Rural America’s economy has been under attack for decades. My town of Monroe just published a bicentennial calendar with old photos. A century ago, every inch of land was under cultivation. Today, forests overwhelm once-thriving fields, the remnants of overgrown orchards barely visible. Low-paid jobs go unfilled, while high-paid vacancies lack trained applicants. Overdose deaths rise as life expectancy falls, and our children flee the grayest state in the land.

We need a candidate in the 2nd Congressional District who will fight back, and voters are ready.

A recent forum in Belfast for Democratic candidates vying to unseat Rep. Bruce Poliquin was packed. But none of the five candidates — Jonathan Fulford, Jared Golden, Craig Olsen, Tim Rich and Lucas St. Clair — promised to rebuild the district.

While Poliquin has driven us in the wrong direction with tax cuts for the rich that most Americans oppose, no candidate attacked him for doing so little for so long.

Yet, many at the forum seemed overly optimistic. It’s easy to get convinced by our outrage that we can oust Republican politicians aligned with a deeply unpopular president. But Donald Trump won our district, the economy is roaring back and unemployment is so low that it sparks talk of labor shortages. Notably, Poliquin is running for re-election. The implications are stark: don’t run against an incumbent — unless you have a galvanizing message that goes to the heart of voters’ top issue.

Barack Obama won the 2nd District twice with a message of change. In 2016, we chose change again, knowingly electing a race-baiting, homophobic, xenophobic scoundrel caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. We needed Trump’s promise to bring back good-paying manufacturing jobs badly. Many, from evangelicals on the right to progressives on the left, abandoned cherished values and joined those voting out of hate and fear to make America great again.

Because of globalization and automation, many are rightly skeptical that these jobs will ever return. But like Trump or hate him, 2nd District voters have demanded the same for decades: rebuild our economy.

After the forum, I approached each candidate, but pleas to put jobs first fell on deaf ears. One said he knew from traveling across the district that the economic needs of each town were different. That’s an important point. But he sounded like Hillary Clinton: a policy wonk who couldn’t spit it out.

Others claimed weakly they couldn’t present an economic plan in a forum restricted to 2-minute statements.

Hogwash. Start with a slogan like, “Rebuild Rural America.” Add a concise plan to create and fill high-paying jobs:

— Jobs from fighting climate change. From insulating buildings to generating wind, solar and tidal, this emergency can mobilize the entire country.

— Jobs from tuition-free college. And more money for K-12. Building campuses across the district to meet demand would create high-wage teaching jobs. To compete, America needs to become the most-educated workforce in the world.

— Jobs from single-payer health care. Replacing expensive private insurance with low-overhead government insurance for all will give families an instant raise, saving them thousands of dollars in premiums and deductibles annually. Mainers getting needed care will spur providers to build clinics throughout the district and invest in rural hospitals, creating jobs.

— Jobs from rebuilding infrastructure, installing broadband in every home and fighting the opioid crisis.

Then close with a position outside the box of both parties. Let’s pay for this the same way FDR did, with massive deficit spending to get our economy going again.

The plan contains several policies all supporting one idea: great jobs. Any worthy candidate can deliver a four-point plan in well under 2 minutes.

Granted, each candidate had some platform planks. But none focused on jobs. None advocated for deficit spending. Despite deficit hawks’ relentless objections (until they gave the rich a big fat tax cut), government spending is a time-honored policy for jumpstarting depressed areas. Ignoring hackneyed warnings against debt, voters elected a president whose tax cuts will make the debt soar. Just across the border, Justin Trudeau campaigned explicitly on the promise of running a deficit — and won.

It’s time for Democrats to escape their self-imposed shackles on spending and call for rapid investment across America.

In election after election, we have sent a consistent message to candidates identifying our top priority, a message that transcends party lines: Rebuild rural America. Raise up a platform worthy of the task and maybe, just maybe, we will elect you.

Greg Bates is a freelance editor and publisher at Common Courage Press. He lives in Monroe.

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