Rural Ohioans deserve political reform

In many ways, the greatest strength of Appalachian Ohio has also been our greatest cross to bear. Our beautiful rolling hills are blessed with an abundance of natural resources, which have formed our economic and cultural identity. Over the past 150 years, we have seen our ore quarried, our timber felled, our clay extracted, and our coal mined. And most recently, the Utica and Marcellus shale plays have enabled Appalachian Ohio to produce the cheapest natural gas anywhere in the world.

All of this, which occurred on the backs of our labor and the sweat of our brow, proved central to the United States’ massive growth and its rise to a position of global prominence.

Unfortunately — or perhaps by design — most of the profits generated from the removal of our resources went to wealthy investors, often from outside the region. The generational lack of economic diversity in Appalachia has made us uniquely vulnerable to economic changes outside of our control, with devastating impacts on families in our region.

The natural resources of southern and eastern Ohio, along with the practice of extracting them, have come to define our region and its culture. We are independent-minded. We value hard work. And we are proud of the role we have played in powering America’s factories and building its cities.

I certainly take pride in knowing that my grandfather — a first-generation immigrant from Greece — worked in the deep mines after serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, enduring unimaginable conditions to provide for his family. But there is a sense of resentment that lingers in our communities — a feeling that we have been left behind, and a distrust of outsiders.

The truth is that we have been left behind. Left behind by a modern economy that has used our labor and our resources to enrich others at our expense, without reinvesting that wealth back into the area that produced it.

Left behind by a lack of access to modern technologies such as broadband internet, which has essentially become a public utility in the 21st century.

Left behind by an unconstitutional public school funding system that discriminates against rural communities and exacerbates their poverty.

Left behind by unfair trade deals that offshored hundreds of thousands of our good paying jobs to Mexico and China.

And perhaps most pervasively, left behind by a political process that caters to wealthy donors and career politicians without regard for the unique needs of our region.

The distrust we have toward our democratic process is only amplified by the consequences of our exclusion. Our unemployment and poverty rates are among the highest in the state. Our higher-educational attainment rates are a mere fraction of those in and around cities. The opioid epidemic ravages our communities. Our best and brightest are leaving the region-a phenomenon referred to as “brain drain.” And our communities are struggling to pay for fundamental services such as police and fire protection or basic road repairs.

Amid all this we see the way incumbent Columbus politicians have abused the privilege of power: funneling billions to for-profit charter school operators who have financed campaigns, enjoying lavish international trips on the dime of corrupt payday lenders who exploit the poor, and funding tax cuts for wealthy donors by cutting our local government funds.

It must end. For too long, rural Ohioans have been treated as second-class citizens by a rigged political process built by and for powerful special interests, the wealthy donor class, and career politicians. We deserve more than relegation as an afterthought in the halls of state government.

Where the outside world sees drug abuse, poverty, and generational despair, we yearn to prove that there’s more to this historic region and its laborious people than offered in the news. Until we attack the corrupting influence of money in politics at its very core, Ohioans — and especially rural Ohioans — will continue to be left behind by our broken democratic process.

Zack Space is a former U.S. Congressman from Tuscarawas County. He is the Democratic nominee for Ohio Auditor of State in the 2018 General Election on Nov. 6.