Maybe it was the short notice. Maybe it was the location. Maybe farmers and other rural folks in northwestern Pennsylvania were just too busy July 1 to turn out for the Vice President of the United States, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a swarm of other heavy hitters for the Obama team.
Or maybe, just maybe, they were more interested in hanging on to their own jobs than learning about billions for new broadband investments that will generate jobs a few years from now. After all, the community gained access to broadband over one year ago.
Whatever the reason, the first stop of the Obama Administration’s new “Rural Tour” fell noticeably flat in terms of attendance.
Columnist Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in her blog that only around 100 or so people showed up just before Biden was ready to talk. The noon-time event was held in the Seneca High School off Route 8 in Wattsburg, PA., population 378. Vice-President Biden and Vilsack were joined by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genakowski and U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, (D-Erie).
“The room looked so sparse that about 30 or so chairs were removed by volunteers to give the illusion of a full house,” Zito wrote. “The effect didn't exactly work.”
By the time the event got started, Zito told me that a few more folks showed up. If you counted the volunteers, the staff and the 40-60 schoolchildren in the room, the turnout could have been as high as 180, she said.
One can only wonder what Rep. Dahlkemper, a Blue Dog Democrat who already bucked the Obama Administration to vote against last week’s climate change bill, must be feeling about the low turnout. Ordinarily, the opportunity to bring even one heavy-hitter into your district would be a big deal. In this case, she had four in tow.
Granted, there were a few “bonus” opportunities for Pennsylvania Democrats. Prior to the event, Vilsack met with some dairy farmers to discuss low milk prices, but apparently, they didn’t hear anything that gave them hope for a turnaround anytime soon. And after the swing through Western Pennsylvania, Biden also managed to squeeze in a Pittsburgh fundraiser.
A White House spokesperson says the “Rural Tour” is not politically motivated, but it’s hard to ignore the key players and the map. The tour opened in Dahlkemper’s district, a Democrat who ousted seven-term Republican Rep. Phil English in the 2008 election.
On July 18, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will talk about renewable energy in Ringgold, VA.. Conveniently, Ringgold is part of a southern Virginia district represented by Rep. Tom Perriello, a Democrat who narrowly defeated Republican incumbent Virgil H. Goode Jr. last year.
My guess is that the White House will do a better job working the phones and generating attendance for future stops on the Rural Tour. If not, some members of the advance team may also be looking for new jobs.
I will be especially interested in the turnout on August 12th, when not one, but 5 cabinet members travel to Bethel, Alaska (population 6,356). The town is located 340 miles west of Anchorage and only accessible by air and river. How's that for a "captive" audience?
Secretaries Tom Vilsack Steven Chu, Shaun Donovan, Arne Duncan, and Ken Salazar are scheduled to discuss rural infrastructure, green jobs and a new energy economy, as well as climate change on that day. The topics are good and I hope the crowd is, too. Bring your airplane or boat and you may have a chance to visit, one on one.
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