In a 2020 election that is anything but normal, the close of the sign-up period provoked discussion about the viability of various candidates and the prospects in the Nov. 3 election in Louisiana, the same day as the national election for president.
It’s also an election day for members of the U.S. House and for one of Louisiana’s two senators, Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. While some of the incumbent members drew challengers, in Cassidy’s case no less than 14 of them, perhaps the most-watched has been one of the most rural seats in the U.S. House, that held by retiring U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham of Alto.
Candidates seen as having the most support for the open seat are Abraham’s chief of staff, Luke Letlow, R-Start; state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, and Grambling State University Chief Operating Officer Martin Lemelle Jr., D-Ruston.
In that race, perhaps more than most, we have a request of the candidates: Think small.
As in, small towns. There are a lot of them in the district, and a lot of them are hurting from long-term declines not caused by but made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abraham’s district boundaries are a monument to politics, in that they sprawl from the traditional base of the Monroe area through Alexandria and along the river to near Baton Rouge, then across the northern rim of the Florida Parishes to take in Bogalusa in Washington Parish.
From the Arkansas border to the Pearl River is a stretch that takes in many parishes in the Mississippi Delta, an agriculturally rich region but one where poverty is common and economic development is rare.
The results of declining population have included serious financial as well as social stresses on small-town Louisiana. The Legislative Auditor’s Office monitors those requiring intervention by the state. Essential services like water are often underfunded, leading to maintenance failures and even contamination of water supplies, as in St. Joseph in the 5th District.
In Bogalusa, falling employment in the timber and paper producing industry has caused the city’s population to shrink even as the local governments must provide services like public safety and education.
Even as the U.S. Congress spends vast sums on COVID-19 relief, money for small-town America can be in short supply. Grant-making agencies like the Delta Regional Authority are spread thin over several states. We urge candidates seeking the open seat to address that issue and others related to aid to small-town life.
In a politically conservative area, national policies may not sync with the realities of small towns. Opposition to immigration, for example, is a staple of President Donald Trump’s appeals but small towns desperately need new residents from wherever they might come.
Turning around the future of rural America is tough but may be toughest in the Mississippi Delta. If candidates have ideas, we’d like to hear them.