The Long Road from a Small Town

By Art Cullen

Storm Lake, Iowa

The formula worked: Young people and independents turned out in rural Buena Vista County as well as across Iowa to give Barack Obama an historic win in Democratic caucuses Jan. 3.

Obama won Iowa with 38% of the delegates, followed by John Edwards at 30%, Hillary Clinton at 29% and Bill Richardson at 2%.

“You have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do,” Obama told a cheering crowd in Des Moines after the huge victory.

Obama worked to turn out first-time caucusgoers, independents and disaffected Republicans to the Democratic meetings held at every precinct. He bucked against tradition. Precise totals were not available, but clearly the Obama turnout effort worked in Storm Lake, a college town of 10,000 in rural Northwest Iowa. Every precinct saw waiting lines as new voters registered or independents switched registration.

At South Elementary School, a bus dumped Buena Vista University students at the door. About a dozen were African Americans — a first for BV County. Obama’s organizers counted 56 delegates of 109 present. On the first head count, the Clinton group was not even “viable” (didn’t have 15% of caucusgoers), but was able to pick up 98-year-old Biden supporter Sarah Ledbetter at the last minute to gain viability and a delegate to the county convention.

At East Elementary School, three people worked the registration desk from 6:15 p.m. until 7:10 getting everyone signed up. Obama had 53 of the 110 present, including 20 Latinos who were recruited by Obama organizers as they got off work at Tyson Fresh Meats, one of two local meatpacking plants. The campaign had two Latino workers from Chicago canvassing Storm Lake. Some of the new voters were wearing work clothes at the caucus. About a third of the delegates were under 25, according to Obama precinct captain Bruce Kurtz.

“This is history being made,” Kurtz said.

BV County Democratic Chairman Matt Pearson said turnout appeared to be twice as high as it was four years ago. Statewide, Democrats turned out at twice the number of Republicans. It was a record night.

Storm Lake bade welcome to four presidential campaigns over the week before the caucus, including former President Bill Clinton’s first appearance here on Sunday, Dec. 30.

The City Beautiful bade farewell to candidates all as Obama easily emerged the top delegate grabber in BV County, population approximately 20,500 — about half of whom live in Storm Lake — and Iowa, vaulting him into front-runner status heading into the New Hampshire primary five days later.

This was a week of feast for the fan of politics. First comes Michelle Obama, daughter of Chicago’s South Side and wife of burning star Barack Obama. She spoke of “fear that shrouds each of our heads in a veil of impossibility,” that poetic style of politics that the young senator from Illinois used to vault him into the stagelights of the Democratic National Convention four years ago.

The 43-year-old mother of two walks down the hallway of the Storm Lake Middle School with stooped shoulders. She pops into the library energized, looking like a million bucks in knee-tall black boots, launching into her own Horatio Alger story of making it to Princeton, then Harvard Law School, and then to public-service law. And, finally, a presidential campaign with two young children in tow and grandma on the bus watching them.

“I’ve been knocking on doors like a madwoman,” she told the 30 or so gathered to hear her on a late Saturday afternoon.

She is gracious and empathetic to all who line up. Even the Clinton women love her.

The next day brings the former president, looking fit in his gray suit with green tie and shimmering white hair. He strides into the middle school gym as more than a dozen Secret Service agents and a cadre of local cops patrolled the halls and the rope line. Bill Clinton wore that ebullient face and clapped as he walked in, warming himself up for the 200 people in folding chairs.

“We have learned with the sad events in Pakistan that it’s a real mistake to take democracy for granted,” the leading surrogate said of the assassination of former Premier Benazir Bhutto. “Something we take for granted other people are literally ready to die for.”

He rambled on for an hour extolling the virtues of Hillary Clinton. She is the best candidate he’s had an opportunity to vote for in their 36 years of marriage, he said.

Clinton puts a finger to his chin to tell people an epiphany is at hand.

Of course, it is a number.

During his time as president, America created 23 million jobs. In the seven ensuing years the nation created 5.3 million jobs.

That’s where the squeeze hits the middle class, Clinton argues.

People nod.

“We can’t afford to enforce our own trade laws anymore,” Clinton proclaims. “When’s the last time you got tough with your banker?”

China, Japan, Korea and the oil sheiks own our loan paper.

He throws out more facts: 15 million more students got college degrees in his administration than in Bush’s. He knows that Iowa has the second-highest ACT scores in the country. Making all medical records electronic could save $80 billion per year in health care costs. He is a master of the political facts, as he sees them.

He brings the crowd up, then he hushes them down with a story of a New York City firefighter who brought tears to his eyes with stories of how Hillary the New York Senator helped.

“This is the world’s greatest job interview. It’s not about the candidate. It’s about you.” So Bill Clinton says in such a way that 200 people may believe that’s why he rides a bus from Cherokee in the fog.

The song “Takin’ Care of Business” blares. He jumps at the crowd, waving them toward him. A Secret Service agent holds his belt at the back, ready to pull Clinton in any direction; the gumshoe’s head bobs over each shoulder looking at the pockets and hands of the throng greeting him. No one is denied a handshake. No picture is left untaken. And then he is gone as fast as he comes.

A Biden supporter switches to Hillary right then and there, because Bubba comes with the package.

Come Monday at 11 a.m. another Southern gentleman, as it were, comes calling at the Buena Vista University Science Center. Ben “Cooter” Jones of “Dukes of Hazzard” fame warms up the 200 people sitting in circles, winding up the stairs, peering around the flags and banners. Cooter is a “Yellow Dog Democrat,” someone who would vote for a yellow dog if he were Blue. “Bury me in Chicago so I can stay active in politics,” Cooter says. The crowd loves that one.

John Mellencamp’s “This Is Our Country” comes over the PA and on comes John Edwards, the man with the perfect haircut and million-dollar teeth. He is escorted by children Emma Claire, 9, and Jack, 7, pats them on the heads and sends them off so daddy can talk some more.

Talk he does in that populist tone. He rails against the drug companies, the insurance companies, those faceless corporate greedmasters who brought you NAFTA and CAFTA.

“These people are stealing your children’s future. They’re stepping all over the hard work of your parents and grandparents, who wanted their children to have a better life,” Edwards says. “As sure as I’m standing here, they have an iron grip on your democracy.”

Wipe out the political cabal on the take, he says. You don’t do it by playing nice, because no one gives away power. “They’ll roll over you like a freight train.” He brags up being a trial lawyer where he fought and won in the courtroom for 20 years.

“It won’t change without a fight,” Edwards says, pointing in the air. “People who believe otherwise are living in never-never land.”

Edwards has his passel full of facts, too.

• 47 million Americans with no health care.

• 37 million Americans wake up each morning worrying how to feed and clothe their children.

• 35 million people — the size of California — go to bed hungry every day.

• 200,000 veterans sleep under bridges and on top of grates.

“When will we say enough is enough?” He shouts over the applause. “It’s time for us to stand up and say we want our government back. We don’t want the legacy of our ancestors stomped on.”

Edwards draws as many as the ex-president, this time on a Monday morning. This is a trial run for caucus turnout. The day before he had 500 people packed into a restaurant in Boone, steel workers and railroad union members ready to rumble through any blizzard on a Thursday. Edwards banks on the rural vote and the gray-bearded trade unionists to bring him home.

Two days later Bill Richardson comes to the middle school. He was just here three weeks ago. Last summer he spent the whole evening at Sue and Shawn Stone’s home on College Street kibitzing with about 50 people. On Wednesday he had about 100.

Best quote of the afternoon:

“I think Steve King wants to deport me,” says the governor of New Mexico, whose mother was Mexican. He referred to the Republican congressman from Western Iowa.

End the war in a year. Pull all troops — repeat, all troops — out of Iraq. Get out of bed with tyrants, who endanger our long-term security. Start with Gen. Musharraf in Pakistan. “The people hate him,” says the former United Nations ambassador.

His wife, Barbara, makes her first Iowa campaign appearance. Her face lights up when he talks. When he’s about to tell a joke, her eyes widen in anticipation. She sits next to John Early, a former Red Cross pilot who was taken hostage in Sudan. Richardson, then a congressman, came to Sudan to free him. He had no security. He told Early that he would stay in Sudan until the pilot, his crew and passengers were set free.

“He is a man of courage,” Early says.

On the energy bill recently passed: “It’s a joke,” says Richardson, former energy secretary. The mileage standard on all cars should be 50 miles per gallon, he says. Like Bill Clinton, Richardson insists that clean energy and more efficient systems can create millions of jobs. Quit investing in war and start investing in clean energy, Richardson says.

On “No Child Left Behind,” which teachers hate: “Just scrap it.” Applause.

He polls in the single digits. “We’re doing good,” he says. “I want to be in the top two in Nevada.”

Richardson says he can open up the West to Democrats, long the bastion of Goldwater Republicans.

They all come to Iowa for the first presidential selection in which no sitting president or vice president was involved since 1952, when Adlai Stevenson, Illinois Democrat, faced Dwight Eisenhower, Kansas Republican.

Interest has been intense.

More than when Howard Dean flipped flapjacks at the Embers Lounge four years ago on a Saturday morning. Six people showed up for Dick Gephardt at Steve and Diane Hamilton’s home then, 60 people showed up for Joe Biden at Nadine Brewer’s house in October 2007.

“There’s been an awful lot of activity, lots of phone calls, lots of registration forms, more than I can remember,” says long-time BV County Deputy Auditor Sue Lloyd.

Independents, the largest voting bloc in BV, switched to get into the selection action. When then-Congressman Fred Grandy ran for governor, they flocked to the Republican primary to support him. This time the electricity, maybe because of the multiple Democratic visits, was leaning left.

The Democratic candidates stream into so unlikely a place — predictably votes Republican, Farm Bureau territory in the heart of the Fifth Congressional District where immigrant-bashing Rep. Steve King appears invincible — because rural delegates are weighted heavier in a Democratic caucus than urban delegates are. A rural vote is worth more than a city vote. Not so the Republicans, who count the caucus-goers strictly one-man, one vote. Republicans spent their time in the cities and suburb where they could efficiently solicit GOP votes.

When a little paper in the middle of the corn fields and wind turbines endorses Joe Biden for president, as The Storm Lake Times did, it made news across the country. The New York Times came here to see how immigration would play in presidential politics. New York Public Radio called to get analysis from Iowans, who get to hug the candidates and hear them play guitar.

Then the airwaves are given back to seed corn ads and reports on corn futures. The robo calls are from credit card companies again. The Comeback Kid is in New Hampshire, looking for one more long shot on behalf of his wife. Bill Richardson is somewhere on the road with a grateful pilot and New Mexico state trooper, looking for hope in Nevada. Michelle Obama is heading east and then south, ready to knock on doors in South Carolina. Somewhere along the route, a presidential nominee is made. It started here.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times and managing editor of The Progressive Populist. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2008

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2008 The Progressive Populist.