Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cordelia Hits the Heartland

With super duper Tuesday fast approaching, the Iowa Caucuses, for most of you, are but a distant memory on this years political campaign trail. But for me they will now be a big mark on the 2008 election cycle and my quest to find the real America. Yes, that is right, my last trip wasn't to some exotic third world country but instead I went deep into the heartland to mix my two favorite pastimes, politics and travel. I set on my journey right after Christmas knowing it was a dead time for my job search and that its a time I am usually restless at home. Each year I wish I was somewhere else for New Year's Eve and here was my opportunity. I planned to ring in 2008 from the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, because I knew this year it was at the place to be!

In 1992, I worked on my first Presidential campaign for Tom Harkin, a US Senator from Iowa. Since then, Iowa and all the Iowans I worked with have always had a place in my heart even though I had never actually been to the state. I yearned to eat loose meat sandwiches, travel through endless corn fields and to see a Hy-Vee (their super supermarket chain) up close and personal. Somehow I was going to get there, either while checking out the 4-H cows and eating corndogs at the Iowa State Fair or better yet, experiencing the kick-off to the much anticipated Presidential Race first hand. Seeing the country from a political canvasser's point of view turned out to be a wonderful way to hear America's heartbeat and see some of it's small towns.

So I set out, destination Ames, Iowa, pretty much in the dead center of the state. Its just 30 minutes north of Des Moines, Iowa's capital city, and home to Iowa State, a school with 26,000 students. Even though school wasn't in session, it was fun to be in the middle of a huge college town. Our campaign headquarters was tucked in the college downtown area, perfect for a quick walk to get a fresh cup of coffee, a glance in a shop selling more types of college paraphernalia than I've ever seen before and just a few steps away from plenty of college bars which were good places to go reflect on a hard days work. On the first day I canvassed in Ames, but being a small city (50,000 is big in Iowa terms) and built up at the same time as many of the New York suburbs, it was a little too close to what I see in New York. I wanted to get out and see the farm country so the next day I headed out to rural small towns outside the city. Towns of a few hundred to a few thousand people are connected by roads through miles and miles and miles of flat soybean or corn fields. At that time of year, Iowa was covered with snow, so there were great white expanses with the remains of harvested corns stalks sticking out and a barn or grain silo in the distance. Iowa is also the third largest pork producing state so huge hog farms can be seen by the road. I never saw a hog though because they are kept tightly inside while they are fattened up for slaughter. I wasn't in a meat packing area so I didn't really have to deal with the reality of the situation. Though in keeping with my "when in Rome" philosophy, I did have a delicious fried pork sandwich at the local DQ.

The towns were so quaint and reaked of the Americana that makes up the our country myth. There were beautiful old houses. American flags waved in the wind. Signs saying Velkommen reminded me of the strong Scandinavian influence. Garland and Christmas wreaths were draped out on big porches. Swings hung from the trees in the yards. No matter where you were in a town you weren't far from farmland, barns, silos and other huge farm storage facilities. Reminders of the Iraq War were never far, since yellow ribbons adorned trees and mailboxes and signs saying Support Our Troops with either Win the War or End the War, depending which house I passed, were very visible. Another notable sight were empty storefronts. Downtowns were lined with empty shops. Many towns had no retail at all. I can only deduce that most people must take the long drive to Ames to shop in big box retailers. Some towns, like Story City, have reinvented themselves and become destinations with a few touristy things to see. We visited a workshop that made furniture from the late 1700's using only the original tools from that time. On some days we were lucky to find a local restaurant to eat at. People were always curious and commented on our political buttons. I don't think they see that many new faces in some of these places. We quickly learned that every person was a potential caucus goer, so we spent plenty of time chatting there too.

The people I met were so wonderful. They were friendly and inviting, solid and articulate and they knew their political issues. They were all looking for the perfect candidate. They would say they like a candidate but were curious of their position on say, nuclear energy or laws regarding credit card companies... Something obscure that no canvaser could really be sure of their candidate's position on. My canvassing partner was Hillary's Little Rock pastor, who was also volunteering, and when one women said she felt Hillary was dishonest, I had him call her. We would do anything we could to switch a vote. Anything, that is, except going negative. We were strictly guided not to talk badly about any other candidate and instead spread Hillary's record to win her favor. (Its only weeks later and I here I go reminiscing about the tone of the campaign back then.) It seemed like almost everyone truly stayed undecided till the night of the caucuses and they factored in every single piece of information during the process. Iowans take this responsibility seriously. They know that the whole country is watching. Candidates come to every town and everyone has a chance to meet them in person. In fact, some people see them many times. They get photos taken with the candidates and then bring those same photos back for autographs at other meetings. In New York, we can only dream of this kind of access.

We didn't only talk about presidential issues. Sometimes I was invited into someone's living room to see pictures of their family or told about local politics or small town life. When I expressed how much I loved Iowa to one women, she said if I really wanted to stay she had two single grandsons and when she walked me out to my car she pointed across the valley to a farm house way off in the distance and said thats where I could find them. I had a few conversations about electing a women president and heard that in those parts some women didn't think their men would ever vote for a women. I was actually told it was because of their ethnic history. Of course that type of talk only fired me up more and when I stood on the corner in Ames on caucus day, with my Hillary sign, I was cheered by all the thumbs up from other women. I really felt like I was making history.

On Sunday, I went with Hillary's pastor to church in Nevada, the county seat of Story County, the county where I was working. (In Iowa, its all about your county.) At the beginning of the service the minister made the visitors stand up and introduce ourselves to the congregation. When I said I was Cordelia from New York City, there was a surprised gasp in the room. I found that often people would tell me about the one or two people from their town that had moved to New York. They also would wonder why I had come so far and beam as I showered Iowa with kind words.

I spent New Years Eve in Des Moines with what seemed like every political reporter and many political operatives. I met and talked politics for a second with Tim Russert. I saw Dana Bash from CNN. I got to overhear much of the hubbub and get a feeling for the drama of the campaign. Hillary had a party so we got to see her and Bill along with some other notables then we were off to ring in the new year at a Hillary Clinton operative gathering. All of it felt very insider and vastly different from the streets of places like Roland, Zearing or Slater, Iowa, where I was spending my days. It was all part of the campaign though. They said that this year there were twice as many reporters in Iowa then in years past. Huge satellite trucks lined the streets of Des Moines eager to catch the latest story or speech.

For any of you political junkies, I also saw Candy Crowley, Jeff Greenfield, Andrea Mitchell as well as meeting LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chelsea Clinton, Terry McAuliffe, Ron Howard, Madeline Albright and more... Nightly the campaign sent people to our office to motivate us. I was a skeptic, but it did feel good and Chelsea was very impressive in a totally low key, self confident kind of way.

Finally after a hard week of canvassing and phone calling, it was caucus day. Most of us were assigned to drive people to their caucus sites. I was assigned 7 different people who all canceled. Its no easy task getting people out at night in cold, icy Iowa. I was sitting in the HQ without an assignment until suddenly they heard that the precinct captain for McCallsburg and Warren Township couldn't make it and I was quickly assigned to the job. I had spent two days canvassing in this county (pop. 318) and was excited to caucus there. Hopefully I had convinced few people to show up and stand up for Hillary.

The way the caucuses worked is that people had to go to their town caucus site (a church basement, school cafeteria or for me, Colo/NESCO Elementary School) and state publicly who they were supporting. If a candidate didn't get 15%, people had to pick another choice and then move to that group. Relationships figured in strongly, though in my caucus site some families were split. A mother for Hillary. Her daughter for Edwards. Husband and wife split Obama/Clinton. A few husbands downstairs at the Republican caucus. In a big room, an undecided voter could be swayed by the energy and enthusiasm of one candidate's caucus goers. I never really figured out what made the undecideds decide as they walked in the door. I most definitely tried to show excitement in my campaign t-shirt and with my rolls of stickers and pockets of buttons. Beyond the Presidential race, the caucus is also the place that people discuss other local issues, which is why it was set up in the first place. One women told us it was the first place she talked politics with any of her neighbors when she moved to the neighborhood.

After some fancy maneuvering, that I didn't exactly understand, our site and its 27 caucus goers went one delegate for Clinton and one for Obama, leaving the Edwards people feeling sad and the Richardson folks with enough power to be king makers by establishing viability for Clinton and Obama. I kept an eye on the Republican caucus happening downstairs. I had befriended the Mayor of the town during canvassing. He is a life long Republican and said his parents would roll over in their graves if he ever voted Democrat. I made some comments about doing the right thing and God being on the Democratic side, but I got only laughs and he was very happy when his man, Huckabee, went 36 of 41 at the caucus. His wife was one of my Hillary converts though. Yay for women!

As I drove down to Des Moines after the caucus and listened to the results, I was a bit stunned. This type of micro targeted campaign where so few people participated was hard to read. Each campaign attempted to get out their caucus goers by making multiple house visits and daily phone calls and I believe everyone probably made their numbers and then some, but Obama did better and the numbers far exceeded any expectation. I think we are seeing over and over that conventional wisdom might not mean anything when you have the first women and the first black man and so much anger at the current president.

In the end though, I enjoyed every minute of my introduction to Iowa's people and politics. Traveling within the United States had never been as personally satisfying before. It was a privilege to meet the people and see the towns. I loved driving on the long empty roads. Sometimes I'd just u turn in the streets, because I could, since I rarely saw other cars on the smaller roads. I loved the friendliness. I loved the snow drifts that blew across the roads creating a white floating mist and the ice that covered every leaf and blade of grass in the mornings as the night time fog burned off. I loved seeing first hand that the myth of red barns and corn fields is real. I loved the wide open spaces. I can't really say what makes Iowans different or like New Yorkers, but I left feeling glad we were all Americans.


Don't forget to vote when its your state's turn. Its our duty and privilege. Honor the Iowans and take some time to study the candidates and pick the one that fits you best.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Scenes from the Heartland