Growing up in the mountains taught me to be a good neighbor. What that means in this election

In 2010, Nick Shumaker was among the Yosemite High School students who did well at the regional science fair. Pictured, from left, Naomi Reimer, Sterling Ripley-Phipps, Schumaker and Jameson Schwabb.
In 2010, Nick Shumaker was among the Yosemite High School students who did well at the regional science fair. Pictured, from left, Naomi Reimer, Sterling Ripley-Phipps, Schumaker and Jameson Schwabb. Sierra Star file

For the first few years of my life, my family lived in Oakhurst. At 2, I won a contest and was named Little Johnny Appleseed, after the American folk hero who, legend has it, spread his faith, his love of the earth and animals, and of course his apple seeds throughout much of the Midwestern and Northeastern United States. I was presented with an award and appeared in the Mountain Heritage Days Parade.

Before I began school, we moved to Coarsegold. Ten years after first participating in that parade, I rode in it again as a member of the “Band of Gold,” the joint Rivergold and Coarsegold Elementary School band, in which I played the saxophone. After Rivergold, I attended Yosemite High School. Like many kids in the community, I spent time at Bass Lake, Lewis Creek, and the Cool Bean Café after class, I loved snow days, and I wondered what it would be like to live in a city.

This interest in other places common among teenagers here is, I think, rooted not in contempt toward the mountain area, but rather in curiosity about the rest of the world. And in a small town, this curiosity is healthy. The world has so much to offer, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an incredible place, and I feel extremely lucky to have grown up here. I credit it with my love of nature and the world around us. I credit it with my desire to do right by other people. And I credit it with something else that I feel strongly about, which may come as a surprise to many – being a Democrat.

If you feel inclined to stop reading at this point, I ask you to please give me a chance. I believe that as Americans and as human beings, we need to do a better job of talking to each other – but also a better job of listening to each other. Despite the division that defined the 2016 election, and the hyper-partisan nature of our politics in recent years, I feel more strongly than ever that there is far more that unites us than divides us.

Saying hello at Raley’s

Growing up in a small town is a unique social experience. It lacks the anonymity and diversity of city life. You generally know your neighbors and have strong ties to others in the community. It’s not uncommon to share various aspects of life with the same people – school, church, sports, community events, and even grocery shopping.

In fact, one unique phenomenon of living in the mountain area that I’ve thought about often since moving to a city is the fact that it’s unusual not to see someone you know at the grocery store. In the years that I have lived in Washington, D.C., I have never seen someone I know while grocery shopping. But it seems I can’t walk into Raley’s while home for Christmas without seeing at least one person who knows me or my family.

This type of close-knit society is one of the things I love most about the mountain area. Going to the grocery store or the post office or a community event is almost always a shared social experience – a time to catch up with friends and neighbors. And these interactions often go deeper than a simple hello. People know, and care about, the details. They ask about your husband’s surgery, your daughter’s first year of college, and your car that broke down last week.

This neighborly spirit is much stronger in rural communities and small towns than in large cities, and it manifests in many different ways. When the homeless population rises, local churches provide food and shelter. When a wildfire sweeps through a neighborhood, people cut fire lines around properties and go above and beyond to support those who lose their homes. When there is a death in a family, meals, cards, and donations pour in from miles away.

The families that call the mountain area home are kind, generous, and community-oriented. But they are also largely conservative, and tend to vote for Republicans. These two facts seem inconsistent to me. How can a family that cares so deeply about their neighbors, that steps up to help in times of need, and that supports charitable and religious activities in the community also support candidates for office who want to take health care away from the less fortunate, deny equal access to a quality education, and cut critical programs that people rely on to put food on the table and care for their children?

I’ve thought a lot about this since the 2016 election because I have a hard time reconciling the idea of my hometown as a place where everyone looks out for each other with the fact that many of those same people voted for a member of Congress who repeatedly casts votes that hurt the people he’s supposed to represent. And this is to say nothing of voting for a candidate for president who completely discounts human decency and has a history of lying, cheating, and casting others aside in order to get ahead and make money.

Support system

My brothers and I were raised by a single mom who owned a small business. It was before the Affordable Care Act made health care more accessible, so the best way for us kids to get coverage at the time was to enroll in California’s Healthy Families program (the state implementation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHiP).

When it came time to apply to colleges, I had no idea how I was going to pay for my education other than to take on massive loans that could potentially set me back decades and prevent me from having the future I wanted. With the help of the federal Pell Grant program and the state CalGrant program, however, I was able to attend Fresno State tuition-free. Without that opportunity, I doubt I would be where I am today.

And when my first job after college on a political campaign ended in a loss, and it took four months to find a new job, I relied on state unemployment benefits to get by. I grew up in a middle-class family, yet still needed some help every once in a while to bridge tough gaps and build a better life. I’m so grateful for the hard work and support of my family and the resources that allowed me to get to where I am today, and I vowed years ago to always fight to ensure that others have access to the same resources and more.

I’ve heard the argument that Republicans trust you to take care of yourself and want you to be able to spend your money however you want, while Democrats want to take your money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. I heard it a lot when I was growing up here, and I’ve heard it a lot since. I hear it from Republican officials, cable news pundits, and people who live in small towns and rural areas like this one. Republicans have been saying it for decades and people have believed them. They have amassed incredible power at the local, state, and federal level. And yet, we aren’t better off because of it.

I’m not afraid to say that I believe that government can be an instrument of good. In writing the Constitution, our founders established a system of government in order to, among other goals, “promote the general Welfare.” I think that this is, in part, what makes America the greatest country on earth – the promise of opportunity. But true opportunity requires equality, and equality sometimes requires a little help. Benefiting from government services is not something to be ashamed of, and knowing that others benefit from them should not be cause for derision or outright contempt.

Democrats don’t want to take your money and give it to people who don’t deserve it. We want to ensure that you have the opportunity to build the best possible life for yourself and your family, that you have good schools to send your children to, that you have clean water to drink and clean air to breathe, that you can put food on your table and keep a roof over your head, and that you have access to affordable health care. And we want to ensure that everybody else does too. That doesn’t seem so radical to me, but over time a lot of people have been convinced that these intentions are not sincere, that they are somehow in danger of losing the life –and the America – they love.

Despite pervasive anger, division, and government gridlock, I have enormous faith in the future. I believe that, in time, we can build an America where we accept each other as our neighbors and it doesn’t matter what we look like, where we are from, or whom we love. I believe we can build an America where we look out for each other through both tragedy and triumph. I believe we can build an America where we really do promote the general welfare.

His endorsement

In 2016, Donald Trump won California’s 4th Congressional District by nearly 15 percentage points. It’s a geographically large district. In the north, it stretches west from the state border around Lake Tahoe to the distant suburbs of Sacramento. From there, it runs south, roughly parallel to Highway 99, and arguably in the shape of a jagged jalapeño. It comes close to Merced, Chowchilla, Madera, and Clovis, includes significant acreage of national forest and Yosemite, and ends at Kings Canyon National Park in Fresno County.

The current U.S. Representative for the 4th District is Tom McClintock, and despite not actually living in the district, he has enjoyed a comfortable margin of victory in every reelection campaign since 2010. While it’s true that representing such a large district often means representing people with disparate interests, Congressman McClintock appears to be more comfortable embracing his role as a career politician than going out of his way to advocate for his constituents.

During his time in Congress, he has been a rubber stamp for party leaders. Instead of taking his constituents into consideration or working across the aisle to do what’s right, he consistently votes along party lines, fueling government gridlock and leaving behind the people in his district. Recently, he opposed measures intended to provide relief after wildfires in the name of fiscal responsibility, yet also caved to special interests and voted for a tax bill that will increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion and give 83 percent of its benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent of people. He also voted for a bill that would have taken health care away from 37,000 members of this community and raised premiums for middle class families. He has not been a good congressman, in part because he’s never been afraid of losing his seat, and that is a problem.

And so I encourage you to do something bold on Nov. 6 – vote for the candidate who embodies the neighborly spirit of the mountain area. Vote for the candidate who believes that doing what’s right is more important than doing what party leaders want. Vote for the candidate who actually cares about this district and plans to offer services and support policies that will do more good for more people. Vote for the candidate who truly wants to be your voice in our government. Vote for Jessica Morse.

To learn more about Jessica Morse, visit www.morse4congress.com.