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Candidates for 3 seats on Roanoke City Council answer questions on issues ahead of Nov. 3 election

Three Democrats, two Republicans, two independents and a Libertarian square off for three open seats on Roanoke’s city council. The election is Nov. 3, but early voting is underway for Roanoke’s 64,000 registered voters. The candidates answered questions submitted by The Roanoke Times regarding some of the issues in Roanoke. Some answers were edited for space considerations. The candidates’ full responses to these questions and another can be found at

The candidates are: Democrats Robert Jeffrey, Peter Volosin and Trish White-Boyd, who is the only incumbent running for reelection; Republicans Maynard Keller and Peg McGuire; Libertarian Cesar Alberto; and independents Kiesha Preston and Stephanie Moon Reynolds. The candidates’ answers are listed in the order that their names appear on the ballot.

Businesses, citizens, school students, workplaces and more have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your ideas for helping Roanoke recover from the pandemic?

JEFFREY: The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our families, our schools, our business, our health care and much more. Recovery is not something that will happen overnight. It will be a process that as a city, we must work through together.

VOLOSIN: Stemming the spread of COVID is critical to our economic recovery, so certainly access to fast and free or affordable testing is very important in the short term. It will also be important for government and businesses to continue to get creative and pivot. As a community, we must find ways to be able to perform necessary activities while implementing the recommended guidelines. We have to ask what consequences our policies will have down the road. For example, halting evictions and promoting programs that help keep people in their homes will avoid more drastic economic fallout later. We must envision the ways business, schools, housing, and transportation will change and work to shape policy that fits that, not cling to the idea of a return to exactly how things were.

WHITE-BOYD: The first thing we have to do here in Roanoke is contain the spread of the virus. The Virginia Department of Health is primarily in charge of testing for this region. But in addition to what the VDH is doing, the city along with my colleagues on council have created a partnership with New Horizons and they are currently conducting free testing onsite at a mobile unit that has been deployed all over the city. We must use the CARES Act funding along with the state’s COVID-19 relief fund money wisely to help our businesses recover, continue to work closely with [Roanoke City Public Schools] as they implement their 10-point plan for reopening and continue to assist our residents through our recovery grant funding programs.

KELLER: During my lifetime, I cannot recall such a draconian reaction by government to any disease or emergency. I recommend allowing all businesses, schools and government services to open at full capacity. Allow citizens to make their own choices. If people want to eat out, let them. If students want to return to school in person, let them. Everything in life has risks. The American people are strong and resilient.

McGUIRE: Widen our lens of “safety.” For the past eight months, the COVID numbers are the only numbers that seem to matter. Let’s start thinking about the whole health of our community. Child abuse, domestic abuse, suicides, overdoses, anxiety, depression, hunger and homelessness are abundant. Let’s balance the COVID case numbers with the rate of suicides, overdoses, domestic abuse cases, child abuse incidents, and acute depressive episodes. Get kids back in school. Working parents are at their breaking point. Our most vulnerable kids will be left behind. We know that education can be the magic bullet for our most vulnerable kids. If our area private schools can safely host in-person learning, then so can our public schools.

Ask businesses what they need to recover, rebuild and rehire. Every small business leader I’ve talked to has told me the same thing: Trying to get any idea through the city is nearly impossible. Give them what they need and get out of their way.

ALBERTO: Get out of their way. Plain and simple, the city expects entrepreneurs to come to the city to open a business with the knowledge of a career bureaucrat, and when we get here to open it up it’s borderline impossible, without an entire team of lawyers and experts on your side. I’d like to see a one-stop shop for small business similar to a financial aid office at a college or a Department of Motor Vehicles-type situation where one person tells you everything the city wants and walks you through it.

PRESTON: I think the priorities for the next few years need to be making sure that people have jobs, making sure that people have affordable places to live, and making sure that everyone can stay safe. Roanoke already has at least 300 individuals who have been identified as homeless and with the entire nation on the brink of an eviction crisis, the need for safe, affordable housing is greater than ever. I also think that now is a good time to focus on infrastructure projects, particularly green infrastructure. We were underprepared for this pandemic but science has already told us that we’re in the middle of a climate change crisis and it’s a crisis that we have power to do something about. Green infrastructure projects would not only help create jobs, but would simultaneously reduce our carbon footprint, potentially reduce some of the flooding that certain parts of the city are prone to, and contribute to helping keep our waterways clear. We need to make sure that schools have the funding they need to properly clean and sanitize while also making sure that people have access to PPE.

MOON REYNOLDS: I would encourage our citizens to continue to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Virginia Department of Health protocols until such time as it is documented that the active infections from the virus are declining. With regard to our business community, I would ask for frequent updates from the city manager as to our need to create subsidy programs and seek outside assistance to help underwrite business operations until certain bans on attendance and patronage are lifted. Since I have relatives who are small business owners in the city, I would also consult with them for direction as they are incredibly good sources of information from where “the rubber meets the road.”

Roanoke has had more than 30 shootings with injuries and eight fatal shootings this year. What can the city do to reduce the number of shootings?

JEFFREY: The answer to gun violence is not an easy one. It’s not as simple as enacting more laws or taking away guns or even adding more police. We must look at the issue holistically. As a city, we need to attract companies with jobs that pay a living wage, provide more affordable housing and address the issues related to transportation. By addressing all the issues that may lead to gun violence, I believe that we will be able to reduce gun violence.

VOLOSIN: Every Roanoker deserves to live in a place they feel safe. While I support public policy like universal background checks and believe that legislation can help reduce gun violence, I also know it doesn’t make it disappear. Aside from policy that helps keep deadly weapons out of the hands of dangerous people, I support comprehensively addressing poverty in our city. We know there’s a link between gun homicide and constrained social mobility, so building a city where people have opportunity and aren’t left behind is another way to reduce shootings. While it might not seem related, supporting green spaces and outdoor recreation is another way to curtail violence. By making it easier and safer for people to exercise and relax outdoors, we might be able to discourage violence in areas it has been prominent.

WHITE-BOYD: Roanoke like many other cities in the United States is dealing with gun violence. We’ve seen many changes in Virginia State law that went into effect July 2020. With these changes we will see some decrease in gun violence. As for the city of Roanoke, we are taking action. Mayor Sherman P. Lea, Vice-Mayor Joe Cobb, Roanoke Police Chief Sam Roman and U.S. Marshal Tom Foster held a press conference on Oct. 1 addressing a recent response to the increase in gun violence in Roanoke. We are now in Operation Street Sweeper. The U.S. Marshals Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force and Roanoke Police worked side-by-side for two weeks to serve active criminal warrants. 212 warrants served, 138 subjects apprehended, 18 firearms seized, $3,761 seized, 116.2 grams of heroin seized, 458.6 grams of meth seized, 2.73 grams crack seized and one vehicle seized.

KELLER: Shootings are up dramatically since June. What can the city do? Enforce existing laws and be tough on crime. Don’t give cop killers parole. Murderers, including cop killers, should receive the death penalty. Encourage various police and law enforcement divisions to cooperate to stop crime. Admit there is a gang problem in Roanoke and go after the gangs. Don’t take away the rights of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves. You never know if you’re at the wrong McDonald’s at the wrong time.

McGUIRE: Get the kids back in school. Our Roanoke City Schools administrators — especially at the high school level — could often detect and defuse situations before shots were fired. Involve the churches and community groups. Our places of worship are essential in helping to build and support families. Give the Roanoke Police Department the resources they need to recruit and keep good law enforcement officers. Our department currently has 32 open positions and only 12 recruits at the academy. The lack of support shown to our police force this summer has led to increased resignations and retirements. Let’s up their pay, give them the training they need, and thank them for their service.

ALBERTO: All the shootings in our city truly boil down to one thing. It’s gang turf wars. And when we look at gangs, what’s their main source of income? It’s drugs. Our government looks at this like a legal issue instead of a commodities issue. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if we’ve learned anything, it’s that Americans love drugs. Plain and simple, if we removed the illegality [of drugs], these “gangs” would be corporations and would have the opportunity to buy each other out instead of killing each other. As a city councilman, I would advocate for a Police Chief Friendly to ending the failed racist War on Drugs, and also tell the feds if you want to enforce your unjust laws you use your resources. I am against us using our tax revenue for the policing of someone else’s vices.

PRESTON: As a Roanoke native who has lived in high-crime neighborhoods the majority of my life, I recall experiencing similar levels of violent crime in the 1990s when I was a child. I say this to point out that the violent crime problem we’re experiencing isn’t new. It has consistently shown up in waves in Roanoke. It gets better for a while, and then it resumes and I think the reason we’ve failed to solve the problem for good is that little has been done to address the root. Most gun-related deaths and injuries are directly connected to domestic violence, mental illness, police-involved shootings, and gang activity. If we focus on strengthening communities, funding preventative programs, and creating equitable economic opportunities so people don’t feel the need to join gangs, we’re going to see violent crime go way down.

MOON REYNOLDS: Violence reduction will not come about without broad community engagement and support. The cities of Newport News and Danville have full time Youth and Gang Violence Prevention Coordinators who report directly to the city manager. Newport News’ program has produced phenomenal results built upon community engagement of the plan development in accordance with the Office of Justice and Delinquency Prevention National Gang Center recommendations and local law enforcement agencies partnerships and other community-based nonprofits. I believe success of both programs has been overwhelming because of community support and the reduction of red tape and politics due to the coordinators working directly out of the city manager’s Office and not the police department.

Like many cities, Roanoke has long lacked equitable economic opportunities for all citizens. What can the city do to improve the economic livelihoods of all Roanokers?

JEFFREY: The role of city council should be to attract industries that pay a living wage and provide opportunities for advancement. We must also provide and promote job training, apprenticeships and internships that provide the necessary experience needed for technology-focused positions, positions in healthcare and trade skills.

VOLOSIN: Certainly some of the changes we’re experiencing are exciting, like the introduction of the medical school and brain research center, but industries that were the backbone of this city for many decades have left, and left many people behind when they did. Everyone in our city deserves to live in a place of opportunity, both now and in the future. My focus will be on getting people the tools they need to succeed, reducing the cost of doing business in the city, supporting and promoting local businesses, creating and fostering quality workforce development programs, attracting new developments around improved infrastructure, and incentivizing small business incubation centers.

WHITE-BOYD: I realize we have a 22% poverty rate and that is not OK with me. I have been working diligently with Virginia Career Works and local employers to match residents with skilled and technical jobs that are not being filled because of the lack of qualified applicants. Numerous businesses in Roanoke offer good-paying jobs and it’s my responsibility as a member of council to facilitate that connection with our residents to those jobs. I am working with Rob Leonard with Build Smart Institute (a trade school) to see how we can transition our high school graduates who are not interested in college but are very interested in learning a trade. I know basic trades are in high demand and are an excellent path to financial stability and can be very rewarding.

KELLER: Government should protect the rights of all citizens. Citizens should have equal opportunities; however, this doesn’t mean there will be equal outcomes. There are many reasons why businesses succeed or fail. Roanoke should streamline the process for starting a business. Right now, there are too many hurdles and roadblocks. A number of large companies have either left Roanoke or scaled back the operations. Roanoke needs to be business friendly and eliminate the Business, Professional and Occupational Licensing [BPOL] tax, which is a tax on gross receipts, not profit.

McGUIRE: Give the citizens a seat at the table. We currently elect our city council members at-large and our city council appoints our school board members. At-large elections and appointed school boards are rooted in racism. They were enacted during the Jim Crow era and were designed to limit the political influence of people of color. Let’s go from at-large elections to ward elections. Neighborhoods would be organized into wards and the citizens would elect representatives to city council. Let’s elect our school board members. Granted, we’ve been blessed with outstanding appointed school board members the past few years. But will we always be so blessed? Education: Get the kids back in school. Education is the magic bullet for some of our kids. Online learning is not cutting it.

ALBERTO: Begin by ensuring that the poorest neighborhoods have direct transportation to the economic hubs in our city. It makes no sense for a bus to take two hours to go from Hurt Park to Valley View. I want to see us focus on a “trickle up economy” where we focus on lifting up the bottom 30% of our city with the help from the top 10% of business. If we can eliminate the tax burden on all small business making less than, let’s just say, $250,000 and increase the tax rate on business making more than $1 million a year, Roanoke can become the small business capital of not just Virginia but the entire country.

PRESTON: I would like to create more economically diverse neighborhoods by creating affordable housing opportunities in higher opportunity parts of town. Statistics have shown that economically diverse schools perform 22 times better than schools with high concentrated levels of poverty and creating economically diverse neighborhoods plays an important role in facilitating economically diverse schools. We also need to make sure that schools have the funding they need to accommodate students with special needs. We need more efficient public transportation so that people without transportation of their own have an affordable way to get to and from work, and we need more job training programs, and job opportunities, for people who lack college degrees.

MOON REYNOLDS: The foundation to individual and family wealth-building is earning power beyond the minimum wage threshold. Thus, we must begin to offer programs which train our citizens in the skill areas which pay a “living wage” and come with benefits and opportunities for advancement. Along with the training we must provide a comprehensive program of “wrap around” services to connect workforce-ready persons with employers. In this regard, I would ask that Virginia Western Community College, in partnership with the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, seek to get our area designated to receive state funding to initiate a Network2Work Program. This program has the potential to help us to improve the economic livelihood of all Roanokers.

The videotaped killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis sparked a wave of racial protests across the United States, including a large protest in Roanoke on May 30 and subsequent smaller protests. What can the city do to combat racism and confront racial tensions?

JEFFREY: To combat racism, it must be acknowledged. To combat racism, we must address the systemic racism and injustices that exist in our laws and our policies. And while Roanoke has many opportunities to talk about, learn about and understand racism, it is now time to act. We need to make changes to our policies and provide equitable access to opportunities.

VOLOSIN: We are all coming to terms with the history of entrenched discrimination in our country, but it’s also important to remember our local history and the consequences systemic racism has had here in our own city if we’re to overcome tensions and promote a just and unified Roanoke. If we ignore the current impacts of past practices like redlining and urban renewal, we are doing a disservice to the city and its future. I have been inspired by programs like the one in Denver that dispatches mental health professionals, social workers and paramedics to certain calls rather than police. Over the years, police have been increasingly expected to handle issues beyond their scope and training, which is neither fair to them or the public.

WHITE-BOYD: In order to combat and confront racism we have to first as a city acknowledge that it exists. It is imperative that the city not overlook the moral commitment that has been made to the people of Gainsboro years ago. The gentrification and urban renewal that took place in the Gainsboro community is unconscionable and we have to do what’s right. I was appointed to the newly formed Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board as chair and along with my colleague on council Bill Bestpitch. The purpose and responsibility of the board is to 1.) Review the priorities for Interwoven Equity 2.) Review all existing city policies ordinances and regulations and recommend to city council changes in such policies, ordinances or regulations to eliminate any policies or procedures that promote inequality or limit empowerment. This will include hiring practices, police policy and certainly interwoven equity just to name a few key areas.

KELLER: Justice needs to be colorblind. The mistreatment of anyone, rich or poor, black or white, is wrong. What can Roanoke do? Enhance de-escalation training and use of non-lethal methods of restraint. Our law enforcement officers need better compensation and training. In Roanoke, the police need the support of city council. At the Back the Blue Rally on July 5, not a single member of city council attended the rally. At the Back the Blue Rally on Aug. 18, which Peg McGuire and I sponsored, again not a single member of city council attended. Where were they? These were public events. We didn’t receive a single “regret” that they couldn’t be there. City council says they support law enforcement, but their actions deny this.

McGUIRE: As a Republican, I’m often caught in the middle of people yelling “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” I’m the adoptive mother of two brown boys. I do not believe that the United States of America is inherently racist. I do not believe that we were founded on racist ideas. But I also know that racists are among us and my sons will experience prejudice and hate. We solve this problem not in the city council hearing room, or in the classroom, but on the sidewalk, neighbor to neighbor, person to person. We start by eliminating the prejudice and bias that each of us hold. As an elected official — and as a human, actually — I can’t promise that I can solve the issues of prejudice, racism, and bias. I can only promise that I will see each citizen as a whole person, made in the image of God, who has promise and potential beyond our wildest dreams.

ALBERTO: Simple. Begin by lifting up those who need the help the most. No one worries about the color of each other’s skin when we’re all doing well in our lives. It’s when things start to go wrong that we begin to look for scapegoats. Unfortunately in this country, minorities have been used as a scapegoat since the inception of our nation. We have come a long way and have a long way left to go. I can’t sit here and pretend like I have the answers because I don’t and don’t be fooled into thinking that any of the other candidates have the solution because no one does. All we can do is lead by example in our lives and in our public interactions. We must see beyond the color of someone’s skin and financial footing for we are all Americans. We are all one Roanoke!

PRESTON: Step one is acknowledging that racism exists, acknowledging the systemic nature of it, and then doing something to dismantle that system. A big part of that means re-imagining what public safety should look like. I’d like to see a focus on restorative, opposed to punitive, justice. I’d like to see non-violent offenders met with resources to decrease the likelihood that they’ll offend again. I’d like to see well-funded mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence, and other preventative programs, and I’d like to see people as a whole with equitable access to the resources that they need to thrive in our community.

MOON REYNOLDS: Nothing new under the sun. In the early 1980s, tensions were high between the Roanoke City Police Department and several civil rights organizations, namely the NAACP and SCLC, that resulted from policies and in-the-field practices by the police department which were prejudicial to the minority and low income communities in Roanoke. I recall the appointment of a citywide work group who would participate in a series of workshops which were designed and facilitated by the George Mason University’s Center for Conflict Resolution. The result was the diffusion of tension, the development of policies and procedures that would govern police behavior relative to citizen engagement, as well as new and innovative community policing programs were instituted which brought patrol officers in direct contact with the citizens they were sworn to serve and protect. I believe that it’s time to repeat this process in order to create the conversations that are necessary in order for Roanoke to get refocused on ensuring that every citizen is treated with respect and given the opportunity to succeed and become productive self-sufficient members of the community.

Retiring Warm Hearth CEO ready for whatever comes next

CHRISTIANSBURG — Every time an appliance in her house acts up, Ferne Moschella said she thinks about how much easier it would be living at Warm Hearth Village.

“I wouldn’t have to worry about these things,” Moschella said with a chuckle. “If my refrigerator broke, I would call maintenance, and it would be their problem.”

While not a resident of the 200-acre nonprofit continuing care senior living campus just outside Blacksburg, Moschella has served as the village’s president and chief executive officer for the past 15 years. Before that she spent five years as chief operating officer. In that time, she’s overseen three major construction projects to expand the village, and over the past six months has largely kept the novel coronavirus outside its borders.

On Oct. 16, Moschella, 59, stepped down from the longest continuous job of her career, handing the financial challenges and life-and-death responsibilities of Warm Hearth’s 600 residents over to Dublin native Brad Dalton. Dalton, a former executive with American Health Care/Heritage Hall in Roanoke, was hired in August.

Her long stay in Blacksburg surprised even Moschella.

“Never in my life did I imagine I would stay at any job 20 years, but Warm Hearth has just never gotten stale,” she said. Still, she “could see a time coming when I would not be as effective as I would need to be. The level of intensity and the 24/7 nature of the work takes a toll.”

Ever the planner, Moschella gave three years notice of her retirement, and has steadily worked toward that goal. Still, the goodbye is bittersweet for residents and for other leaders in the organization and the industry.

“It’s a loss,” said Loring Bixler, a retired industrial designer and village resident for the past seven years. “If she was someone who never came out of her office, that would be one thing. But Ferne was always there; you always saw Ferne … pretty much every day.”

“This woman is phenomenal. As soon as she sees you, she addresses you by name,” Bixler said. “She is very professional, and she is very receptive to new ideas.”

While Warm Hearth board chairman Ed Spencer said he’s confident they’ve found a promising new leader in Dalton, Moschella will be hard to replace.

“Her relationships with the board, her relationships with staff and her relationships with residents are all equally positive, and that’s unusual in a CEO,” Spencer said. “I think she’s every board member’s dream of what a CEO should be.”

And she’ll be missed by the industry she’s served for so long.

“I am going to miss Ferne as a friend and colleague and as a leader within the association,” said Melissa Andrews, president and CEO of LeadingAge Virginia, a membership organization that advocates for nonprofit senior care programs. “She’s one of the most collaborative people I’ve met.”

Moschella came to Warm Hearth from Carilion Clinic in 2000. At the time, she was an executive overseeing cardiac care across the company’s hospitals. But she wanted to make more time for her children, and so answered an ad in a newspaper for a director of finance at Warm Hearth. For a self-described “bean counter,” it was the perfect job.

But the timing didn’t work out, she said.

It wasn’t long before Warm Hearth’s then CEO, the late John Sankey, reached out to Moschella with a proposition. He planned to retire in a few years and wanted to train his replacement. Soon after, Moschella was named chief operating officer, and six years later when Sankey retired, she took over as CEO.

Since then, expansion has been steady.

Moschella has overseen construction of the upscale WoodsEdge independent living community, with 45 high-end single-family homes. During her tenure, the campus reached a major milestone, the opening of a long-planned Village Center. A central meeting space with pool, gym and restaurant, the center has been on the books since the early days of the community’s founding.

Wybe and Marietje Kroontje, Dutch nationals who immigrated to the U.S. after World War II, opened Warm Hearth in 1974 to replace the institutional model of elder care with a close-knit village that would serve a mixed-income community. Today Warm Hearth offers a continuum of services, from independent and assisted living to skilled nursing care, and it serves a range of income levels, offering subsidized and middle-income housing options, as well as upscale living.

Moschella’s impact has not been limited to Warm Hearth. She has also contributed to the nonprofit senior care industry statewide, Melissa Andrews of LeadingAge Virginia said.

Moschella worked with LeadingAge to develop that organization’s 2016-19 strategic plan.

“Her impact was on everything we did,” Andrews said. “Not only does she have this incredible attention to detail, she’s also very strategic. I don’t know how you master both of those, but she really has.”

Earlier this year, LeadingAge honored Moschella with its 2020 Vision Award.

“Warm Hearth is a really special organization because of who they serve and how they serve them,” Andrews said. “To have the socio-economic mix that they do on one campus is pretty unique and it’s really unique in Virginia.”

Keeping it growing is not easy, however.

“The life-and-death nature of the business is very stressful, and I think we feel responsible for people’s lives and their well-being, and that’s really hard,” Moschella said.

The financial pressures of running a nonprofit organization heavily reliant on government reimbursement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are never ending, she said. And finding ways to recruit and retain the best nursing staff in the middle of a national shortage has been a constant challenge.

It all takes a toll, and Moschella said she could begin to see a time when she wouldn’t have the energy or resilience to give it her all. So she planned her exit.

“I don’t want to be that CEO who people are rolling their eyes about, saying ‘when’s she going to leave?’ ” Moschella said. “I want to get out before that happens. I’d rather leave too soon than too late.”

But she had a couple of tasks yet to complete. Last year, Moschella checked a last big project off the list: opening Carilion Clinic at Warm Hearth Village, a medical clinic for residents, employees and the wider community.

This year, she’s worked with her staff to prevent a deadly outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has been a menace to senior care facilities as infection rates in the surrounding county soared last month. Despite some false positives and an employee who did test positive, the staff has largely kept the virus at bay.

Now Moschella says it’s time to rest and think about whatever comes next, whether it’s working as a barista at Starbucks or something more corporate.

“I don’t want to do anything similar to what I have been doing,” she said. “I want to do something totally different.”

Trump leans into fear tactics in bid to win Midwest states

MUSKEGON, Michigan — President Donald Trump leaned into fear tactics Saturday as he accused the left of trying to “erase American history, purge American values and destroy the American way of life” in a late reelection pitch to voters in Michigan.

“The Democrat Party you once knew doesn’t exist,” Trump told voters in Muskegon, Michigan, ahead of a rally in Wisconsin — two states in the Upper Midwest that were instrumental to his 2016 victory but may now be slipping from his grasp.

As he tried to keep more voters from turning against him, Trump sought to paint Democrats as “anti-American radicals” on a “crusade against American history.” He told moderate voters they had “a moral duty” to join the Republican Party.

He also revisited his monthslong feud with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Whitmer, a Democrat, was the focus of a kidnapping plot by anti-government extremists who were angered by lockdown measures she put in place as a result of the coronavirus. Thirteen men have been charged in connection with the scheme, which included plans to storm the state Capitol and to hold some kind of trial for the governor.

It’s a theme Trump leaned into, while the crowd chanted “Lock her up.”

“You got to get your governor to open your state and get your schools open. The schools have to be open, right?” said Trump, who also took credit for federal law enforcement’s role in foiling the plot.

A Whitmer aide responded to Trump’s attacks in a tweet.

“Every single time the President does this at a rally, the violent rhetoric towards her immediately escalates on social media,” Whitmer’s digital director, Tori Saylor, tweeted. “It has to stop. It just has to.”

Trump’s reelection pitch comes as he faces headwinds not only in national polling, which shows Democrat Joe Biden leading, but also in key battleground surveys. And it comes after the campaign largely retreated from TV advertising in the Midwest, shifting much of its money to Sun Belt states such as Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania.

The president continues to be dogged by his handling of the coronavirus, which hospitalized him for several days earlier this month.

Wisconsin broke the record for new positive coronavirus cases on Friday — the third time that’s happened in a week. The state also hit record highs for daily deaths and hospitalizations this past week.

But there was little evidence of concern among the crowd at Trump’s airport rally, where thousands of supporters stood closely together in the cold. The vast majority eschewed masks.

Biden had no public events planned for Saturday. But in a memo to supporters, campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon warned about becoming complacent.

“The reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we’re seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest,” she wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. “If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days of a campaign, through whatever smears or underhanded tactics he has at his disposal.”

Trump is keeping up an aggressive campaign schedule despite his own recent bout with the virus. He’s holding rallies Sunday in Nevada and Monday in Arizona before returning Tuesday to Pennsylvania.

The difficulty of securing a second term was apparent Friday when Trump campaigned in Georgia. No Republican presidential contender has lost the state since 1992, but polling shows Trump and Biden in a tight contest. Trump also has had to court voters in Iowa, which he carried by almost 10 percentage points four years ago.

The latest campaign fundraising figures from the Trump team suggest he’s likely the first incumbent president in the modern era to face a financial disadvantage. After building a massive cash edge, his campaign spent lavishly, while Biden kept expenses low and benefited from an outpouring of donations that saw him raise nearly $1 billion over the past three months. That gives Biden a massive cash advantage with just over two weeks to go before the election.

In the hours before his rallies on Saturday, Trump focused on settling a score with a member of his own party, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Referring to him as “Little Ben Sasse,” Trump tweeted that the senator was a “liability to the Republican Party, and an embarrassment to the Great State of Nebraska.”

The series of tweets came after Sasse told constituents Wednesday during a telephone town hall meeting that Trump has “flirted with white supremacists,” mocks Christian evangelicals in private and “kisses dictators’ butts.”

Sasse, who is up for reelection this year in the strongly Republican state, went on to criticize the president’s handling of the coronavirus and said Trump’s family has treated the presidency “like a business opportunity.”

Trump’s Twitter broadside blasted Sasse as “the least effective of our 53 Republican Senators, and a person who truly doesn’t have what it takes to be great.”

Sasse’s spokesman, James Wegmann, tweeted in response that Sasse was focusing on helping Republicans retain their 53-47 Senate majority, and “he’s not going to waste a single minute on tweets.”

Rural Midwest hospitals struggling to handle virus surge

WESSINGTON SPRINGS, S.D. — Rural Jerauld County in South Dakota didn’t see a single case of the coronavirus for more than two months stretching from June to August. But over the last two weeks, its rate of new cases per person soared to one of the highest in the nation.

“All of a sudden it hit, and as it does, it just exploded,” said Dr. Tom Dean, one of just three doctors who work in the county.

As the brunt of the virus has blown into the Upper Midwest and northern Plains, the severity of outbreaks in rural communities has come into focus. Doctors and health officials in small towns worry that infections may overwhelm communities with limited medical resources. And many say they are still running up against attitudes on wearing masks that have hardened along political lines and a false notion that rural areas are immune to widespread infections.

Dean took to writing a column in the local weekly newspaper, the True Dakotan, to offer his guidance. In recent weeks, he’s watched as one in roughly every 37 people in his county has tested positive for the virus.

It ripped through the nursing home in Wessington Springs where both his parents lived, killing his father. The community’s six deaths may appear minimal compared with thousands who have died in cities, but they have propelled the county of about 2,000 people to a death rate roughly four times higher than the nationwide rate.

Rural counties across Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana sit among the top in the nation for new cases per capita over the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. In counties with just a few thousand people, the number of cases per capita can soar with even a small outbreak — and the toll hits close to home in tight-knit towns.

“One or two people with infections can really cause a large impact when you have one grocery store or gas station,” said Misty Rudebusch, the medical director at a network of rural health clinics in South Dakota called Horizon Health Care. “There is such a ripple effect.”

Wessington Springs is a hub for the generations of farmers and ranchers that work the surrounding land. Residents send their children to the same schoolhouse they attended and have preserved cultural offerings like a Shakespeare garden and opera house.

They trust Dean, who for 42 years has tended to everything from broken bones to high blood pressure. When a patient needs a higher level of care, the family physician usually depends on a transfer to a hospital 130 miles away.

As cases surge, hospitals in rural communities are having trouble finding beds. A recent request to transfer a “not desperately ill, but pretty” sick COVID-19 patient was denied for several days, until the patient’s condition had worsened, Dean said.

“We’re proud of what we got, but it’s been a struggle,” he said of the 16-bed hospital.

The outbreak that killed Dean’s dad forced Wessington Springs’ only nursing home to put out a statewide request for nurses.

Thin resources and high death rates have plagued other small communities. Blair Tomsheck, interim director of the health department in Toole County, Montana, worried that the region’s small hospitals would need to start caring for serious COVID-19 patients after cases spiked to the nation’s highest per capita. One out of every 28 people in the county has tested positive in the last two weeks, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

“It’s very, very challenging when your resources are poor — living in a small, rural county,” she said.

Infections can also spread quickly in places like Toole County, where most everyone shops at the same grocery store, attends the same school or worships at a handful of churches.

“The Sunday family dinners are killing us,” Tomsheck said.

Even as outbreaks threaten to spiral out of control, doctors and health officials said they are struggling to convince people of the seriousness of a virus that took months to arrive in force.

“It’s kind of like getting a blizzard warning and then the blizzard doesn’t hit that week, so then the next time, people say they are not going to worry about it,” said Kathleen Taylor, a 67-year-old author who lives in Redfield, South Dakota.

In swaths of the country decorated by flags supporting President Donald Trump, people took their cues on wearing masks from his often-cavalier attitude toward the virus. Dean draws a direct connection between Trump’s approach and the lack of precautions in his town of 956 people.

“There’s the foolish idea that mask-wearing or refusal is some kind of a political statement,” Dean said. “It has seriously interfered with our ability to get it under control.”

Even amid the surge, Republican governors in the region have been reluctant to act. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said recently, “We are caught in the middle of a COVID storm” as he raised advisory risk levels in counties across the state. But he has refused to issue a mask mandate.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who has carved out a reputation among conservatives by forgoing lockdowns, blamed the surge in cases on testing increases, even though the state has had the highest positivity rate in the nation over the last two weeks, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Positivity rates are an indication of how widespread infections are.

In Wisconsin, conservative groups have sued over Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate.

Whether the requirement survives doesn’t matter to Jody Bierhals, a resident of Gillett who doubts the efficacy of wearing a mask. Her home county of Oconto, which stretches from the northern border of Green Bay into forests and farmland, has the state’s second-highest growth in coronavirus cases per person.

Bierhals, a single mother with three kids, is more worried about the drop in business at her small salon. The region depends on tourists, but many have stayed away during the pandemic.

“Do I want to keep the water on, or do I want to be able to put food on the table?” she asked. “It’s a difficult situation.”

Bierhals said she thought the virus couldn’t be stopped and it would be best to let it run its course. But local attitudes like that have left the county’s health officer, Debra Konitzer, desperate.

Konitzer warned that the uncontrolled spread of infections has overwhelmed the county’s health systems.

“I’m just waiting to see if our community can change our behavior,” she said. “Otherwise, I don’t see the end in sight.”