O’Halleran: Leading the Fight for Rural America

September 19, 2018 by TWN Staff

Arizona congressman on his RV tour, connecting with constituents in one of the largest districts in the country, and his vision for a new policy agenda for rural America

Cruising down the Arizona highway in an RV, Congressman Tom O’Halleran, Chairman of the Blue Dog Rural Task Force, was on a mission over August recess: meeting as many constituents as possible.

The first congressional district of Arizona is located in the northeastern part of the state, a vast and rural territory, with miles of open space separating small towns and communities. Home to the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and many resort communities, it is a beautiful and picturesque landscape.

Representing such a large district is a challenge, to say the least. The size alone presents unique obstacles many of his peers in Congress do not have to contend with. But O’Halleran is undeterred, traveling from one corner of his large district to the next because talking with his constituents directly is the only way to understand the people and communities well enough to really fight for them in Congress. He says it is these interactions that truly give him a sense of what is needed and how much of the country is unaware of the challenges facing rural America.

“Getting out there, letting people know who you are and that you are willing to listen, that’s why I was there,” Congressman O’Halleran said. “I didn’t go anywhere where people weren’t concerned about the future of their families.”

Many of the issues are compounded by the rural nature of the region. People, including veterans and seniors, often have to travel much farther for healthcare services. In some areas, hospitals have closed altogether. Access to quality education and the advanced technologies that so many Americans take for granted every day can also present serious challenges in these rural, often difficult to access areas.

“You have to have healthcare, you have to have education. These are all qualities of life families need. These aren’t options,” O’Halleran continued.

Another unique aspect to O’Halleran’s district is that it is home to twelve Native American tribes. The challenges many of these communities face is extraordinary.  Unemployment is rampant in many of these populations — 50% in the Navajo Nation, 80% in the White Mountain Apache Tribe, and up to 95% among other tribes. The Native American lands are also home to more than 500 uranium mining sites, many of which have had devastating impacts on the health of the nearby communities due to toxic runoff near homes.

Congressman O’Halleran discussed the plight communities in these regions face. “The USGS has not had the funding to do the monitoring, but the studies have got to stop. We have to protect people, and if there is going to be mining, it’s got to be done correctly. These mines date back over 50 years. If a uranium site was found in New York’s Central Park, do you think it would take 50 years to clean it up? Of course not. There are homes made of adobe with uranium in the walls. People live there because they have no other option.”

Speaking with Congressman O’Halleran, it is clear that he cares deeply for the people of his district and understands the challenges they face. But as the Blue Dog Rural Task Force Chairman, his job is often getting Washington to listen.

In 2018, for the first time in the coalition’s history, the Blue Dogs launched a Special Task Force on Rural America. Under the leadership of O’Halleran, the group has organized to produce commonsense solutions for the rural communities across the country that were left behind during the economic recovery following the Great Recession.

This week, the Blue Dog Coalition is planning to announce a policy agenda for rural America as part of a larger, concerted effort by the group to breakthrough in rural communities across the country.  The Task Force has been primarily focused on policy solutions in four key areas: job creation and economic growth, regulatory improvement, rural health care and veterans issues.

Over the past several years, rural communities have been hit hard by tariffs, skyrocketing health insurance premiums, lack of investment in infrastructure and education, and job loss. This devastating turn of events has created a unique opportunity for Democrats – particularly Blue Dogs and other members or candidates competing in rural areas – to connect with rural voters who were once considered to be unreachable.

The agenda will provide a concrete roadmap for Congress to address a key aspect of inequality in the country – the economic disparity between rural and urban America. It will include five key focus areas:

  1. Growing the rural economy;
  2. Increasing access to affordable health care;
  3. Empowering the next generation of workers;
  4. Investing in rural broadband and other infrastructure; and
  5. Honoring our sacred promise to rural veterans.

“These are the everyday issues of rural America,” Congressman O’Halleran said. “They need to be resolved. Whether tribal issues, or just rural communities, our mission as Blue Dogs is to try to include this as part of the policy agenda so all Americans understand the needs of our rural communities so we can address them.”

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