Small Town Politics

America’s Political Dysfunction Called A Security Concern

Preble County church sign appears less than a week after Trump inflames country by calling attention to Colin Kaepernick peaceful protest, calling the former NFL quarterback a son of a bitch. Trump attacked Kaepernick’s First Amendment rights during Constitution Week. Although I will not be able to hear the sermon, the minister blogged about the situation. You can read it here.

Because of my evangelical and Appalachian background, when Trump escalated his battle with the NFL, my Facebook Wall lit up with memes supporting Trump’s revision of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest. Kaepernick began his protest to draw attention to police accountability after numerous unarmed black men were killed by white police officers.

But in our era of ‘politics is war by other means’ Trump danced past Kaepernick’s intent and reframed the protest to appease his base. As the president was campaigning for losing candidate Luther Strange in Alabama, he told a mostly white crowd on Friday, Sept. 22,

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

In typical Trump fashion he doubled down on the rhetoric with a NFL-centric Tweet Storm — successfully diverting attention away from Roger Stone’s testimony and the White House’s cobbled approach to the Puerto Rico crisis.

Kneel Or Stand?

As memes with Trump’s new narrative, including I ‘kneel for the cross and stand for the flag’ populated my Wall, allegations surfaced that the Draft-Dodging president was hypocritically mocking veteran, and war hero, John McCain’s physical disability (caused when McCain was tortured by the Viet Cong). Missing from my Wall were posts of the soldiers that approved of Kaepernick’s act. Just like the country, soldiers are divided on the issue. Veteran, and former CIA director Michael Hayden, who admits he is not a fan of Kaepernick, wrote this in an op-ed piece for The Hill,

As a 39-year military veteran, I think I know something about the flag, the anthem, patriotism, and I think I know why we fight. It’s not to allow the president to divide us by wrapping himself in the national banner. I never imagined myself saying this before Friday, but if now forced to choose in this dispute, put me down with Kaepernick.

Understanding This Presidency

During Trump’s Tweet Storm, I attended a presentation by Katty Kay, Lead News Anchor for BBC. I was interested in her views as an ‘outsider.’ (The program was billed as The View From the Outside: Insights on American Politics.)

Kay has covered the White House since 1996, an era she described as more optimistic — a honeymoon stage since the United States was still seen as the winner of the Cold War. During her presentation, Kay described a conversation she had with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

According to Kay, Gates explained the four security risks the United States currently faces. As a student of history and politics, the first three did not surprise me: China, a declining Russia and the Middle East. The fourth one did. According to Kay, Gates explained

…the fourth national security issue is America’s political dysfunction. The fact that this country has become virtually ungovernable. There is so much division between the left and the right and so little ability to compromise — it’s hard to get things done.

Kay also said,

America is a system that was built on — and for — compromise, but compromise has become a dirty word. You’re a presidential system acting like a parliamentary system with the result that nothing can get done.

A day or so after the her speech, I learned that the Freedom Caucus was continuing its participation in the dysfunction. Warren Davidson, Congressman for Ohio’s 8th Congressional District where I live, introduced legislation attacking the Congressional Budget Office. The Freedom Caucus began its attack on the institution in a July op-ed piece after a GOP majority failed, for the umpteenth time, to ‘Repeal and Replace’ the Affordable Care Act.

Dismantling Is Rough On Low-Income Counties

The beginning of the end for Small Town USA?

Before the presentation, I finished reading a 80-page 1994 Heritage Foundation publication. It gave me additional clues to when this modern ungovernable debacle was conceived.

The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, issued a booklet titled Congress and Civil Society: How Legislators Can Champion Civic Renewal in Their Districts. It was written at the height of the Republican Revolution — after the Party won a majority in Congress for the first time in 40 years. The book champions the ideas of then House Speaker Newt Gingrich — the man who ushered in the No Compromise approach to politics.

This approach was pushed further to the Right by The Tea Party and The Freedom Caucus.

The booklet is a blueprint for dismantling the federal government by pushing governing responsibility down into local communities. The book cherry-picks successful community and faith-based organizations, mostly in large metropolitan areas, holding them up as proof that ‘what works here can work there’. The featured solutions suggest that most, if not all, problems are best solved at the local level.

However, the publication does caution the Party not to impose this on low-income communities that cannot rise to the challenge of self-efficiency. Apparently not everyone got the memo, because the dismantling began and low-income communities, like mine, paid the price.

Losing At The Local Level

As I research my county’s history, by the late 90s — five years or so after the booklet was published — meth was a significant problem in Preble County. We were, and are, ill-equipped to handle it. The drug entered our community despite a growing national economy — and locally strong unemployment rates. Eventually, as automation and not immigration, stole about 70 percent of manufacturing jobs, including many where Preble County residents worked, area wages fell and the job vacuum was filled with low-wage retail jobs.

By the 2000s, we lost the drug war.

Today, as in 2000 — and like many communities in the nation — we arrest users at a higher rate than drug manufacturers and distributors. The addicted are easier to snag. Of the 25 indictments handed down this month in my county, 20 were drug related. Out of those 20 cases, two cases were allegations of distribution or trafficking, 18 were indictments for drug use.

I’m old enough to remember when 10 indictments a month in Preble County was a lot.

Social Media And Our Loss Of Connectivity

We lost the drug war for the same reason social media blew up the NFL story. We have lost a connection with our community and each other. Social media has amplified the problem of talk radio by removing the discussion and reducing everything down to a one-liner — and generally an offensive one.

This year I attended four drug and/or heroin educational events, and at one of them a recovering addict, who credits Jesus with curing her addiction, stated the reason she was able to get clean was because someone treated her humanely. She said a woman helping her inside a clothing establishment connected with her and,

… for the first time, in a long time, the woman talked to me like I wasn’t a monster. And I wasn’t the lowest of the low. She treated me like anyone else.

In the ‘war on drugs’, Portugal, unlike us, found out more than a decade ago, that the key to solving an epidemic is to help people reconnect with their community — just like the Preble County woman did with the recovery addict.  What does not work is treating the chemically-addicted like criminals — prey to be caught and trapped.

(Trapping political opponents in a snare on social media doesn’t work either as we are learning in the current chaos. Political parties, and their base, must reach across the aisle and talk.)

Left Behind

As the movement blaming the federal government for the country’s woes grew, our ability to govern declined. And, by turning the federal government into a dragon to be killed, communities like mine — ones that lacked the economic and political savvy to solve mounting problems — were left behind, unable to attract much-needed human and capital resources.

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Categories: 8th congressional district, Life In A Red State, My America, Preble County, Small Town Politics, Understanding Trump Counties

That Time A Jury In My Rural County Set A Rapist Free

29754290914_0dfaba0176_zWhen a tape emerged during the presidential campaign of Donald Trump joking about sexually assaulting women my teenage daughter posted a status update saying,

I am disgusted and offended by ANYONE who defends Donald Trump after he bragged about sexual assault.

We live in a Trump County so people responded and my daughter was advised to get ‘thicker skin’ because in the ‘real world,’ she was told, that’s how men talk.

Crimes Against Women

Obviously, my daughter doesn’t need ‘thicker skin’ because outrage is an appropriate response to Trump’s comments. We already live in a country, and in my family’s case a state (Ohio), where crimes against woman are under-reported, under-investigated and quite often not prosecuted.

This is especially true with rape.

Rape: Ohio In Top Third Of U.S.

Ohio ranks 17th (2014 data) in the nation with 32 rapes per 100,000 people — a rate nearly 20 percent higher than the national average. Ohio has also been the source for some of the most notorious rape cases garnering national attention, like Brock Turner and Steubenville and our legislators struggle with something as basic as creating commonsense laws. As a nation, spousal rape has been illegal since 1993 (Really? It took that long.), but Ohio is still dealing with loopholes in our legislation.

Rape Culture

People do not educate themselves about rape — because it’s easier to believe the myths and pretend it does not happen to people we know. Or, to deny the reality that people we know rape. But as Kate Harding explains in her book Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It we have a rape culture. She accurately points out that, as a society, we have placed the burden of rape prevention on the victim (learn self-defense, dress appropriately, don’t get drunk if males are present, etc.). It’s a peculiar approach — one we do not use for other crimes. How ludicrous would it be to examine the actions and reactions of a robbery victim?

Yet, we have no qualms doing it to rape victims. I know, I watched it happen in a Preble County courtroom.

You Know A Rape Victim

In the United States one in five women are the victim of rape or attempted rape, an astounding number that speaks volumes about our mores and values. This statistic means you and I know rape victims. Even in small rural cities like Eaton, Ohio where I live (pop. 8,400) — reported incidents of rape are high. Between 2009 and 2015, according to data submitted to the FBI, 53 incidents of rape were reported in Preble County (pop. 41,000) with 21 of those incidents being reported in my hometown of Eaton.

This means my hometown is on par with Ohio’s 32 incidents per 100,000 average.

It’s one thing for an incident to be reported, though, the real issue is how many charges are filed and how many convictions are secured. Nationally, and locally, the number of cases that make it inside a courtroom is significantly lower than the number of reports.

In Preble County, about one-third of the 53 incidents were prosecuted.

Inability to Convict

The number of rape convictions in Preble County from those years is even lower: nine. National statistics suggest that two to eight percent of all reported rape incidents are false (i.e. the victim is lying). Rounding that percent up to 10 percent would mean five Preble Countians lied in their report, leaving the county with 48 potential rapes. With only 17 processed through the court system, this suggests that the remaining 31 incidents were cleared, dismissed, not investigated or inadequately investigated since the prosecuting attorney’s office did not seek charges in those cases.

Real World Example: Rapist Set Free

Two decades ago, I listened as a 20-year-old Preble County woman testified in Preble County Common Pleas Court about a male co-worker who placed ‘what appeared to be a knife’ to her neck, forced her to drive them to his home, where she testified she was raped.

The defendant sat 20 or 30 feet away from the woman and never testified, and, quite frankly, he was never on trial. The victim was. Every action she took that fateful day was scrutinized — from the timing of her phone calls to why she didn’t try to escape. During the cross examination, and in his closing arguments, the defense attorney paraded out all the myths prevalent in our culture. He suggested that maybe the newlywed woman was lying to cover up the ‘mark on her neck,’ and the attorney went so far as to say that the gun — visible on a table during the incident — was simply a ‘conversation piece.’ (In a 2002 article, though, the assistant prosecuting attorney that argued the case said the defendant ‘brandished’ the gun.)

In the defense attorney’s closing arguments he also implied the victim ‘wanted it.’ During the trial considerable time was spent detailing the various sexual assaults that unfolded. In the closing arguments the defense implied all the acts were consensual.

The tactics worked. The jury deliberated six hours and returned a not guilty verdict to eight counts of rape and one count of kidnapping.

When I asked the detective what went wrong with the case he said, “I guess they didn’t believe her.”

Our inability to believe can perpetuate crime.

The Rest Of The Story

But it was not the end of the story for the defendant, Stephen Quinn. Five years later he plead guilty to rape, kidnapping and felonious assault just across the county line in Darke County. His victim — a female co-worker — testified that Quinn placed a knife to her throat and forced her into his vehicle and raped her.

Quinn is currently serving a 28-year sentence in an Ohio penitentiary.

Preble County’s Track Record On Rape Convictions

Between 2009 and 2016, 18 cases with rape indictments were processed through the Preble County Common Pleas Court. One of those cases was dismissed by the Prosecuting Attorney.

Of the 17 remaining cases:

  • Nine yielded a rape conviction
  • Three jury trials ended in acquittal
  • Five cases ended in plea bargains where the rape charge was dismissed or reduced.
Categories: 8th congressional district, My America, Small Town Politics, Understanding Trump Counties

Heroin, Meth Just Part Of Life In Small, Rural Town

14889598603_32441c00b0_zI live in Ohio, a state where the Attorney General has declared a heroin epidemic. My county is no exception. The possession of heroin cases in Common Pleas Court have skyrocketed from about five in 2012 to around 50 in 2016.

But heroin, is just one of the drugs the county deals with — meth has been in the region for years and it does not appear to be going away. In August, 2015 there were nearly as many meth cases (based on the presumption that the ‘manufacturing’ indictment is for meth production) as heroin — three versus four respectively.

When a community is hammered by drugs, typically thefts or burglaries rise as addicts seeks ways to fund their habit. In this regard, Preble is, again, no exception. In August, 2015 the grand jury handed down seven theft-related indictments.

Meth Nearly Destroys Iowa Town

methlandIn Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, author Nick Reding examines a small rural, agricultural-based town in southeast Iowa which is about the same size as my hometown. The tale, mostly about the town’s (Oelwein) triumph over meth is an interesting read as it lays bare the wide-ranging reasons for the epidemic.

Three of the reasons are: political indifference, corporate irresponsibility and the myth of the American Dream.

Political Indifference

What may be most troubling about the meth situation is it never had to happen. As the author details in the book, research to create an alternative to pseudoephedrine — the chemical extracted from Sudafed to manufacture meth — was halted as in 2000. Before 2000, two approaches were being pursued that could have eliminated the ability to extract meth from Sudafed. The first was a chemical ‘mirror’ alternative to pseudoephedrine that eliminated the stimulant effect — making it worthless to the meth industry. The second approach was to use additives that blocked the ability to extract pseudoephedrine from cold tablets.

In the end, much like with the current heroin/opioid situation, Big Pharma’s profit potential influenced politicians to take a hands-off approach to regulating the industry — siding with business at the expense of American communities.

Corporate Irresponsibility

As president Calvin Coolidge famously said, the business of America is business — and this holds true even when it destroys livelihoods. Part of Methland deals with Ottumwa, Iowa where the meth trade skyrocketed in the late 1980s — making Roseanne’s Barr’s former sister-in-law Lori Arnold a very wealthy woman (and eventual felon). Arnold became wealthy by distributing meth to an ever-increasing base of factory workers.

When large companies, like Cargill, acquired food processing plants in the region, one of their first lines of business was to slash wages from about $18 an hour to $5. Workers, forced to work double shifts or take on a second job to sustain their earnings, turned to meth for the energy to get through the extended work week.

The companies also began actively recruiting immigrants, mostly from Mexico, to take jobs at the plant. The influx of immigrants, some with a direct line to the Mexican meth industry, increased the drugs presence in the workplace.

Today, with president-elect Donald Trump riding to the White House partially on the immigration issue, it remains to be seen if he will address one of the reasons illegal aliens are here. As Reding points out in the book, U.S. companies recruit inexpensive, illegal foreign labor and then hide behind legalities. Under U.S. law, companies are not responsible for knowing whether a worker is in the United States legally. They bring them here — and pretend to not know how they showed up. The scam has played a role in perpetuating an anti-immigration stance among Americans whose misdirected anger exists because they do not realize companies in their community caused the problem.

The American Dream

A significant portion of the book deals with Arnold who, within months of entering the Ottumwa meth business, becomes a very wealthy individual. Arnold looms high above the other small-time meth manufacturers featured in the book. But even the small time players create a significant cash flow because they have a captive market base — people working 60-90 hours weeks just to stay ahead of the economic curve.

The book is worth reading simply for Arnold’s story.

Even though the story is empathic to Arnold, and the other large and small time dealers, it does not shy away from what they are or what they do. It is very much a ‘warts and all’ type of tale. But, a bright side to the story does exist. It is seen mostly through the major of Oelwein, a progressive determined to purge his small town of meth while also returning viable jobs to the region. He takes some big gambles — and in the end they pay off.

It’s an approach small towns in the Rust Belt would be wise to follow.

Keen Observations

The book’s strength is the author’s many observations, including one about the American economic system. Reding posits that our economy is proving the theories of Karl Marx to be more accurate than Adam Smith’s —  noting that even the agricultural industry is being cannibalized by a handful of companies. This handful of large companies control the lion share of the market, pushing small farmers to the brink of extinction, destroying local economies in the process.

One small way this is seen, he notes, is the disappearance of locally-owned grain elevators. Under locally-owned systems, every dollar created through the sale of grain generates another three to four dollars in local transactions, Reding explains. This keeps small economies thriving.

Today, though, grain is typically owned and handled by one seed company and the dollar transactions are reduced to a 1:1 ratio, eliminating any local upside. This guts the local economy often causing family-owned grain elevators to close. It happened in the Iowa town — and in my community as well. The grain elevators that existed in the village of West Alexandria and the city of Eaton closed years ago.

In Eaton, a Dollar General store sits where the former grain elevator operated.

Rated 5 out of 5: The book is fairly short, very well researched and a nice blend of investigative journalism and personal essay writing.

Categories: Life In A Red State, My America, Ohio, Politics, Preble County, Small Town Politics