Dylan Kruse reflects on a call to action from Secretary Vilsack

Posted by Dylan Kruse on June 26, 2013

From the 2013 National Rural Assembly comes a true passion for rural, and the need to do more.

Still image from National Rural Assembly video

I attended the National Rural Assembly in Bethesda, MD this week. It's a phenomenal event, you can read all about it here. There is a not a more issue-inclusive or geographically expansive conference that you will go to, let alone one that specifically pertains to rural America. We were treated to keynote speeches from Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Sebelius, four breakout sessions with senior leadership of the White House Rural Council, and panels and plenary presentations by the foremost issue and thought leaders in rural America today.

I've called it the Justin Timberlake of conferences.

I also had the incredibly fortunate opportunity to introduce Secretary Vilsack prior to his keynote speech. You can watch the complete video here. I'm the guy at the beginning who looks like Edward Snowden. It's weird traveling at airports right now.

But I digress. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Secretary Vilsack. He's a powerful man who exudes confidence. He has a strong handshake and a hard voice. He walks with purpose and moves the room around him. There's no doubt about who's in charge when he steps up to the mic. I talked about the notion of 'grit' in my introductory remarks about him, the idea that you have to have guts to successfully advocate for rural America and not be afraid to call people out or say what needs to be said because it's the right thing to do. That's what rural America is all about. Secretary Vilsack has been doing this for a while now. Do a search for his 'rural relevance' speech if you want to see what I mean. He lives up to the rhetoric, it was awesome watching him work.

We got 10 minutes of warm up with the standard agency pitch. Then a switch flipped, the gloves came off, and he starts calling people out. He calls out the House of Representatives for failing to pass a Farm Bill last week. He calls out the partisan cancer that is slowly suffocating our country. And guess what? He calls out everyone in the room, the people who invited him there to speak, for sitting on their hands, keeping their mouths closed, and not doing a single thing about it.

He says that the House fails to pass the single most important piece of legislation that affects rural America and all we hear in a responding quote from rural advocacy groups is that they are "utterly disappointed". He says this is completely unacceptable. We should be absolutely outraged.

He couldn't be more right. 

We're in the business of collaboration, partnership, and compromise at Sustainable Northwest. Politics in America are absolutely brutal right now and it's shocking when these concepts actually work, but it's not without precedence. It happened three weeks ago in the Senate. I give both the majority and minority offices a tremendous amount of credit for passing a version of the Farm Bill (for the second time in a year) and with even greater numbers of supporting votes this time around. They worked out disagreements, behaved like adults, wrote a bill, stood behind it, and said let's take this thing to conference and get it done. Was it a perfect bill? No. Could it have been a perfect bill? No. Is there such a thing? What do you think?

There's no such thing as purity in politics. We all know this; it's the first thing you learn in Policy 101. American politics are about posturing, scoring points, and gamesmanship. Call it strategy, call it irritating, call it whatever you want. But at the end of the day the bottom line used to be that these men and women ended up sitting down when the cameras turned off and said, "Good game, let's get this one done and move on to the next one." Why not, right? Problems can be fixed, legislation can be amended, and we're stuck in neutral if we never give ourselves a green light.

That makes perfect sense. Americans love to go fast. We'd start in 5th gear if we could. I love America.

But the House of Representatives envisions a road from Miami to Fairbanks lined with a string of red lights every two blocks. They couldn't pass a Farm Bill, traditionally one of the easiest and most popular pieces of legislation to advance. They almost did. They wrote a bill, made some changes, showed up on the floor to vote - and then they lost their minds. All of this was sacrificed at the last minute for a series of foolish stunts to try and make a political statement and sucker punch the other guy. No one saw it coming. Not even the guys in charge.

And when they did that, an even louder statement was made, whether they intended it or not, that sacrificing the future long-term well-being of rural America is worth the risk for short-term political gain. This isn't the first time this has happened, not by a long shot, not this year, not even on the Farm Bill.

This is a pattern.

It's appalling and frankly somewhat frightening that a constituency so essential to the very foundation and survival of our country can be so utterly rejected at the cost of election politics. It's a cliché, but the metaphor is appropriate here: We're missing the forest for the trees. Rural America deserves better. The people that grow 85% of our food and fiber, provide us with clean air and drinking water, and keep the lights on in our homes and businesses, deserve so much more. 

Our country deserves better.

I'm far from the first person to say this, and I hope others follow the lead. So let me wrap this up with a story about the person I heard it from first. One of the most profound moments of this week was when Kim Phinney from YouthBuild USA stood up in front of an audience of 200 people, most of whom she had never met, and told the story of her 11-year-old son's failure to get a quality education in rural America. She's as gutsy as Secretary Vilsack. This is a different, but equally important issue that no amount of space would do justice. The takeaway point is this: at the end of her speech she looked at the crowd and said we have to say to ourselves "we are not afraid of better." She made us all say it three times. I'm still saying it.

Say it to yourself right now. Say it to your co-worker, your friends, your family, the stranger next to you.  If you feel so inclined, call your representative who voted against the Farm Bill, and against rural America, and say it to them.

We are not afraid of better.

They shouldn't be either.

Dylan Kruse is a Program Manager at Sustainable Northwest.