Chloe Maxmin & Canyon Woodward

Hearts and Minds of Rural Folk

Air Date: August 15, 2022

Maine State Senator Chloe Maxmin and political strategist Canyon Woodward discuss their new book "Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It."


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome co-authors of the new book, “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It.” These authors are Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward. Senator Maxmin hails from rural Maine and she’s the youngest woman ever to serve in the Maine State senate. She was elected in 2020 after unseating a two-term Republican incumbent. In 2018 she served in the Maine House of Representatives after becoming the first Democrat to win a rural-conservative district. Canyon was born and raised in rural North Carolina and Washington. He was the campaign manager for Senator Maxmin’s successful 2018 and 2020 campaigns. Welcome to you both.


WOODWARD: Thanks so much for having us.


MAXMIN: Thank you.


HEFFNER: Let me start with you Chloe. As a senator representing rural issues, what’s changed in your mind since you were first elected, in terms of what’s most important to the rural voter? We’re here in 2022, anticipating these midterm elections. So I’m curious just in your mind, what, if anything has changed since you were first elected?


MAXMIN: That’s such a good question. I think that my identity and approach as a progressive and a Democrat has really evolved since I started to have a lot of in-depth conversations with Republicans and Independents, many of whom had never been contacted by a Democratic candidate or canvasser in their entire voting history. And having these conversations with folks who approached the world and the crises that we faced in really different ways also changed my perspective on these critical issues. And I think the biggest thing that I learned is that on many issues, maybe not all of them, but we have common ground. We often share the same values. I’ve never met anyone of any party who wants healthcare to be more expensive. We just approach these issues in really different ways. And being able to connect on those values, on those values on that deeper level has given me a lot more empathy and understanding for folks who think differently than I do, which is just part of being human and I have really tried to translate that kind of empathy into the ways that I approach my bills and the legislative process.


HEFFNER: Canyon. From the experience of campaigning, what do you think has changed as someone who was strategically focused on how can we connect with voters going to 2018 through the present now in 2022, the way that you would implore campaign managers across the country to think about representing rural constituencies in your mind, what has changed if anything?


WOODWARD: I think in my mind, one of the biggest things that stands out is the opportunity to bring people on board with progressive candidates through face-to-face conversations. If we take the time to go door-to-door and actually interact in person, especially coming off of the isolation of the pandemic and how rampant disinformation has become through social media, through Fox News and conservative radio. I really think that the most effective way that we can reach people is by getting campaigns that get off of, stop spending their whole budgets on consultants, on overpriced TV ads, and actually go and have face-to-face conversations with folks and build those relationships, because that’s really what we haven’t been doing as a party and as progressives, and that’s, that’s what we were so successful in, in our campaigns. And I think that’s really the way forward.


HEFFNER: Chloe, are you anticipating that the success you had in 2018 and 2020 will be repeated in 2022?


MAXMIN: I’m, I’m actually not running for office again, I’m turning my focus and attention to supporting other folks like me and Canyon who are running for office and seeking those tools and resources to really get into office in these really tricky districts and also make it something sustainable because it’s a lot of work. But I’ve been helping a lot of local candidates and doing a lot of deep canvasing trainings in Maine. And we’re working with folks all across the country. And I think the need for this face-to-face, deep canvasing, values-based like kind of nonpartisan model is more needed than ever as things get really, really divisive. Because if we can’t bridge these divides, then it’s going to be really scary where our country ends up in terms of our fights for reproductive justice, racial justice, climate justice, these things are dependent upon electing people who share the values of that, of those fights for justice. And we can’t get there unless we’re talking to people face-to-face during every single election.


HEFFNER: But I suppose the question is still top of mind for you, as you consider your legacy and the impact you’ve had these past four years in terms of what if you had run, if you were running for reelection if you think there would still be that middle ground that you forged and occupied during the 2018 and 2020 contests?


MAXMIN: Yes. I definitely think that. I think of it as common ground, not middle ground, because I don’t think there’s any, you know, compromise on any side in terms of our values. But there is so much space to meet in the middle. And it’s been, you know, it’s been a priority for me to actually represent my district and not vote party-line, and not to get sucked into party politics and to be very present in my community and I have constituent hours every month and I’m always talking and meeting and emailing with folks. And so, you know, I’ve made a huge effort to really stay in touch and represent and understand my community and have that reflected in the actions that I take while I’m in office.


HEFFNER: Ultimately though you think that what you fostered was not necessarily compromise as much as empathy, tolerance, and if not compromising in governing, what would you call your relationship with constituents that with whom you might disagree?


MAXMIN: Well, I think that I always had a sense that our values are shared values. You know, we have these values, and we manifest them in really different ways, whether it’s around how we afford an education for our children or how we support our parents as they’re aging. We just have really different ways of getting there and different ideas of how our government and our society is supposed to support these really critical parts of our life. And so, you know, during my time in office, I’ve really, you know, I’ve worked with folks across the aisle, I’ve stayed in touch with my constituents. And I, you know, I think part of it is that when you’re campaigning in a way that’s based on building real relationships with people, we actually have like a normal relationship where you can agree to disagree and that you can have some trust in the other person, so that when they do something that you might not agree with, you can say, oh, I bet I bet Chloe had her reasons for doing that.


And you know, that’s a huge part of how we campaign and how we build movements is having relationships that are strong enough and durable for that nuance which is really desperately needed in our politics. Another thing that’s been really important to me, serving over the past four years has been really prioritizing the people’s voices and movements that are calling for change, that are coming from communities that don’t always have access to a legislative space, who can’t take off of work in the middle of the day to drive to the state house or hop on Zoom to testify. And so my allegiance has been with those movements that are fighting for issues that are desperately needed in my community. My allegiance is not with my party. It’s with my constituents.


HEFFNER: Canyon, as you look to advocating on behalf of rural voters into the future, there is a candidate running, to me, who is part of our Rust Belt series. After the 2016 election, we interviewed a number of mayors around the country and then Mayor Braddock, ultimately, Lieutenant Governor. Now he’s running for the Senate is someone who represents, I think a lot of the thrust of your book, in terms of his policy convictions, but also resonating with rural voters and a more multifaceted constituency of the electorate. You know, how do you see Lieutenant Governor Fetterman’s campaign in Pennsylvania and to extrapolate from the Senator’s experience, what else are you looking at on the national horizon to instill those same values and in local and state races around the country?


WOODWARD: I mean, Fetterman’s got it right. He’s, you know, his whole thing is I’m everywhere. I’m not just, I’m not just hanging out dialing for dollars, trying to hang out with the richest people that I can, every minute of the campaign, to buy as many big TV ads in the big cities as I can. He’s loading up the, the campaign wagon and going county to county through the entire state and having authentic gatherings with folks, talking to voters face-to-face and just being so authentic and accessible. And I think that that’s, you know, that’s what we’ve tried to embody in our campaigns. And I think that’s, that’s not the norm these days, folks feel like, oh, I’m not going to drive out four hours to this county that, you know, votes 70-percent for Trump. That’s just a waste of my time.


And we’ve been doing that for years and years. And the consequences of that, even if it’s, even if it’s just a few percentage points slide every election over the past, you know, 10 to 12 years that’s compounded into huge, huge losses. I think a lot of people don’t realize that it wasn’t that long ago that that rural America was pretty evenly split, as recently as 2009, the partisan lean of rural Americans was evenly split. And now it’s a 16-point gap and that kind of represents that few percentage points every cycle. And that’s just killing us.


HEFFNER: That’s really interesting. You mentioned the 2008 election and analyzing those results and President Obama’s success in places like Indiana and of course, the Plains and, you know, making Missouri as competitive as it ever would be, or will be in the eyes of contemporary progressives. But let me ask you this, it doesn’t quite align with, and it, in fact, conflicts to an extent with this notion that when Americans are 18 years old or roughly, right, voting age or shortly thereafter drinking age, they form a consciousness that is almost immutable on the issue of taxes and on the issue of choice, abortion, reproductive rights ,regardless of their gender, regardless of their zip code. And I’d like you both to weigh in on this. First Canyon. And then Chloe. Do you agree that those two notions are kind of in conflict? The idea that for many decades, since before 2009, there has been a rural consciousness on a few issues that are hard to separate from everything else, and that folks are going to vote taxes and vote abortion. And how do you compute that with sort of the idealism that “Dirt Road Revival” is aspiring to, to say, look, we can have this open-ended interaction and coming, sort of coming of age with a new a new consciousness?


WOODWARD: Yeah. I mean, I think, I think it’s absolutely a reality that there’s a, you know, there’s a huge swath on both sides that that is not going to move. They’re really fixed in place. But there’s a, there’s a big, big chunk of folks who are less set in stone and issues of course matter. But what matters more, I think, is storytelling that reflects values and authenticity, and being able to trust someone and being able to go up against the establishment in both parties and try and shake things up and do things differently. You know, I think that’s, that was a big appeal of both Trump and Bernie in rural America, you know, for. I think for rural Americans, especially Washington or the state capital feels very far away, distant opaque. And they feel left behind understandably and forgotten and folks who are willing to come out and say what they think and challenge the establishment are really appealing. And, you know, even looking back to Obama’s 2008 campaign he used a lot of that rhetoric as well and seemed really set on bringing change to the system.


MAXMIN: Yeah. I mean the, the first thing that comes to mind when, when I hear that question is just really recognizing that, you know, the fact that abortion is such a key issue in elections or that taxes are just such a key word that every candidate has to use. That’s not by accident. It’s not a random manifestation of human behavior. It’s a planned agenda that the right, as an institution has been putting forth for decades. I was just reading the other day about how in the 1990s Newt Gingrich, who was the Republican whip in the House, you know, put out this paper about how language can be a way to control the elections and the way people think. And so much of the language that we see in our political rhetoric every day came from, you know, this paper that he wrote. And one of the, one of the words that he wanted associated with the Democrats was taxes. And so, you know, this has been something that has been created. It’s been created by a very substantial right-wing agenda. And it’s also been created by the lack of a Democratic apparatus in rural America. You know, and it’s been dwindling. And so what we see is that, well, what if you can fight back against that in a way that’s meaningful, that allows space for that reality. We’re not going to overturn decades of any political agenda in even the next 10 years, but what we can do is, you know, I kind of think of it as the two sides are pushing in on each other. And we’re just trying to jump in there and hold the doors open before they just totally shut. And I don’t think there’s any other way to do that in this moment in time, besides really revolutionizing the way that campaigns are run from school board races all the way up to the presidential.


HEFFNER: Yeah. I do wonder what happened during that transition from Chairman Dean to Chairman Kaine. I think that was the succession. Because Dean’s focus was on 50 states and every single county and township and whatever, right. And, and something got lost. And maybe it was the fact that President Obama did not govern as an economic populist. And we see the consequence of what I’ve long talked about on this program as cannibal capitalism. And that’s just a functional reality that liberals are not willing to accept you know, to a degree. But Fetterman would, if you put him on the spot. And certainly when I interviewed him, he would acknowledge that reality, that you were, you were sort of. The prose of Obama’s campaign was populism, but the governing was not. And you know, to my question to you, Chloe grappling with your, your work together, the book and launching that on the road now, you know, is on the tax issue, first. You’re in a pickle as someone who is arguing you know, in the position of investment, you know, or maybe taxation through investment in your communities. Because for many years, ages now, it seems like, federal candidates, Republican candidates for high office have been, in essence using that issue and being elected on an anti-tax platform. When they get to Congress, they have no control over the kinds of taxation issues that you grapple with at the local level, whether that’s property tax or other, you know, municipal taxes. So there’s election cycle after election cycle, where that’s used as a wedge or a weapon. And then at the end of the day, Senator McConnell, for example, if he turns majority leader, he’s not going to be able to control property taxes in New Jersey or for that matter in Maine where you are. So how do you deal with that?


MAXMIN: Yeah, I mean, you know, I’ve knocked 20,000 doors in my community in the past two cycles. And the, by far the biggest issue that I heard from people was that they didn’t feel like the people that they elected actually represented them. People would say one thing on the campaign trail, and then either not do anything once they were in office or do the total opposite. And so, you know, I think it’s that gap between the promises that are made in these conversations, which make those conversations not authentic. The gap between those conversations and how people act in office have had a really destructive impact on constituents’ confidence in our democracy and like the facticity of just voting. And so I think, you know, what, what I’ve done is just kind of be honest about it. You know, if like, if I’m going to get into office, I can’t control what folks do on the federal level and the federal level in many cases, like you just said, doesn’t have control over how our property taxes shake out. And I think we need space or that nuance in our politics that’s often really, really lost, you know? And like another example is I’ve always voted to raise taxes on the most wealthy folks in our society, but I have not voted for regressive tax policy. So also having these like really broad strokes ways that we’re talking about these issues limits us from actually making the kinds of reforms that we need. And as an organizer, many years ago, I was like, there should be no nuance in politics. Some issues are just so black and white. And that’s, and that’s still true, but I think that we can’t have that space for that nuance, for the complexity of the issues that we’re facing without that basic trust between voter and elected official.


HEFFNER: Now, when you think of abortion and the overturning of Roe and its consequences for, for your work going forward, not just in your district, but nationally, what’s your current approach?


MAXMIN: You know, I think what’s happening with abortion right now in this country is just, is just genuinely, it’s genuinely terrifying. I mean, there are, there are very few words to express the horror of the situation that we’re in. I think it is, you know, also on some level, a manifestation of the power of the rural-conservative vote that elected Trump and led to these very conservative Supreme Court justices being appointed. And now we are paying, we’re paying the price for that mistake, you know, for countless years. And I think it just really reinforces the need to really dig into rural America and have these conversations. Because right now the power is going to fall to states to really protect people’s bodies. And that’s going to require pro-choice candidates to get elected. And that’s not going to happen without the deep canvasing and the empathetic listening that that we’re talking about. So I think it’s, it’s at least for me really reinforced the fire that I have to do this work and have and have these really tough conversations instead of just letting it all pass us by.


HEFFNER: Canyon?


WOODWARD: Yeah. I mean, totally agree with all of that. I think, I think the Dobb’s decision and also the attempt at a coup in 2020 and the, you know, the foundation that’s being set right now to contest a democratic election in 2024, both really drive home the importance of state-level politics, because in both cases, there’s, there’s a really good chance that it’s going to come down ultimately to the state legislatures to hold the line on access to abortion. And similarly on not bowing to the pressures of the Trump gang on fake electors and, and overturning an election, you know, we’re facing an existential threat to our democracy in 2024. And state legislatures are the key to holding the line. And I think a lot of people are starting to pick up on that. So, so that is the one shred of hope that I take from it all.


HEFFNER: To close. Let me just ask you both, what is the most misunderstood thing about rural America?


MAXMIN: I think the, there’s probably a lot that I’m not, that’s not coming to my mind right now. There is a lot, but I think this there’s this narrative that rural Americans are voting against their, their own best interest. And I think that’s just a really dangerous way to look at rural America. It kind of cuts us off from having an honest conversation in the first place when you come in with that judgment. And it also just makes folks in rural places feel kind of looked down upon, and it, it doesn’t really create the kind of empathetic space that we need to, to stop these huge divides from tearing us apart.


HEFFNER: Well said. Canyon?


WOODWARD: Yeah, I mean, high speed internet is huge and we’re not talking about that enough. I (laugh), I had to find a friend’s house to do this interview in because I don’t have access to high-speed internet where I live in the mountains of North Carolina. And that’s just, it should be like phone, phone lines, you know, everybody should have a right to easy access to internet. You need it for school starting as early as middle school, these days. And for jobs and economic opportunity, it’s just, it’s really messed up. And then I think as far as what people don’t understand about rural folks, I mean so much there’s, there’s so many stereotypes and there’s just a huge, a huge gap there. I think that rural, rural folks have a beautiful way of life. It’s what’s called me home. It’s centered in values of independence, but also interdependence in a small-town community where folks care about each other and look out for each other. And I think that that’s really beautiful. And I think that having rural folks in our policy discussions is so, so important to, to bring those values there. And thinking about climate change, for example, as we, as we navigate the changing world, do we want, you know, Tesla-driving technocrats, creating all of our policy or, or do we want the folks that are intimately connected with land and growing our food and catching our fish in those discussions?


HEFFNER: Canyon, thank you so much for your insight. Chloe, to you as well. Coauthors of “Dirt Road Revival: How to Rebuild Rural Politics and Why Our Future Depends On It.” Chloe Maxmin and Canyon Woodward. Thank you both for your time today.


WOODWARD: Thank you so much.


MAXMIN: Thank you.


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