Rural Internet-ification: Jane Dittmar wants to connect the 5th District

Jane Dittmar has specific goals in mind, spurring her run for Congress, and broadband access is at the top of the list because it’s hard to generate jobs without it. Photo by Eze Amos Jane Dittmar has specific goals in mind, spurring her run for Congress, and broadband access is at the top of the list because it’s hard to generate jobs without it. Photo by Eze Amos

In the 1930s, electricity was common in the cities, but pretty much nonexistent elsewhere. If not for the Rural Electrification Act, some of us might still be sitting in the dark. It’s the same situation today for many in rural areas without Internet access.

Jane Dittmar became aware of how dire the situation is in Albemarle County when running for the Scottsville seat on the Board of Supervisors in 2013. “People in the rural area don’t have Internet or have spotty Internet or only DSL, which is slow,” she says. “Their children can’t do their homework.”

She has seen families driving to Panera so their kids can do their school work. Or they park around area libraries to use them as hot spots. “If you’re scraping by and want to apply for a job at Walmart, you can’t do it on paper,” she says.

Rural citizens without the net can’t use telemedicine. Veterans can’t check their benefits. And for a jobs-strapped district like the 5th, “No consultant will ever say, ‘Locate here,’ without Internet access,” she says—a couple of days before the Washington Post reported new U.S. Census data that shows new businesses are dramatically less likely to start up in small towns or rural communities than in the past.

“This is critical infrastructure,” she says. “We’re leaving families behind.”

And that is why Dittmar is running for Congress. During the two years she was chair of the Board of Supervisors, she says she tried to score the grants needed to help wire the countryside—and learned it’s an issue that requires federal and state efforts. “I wasn’t able to do that,” she says. “I need to have access to our Congress to do that.”

She points to low-populated, vast land-massed South Dakota, which has done an “amazing” job using grants from all those fees that are paid in phone bills to provide Internet for its citizens.

“The private sector can’t just do it out of the goodness of its heart,” she says. That’s why, as with rural electrification, if the public sector puts in the Internet infrastructure, the private sector can take over, she says.

Dittmar, 60, says running for Congress wasn’t on her bucket list. “I really want to see us connected and I wasn’t able to get that done on a local level.”

She’s already gotten some heat from checking the wrong boxes on federal financial forms that put her net worth at more than $250 million. “I was a $50 million homeowner for a day,” she laughs. She refiled the forms with the House of Representatives clerk’s office and says she was told it was a frequently made error.

“This is my first rodeo,” she says. Despite critics calling the error a lack of attention to detail that doesn’t bode well for reading the bills that come before Congress, she says it wasn’t as if she were trying to hide a $50 million condo as a $50,000 property. “That would have been a little more uncomfortable explaining.”

She also thinks her background as a mediator, business owner and former president of the Charlottesville Area Chamber of Commerce will serve her well as she faces Republican state Senator Tom Garrett. “Most of my career has been bringing people together,” she says. “I have an economic development background. He does not. I’ve made payroll and launched regional economic partnerships. These things are emblematic of a candidate who knows what she’s doing.”

Still, it’s an uphill battle in the 5th District, which stretches from the North Carolina border to almost Maryland and which has elected Republican Robert Hurt for the past three terms since Dem Tom Perriello lasted one term in 2008.

Dittmar describes the district as five separate regions: the counties that consider themselves Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, “which doesn’t identify with Charlottesville,” five counties around Farmville and Southside. “That’s one of the terrible grievances I have with gerrymandering,” she says. While Charlottesville may say the environment is the biggest issue, in Southside jobs are “No. 1, 2 and 3,” she adds.

There is one thing that unifies the district, she says: “We all have a digital deficit.”

Related Links:

Sept. 22, 2015: See Jane run

May 5, 2015: Dittmar won’t seek reelection to BOS, endorses Randolph

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