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2020 Election

Jay Inslee’s Parting Gift: A Plan To Save American Farms



Photo: Jay Inslee/Flickr, Creative Commons

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced the end of his campaign to seek the presidency on Wednesday night since he hadn’t polled high enough to participate in the second round of debates. But he went out with a bang — at least in terms of climate policy. Earlier that same day, he’d released one final policy proposal, the sixth hefty installment in his roughly 200-page climate platform: a plan for rural prosperity.

The proposal boiled down to two main principles: First, pay rural communities for the environmental services they provide, like using crops to suck carbon out of the air. Second, give tons of money (we’re talking billions and billions) to the scientists and educators these communities would need to support their transformation to the engines of a clean economy. On Thursday, Inslee’s farm plan went missing from the web (update: it’s back up now) but those of us ag nerds who got a chance to read it were pretty impressed. It would be a shame if this were the end of the road, not just for Inslee, but also for his ideas and the homework his team has done.

In fact, Inslee himself seemed to suggest that other candidates should read up on his plan and crib as much as they want. “It’s a governing document, not a campaign slogan,” the governor said on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show Wednesday night when he announced his withdrawal from the race. “And now it’s open source.”

Even before the farm policy came out, Vox’s David Roberts (formerly of Grist) was calling Inslee’s overarching climate plan “a fully fleshed-out Green New Deal.” The program wouldn’t just cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, Roberts wrote, but also “make structural reforms to the economy to protect and invest in vulnerable communities, boost innovation and job growth, empower workers and hold polluters accountable.”

The new farm proposal fleshed out Inslee’s vision a little further. Today, we use petroleum products (cosmetics, plastics and gasoline are all derived from oil) to get by every day. Inslee suggested overhauling this system by replacing these petroleum-based materials with plant-based materials that can be grown on farms.

Inslee also planned to pay farmers to sequester carbon dioxide, to trap fertilizers that cause toxic algae blooms, and to clean up the water (by maintaining, for example, spongy soil and strips of wilderness along streams). Most farmers want to be good environmental stewards, you see, but their first priority is avoiding bankruptcy. By paying for these environmental services, we could align those often contradictory forces and nudge farmers to do the right thing.

At the same time, Inslee wanted to start funding agricultural research like we mean it. Government spending on agriculture-related research has bounced up and down, but overall it has sloped gently downward in recent years. Inslee wants to put a massive spike in that line by tripling funding for federal ag research and development, which would bring the total to something like $15 billion — an unprecedented amount. He also proposed tripling the staff of the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the agency formed after the Dust Bowl to prevent future dust storms, which works with rural communities to solve environmental problems.*

Credit: Grist

For the remaining 2020 candidates, who have put forth a wide range of farming plans, it’s probably a good idea to take notes. Something tells us it’s what Inslee would have wanted.

This article was originally published by Grist.

2020 Election

Fighting Voter Suppression in the South Will Make or Break the 2020 Elections



Still from Suppressed: The Fight to Vote

This piece was originally published in Scalawag, which amplifies the voices of activists, artists and writers reckoning with the South. You can read the original article here.

The speed with which the 2018 midterm frenzy turned into the 2020 presidential election frenzy makes it hard to remember that less than a year ago, the outlook for Georgia residents was starkly different than it is today.

Last fall, Georgians were ebullient with a hope that we might, for once, have a governor who wasn’t hellbent on maintaining a power structure that inflicts a vast array of miseries on many thousands of people—particularly Black communities and communities of color—while enriching a privileged few.

The promising candidate was, of course, Stacey Abrams, who was poised to become the nation’s first Black woman governor until her opponent, Brian Kemp, stole the election via an assemblage of voter suppression tactics funneled through his role as Secretary of State.

A new documentary by director Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films brings the energy of that time rushing back, along with a scalpel in a post-mortem analysis. Suppressed: The Fight to Vote is a to-the-point 38-minute film that breaks down the key forms of voter suppression that enabled Kemp to pull ahead of Abrams by a slim 1.4 percent margin.

The film uplifts the experiences of impacted voters and some of the organizations that fought hard for a fair election. And it comes packaged with a toolkit of action steps aimed at getting viewers involved in strengthening that fight ahead of the 2020 elections.

Because Suppressed makes clear that without action, we can only expect to see more of the same––not only in Georgia, but nationwide.

“We’ve got to understand, this isn’t a Klan cross-burning,” says Carol Anderson, Emory University Chair of African American Studies, in the opening of the film.

“This stuff is very bureaucratic, is very mundane, is very routine. But it is lethal.”

As an example of the kind of seemingly small measures that can have a big impact, Anderson says that moving a polling place just four miles leads to a 20 percent drop in Black voter turnout.

Louis Brooks in front of his home in Randolph County, Georgia, where election officials attempted to close 7 out of 9 polling places in 2016. Still from Suppressed: The Fight to Vote.

Louis Brooks, an 89-year-old retired mill worker, had lived in the county his entire life, except for two years he spent in the military fighting in Korea. In the film, Brooks recalls when he first tried to register to vote in the 1950s.

“It was tough. They asked me all kind of questions, trying to keep me from registering,” Brooks says. “I passed the test. Once I got my voting rights, I decided I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from voting.”

Until 2016, Brooks could walk a few blocks to his polling place. But then it was closed as part of the plan to shutter all but two precincts. People like Brooks, who doesn’t have reliable transportation, would have had to walk three and a half hours to vote.

A massive public outcry stopped that plan, but it was a rare victory. While Brian Kemp was Secretary of State, his office closed 214 polling places in just six years, affecting nearly 1.3 million voters. Seventy-five percent of those voters were in majority-Black counties.

That was just the beginning. Purges also laid the groundwork for voter suppression during the 2018 midterms. Beginning in 2013, Kemp booted 890,000 voters, 14 percent of the electorate, from the voting rolls.

Once the 2018 midterms were underway, problems with registration, absentee ballots, and provisional ballots further undermined voting rights.

In the lead up to the elections, Kemp inexplicably put 53,260 registrations hold (he won by about 55,000 votes), and 80 percent of those belonged to people of color.

A record-breaking number of people of color were requesting absentee ballots, but tens of thousands never received them. Filmmakers interviewed a military veteran who said voting absentee from Baghdad was easier than in Georgia.

On election day, lines were hours-long at precincts in majority-Black districts while in white districts voters breezed through. And thousands of people of color had to contend with the confounding experience of filling out a provisional ballot.

“Provisional ballots are basically placebos,” says Myrna Perez, Director of Voting Rights and Elections Programs at the Brennan Center for Justice. “They’re being given to voters to kind of shut them up, make them go away.”

Poll workers gave provisional ballots to voters whose information they called into question––sometimes because of Georgia’s “exact match” law, which disqualified voters based on tiny discrepancies, such as a hyphen, in how their name appeared on their voter registrations compared to other official identification documents. Voters could fill out provisional ballots on site, but they were required to return within three days to present additional documents. Voting rights groups found that many voters weren’t aware that they needed to return in order for their vote to count. And for some, returning was too big of an obstacle.

“When you have a large working-class population that has to punch a clock, that’s really tough,” explains Anderson. “You’ve lost pay from work for trying to vote. That’s a poll tax.”

According to filmmakers, of the 21,190 provisional ballots cast, 83 percent belonged to people of color. Only 11,872 were counted.

Altogether, the receipts that Suppressed presents call to mind an insight that Rev. Dr. William Barber recently tweeted:

We must stop saying Southern states are red states. They are voter suppression, racially gerrymandered states where the demographics now provide a path to change if we build a movement & mobilize. If this wasn’t true extremists wouldn’t be fighting & cheating so hard.”

Mobilizing and movement-building is what the creators of Suppressed hope viewers will join in on. And there are plenty of ways to plug in.

After Abrams boldly refused to concede to Kemp, she went on to form an organization called Fair Fight, which has sued Georgia officials in an effort to bring the state back under the purview of the Voting Rights Act. Until the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the VRA in 2013, Georgia was among nine states that were subject to federal oversight of voting laws and practices.

Stacey Abrams giving a speech in which she refused to concede the 2018 Georgia governor’s race to Republican Brian Kemp. Still from Suppressed: The Fight to Vote.

The group has also compiled extensive documentation of corruption among Georgia officials and the top voting machine vendor in the country, Election Systems and Software.

Fair Fight is one of several voting rights groups that have partnered with Brave New Films, which aims to support 2,020 screenings of Suppressed before the 2020 elections. Schools, civic organizations, faith groups, and individuals can sign up to host a screening and receive a Discussion and Action Guide.

At the premiere screening of Suppressed in Atlanta last month, Lauren Groh-Wargo––Abrams’ former campaign manager and CEO of Fair Fight––made a call to action for people to get involved in a multi-pronged strategy. The priorities she named included winning the lawsuit, flipping the Georgia statehouse to a Democratic majority, ensuring a fair census count, and electing a Democrat to the presidency.

“Communities of color, progressive whites, we’re the majority now,” Groh-Wargo told the audience.

“We have the knowledge and the power. We have the votes. We won. They know it. So, take your power and your privilege, in whatever space it is that you have it, and wield it. We need you.”

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2020 Election

Political Punches & Barbecued Mutton: This Kentucky Picnic Garners National Attention for Its Unique Campaign Experience



Supporters prepare for speakers during the annual Fancy Farm picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., in August 2014. Each year, the stage looks much the same and voters crowd in to hear their chosen candidates speak. Photo: Stephen Lance Dennee/AP Photo

On a hot August Saturday morning in rural western Kentucky, hundreds if not thousands of people gather under and around a pavilion where a stage is lined with some of the state’s most recognizable faces. Recognizable, at least, if you follow Kentucky politics. 

Matt Bevin, Andy Beshear, James Comer, Heather French Henry, Mike Adams. They sit side-by-side in a line on the elevated platform, Democrats on the left, Republicans on the right.

Similarly, the Kentuckians who crowd around the covered stage self-segregate by party affiliation, some waving campaign signs, others proudly wearing their chosen candidates’ names across their chests. On stage stands Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell.

“My opponent, Amy McGaff… oh, I mean Amy McGrath… she sends her regrets, she’s still working on her answer about Brett Kavanaugh with her friends at MSNBC,” he said to the crowd with a smirk on his face.

An attendee of Fancy Farm holds a sign outside protesting Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell at the 2019 picnic. Photo: Liz Carey/100 Days in Appalachia

Less than 200 feet away, voters in Russian Cossack hats chant “Ditch Moscow Mitch! Ditch Moscow Mitch!” in an attempt to drown out his comments. Nearby, another group of attendees in red MAGA hats yell back “Four more years! Four more years!”

This is Fancy Farm, Kentucky, an unincorporated town with a population of less than 500. Situated near the Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee borders, the town has one main road with seven streets that intersect it. In the middle, St. Jerome Catholic Church sits on a sprawling campus.

And that is the site of the annual picnic, named after the town, that attracts as many as 10,000 to 15,000 Kentuckians who watch in close proximity as candidates for the state’s top political offices jab at their opponents while children play on the church’s sprawling lawns and the smell of what attendees say is Kentucky’s best-barbecued mutton fills the air.

From Tree Stumps to Live TV

Born of stump speeches and small-town community gatherings, St. Jerome Catholic Church’s Fancy Farm Picnic has a long, storied history in Kentucky politics and is considered by many the kick-off of the state’s election season. It’s billed as the world’s largest single-day picnic, where crowds gather as much for the political theater as they do the 19,000 pounds of barbeque sold during the one-day gathering.

A testament to a large Catholic community there since the mid-1800s, St. Jermone began holding their annual picnic in 1880 as a fundraiser for its parochial school. Back then, a notice in the local paper described a gathering with “a barn dance, picnic and ‘gander pulling’ at Fancy Farm next Thursday. Those that have never seen the latter should turn out on this occasion. It will be interesting.”

Fancy Farm attendees gather outside a pavilion at the 139th event this year. Photo: Liz Carey/100 Days in Appalachia

Within a few years though, the ‘gander pulling’ gave way to politicking when the event began to host candidates for office. At the time, statewide elections were held in August, national elections in November, and the Fancy Farm picnic was seen as a last-ditch effort for politicians to get western Kentucky voters out to the polls. 

“It’s been going on so long that most people schedule their family reunions around it,” said Melanie Rogers, a resident of nearby Milburn. 

In the past, politicians stood on the stump of an old oak tree by the banks of a cool spring to speak to the few that gathered. Today, the event has grown so large and so notable, it can draw in hordes of reporters from across the country and is broadcast live on Kentucky’s public broadcasting station. 

Politicians from the humble to the horrible have spoken at the event, from governors to presidents. Speakers have included U.S. Senators like Alben Barkley, as well as Kentucky Governors like AB “Happy” Chandler and John Y. Brown, Jr. and presidential candidates including George Wallace and Bill Clinton. 

Beyond the central pavilion, the church’s festival takes center stage, where volunteers sell mutton and pork barbecue, lemonade, SunDrop soda, fresh churned ice cream and kettle corn. In the middle of the festival, a bingo game and lottery pull-tabs take center stage – never stopping, not even for the national anthem.

Sam Higdon calls the numbers during the bingo game at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky, in August 2018. Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Red State, Blue State

Now in its 139th year, Fancy Farm shows the complexity and diversity of a rural red state, where politics are handled through hand-to-hand contact instead of verbal volleys thrown from behind a podium. On stage, the political arrows come fast and furiously. 

“I’m the only candidate in this race with roots in western Kentucky,” Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said of his opponent for governor, incumbent Matt Bevin. “Oh wait; I’m the only candidate in this race with any roots in Kentucky.” 

Bevin didn’t hold back either during his turn at the microphone. 

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin stops to speak with attendees at the August 2019 event. Photo: Liz Carey/100 Days in Appalachia

“You talk about collusion,” Bevin said. “The only collusion that has ever ever happened in Kentucky is the collusion between this attorney general…and all the [previous attorneys general] and the abortion industry in Kentucky.”  

“I just want to know what it’s like to run along with the least popular governor in the country?” Beshear’s running mate for lieutenant governor, Jaqueline Coleman, a Kentucky teacher, asked Bevin’s running mate during her speech. All the while, the politically segregated crowd jeers at those the target of their chosen politicians advances.

“I like to keep mine as like a little jab in the stomach – like the way you would treat a family member,” Mike Harmon, the Republican candidate for state Auditor, said. But for him, the event is not just about throwing verbal punches at his political rivals; it’s a chance to talk one-on-one with constituents while possibly grabbing local, statewide and national headlines.

“Fancy Farm … gives an opportunity to have not only a stage that is covered here locally, but is also covered nationally,” Harmon said. “I just think it’s such great fun to be here. I thrive on it. I love getting out and meeting people and I love getting up on stage.”

In some years, like 2019, Fancy Farm garners national attention. Because races could turn Kentucky from “red” to “blue,” reporters from the New York Times, the Washington Post and Rolling Stone joined those from local television stations and the local papers.

Kentucky has been considered a red state since 1956, although it did swing for Democratic presidential candidates Johnson, Carter and Clinton. More than 50 percent of the state is registered Democrat, however, and with a population of 4.48 million people, more than half of the state’s counties have a population density of 50 people per square mile or fewer. 

One of the poorest states in the country, more than 20 percent of its population is on Medicaid. Rural and poor voters in the state, however, tend to vote Republican regardless of their party affiliation, supporting candidates who say they will defend the coal industry, limit abortion, crack down on immigration and provide them with healthcare.

Up Close and Personal

Democrats wave Russian flags as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., addresses the audience gathered at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky, in August 2019. Photo: AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Around noon at this year’s gathering, attendees began to gather. By 1 p.m., the crowd, oftentimes seeded with campaign volunteers bused in by candidates and party officials, began yelling campaign messages back and forth. Around 2, a group of Beshear supporters in bright blue t-shirts paraded through the pavilion and not long after, a group of McConnell supporters paraded through wearing judicial robes and holding pictures of Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s face.

For Mallorie Burcz, who works in the horse industry, Fancy Farm represents the best of politics, where voters get a chance to say what they feel directly to the people vying for their votes.

“The fact that people are allowed to boo and speak their mind?” Burcz said. “It’s like you can actually say how you feel, which I feel like a lot of times you can’t do.”

“It’s an experience,” said Landon Rafferty, who will head to the University of Kentucky soon to begin studying political science. 

And that experience is what’s kept thousands of Kentuckians coming back year after year– the closeness to the people in power who are appealing directly to you, shaking your hand. Well that, and Kentucky’s best barbeque mutton.

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