His message was about the nation successfully competing in the global economy of the 21st Century, and it couldn’t have been more appropriate. The University of Tennessee at Martin students listening will be the ones to help shape the future.
Luther Mercer II, recently campaigning in Martin for the Democratic nomination for the Eighth Congressional District seat, told students and others at a College Democrats’ meeting he wants to strengthen education and help create employment opportunities here so young people aren’t forced to leave the area.
Mercer said when young people think about opportunities, they “think about other places.” He added, “We’re not investing in ourselves.”
Noting education is the foundation of any nation and the basis of his campaign, he said, “You can’t bring new jobs to this area unless you have an educated workforce that’s able to sustain those jobs.”
As a short-term strategy, he said colleges and technical schools should continue to provide programs that allow older displaced workers to train for jobs that remain in the region and also for jobs of the future. The jobs that have left the region, he said, are not coming back. “Those industries are gone.”
For the younger generation, the focus should also be on education – to prepare for jobs of the future. “The challenges are all tied … to education. We have been stagnant for so long,” adding that the same rhetoric along party lines continues, but with no changes. “We’re not challenging ourselves to be better. The 21st Century requires … creativity, critical analysis, reading comprehension, writing and, of course, math and science.”
He also promotes high standards for teachers and parents. “There’s got to be a partnership. Education is the premier point we need to invest in.”
Mercer suggested that green economy jobs – manufacturing products such as wind turbines and solar panels – would power residences and business and put thousands of people to work. “These are things I want to look at to help spur this energy industry” in the region.
But that will not be enough, he said. Modernizing the region’s infrastructure will allow products of the future to reach the marketplace at a speed equal to consumers’ demands.
“We have to be careful … not to just focus in one area. What makes an economy strong … is having diversity.” He added getting people back to work and preparing for jobs of the future is “a long-term problem. That’s the reality. It’s going to take time.”
Mercer said making investments in people and growing the economy are also tied to health care reform – providing the needed health coverage without burdening existing businesses and stalling entrepreneurial efforts.
Making positive strides in health care reform needs to include more emphasis on preventive measures and incentives, he said. “Seventy percent of illnesses … could actually be prevented” through nutrition and exercise reducing the reliance on the health care system and curbing costs.
Speaking about other issues and challenges facing Congress, he said, ”I do not take this lightly. I understand the responsibility. We have got to progress … to start to talk about ideas. That is really the primary reason I am running.” He also urged civic responsibility that goes beyond voting to holding elected officials accountable. “There are local committees, community activist groups that play a role in making a difference. Government has responsibility, but you can’t expect government to do everything.”
“It takes a strong leader to offer solutions to problems – not just vote ‘no’,” he said of partisanship going on in Washington. “If you don’t agree with what’s being put on the floor, come up with an answer.”
As a congressman, Mercer said he’d build partnerships across party lines and reduce the power of extremists on both sides of the aisle. “We’re no longer human in our discussions. I think we’ve got to work beyond that.”
Labeling politicians is not what’s needed for the future, he said. “If you start electing labels, that’s where we get into the problems that we have suffered from. I do consider myself a person with ideas, independent-minded, looking at issues and then trying to find the best answer.”
His background earning a law degree, studying and teaching in Egypt and China and international travel were good foundations, he said, for his current work as coordinator of global education for a private school in Memphis, teaching in Bethel University’s Success program, consulting – and for the future serving in Congress.