Ep. 64 Iowa: The Dream Team in the Field of Dreams
Welcome to Iowa! We open this episode with a moment from our potluck in Des Moines, where I read a short passage out loud from the novel Gilead, by Iowa writer Marilynne Robinson.
“I love the prairie, so often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turned radiant at once. That word ‘good’ so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. There may have been a more wonderful first moment when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy, but for all I know to the contrary, they still do sing and shout and they certainly might well. Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay, mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.”
Robinson captures what I saw in Iowa: the radiance of the cornfields in the glory of late summer sunlight. Mountains would definitely get in the way. But her words also fit because this is an episode about affirming goodness and honoring traditions like the state fair, the small town and the right to hope. Robinson’s words are our Iowa invocation.
During my time in Iowa, I was constantly struck by the pride that Iowans take in the tradition of goodness here and I was equally struck by their sense of dismay and urgency about fighting the forces of division that have taken hold in their beloved hometowns.
And that sense of urgency is reflected in the candidates who’ve stepped forward to run for office. Iowa Democrats are fielding a dream team this season and we can’t wait for you to meet them. If you’ve been listening to The MidPod, you’ve already heard from Deidre DeJear. She’s running for Secretary of State. And as for congress, the exciting thing is that THREE of the state’s four congressional seats are competitive, all of them have Republican incumbents.
So here’s the itinerary: We’re going to take you to the Wing Ding Dinner, the State Fair Soapbox, and then out on the campaign trail with candidate J.D. Scholten. Then you’re invited to our citizens potluck with strong Iowa women in Des Moines.
This is The MidPod, the Midterms Podcast. I’m Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We’re two moms, travelling America to chronicle what may be the most important set of elections in our lifetimes, the midterms, and they’re just over a month away in November. In these elections, the American people have the chance to elect a new generation of leaders who could begin to repair the broken U.S. Congress -- our first branch of government.
Chapter 1. The Wing Ding
Nicie: Testing, testing. OK. I am here in Clear Lake, Iowa and I'm approaching the Surf Ballroom, the scene of the 15th annual Iowa Wing Ding. And there's a marquee, like a movie marquee, and it says “The Surf Welcomes the 15th Annual Iowa Wing Ding, Surf the Blue Wave.”
The Wing Ding dinner is an annual fundraiser for Democrats in North Iowa. It’s an important stop on the campaign trail for anyone who wants to run for President. So, this year, the venue was packed. In addition to several candidates running for the 2018 midterms, three presidential hopefuls were there: Andrew Yang, John Delaney and, believe it or not, Stormy Daniel’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti. He landed in Iowa just before I did, to begin testing the waters for a 2020 Presidential bid. The room was abuzz as Democrats sized up the lineup.
We're really watching the midterms closely, we've got some close elections that are happening. Avenatti, since he's going to speak was kind of a big draw. So we're here for the politics. And really enjoy meeting all the potential candidates. Did you meet anybody yet or are you just looking forward to hearing them? We just met Yang, Yang? Yeah. You know, we've never voted for a president that we hadn't met several times and shook their hand and looked him right in the eye. So that was really important. And we're looking forward to seeing the other candidates getting a chance to talk to them, as well.
But the 2018 midterms were very much on people’s minds. Clear Lake is in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District and the 4th has been represented for 16 years by Steve King. King is widely considered the most vocal white supremacist in Congress. More on him later, but Donovan Reinsmoen and his wife had this to say.
OK, so you're living right here in Steve King’s district? Yes. And he's embarrassing to all Iowans. Say it again, he's embarrassing to all Iowans. We don’t live here. And, but she’s still embarrassed. But I’m still embarrassed. And I’m very frustrated because I have quite a lot of family that live in D.C. and they're embarrassed, too. So, it's a pretty red district. Do you think J.D. Scholten has a shot? Of course he's got a shot. With enough people annoyed at what's going on with Mr. King, I think there's a rebellion brewing here to get him out of there. I agree. You do. Now, he's been re-elected many times. What's, what's really the tipping point, do you think? Some fresh wholesome opinions about what we should have in our country.
I spoke with Mandy Pralle from Mason City and her friends.
Hi, good evening. I'm wondering if you want to share some thoughts. I'm from the Midterms Podcast. Wondering if you want to share why you're here tonight. Get rid of Trump. And what about the local races here, are there any candidates you’re particularly or races who are particularly interested in. All of my...they'll win. J.D. Scholten. Tell me about him. I got to interview him this weekend. I just want to see Steve King gone. And I think J.D. is the guy that can do it. It seems like a competitive race. Didn't seem like Steve King could lose ever. And, he's out-fundraising him and I think he has a chance so. What do you think are the key kinds of voters that have to change their minds? You know, it looks like you guys are pretty diehard Dems, but some people are going to change their minds, right? I think it's women. And it's, there's not a lot of minorities in Iowa, but Steve King has said some things that are awful, and makes our state look horrible. And to those people that he's offended, I hope those people are being reached and they come out and vote.
Chapter 2. The Soap Box at the State Fair
Nicie: OK. From Clearlake to Des Moines and the Iowa State Fair. ‘Starting route to Iowa State Fair.’ We’re off!
The Iowa State Fair is another time-honored hunting ground for politicians in search of votes. I arrived around noon on a pretty searing August day.
The struggle to avoid heat stroke was real, and I soon found myself at the purveyors of Campfire Cones. Nothing about this was going to be good for what’s left of my waistline, but...
It’s a sugar cone that's got marshmallow and marshmallow cream and then it either has like a s'more has the chocolate syrup chocolate chips and then it's got graham crackers. We've got six flavors of them and we also have a Bomb Pop lemonade, which is a lemonade that we drop a popsicle in it. Oh boy. What's the most popular of the cones? Of the cones, it would be a toss-up between the s'more or the salted caramel. OK. I think it might have to try your lemonade. Thank you so much. Yeah. How much is it? The lemonades run four dollars and six dollars and the bomb pop that we drop into the popsicle doesn't cost anything extra. OK. So four dollars with the popsicle, sounds great. Thank you, thank you so much.
I kind of had to go for the popsicle because it was...red, white and blue. Check out our Instagram feed for a picture.
Heat stroke averted, I strolled over to the famous Iowa State Fair Soap Box. Now, if you heard MidPod Episode 54 with Deidre DeJear, you already know about this awesome tradition, sponsored by the Des Moines Register. The Register is one of America’s great newspapers and at the State Fair they have a centrally-located stage, surrounded by hay bales, where politicians of all stripes, usually wearing blue jeans, can come and try to get friends and countrymen and fairgoers to lend them their ears. Seriously, we should have something like the soapbox tradition in every state.
The day I was there, speakers included Evan McMullin, a Utah Republican who launched an independent bid for President in 2016 against Donald Trump, liberal Democrat Eric Swalwell from California - who has family in Iowa, as well as presidential ambitions -- and Cindy Axne. Axne is running for Congress in Iowa’s 3rd district, against Republican David Young. Here’s a bit of her pitch.
And I'll tell you one thing, I will relentlessly protect Iowa and its citizens, and for those of you who know me, I've got pretty sharp elbows when it comes to doing the right thing. And just like I did when I fought to secure all-day kindergarten for every child in West Des Moines, one of our biggest school districts, I'm going to take that determination with me out to Congress. Nothing is quick. Nothing is easy and we need to send people out to Washington who are going to stay in there for the long haul, like I did when I fought for all day kindergarten. It took about a year. And I worked my way up through the administration, realized we had one meeting left where they had to get this passed for the kids in the next grade. So I put together the data on the subject matter and equity and presented it to the board, and said you know, you've got to get this changed for the kids next year or I'll take this information to the head of the Department of Education and the Des Moines Register, and let them know you're not living up to this district's expectations and you're failing its kids and its families. Well, they passed it. That's superintendent’s one of my big supporters, because he knows when it comes to doing what's right to standing up for our future I'm not going to stop until we get the job done. And I want to remind you of some words that I heard Governor Vilsack say last fall, he said ‘these are the most important elections in 50 years’ and I couldn't agree with him more. The heart and soul of this state is at risk, the heart and soul of this country is at risk. So I ask all of you to help us out with this. I need your voice. I ask for your vote, because together, we can all bring hope and opportunity to every single person in this district, in this state and this country once again. Thanks so much. Let's go win this thing.
As for Axne’s opponent, Republican incumbent Dave Young, he served as Chief of Staff for Iowa’s senior US Senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, before he ran for Congress. Young -- and all Republicans in Iowa right now -- are feeling some pretty serious heat from farmers. They’re very concerned about tariffs that have been slapped on their crops, resulting from the various trade wars President Trump has started...and this at a time when prices were already quite low. Here’s Young at the Soapbox.
And our president, President Trump, it's no surprise when he ran for president he talked about doing something about China and he's doing it. Other presidents have tried to do, have talked about it but not done things. So I don't question the president's intentions to want to make sure that we get a better deal on trade in the end, but I do tell you personally it makes me nervous and it makes a lot of people nervous around the district. And around the state. I personally don't like tariffs. I think they’re taxes on consumers, I think they’re taxes on employers. But if the president can use this as a leverage tool, and take care of this sooner rather than later and land this plane, we're looking at some pretty incredible things happening here in Iowa and I've reached out to the president, and I've reached out to the president he knows our concerns and we had the VP here in the district yesterday and I was able to have a conversation with him and talk to the VP, about you know if you're gonna do this make sure it and make sure it’s sooner rather than later.
Young is putting some distance between himself and the Trump these days. His colleague in the House, Rod Blum, representing the First District? Not so much. In late July, as the negative economic impact of these new tariffs on Iowa farmers was becoming clear, Blum flew on Air Force One with Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, and others to attend a workforce development event at a community college in eastern Iowa. Here’s how things went. As you’ll hear, Trump couldn’t get Blum’s name quite right and then Blum praised him to the skies.
I'd like to maybe have Matt Blum speak next because he's been so incredible in so many ways he fights so hard he loves this state he loves the people. I guess he's got a race against somebody they call Absent Abby because she never showed up to the State House. I don't know what's going on, Absent Abby who is absent Abby? but he's going to you're going to have you ever heard that term I think so. But you know he came to me recently with that's a bad name for somebody to have if you're running for office...But he came to me recently, about a flood wall and that’s big deal, isn't it? Big deal. How much money did you get? $117M. $117 million dollars and if somebody else would've come they wouldn't have got they would've got $2 but he got $117 million. And it’s going well, right? Is it going well? Yes. Congratulations. Good luck with everything, I appreciate everything. I appreciate your help. You’ve been fantastic, thank you Rod, say a few words please.
Mr. President, Ivanka, labor secretary Acosta and Commerce Secretary Ross, welcome to the First District of Iowa. And I don't mean to put the pressure, Mr. President, on Secretary Ross, because I know he's got a lot on his plate. But we made a bet in Air Force One on the way out here, a steak dinner. Correct, Mr. Secretary, on getting a deal done with Mexico in the next 90 days. That's right. Correct. Yes, and I fully plan on buying you a steak dinner. I’d like to thank you, Mr. President, for your leadership on our economy. We are now growing at over twice the rate, twice the rate that we were under former President Obama, and it’s due in large part to your leadership. Thank you very much for that, Mr. President. And also thank you for having political courage, to renegotiate these trade deals, which quite frankly are not good to the United States. And you've taken some heat for it, in the short term. But, in the long run, the farmers, the manufacturers, the employers are all going to be better off. Thank you for having political courage. Thank you.
Thanking President Trump for his courage to engage in a trade war that is sending crop prices to multi-year lows did not go over well with Blum’s constituents. Rod Blum did not speak at the Soapbox this year. His opponent, Abby Finkenauer -- who Trump just derided in the remarks your heard -- did speak at the State Fair. She’s the daughter of a union pipefitter. Here’s some of what she had to say.
And I still remember being a 10 year old having to have my dad's business agent's name memorized, because when that showed up on caller ID, that meant dad had a job. And I remember, sometimes those months, when that name wasn't showing up very often, and what that meant for my family. So again, I mean, not always easy. But at the end of the day I grew up in a state and in a country, where if you worked hard you could make it. That's what we were promised. That's what we were told. And, unfortunately, right now I mean, gosh, that is just getting tougher and tougher for folks because of the policies being pushed right now, by that Freedom Caucus member I'm running to replace, Rod Blum. When I first decided to do this there was a lot of folks who thought no way this girl paying off her student loans who comes from a working class family can take on this guy for Congress. But I knew they were wrong. And I knew they were wrong within the first couple of months getting out there talking to folks. And I realized it didn't matter if I was talking to folks in rural Iowa or in some of our cities, at the end of the day 2018 was going to be about our values. And who are we? Are we people who step up for our neighbors or are we not? And the Iowa that I grew up in, we step up for each other every single time. It's exactly what has given me so much hope here the last year and a half, and see, that's the other thing, I think it's about time we start talking about hope again because I also realize we are not a state or a country that grows from fear and division. We grow from hope. It's hope and the idea that you get up in the morning, you go to work, you work hard and you're not just able to make a living, but you're able to have a life.
After my soapbox experience, I wandered around the fair. Of course, I ended up at the food hall where some serious competitions were taking place.
So I'm here at the Iowa State Fair in the Elwell Family Food Hall and there's a whole booth here for State Fair cookbooks. So tell me who you are where you're from. My name's Harry Dryer and I just I just sell these books here. There's five of them this year, yeah five, and we, they're all State Fair everything in these books come from the contests that are going on here every two years it becomes a new book. And there's just oh everything is in them. Cookies to entrees whatever you like. And this is the 19th edition this year. They’re put out every two years. And they’re interesting, they make good reading. They're good recipes and it's like every lady back here that does enters each contest is truly a professional, they really are. I can see it's serious business going on here with these judgings. I've said, you know, the food shows, just have no they have nothing on all these ladies back here. They are good. Yeah. This lady here happens to be my wife. I've been married to her for 54 years. She's written 12 books. And she knows how to do it. Does she have a specialty? Everything. Everything. Start off in those books, from a soup, an entree, oh, I'm sorry, an appetizer, a soup, your entrees, your side dishes, everything.
So I bought a cookbook and gave it to Heather for her birthday.
Chapter 3: Steve King
Iowa is, of course, farm country. The 4th congressional district encompasses the most rural part of Iowa, the Western part of the state. This is the district Steve King currently represents. Corn, soybeans, hogs and meatpacking are the major industries...a lot of this production is exported. Many of the people who live here are descended from European settlers. Many are Roman Catholic. But there are other communities: Vietnamese and Thai, who received a special welcome from long-time Republican Governor Bob Ray, as well as many other Iowans, in the 1970s. And Latinos, working in meatpacking and agriculture.
We’ll tell you more about the issues facing Iowa in a bit, but it’s our task now to tell you about the incumbent, Steve King.
His big issue is Western Civilization which appears to be code for white Christian people. Here’s a conversation he had with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, who asked King to explain one of his tweets. That tweet praised Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who has campaigned against what he calls “The islamicization of the Netherlands.” You’ll hear Cuomo read King’s tweet aloud.
You wrote that ‘Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We cannot restore our civilization with somebody else's babies.’ This is being condemned by many regions of American politics and citizenry. What did you mean? Well, of course, I'm meant exactly what I said as it always is the case Chris and to expand on that a little further. I've been to Europe and I've spoken on this issue and I've said the same thing as far as 10 years ago to the German people and to any population of people that is a declining population that doesn't, isn't willing to have enough babies to reproduce themselves. And I have said to them you cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else's babies, you've got to keep your birth rate up. And you need to teach your children your values, and in doing so, then you can grow your population and you can strengthen your culture, your way of life.
And finally, here he is on NewsMax discussing Dreamers.
And it doesn't mean that there aren't groups of people in this country that, you know, that I have sympathy for. I do. And there are kids that were brought into this country by their parents, unknowing that they were breaking the law and they will say to me and others who defend the rule of law, we have to do something about the 11 million and some of them are valedictorians. Well, my answer to that is, and then by the way their parents brought them in. It wasn't their fault. It's true in some cases. But they aren't all valedictorians they weren't all brought in by their parents. For everyone who's a valedictorian there's another 100 out there that, they weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes, because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the dessert, those people would be legalized with the same act. And until the folks that want to open the borders and grant this amnesty can define the difference between the innocent ones who have deep ties with America and those who have been, I'll say undermining our culture and civilization and profiting from criminal from criminal acts, until they can define that difference, they should not advocate for amnesty for both good and evil.
So, again, we conclude it’s fair to say, that Steve King is the most openly white supremacist member of Congress. He also seems to have special animus for immigrants from Latin America and Muslims. It’s worth noting US House Leadership has pursued a very similar strategy in dealing with him as they have with President Trump. Speaker Paul Ryan has occasionally murmured a few words of disapproval, and done *absolutely nothing* to rebuke or punish King, that we’re aware of. King’s statements appear to have had no negative consequences for him in today’s Republican party.
As for King’s work as a legislator, his major priority, besides restricting immigration, is restricting abortion. Iowa just passed into law a bill banning abortions after six weeks. King has a bill to make this a law nationwide, sparking division within the anti-abortion movement. King has attacked the National Right to Life Coalition from the floor of the House for not supporting his bill.
King also serves on the Agriculture committee, and has recently touted his support for extending crop insurance for farmers, as well as punitive new work requirements for food stamps recipients. He did not speak at the Soapbox this year, either.
Chapter 4: Coming Home to the Field of Dreams
King has received some serious Democratic challenges in recent years. Christie Vilsack, wife of former Governor Tom Vilsack, came closest in 2012, holding him to just 53% of the vote. Since then King’s been winning comfortably with 60% or more.
But this year -- as you heard at the Wing Ding -- the vibe is different. We caught up with King’s Democratic challenger, J.D. Scholten on a Sunday in Ames.
Scholten and I spoke just before he went out to knock doors with volunteers.
Tell me what your trajectory in life was and what lightning hit you to do this. Yeah, well. I went to college. I mean, I was a decent student. I ended up winning awards, but I went to play baseball. My dad was a college baseball coach. I had a lot of success. I played professionally. I played in seven different countries. So the idea of running for office was not at the forefront of my mind.
After his baseball career, Scholten became a paralegal and moved west.
Fast forward to 2016, saw the election and I happened to be living in Seattle, and I was like, ‘I don't know what I'm going to do but I got to get more active.’ In Seattle, there wasn't a lot of opportunity for me, which is kind of the ironic thing cause, there's plenty of opportunity for work there. But to be political. I mean it's flooded there, whereas the reversed, I looked at where I'm from and saw what was happening here in Iowa, but then the thing that really got me is I went to visit my grandma for Thanksgiving, and I went there for eight straight days. On the first day she was just like you need to move back here and take care of me and I go grandma I love that idea, but I don't think the nursing homes are going to are going to hire me. And she goes you're probably right. And each day she had something different, and the last day she said something that really stuck, and that was, you need to move back to Iowa and take care of the farm. And that ended up being our last conversation, a month later she passed away. At the funeral, that's where I really felt the pull to come on home. I, at that point, still wasn't thinking about running for Congress. But then, the woman who ran last time, she started running this time, but then she dropped out of this race for a month, there was nobody in. And that's when I said I I don't know if I can raise five dollars but I'm too competitive. I can't sit on the sidelines. And, I mean, we launched over a year ago, and it's just it's been amazing. And there's a buzz that's happening in this district and it's pretty cool to see my visions become the fruition. Do you think, I was wondering about this, that living with the day to day reality of the Trump presidency is causing voters in your district to re-evaluate the incumbent? It's interesting, and I like how you phrase that because so often like national press when I talk to them they talk about lumping them together and I don't, because I could probably give you 20 people who support Trump but are going to be voting for us. But there is something there that they realize that because of his, King's statements and his controversy, and I think there’s that ‘enough is enough mentality’ that's going around that's really making a change. We talk a lot on the MidPod about country over party. And you live in a district with a lot of Republican voters, were you to win, how would you think about putting both your voters, your constituents and the country ahead of the Democratic Party. I was at a parade and a gentleman stopped me and goes I'm a Republican, but I could support you if if you're not just going to go there and do Democratic things or something like that and I go, I said exactly then I go country over party, and he goes right on. And I think there is just a need for America especially rural America, that we need to come together and all this pettiness and political side of it. Like I don't plan to be a career politician. I don't plan to do a lot of things. But I want to go in there and just fight and see how we can help rural America. And it's not a Democratic issue it's not a Republican issue, it's an American issue. And that's one thing I'm really passionate about and I'm willing to work with anybody and everybody.
And how do you campaign as a newcomer to politics in a big rural district? Well, there’s Sioux City Sue, his campaign’s RV. She was parked outside the office.
Winnebago Industries, Winnebago RV’s are made in this district. And so my vision from the at the very beginning like if I had no idea if I could raise five bucks. But my vision was this to raise enough money so I could get a used Winnebago throw our logo on the side and pretty much live out of it and let's just say that my envision of it and what happened are two different things but like what happened is way better than my vision. I was expecting just a dumpy old thing on its last limb. We got a very nice one, I bought it sight unseen because the model is a retro style model it's a Winnebago Brave 26 A and it is, it was perfect. And so we bought it used and I mean I spend more nights on there than I do at home, every day I get a honk or a wave and it's one of the most uplifting, it recharges your energy because I mean this is a grind, especially when you live out of an RV. But, it is so cool to just be driving and either seeing your yard sign or getting a thumbs up from someone you have no idea who they are. And it just it's it's part of this movement that we're creating.
On the wall in the campaign office, there was a saying: “The Spartans say that any army may win while it still has its legs under it; the real test comes when all strength is fled and men must produce victory on will alone.” I had to ask about how Scholten connects his experience as a professional athlete to campaigning for office.
Honestly that was the best profession I could have to prepare me for this. The constant travel, the grind and to be on even though when you're physically kind of off, it was a great training and I use a lot of baseball analogies. But the biggest thing is when I talk to, especially Republicans, saying I don't care where my shortstop came from whether he was from Dallas or Delaware or Puerto Rico, I don't care who my left fielder voted for. We worked our tails off for that common goal and that's the same mentality I'm bringing to D.C.
Chapter 5. Bigger farms, shrinking communities, and toxic water.
So what are the big issues facing farmers in this rural state? Well, in the short term, they are a tough combination of high production, low prices and new tariffs cutting sharply into export demand. Tim Gannon is a farmer in Mingo. He worked for 8 years at the US Department of Agriculture in DC, then moved back to the family farm. Now he’s running for Secretary of Agriculture in Iowa. Or as it’s affectionately called, The Dirt Czar. I met up with him at the State Fair and asked him about the impact of Trump’s trade war.
Since the tariffs and retaliatory tariffs have started going back and forth, I've talked to pork processors, pork processors or pork producers who know there are processors in Mexico, who are now sourcing pork from Brazil, how much they are going to source I don't know, and you see, you see a lot of headlines about China buying soybeans from Brazil, especially, but even Russia. Record, record imports of soybeans from Russia and I worked at USDA for eight years and learned a lot about who grows what where and when. But I’d never heard of Russia being a big producer of soybeans until the headline that China was going to source a record amount of soybeans from them.
Here’s the long-term picture: a seemingly unending trend of farm consolidation that threatens biological diversity, the health of waterways, the viability of the family farm, not to mention the vitality of small towns, that just keep getting smaller. J.D. Scholten had his own story to tell about the challenge these communities face in retaining their young people.
I just had my high school 20th reunion and it was amazing to hear like what my classmates were doing. And I like to say that as much as Iowa produces hogs, corn or wind energy, the number one thing we produce are great people. And when I was talking to my classmates they're doing great things, but they're not doing it in the district. At best they're doing it in Des Moines. So there has been a diaspora even within your high school class? Oh I mean that's I mean that's been going on for years and years. In my grandparents and my great grandparents generation, they would have 16 kids, only one or two would get the farm. And so then what happens to the other 14 and there's not as many farms, and now you can farm more land with technology and everything and so. But there is just, like you go down these main streets and the only new part of Main Street now is usually a Mexican restaurant. So that's the biggest thing that it resonates. My high school is not anything special, it's the same thing throughout this whole district and throughout the Midwest and rural America. I think that needs to be addressed and the amount of consolidation, and the money that gets thrown out. I mean, you pay for something it doesn't stay in the district it goes outta district and then once you consolidate schools, that becomes a huge issue and we start losing communities and we're at the point here that if there’s cuts to Medicaid we're going to lose nursing homes, rural medical facilities and those are the things that we need to be talking about.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom by any means. These are real issues that need addressing. Any one of them could be their own podcast series. But there’s bi-partisan potential. Republican US Senator Chuck Grassley, for example, has joined forces with unlikely allies, like New Jersey Senator Democrat Cory Booker, to hold hearings on the implications of mega-mergers in the seed industry. We also heard about efforts to forge coalitions to find solutions to water pollution and encourage more sustainable ag practices. The challenge is, that since 2016, the State of Iowa has been under unified Republican control. Which means, compromise has been as scarce as unicorns roaming the cornfields.
Here’s one example: in 2010, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to create an environmental trust fund for the state. But Republicans in the state legislature have refused to fund it. Tim Gannon is campaigning on the idea of raising the state sales tax by just 3/8ths of a penny, to fund the trust fund and invest in solutions to water problems. I asked Gannon how he sees the political dynamic around agriculture evolving.
Well, I think farmers have been more conservative for most elections over time but that doesn't mean that they're going to vote against their own interests every single time. And if they don't see progress made in something that's going to help them see a higher price for what they grow and raise, then they can definitely protest. You don’t have to go back that far, ten years ago Barack Obama did really well in rural Iowa and that helped Democrats do really well in rural Iowa. Obviously, Donald Trump did really well in rural Iowa in 2016 and that made it tough for Democrats. But I think we've got a ticket of people who realize we've got to get out and talk to folks in every nook and cranny in the state. I spent yesterday down in southeast Iowa visiting five counties, mostly rural and had great reception. People were excited for the slate of candidates that we have and excited, I think, because we're talking about the things that will make a difference in their lives and in their hometowns.
As our muse, the writer Marilynne Robinson put it: “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
Chapter 6: The Right to Hope
In Des Moines, Mike and Mary Wegner opened their home for our citizens potluck.
We feasted on salmon pot pie, summer salads and Iowa pork sausage. Mary captured what I had been sensing about the political intimacy of this state.
One of the things about Iowa is that the politics still feel accessible, I'm just thinking about that sitting around this table the week that the Iowa State Fair, the wonderful Iowa State Fair is on where we both celebrate Iowa's rural heritage, and for those of us who live in the city, wonder a little bit about how we can all stay connected. But that said, Iowa still has a strong feeling of community in both our big and small towns, almost everyone has a connection with both a small town and a big town, and all of our legislators genuinely are accessible. Most people who are interested in politics know their legislators are able to be in touch with them, we’ve had stories about that. And so that’s one of the things that makes Iowa a fascinating place to live, if you like politics.
Amy Campbell talked about the impact of the Iowa Caucuses:
So then I took my four year old daughter to meet President Obama when he was running at a small restaurant with my friend, who's a state senator, and we were among I don't know 20, 30 people there. So she went to school and told everybody in her preschool class that she met President Obama. And, you know, he's related to us, I don't know how she got that in her brain, but now she like every time there's a presidential election she asks me when she's going to meet the president and I'm like ‘well, we don't always get to do that,’ but she just has this expectation. She's met John Edwards she's mett Obama. I mean, she just has this expectation that of course the president will end up in Iowa and willl get a picture with her that she'll have in her photo album and, and I think that's funny, ‘cause we all kind of feel that way and we forget that the rest of the country doesn't have that so I think there’s something special here.
The hateful rhetoric we’re hearing from the White House and the harsh new national policies we’re seeing around immigration prompted intensely personal reflections from two of our guests. Here’s Nancy Lynch.
Just in the last week or so, former governor died, Governor Ray. And Governor Ray was extremely moderate when he was governor. There wasn't a whole lot of difference between Democrats and Republicans. But he welcomed immigrants from Southeast Asia, one of the very few in the nation that did that. And I personally was involved, I'm sure a lot of people in the room were, in helping accept immigrants from, the ones that we that I had were from Laos. It was a wonderful experience. It was such a learning experience and the diversity and what they gave to our state is valued to this minute. These people have become leaders in our state. And most Iowans are so proud of the fact, a) that we Ray said yes we want this and b) people just put their arms around them these different communities and they were and still are so important to how we are as a state in Iowa, and now we have a governor who is refusing Syrians to our state. So this whole backwards look at diversity being bad. And immigrants being bad, starting from the top but going into our state with our governor, our current governor, is appalling and so upsetting and upside down to me it has nothing to do with reality. We are all children of immigrants. There's no one in the room that isn't a child, doesn't have parents that or our grandparents were immigrants. Thank God you know that we have that.
I'm Jeryl Fleming from Johnston. My experience is really I'm not from Iowa. I'm an immigrant. I moved here about twenty five or so years ago. I came from a third world country, Kenya. So one of the things that has been a disturbing trend that I'm seeing here is, things that I grew up in in Kenya where we don't have free press, the government owns all media, radio station, TV so everything even the newspapers. It's changed a little bit since I moved, but we were not allowed to criticize the president or to say anything freely. There was no political activism everything, you know I was in school so that young people were very, very motivated because we could see what was happening but we couldn't do anything about it. And I think that motivated a lot of the young people. So to come to this country and see what's going on now where the press is being demonized and just some of the disturbing discourse about immigrants and refugees is pretty heartbreaking for me. As far as Iowa, I wasn't really, I didn't know anything about Iowa before I moved here, just kind of showed up. And so one of the things that I really liked was that we did have immigrant and refugee populations. I wasn't expecting to see that diversity and so it was nice and it was nice to see how welcoming everyone is here. And so just one point that I always like to make is immigrants choose where they're going, but refugees don't really have a choice, they're fleeing something and you know sometimes they go to refugee camps and then they're just sent somewhere so they don't really have a choice. They end up somewhere. And so a lot of people, it just depends on who will open their arms and welcome them so it's nice to live in a state that did that.
The women who attended our potluck really wanted to talk about reproductive rights. This past spring, as we mentioned earlier, the Iowa legislature passed a ban on all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. And the governor signed it into law. Here’s potluck guest, Kristen Porter, on the ban.
Devastating to see this happening within our state and feel like women are being taken back to a time that we, I, my generation, we just expect that we have these rights. And my mom, my aunts, they're just completely confounded that this isn't a settled issue. And then the other thing is someone who had the time as a student living here in the city, I felt like, those of us who can we need to go and we need to speak for those who they're picking their kids up from school when a bill is being signed they can't be there to speak on behalf of themselves, on behalf of their daughters. So holding that space for them, being a voice for people who are on the other side of state they can't drop everything they have in their lives and come and speak to the representatives and say their piece, say speak what they what they wish to see the state be. I think that's something that's important. Those of us that can do it do that.
Amy Campbell was involved in fighting the bill and learned just how far Republican state legislators wanted to go on reproductive rights.
They had the votes to get life at conception. I mean that would have, I had my daughter through in vitro, that would have totally taken out the ability for me to have had in vitro. And people don't care. They didn't care. I testified at a public hearing and they said ‘well, I'm sorry, but you have to understand that is a life.’ I saw the picture of the little cell that was implanted in me and that, I'm sorry, it's the beginnings, but that's a microscopic egg. I mean it's, it's heartbreaking to testify in front of a bunch of men who don't care.
Nancy Lynch had a personal story of her own to share.
I was in college when it was illegal and I thought I was pregnant and the last persons I would have gone to are my parents, I would never have gone to my parents. I had full intentions of finding some illegal place to go and have an abortion. Because I was young and there's no way I could have gone through a pregnancy. So I, you know, I was kind of starting to kind of look through what back alley, you know that's all you could do. You couldn't go to a doctor, you couldn’t go to a clinic. Thank God I wasn’t pregnant. But, you know, it gave me the courage to go get on the pill, because they didn't want to give you the pill, if you weren't married. That was a big no-no, too. But I remember very well what that was like and it was terrifying. And, and, and women died. And it's very scary to think of going backwards to that. Amazing.
As we were finishing our conversation, Peg Armstrong Gustavson shared that she has a number of seniors citizens in her life, and they’re struggling to understand what’s happening in our politics.
It has been where, they grew up in a world after World War Two. They really saw a lot of growth in this state and in the nation. And literally around the world they saw good and bad, but there was a way to identify the bad and correct it, they had a real sense that there were tools and certain codes of conduct that that's how you had your discussions your dialogue your negotiations and those seemed to carry for many decades. And I think now, as that generation that's worked so hard to build this country, starts to see things like the news media being really disparaged on television and they hear very conflicting stories and it's hard to know what's the truth. And the sense of integrity and doing the right thing in your community and taking care of your fellow person by feeding them and clothing them and welcoming them as an immigrant. And all of those norms and those tools that were used to navigate through difficult decisions just seemed to have been imploded. And I feel like they flounder out there and are just overwhelmed, saying ‘where is the justice and where is the civility and process that we worked so hard to build? How could it be destroyed in just two years?’ And I think that's a very concerning thing that I what a horrible place to be emotionally when they have worked for decades to build something that was so personal and so important to them, the right to vote the right to have a place, the right to hope, the right to hope I think, and the loss of that is just a really devastating situation right now.
So that’s the challenge: in Iowa and all over America. We need to stand up and fight for our traditions of goodness, decency and for the right to hope.
We want to thank everyone in Iowa who welcomed me for this episode. Super special thanks to our potluck hosts in Des Moines, Mary and Mike Wegner. I still have the paper map they gave me which I love. And thanks to our newest musical collaborator, Andy Fleming. The music in this show is from his band Andy Fleming and the Sweet Nothings. He also gigs with the band, Brother Trucker.
Our theme music is by Cercie Miller and performed by the Cercie Miller Quartet. The Midpod is a production of Bird on the Wing media. The Executive Producer is Helen Barrington and the mix engineer is James Donahue. The program is produced at Whiskey Lane Productions in West Roxbury, Massachusetts and recorded at The Podcast Garage in Allston, Massachusetts. Did we mention we love our interns? Thank you Pascale Bradley and thank you Paige Swanson. Thanks so much for listening and see you soon.
We are in the homestretch and we just got back from our super exciting trip to Texas and we love Beto. So keep an eye out for our episode Betomania coming in the middle of the month. Also, we are heading to Minnesota. So for Minnesota listeners we are looking for tips and local knowledge about the first, the second, the third, and the eighth. So please get in touch anytime firstname.lastname@example.org we'd love to see you when we're out in the Twin Cities area and then north to the Iron Range. And then the next of our whistle stop tour is L.A. for Politicon. And then last and not least election night, and you're invited if you're localish and want to come. Probably on the north shore but on the closer side to Boston like probably in Salem. So that's Tuesday, November 6th. Mark the calendar and prepare for a long night of boozy potlucky celebration of what we hope will be some very exciting results.