Reaching Out to Urban Legislators: Q &A with Del. Mark Keam (D-35)

Del. Mark Keam meets with members of Albemarle County
Farm Bureau at the 2012 Virginia Farm Bureau Legislative

 Farm Bureau and our members are very good at creating and maintaining relationships with legislators, especially our own. Many of you have personal relationships with your representatives, which are a great benefit when legislators need to hear where we stand on an issue like property rights and Sunday hunting.

But there’s a group of legislators that don’t get to hear the voice of the Virginia farmer as much. Why? Because they don’t have any farms in the districts they represent. These areas include Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond.

Why is it important to reach out to these urban legislators? Because their decisions have just as much impact on Virginia agriculture as  rural legislators. Some of these urban legislators even serve on the House and Senate agriculture committees.

Last week, I sat down with Northern Virginia delegate Mark Keam (D-35th) and asked him questions about agriculture, Farm Bureau, and what farmers can do to create relationships with urban legislators.

Tell us about the district you represent.

I represent probably the most urban area of the commonwealth. I have Tyson’s Corner Mall, Tyson’s downtown, which has a lot of skyscrapers and headquarters of a lot of companies. In some areas of my district, it doesn’t feel like I’m in Virginia. I could be in New York or Chicago—it’s very metropolitan.

Just a mile southwest of Tyson’s is a town called Vienna—it’s 122 years old. It’s a fantastic town with about 10-15,000 people. You can walk down main street, and everyone knows you. It feels very small town USA.

For me, I feel like I have the best of all worlds. I have the big urban centers, I have the small town feel, I have the suburban neighborhoods, and then I have apartments with low income dwellers and young people.

Do you know of any farms or farmers in your district?

I have a sampling of everything in my district, but I have no farms or an agricultural presence. Vienna has a very prominent farmers market. My wife loves to go there because you can get beautiful tomatoes and other vegetables like you just can’t get at the grocery store. I also go there a lot to meet people, and I always run into people from out of town visiting the farmers’ market. Some have been from Maryland and Pennsylvania–they’re in town visiting their families or for whatever reason, and instead of visiting the hustle and bustle of the city, they visit the farmers’ market.

Why did you get into politics?

I was born into a family of public servants. My dad was a Presbyterian minister and missionary, so we were expected to serve in the public sector as opposed to the private sector. I came to America as a teenager and became very interested in history and politics. I was living in California and got an internship in DC at the Democratic headquarters. I would walk past cemetery in Falls Church and saw the dates on the tombstones–some dating back to the 1700s. California wasn’t even a state then, so the historical aspect of Virginia really interested me.

Also, being an Asian minority, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me in Virginia. I asked myself, “Do I belong here?” I decided that if I didn’t move here, others wouldn’t move here either.  So now I work on integrating different people and backgrounds together. To me, politics is a way to bring people together, get issues out there, and push policies you think are right through the democratic process.

What has your experience been with agriculture? Have you visited a farm? Did you or any friends and family grow up on a farm?

My mom had a friend in California who grew Korean melons. I remember visiting the farm as a teenager, and wondering why all the melons were on the ground. I thought there had been a storm! I had no idea melons grew on the ground like that! When you buy melons and fruit from the store, you don’t think about how it was grown or how it got there.

Also, my wife grew up on a farm in Korea. When she was young, her father had an opportunity to move the family to the United States to work on a poultry farm on the Eastern Shore (Maryland).  My father-in-law, one of the bravest men I knew, achieved the American Dream through agriculture. By working on that poultry farm, he was able to provide for his family, save money  and eventually open up his own business.

My son, Tyler, has recently gotten interested in gardening. Last year I came home and noticed my son had planted some things in our flower bed. My wife helped him, and we had fresh tomatoes and peppers. This year, he has an even bigger section and wants to grow a lot more things. So it’s like we’re starting our own little family farm!

What issues do you think are important to Virginia farmers right now?

Because I don’t serve on the ag committee, I only see a bill if it makes it to the House floor. But I think there are a couple things: importing and exporting our agricultural products is one. I’ve worked on the trade agreement with Korea in Congress. One of my interests is free open trade and to make sure our agricultural products are competitive, so from a global perspective, that is an issue to me.

Locally, I know family farms are dealing with government regulations that need to make sense. But every aspect rural culture is different than the infrastructure in my district. It’s important for legislators like me to spend time with you guys out on your farms so I can have a better understanding of the issues affecting you.

What has your experience been with Farm Bureau? What issues have we helped you with?

Well, I’ve met with someone from the [American] Farm Bureau, and he explained to me the policy making process starting at the state level through the national level. I was really curious about it. I appreciate the history of the Farm Bureau and what you’ve stood for.

I was also very honored to be endorsed by Virginia Farm Bureau. I had never run for office before, and I was running against a Republican who was well known in the business community. My campaign advisors suggested it may not be worth meeting with business groups that normally do not endorse Democrats. But I wanted to talk to everyone. I wanted groups to support me not because of my party affiliation, but because they believe I’m the better candidate.

I was nervous when I met with Farm Bureau representatives — I had no idea what to expect. There is nothing on my resume that shows I have a connection to the agriculture industry. For a lot of the questions, I could only talk about what I thought the policy should be, since I’d never had actual experience dealing with these issues. I walked out of the meeting thinking, “I didn’t do very well.” A few weeks later, Andrew Smith called and told me I got the endorsement. I couldn’t believe it! But I was so pleased that the Bureau representatives rewarded me for my honest and candid answers. I know we’re not going to agree on every issue, but I was glad to know we had some common ground. To this day, the campaign endorsement that means the most to me is Farm Bureau’s.

 What can farmers do to better reach out to urban legislators like yourself to educate them about our issues? What’s the best form of communication? Visits, phone calls, emails, letters?

I would love to do a farm tour so we can appreciate what you do and have a better understanding of the issues you’re facing. As far as making contacts, visits are the most effective way to reach out to us. It’s always best one on one. I know you guys can’t get out here that often, so the next best thing is repetition. Email me AND call me about an issue. The more I hear from you, the more I understand how important something is to you.

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