about November,” Francys Johnson told the Rotary Club of Statesboro about what
he identifies as four keys to a brighter future for the region and rural
America in general.
“Good afternoon. This morning I woke up thinking about November,” were Johnson’s first words to the club at lunchtime Monday. “In fact … I’ve been thinking about November a lot lately. My mind has been so preoccupied with November that I was almost late getting to work this morning because I couldn’t find my car keys.”
Relating the month’s importance to the fact that his youngest son’s birthday is in November, Johnson never quite mentioned that he is a candidate for Congress in the Nov. 6 general election. A Statesboro-based attorney and Baptist minister who was previously Georgia NAACP State Conference president, Johnson won the Democratic primary in May and is challenging the Republican incumbent, Rep. Rick Allen, who won Georgia’s 12th District seat in 2014 and was re-elected in 2016.
When Allen spoke to the Statesboro Rotary on Aug. 27, he never mentioned Johnson or the election, either, until approached by a reporter after the meeting. Johnson, who said he at last found those keys in his own pocket, likewise never mentioned Allen.
Instead, Johnson at first talked about his family, including the grandparents who raised him on a farm near Sylvania and his current immediate family. He and his wife, Meca Williams-Johnson, Ph.D., a Georgia Southern University professor, have two sons, Thurgood, who will next be 11, and Langston, who will be 5 in November. They also actively remember their middle son Frederick, who died in infancy, as a member of the family.
“I’ve been thinking about November a lot because birthdays are a big deal in our family,” Johnson said. “When you’ve lost a child, as we have, you celebrate each and every birthday as the blessing that it is. So Meca and I have planned a very big celebration in November for Langston. It will be filled with affirmations that this fearless, compassionate and curious little boy is loved and cherished.”
Johnson cited motivational author Denis Waitley’s “Seeds of Greatness” for the idea of “roots” and “wings” as ideal gifts for children. Noting that last week marked the 231st birthday of the U.S. Constitution, Johnson said it gave the nation roots and wings.
Both 12th District candidates’ silence on the election during their Statesboro Rotary visits reflects the club’s stance against the use of its meetings for direct campaigning. But when Allen talked about a recent boom in job creation and described high levels of optimism about the economy, he credited the platform of Republicans in Congress under outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan and praised actions of President Donald Trump.
Johnson presented a different view.
“Despite the good news that some are heralding in our economy, that this is the best economy ever, it has missed rural America,” Johnson said. “This is the forgotten America. I do not believe that this is the best that we can do for our roots or for our wings.”
“Rural America is worth an investment in our infrastructure,” Johnson said. “A recent national survey ranked Georgia’s infrastructure as a grade C-minus. We have crumbling roads, structurally deficient bridges — as a matter of fact, there are five bridges in Bulloch County right now that are structurally deficient or unsafe. That’s just not good enough for my children or yours.”
Although situated between the ports of Savannah, Brunswick and Jacksonville on the one side “and the largest cargo airport operation in the world at Hartsfield-Atlanta” on the other, rural southeast Georgia is “not able to take advantage of these resources because of a lack of investment,” he said.
“When you think about some of the president’s proposals for 2019 in his budget, he proposes to cut an additional $550 billion in tax cuts, only to invest $199 billion over 10 years in a so-called infrastructure bill,” Johnson said.
That investment would be offset by the president’s proposed 28.6 percent planned cut in transportation spending, Johnson said. He called the interstate system “inadequate and overrun” and said this is evident on I-16. A lack of sufficient four-lane highways puts trucks and families on the same two-lane roads, and Georgia does not have “dedicated trucking lanes like other states that are serious about economic development,” he said.
“The first key is infrastructure,” Johnson said. “The second key is we’ve got to do something about health care. Across rural America, we’ve lost 83 hospitals in the last four years, six hospitals in Georgia and one in Wheeler County. I want you to know of the 50 rural hospitals that remain in rural Georgia, only 10 are financially viable at this moment.”
As he had done at a recent Democratic Party event, he again noted the precarious financial positions of Evans Memorial Hospital in Claxton and Candler County Hospital in Metter.
“Rural America needs to reimagine education,” Johnson said. “We have got to continue to put funds into early Head Start and a universal pre-K program.”
He also referred to needs to expand “what we understand college to mean” and to address the high cost of child care.
“Rural America needs to have one final key, and that is the key of prosperity through real economic development,” Johnson said. “That includes beginning with a 21st century workforce that is high-skilled and ready to take the jobs that 1 million Georgians will leave over the next 10 years as they age out of the workforce.”
Allen, who serves on the House Education and Work Force Committee, had also noted a need for workforce training and ongoing efforts to provide it. But Johnson observed that a number of existing programs would be defunded under Trump’s budget proposal.
“Job training programs cannot exist, not in the president’s budget in 2019,” Johnson said. “He plans on cutting 43 percent of the workforce innovation and opportunity programs that currently exist, another 29.5 percent cut in the National Science Foundation, although our children will need STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education if they’re going to compete in a global economy.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.