South Georgians Plan National Lobbying Group Targeting Rural Issues
It takes a long elevator ride up dozens of stories to get to The Commerce Club in downtown Atlanta where many business people, politicians, consultants and lobbyists often get lunch.
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The new, shiny Falcons Stadium, and traffic on the downtown connector are easy to see through the big windows.
Franklin Richards lives far away from Atlanta, but spent part of a recent weekday full of meetings at The Commerce Club.
For 25 years Richards has led Second Harvest Food Bank of South Georgia in Valdosta, which gets food to low-income people in a nearly 13,000-mile region that includes 30 counties. According to 2015 tax filings it brought in more than $32 million that year, and distributed nearly 19 million pounds of food.
Leaders of Second Harvest have experience lobbying federal and state governments, and they’ve hired the Capitol Strategy Group in Atlanta for help.
Richards said the focus has mostly been on issues tied to the Farm Bill, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also known as “food stamps” or SNAP.
But Richards and other leaders of Second Harvest are now planning a separate organization called the Rural America Initiative (RAI) that will primarily focus on advocating for a broad set of rural interests on a state and federal level.
Richards hopes RAI will be part of the conversation at places like The Commerce Club where decisions are made.
“We’re not in the business of just always feeding hungry people. Our long term goal is to put ourselves out of work,” Richards said. “We cannot do that until we make changes in … everything that affects these rural communities, and that’s what we want to do. We want to be at the table saying, ‘OK, if this is what you’re looking at doing, let us tell you how that’s going to affect rural America.'”
He rattled off a number of sensitive issues for rural areas where RAI might try to influence policy: water, natural resources, healthcare, jobs, broadband and other infrastructure.
Mostly absent from Richards’ list is agriculture. Groups like the Farm Bureau, and associations focused on specific commodities like pork, or corn tend to dominate the rural lobbying scene, said Adam Reimer a researcher at Michigan State University who looks at rural policy.
“That’s led to — in some ways — under investment in rural communities, outside of agricultural issues, or food issues,” Reimer said. “Even in the rural population, the vast majority of people have nothing to do with farming.”
It’s one population President Donald Trump spoke to during the 2016 campaign, and given the attention on rural communities right now, Reimer said it may be an opportune time for RAI to get started.
Although, it will still take a lot of networking and money before they can wield serious influence, he said.
Trump’s win isn’t the reason for launching the lobbying group now, rather Richards said RAI is something he’s been thinking about for a long time while encountering policies and agency rules he doesn’t think work well in rural parts of the country.
For example, USDA summer food programs for kids don’t account for higher transportation costs in rural areas where the population and distribution points are so dispersed, Richards said.
“They don’t make laws in South Georgia, we just have to live with them.”
Richards, and the others behind RAI are still planning exactly what it will look like. They’re looking to form a board, and Richards thinks there’s an opportunity to tap donors who live in rural parts of the country and haven’t been asked for money before.
The general idea is to tell lawmakers what works and what doesn’t work in rural settings, Richards said.
“Every time a lawmaker is looking at doing something, we’re hoping we become that phone call that they make and say, “Hey Frank, what does this look like in rural South Georgia if we do this?”
Support, And Some Warning From Rural Advocates
Others focused on rural advocacy cheered the idea of a new group like RAI, but they tempered their excitement with broader concern about who speaks for rural America.
Jaime Harrison is a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party who grew up in a rural part of that state, and now works with the Democratic National Committee on rural issues.
Rural communities are losing influence, said Harrison, who then offered this caution to RAI.
“I would hope that they speak to the diversity of the communities,” he said. “Rural communities does not equal white communities. Those communities are very diverse.”
Like non-farmers, Native Americans and blacks have been overlooked by most recent rural lobbying groups, said Reimer, of Michigan State University.
“They’ve been outside the traditional kind of central coalitions when it comes to rural policymaking,” he said.
Although RAI is still forming, Richards and its founders might look to the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA) in Lyons, Nebraska, as a model for broad, rural lobbying.
CRA’s mission statement includes these lines, “Since its inception, the Center has resisted the role of advocating for the interests of any particular group. Instead, we have chosen to advance a set of values – values that reflect the best of Rural America.”
Johnathan Hladik, CRA’s policy program director, said he’d like to see even more people from rural areas advocating for rural America.
Groups representing the “average rural person” are rare, he said, which raises the stakes.
“You just hope that they’re going to get it right, and you just hope that they’re going to be accurate, and you just hope that they’re going to have the best of intentions,” Hladik said. “Because a lot can get lost, and a lot can go wrong, and … I think a lot does. And I think that ends up as having a very scary outcome.”