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Rural Democrats Try To Make Inroads In Republican Strongholds


In the past few presidential elections, we have seen rural voters become even more pronouncedly Republican, and in many rural counties, the Republican Party dominates local politics, too. But Democratic activists in these areas are hard at work. Bret Jaspers of member station WSKG introduces us to one of them in upstate New York.

LESLIE DANKS BURKE: So I got this car in August, and I've got 12,000 miles on it, so I drive a lot (laughter).

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Leslie Danks Burke is still hitting the road months after her state Senate race last year in a largely rural district. This part of upstate New York is pretty spread out, small town after small town.

BURKE: We were running for class president in about 72 different high schools at the same time. And that's a different kind of race. That's much more like a local race. It's like a collection of a whole lot of local races.

JASPERS: She lost, as did many Democrats in rural New York. As she looked ahead, Danks Burke thought the real problem is that incumbents of both parties aren't accountable enough to voters. So she founded a political action committee called Trailblazers. It'll help fund and recruit candidates who disclose all their donors and focus on grassroots organizing and fundraising. It's not a partisan group, but in rural New York, Republicans already have a well-established pipeline for local candidates. Danks Burke is a well-known Democrat, and so far, it's mostly liberals who are reaching out to her.



BURKE: How are you?

TYLER: Hi, Leslie.

BURKE: Good to see you.

TYLER: Good to see you.

BURKE: How are you doing?

JASPERS: Today, Danks Burke is visiting Faith Tyler. She's running for mayor of Groton, a village of less than 3,000 people. Tyler would like an endorsement from Trailblazers. The two have a little getting-to-know-you chat, then sit down to eat tofu and talk turkey.

TYLER: That's spent money and that's spent money.

BURKE: You've already bought these.


BURKE: You've already spent this.

TYLER: Mhmm (ph).

BURKE: Signs, postcards and stamps.

JASPERS: Tyler's village is dominated by Republicans, and she's a Democrat. Her campaign platform - lower speed limits and better sidewalks.

TYLER: The sidewalks are just, like, extremely deteriorated, and the kids in the village have to walk to school, you know, so they can go the main way. Sidewalks are horrible down that way, too.

JASPERS: Tyler has passion, but Danks Burke pushed her to be a more systematic campaigner.

BURKE: Day by day, work backwards from Election Day which stores you're going to hit when.

JASPERS: Danks Burke says she's been overwhelmed at the amount of money she's been able to raise so far. The goal this year is $100,000. Any Democrats her group endorses are likely to meet a lot of conservative voters like Allen Swift, who's from nearby Steuben County. Swift says he'd consider voting for a Democrat, but...

ALLEN SWIFT: As far as the Second Amendment, the Democrats have been totally against gun rights, and I totally disagree with Obama's health care.

JASPERS: The Affordable Care Act.

SWIFT: Yeah, Obamacare.

JASPERS: Leslie Danks Burke thinks Democrats have to work harder to listen to voters like Swift. She says she doesn't find one-issue voters, even at a Rod and Gun Club.

BURKE: I always made sure to start out by saying I'm here and there's going to be things that we agree on and going to be things that we disagree on. But at least I'm here, and I promise I will stay here for as long as it takes to get all of your questions answered, and then I'll come back. We have to start with that.

JASPERS: By starting small, Danks Burke believes she can get a few more competitive races in the region, meeting by meeting and mile by mile. For NPR News, I'm Bret Jaspers in upstate New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.

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