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Jayne: Perez just may be Dems’ savior

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: April 23, 2023, 6:02am

Considering that she has been in Congress for three months, it likely is too early to declare Marie Gluesenkamp Perez the savior of the Democratic Party. Or to suggest that she represents a sea change in American politics. Or to think she knows all that is wrong with American politics.

But in the simple act of carrying a unique perspective from rural Skamania County to the citadels of Washington, D.C., Perez has upended common political perceptions.

That was evident in the headline of a New York Times column in March: “A New Voice for Winning Back Lost Democratic Voters.” And it was evident in a recent interview on the podcast Pod Save America, when Perez was asked whether Democrats are struggling with a lack of “class diversity.”

“Abso-(bleeping)-lutely,” she responded. “How (bleeped) is it that we don’t respect or listen to people until they have a college degree? That’s a shame.”

I’ve had elected officials bleep at me during interviews, but never during a recorded interview meant for a national audience. And I’ve heard politicians say their party needs a “big tent” that is welcoming to all, but rarely with the sincere self-reflection that is evident in Perez’s answer.

Eschewing the typical political word salad, Perez quickly and succinctly touched upon a problem facing Democrats. She also unwittingly touched upon what is perhaps the defining change in American politics of recent decades — the move of rural voters from the Democratic Party to Republican allegiance.

As an analysis from The Washington Post found last year: “Rural voters care about what we might call ‘geographic inequity’ — the idea that rural areas receive less than their fair share from the government, are ignored by politicians, and are mocked and derided in popular culture.”

Whether or not that is accurate, perception is reality for voters. And the perception, driven home by conservative media, is that Democrats are a party of coastal elites with little interest in the concerns of rural residents.

Meanwhile, Republicans have used culture wars and rants about immigrants to convince voters that they are the party of populism (although it’s incongruous to consider Donald Trump a populist when he has never won the popular vote in an election).

The trend has been decades in the making and will be studied for decades to come. But somehow Republicans have garnered rural voters even as they have worked to slash programs that help rural people. If you convince people that drag queens are a threat, apparently, you can get them to vote against their own self-interests.

And Republicans have had assistance from tone-deaf Democrats. In one example, Perez speaks about the politics of climate change: “People who work can’t (bleeping) pay — we’re not buying Teslas. People who get paychecks, and then look at them, aren’t buying Teslas.”

In writing about this recently, columnist Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times notes how most of the wealthy communities in Washington and throughout the nation have a Democrat as their congressional representative. “Of the 195 districts richer than the national household median income, Democrats out-represent Republicans by 2 to 1,” he writes. “While the 240 districts below the median are represented 2 to 1 by the GOP.”

The crux, in general terms, is that Democrats have become the party of the well-educated and gainfully employed. Which makes rural areas ripe for the picking to the politics of outrage and grievance.

That is where Perez comes in. As both parties attempt to pander to “real Americans,” it is difficult to find anybody more “real” than the co-owner of an auto repair shop who has a gravel driveway — even if an economics degree from Reed College makes her an outlier.

It is in this reality that Perez identifies a philosophy that should be embraced by voters of both parties: “Things in America are not going to get better until we start electing a Congress that looks like America.”