to Ms. Abrams. Her answers and comments, lightly edited for length, follow.
“We have the tools,” she said, “but they’re jumbled, they are often misused, and they rarely target with the precision necessary to address the challenge…. Rural economic decline is real. Population decline is real. There has been insufficient funding of education. There is a very marked lack of quality healthcare. There is crumbling and sometimes non-existent infrastructure. And there has been a lack of economic opportunity that has really focused more on sort of big-game hunting to bring in solutions for targeted counties.
“But the systemic and I would say sustainable approach has been missing and what is more concerning to me is that the solutions are often premised on leveraging the poverty as opposed to solving the poverty. Meaning, that Georgia often touts economic development coming to the state by saying you don’t have to pay fair wages, that it is the low-income, low-wealth nature of our state that is used as a selling point. Which then means that those who bring jobs do not bring those kinds of jobs that could lift economic capacity, (that) could address those economic challenges…
“For me, the goal in rural Georgia is not to become Atlanta, but it is to be able to be self-sustaining and successful within the construct of being small and not having your neighbors live right on top of you. It is the ability to have the amenities of rural with the modernity of time, and that’s what’s missing too often in a rural community. That billions of dollars in tax revenue have been spent on essentially bringing in out-of-state corporations who come to Georgia not simply to create jobs but to create jobs that are not going to lift all of our communities, and that has a concomitant effect of also depressing those who stay and driving out those who might have stayed.
“And so, when I think about how we tackle the challenge of rural Georgia, it is to first acknowledge the repeated failures of recent administrations that have overseen a decline in real wages, a decline in economic capacity, a decline in education, a decline in healthcare, a decline in infrastructure, a decline across the board. And to not cherry pick the winners.
“My mission is to focus on reinvestment but also to think about placemaking. How do we ensure that the nature of our small towns and rural communities are celebrated and that that celebration actually has economic effects? How do we revitalize? And then how do we expand? Because there are some places that have never seen opportunity. When you go into those communities whether you’re talking about parts of Chattooga County or parts of Randolph County, where the rumor of opportunity has been about in the land for years, but never actually manifested. That’s the kind of work that I want to do (and) why my focus on rural communities is so strong.”
Here I interrupted Abrams and asked her a couple of questions. One was whether she was suggesting it was wrong to recruit companies like Rivian and Hyundai, both of which have chosen sites in Georgia under Kemp’s watch? Or Kia, which was recruited to west Georgia under Governor Sonny Perdue more than 15 years ago?
“Well let’s start with that. No, it’s not a mistake to bring in jobs. The challenge is, which jobs are you bringing in? And what are you doing to ensure that those jobs lead to long-term economic lift for everyone? My challenge and my critique is that bringing in those jobs is not the end of the story. It is part of the story but too often it becomes the whole of the story — that because you can tout some massive corporation coming in that will absolutely have economic benefit, then you are absolved of responsibility for all of the places that still have nothing.
“And you get a really great headline and real-world, real-time improvement for some. But the long-term impact on others is that nothing happens. That’s deeply problematic or worse than nothing happening. Things actually continue to deteriorate. So, great for Troup County; that is fantastic. And I would never begrudge the success. But if you’re in Early County, what happened in Troup County is not changing your outcome, and, in fact, it is now, once again, distracting from the very real needs that you have.”
The other question I asked Abrams when I interrupted her was for more of a “nuts-and-bolts” focus on how she would act on her vision for rural Georgia – and how she would pay for it. Following are two chunks of her response, and we’ll expand on these in the next post.
Chunk One: “So here are the nuts-and-bolts… One is investment. How do we make investment more effective and efficient? And what are those investment needs? The major investment needs in Georgia for rural communities are education, Infrastructure, and small business.”
Chunk Two focused on financing those investments, and there’s a lot more to come here. Basically, Abrams contends that – thanks in part to a huge influx in federal funding and a healthy state budget surplus – Georgia is now in a position to make some unprecedented investments in the present and the future. She also identifies this as a “fundamental philosophical difference” between her and Kemp.
“Here’s the analogy I use,” she says. “We’ve got a house (whose) roof has been leaking for years and every time there’s a hard rain, the basement floods. And so we’re used to going up on the roof, patching the roof, and we go bail out the basement. We finally have the money to replace the roof and fix the plumbing. That’s what I want us to do, because if you replace the roof and fix the plumbing, it doesn’t mean the new storms won’t come, but when they come, we’re actually focused on other challenges. We’re not focused on, do we have to find more buckets for the roof? We’ve actually solved that problem. Using the surplus to invest in the next twenty years of Georgia opportunity is the smartest way to use this money because it does not require that we borrow from the future to solve the present. It tells us if we invest in the present, we’re actually better situated for the future.”
We’ll flesh out these chunks – and other topics – in the next post. Watch this space.
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