Life isn’t but a moment’s beautiful dance through time.
Caught in the past, present, and futures’ constant intertwine.
For the past, I am proud it’s made me what I’ve come to be.
For the future, I am hopeful it’s where I’ll reach the dreams I see.
For the present, I am most thankful, it’s where in this moment’s dance,
I live, I exist, I am me.
- Poem on a mural in downtown Clinton,
signed by “EB” on July 7th, 2008
I. The Why
And so, sitting in the passenger seat in Clinton, Iowa, overlooking the calm of Lake Clinton, the widest point on the Missisippi River according to Gary Herrity, former middle school teacher and principal, now local historian and (by his own description) professional retired golfer who is driving me around on day one at 20 miles per hour, rarely more, sometimes far less, so as to be sure that he has adequate time to draw upon over one hundred and fifty years of history to illuminate what we see around us, such as this lake, “one of the most beautiful spots in America.” Or the fact that four hundred people were not killed by the flood of November 11, 1940, as he was told confidently by another Clintonian. It was actually just two people, stranded for twenty hours, both rescued. These facts were easily established by reviewing the appropriate day’s edition of the Clinton Herald newspaper at the Clinton Public Library, which Herrity did (and his associate had not), the front page of which was lacking in any reference to a tragedy which, had it unfolded, would have undoubtedly been "one of the top stories of Clinton history.”
Recounting the conversation rhetorically, he asks, “You going to believe your microfiche twenty feet away from you, or me, city historian, or you going to believe someone who told you? Someone who told me has a lot more impact.”
A friend of mine, a sociologist by training, told me that whatever I chose to write about Clinton would be a lie, that no conclusions could be drawn that weren’t the witting or unwitting result of bias or ignorance or simply not having the whole story. I think that’s probably right, both for those reasons mentioned, and because it’s impossible to honestly tell a singular tale about something like a city, regardless of how relatively small it might be.
It is dishonest to say Clinton represents an America that no longer exists, one whose obsolescence is threatening to drag the town into memory with it – though that’s partially true, as many people here partially acknowledge. Nor is it accurate to say that Clinton’s residents have given up, that they’ve turned their backs on politics and politicians – though many evoke such disappointment with both that even the effusively optimistic 26-year-old Jacob Couppee (who this fall took some time away from his Masters degree and unpaid internship with the Regional Development Corporation to run for City Council) told me flatly as we sat in an ice cream parlor (soon to close for the winter) that as things stand, “Hope is beginning to fade.”
If we apply such a prismatic reality to the national presidential primaries playing out here, we on one level find Clinton enmeshed in a cycle which has again made it, right on schedule, a link in the nerve center of the American political universe, a place where it determinedly remained even after the maneuverings of Florida governor Rick Scott, who flaunted Republican party rules and moved his state’s primary to January 31, forcing South Carolina and Nevada and New Hampshire to move up too, meaning that Iowan authorities jettisoned their original plan of caucusing on February 6th and yanked their proceedings up over a month to January 3, a date which (I assume) everyone had agreed was simply too early for comfort last time around.
Why? Because those campaigns and Iowa’s spot on the calendar have once again pulled in curiosity seekers like me, who visit and shell out our cash and attention, and allow the state to serve as the first and arguably greatest individual prize of presidential electoral politics (besides winning the whole thing, of course), the televised and cinematic portrayals of which obsessively scrutinize in dramatic detail each and every move of our national figures, such that “politics” itself eventually becomes a series of high-level machinations and counter-machinations executed by elegantly dressed, sharp-tongued staffers in or around either the first-class cabins of chartered jets or the lush, well-appointed chambers of the Capitol and White House. And for month after month during this first stage of the campaign season, so much of it is (at least in theory) done for small Iowan communities like Clinton, which in the subtext of the established narrative exist to preserve iconic American values, places that tie our country to its agrarian and democratic roots, from whose discerning voters and their quaint caucuses our now behemoth nation can draw inspiration, towns which every four years sit with grim and sage determination at the procedural core of the process that helps set in motion an epochal chain of events which will determine the ultimate occupants of those rooms and jets and the fate of everyone else in the balance.
Which is why it’s worthwhile to contrast this tale with the fact that during the month of October that I spent in Clinton, with less than a dozen precious weeks to go before caucus day, there was, with a mere handful of exceptions, no tangible sign of an ongoing presidential contest at all.
It’s also worthwhile to reflect on what there was plenty of, namely local variants of three of the more pervasive trends in contemporary American politics. The first is a widespread conviction, one uniting those on the left and right (though to different effect) that many of those in power are unaccountable, that they’re making decisions in secret, without the knowledge or consent of the public. The second is a related belief that those decisions are often wrong, that at some level, those in charge having been screwing up for a long time, and while their behavior may have been the result of greed or ineptitude or ideological confusion, what matters is that things simply have to change, because Clinton and communities like it throughout the country are hurt, they’re on the ropes, and whether or not they’re going to be able to survive the round isn’t a melodramatic question because the answer is entirely debatable.
And third, in spite of the unprecedented energy unleashed during the two year election campaign from 2007 through 2008, replete with all of its rhetoric related to a renewed degree of democratic participation and civic activism, in Clinton, sustained activism is fragile, and organized party politics remains the concern of the few, and in many ways democracy itself is a thesis waiting to be proven.
II. What Of This Place?
Clinton has beauty in it. The view from Eagle Park, named after the American Bald Eagles that were so prevalent there until DDT nearly exterminated them and are now prevalent once more, provides a sweeping view of the aforementioned lake, which itself sweeps across a field of vision encompassing lovely, untrammeled nature. There is history in Clinton. There are delightful streets with beautiful homes. There is a riverfront running path, and there are well maintained parks, and a community college that serves as an effective gateway to further schooling, and now a university run by Ashford, an online college that has been setting up physical campuses around the country. Many people describe Clinton as a great place to raise children. And if you talk to the Hy-Vee supermarket worker I met who moved there from Chicago’s south side with her four kids, the city has quite possibly been a lifesaver in the most literal sense, because the violence back there was unbearable, but coming here - well, it’s just been a “blessing.”
We can also, though, consider a poll of comely young lady bartenders at a local drinking establishment, a sample which, though not scientific, was at least fun for me to survey (except for the part where they offered their assessment of the city). Describe Clinton, please. “Stinky. Boring. Drama.” (“People don’t have anything better to do,” so they create and “thrive” on that last one.) Where am I coming from, you ask? Chicago. She smiles. “And you come to the armpit of Iowa and ask people what they think about it?” (I’m told that was a Johnny Carson joke from the 80s – the armpit one – because of the city’s smell.) Another. “Clinton sucks you in. Clinton sucks. Clinton’s weird for sure.” Another. “I swear there’s something about this town that just holds people back.”
The first time Clinton was mentioned to me, it was in a sentence featuring “rustbelt” as a synonym. If that’s the story you want, you can get it, and not just from blunt youth. It’s offered up from a woman who has lived here for decades, spoken close, intently, with eyes locked on my own: “Clinton is a dying city.”
Or from a walk down a three block stretch of 5th avenue, the heart of a downtown that still features buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century, once elegant storefronts packed with patrons strolling and shopping on Friday nights, now featuring (in addition to various businesses) ten empty storefronts, an auction house, condemned spaces, and an adult store with a sign in front of opaque windows advertising “This week only, 10% off any inflatable toy.” On Friday nights, the sidewalks are empty, and the street is nearly silent.
Or the evening, which as it comes brings with it the oppressive knowledge that Clinton is closing down, that there is increasingly less and less to do outside of the bars strung up and down the avenues, delineated from the darkness by neon signs shining softly from behind windows fit for doing little more than showcasing groups of candy colored letters illuminating the names of beers.
Or from the fact that over the past few decades, Clinton has lost a third of it’s population, dropping to its current one (26,885) from a historical high of around 36 or 37,000. That’s the one that puts the city’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate, or the 70 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, or the 14.4 percent poverty rate and $21,343 average individual annual income, in a more troubling long-term context.
Clinton came up as a lumber town. Its location has always been one of its greatest assets. Just south of where the Mississippi spreads into that broad lake, it slips into thin strips, and starting in the mid-19th century, white pine trees were felled in the woodlands of Wisconsin and Michigan, floated down the river, pulled ashore at these narrows (where Clinton was founded in 1855), milled, and shipped west on a well-developed rail system connecting everything from Chicago to the California coast. Through 1910, 47 billion board feet were cut in Clinton, a sum which made millionaires out of 13 of the men who ran the biggest mills in town. (One of those men was named Joyce. If you’re a fan of public broadcasting, you might be familiar with the thanks given to the Joyce Foundation for its philanthropic support.) That fact meant that for a time, Clinton, Iowa was the home of more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States, a surprising statistic that everyone from bar patrons to Caesar, the Mexican-born owner of La Feria Restaurant downtown, offers up to any visitor expressing interest in their surroundings. The city’s streets are still graced with artful mansions serving as reminders of their wealth.
The lumber companies up north didn’t take steps to mitigate the effects of their business, and by the early 20th century, the trees were gone. Clinton was suddenly faced with its first economic crisis and population drop, but it was kept afloat by the hundreds of small local businesses in operation, and recovered as new industry moved in. During the ensuing decades, the city came to be home to industrial operations, including a large rail yard, a Dupont plant that produced cellophane, a poly-etholyne plant, and Clinton Corn, originally opened in 1907 to transform the largess of nearby cornfields into sugar. Jobs came, and the population hit its historical high of around 36,000 in the mid 1960s.
Since then, the city has seen its economic security gradually slip away. Mike Kearney, a thoughtful, erudite 71-year-old member of the City Council who met me in his stately apartment building downtown – one designed during better days by Louis Sullivan, the mentor of Frank Lloyd Wright – spoke of how the “globalization of trade, and a much different competitive environment” combined with “technological obsolescence” to undermine Clinton’s economy. The processes employed by Dupont’s factory were surpassed by others, leading to a change in production and layoffs. Some businesses closed up and moved. In 1979 there was a major strike at Clinton Corn, which was being taken over by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one heated enough to draw Angela Davis and see violence. The Grain Millers Union was broken, and ADM went about the business of modernizing the facility and producing more with fewer, non-union workers. Those supportive of the union’s cause still cite the event as an economic turning point.
Brian Guy, 51, a life-long local resident, a career cop, and Clinton’s Chief of Police who spoke to me in his office while sitting in front of a large, completed puzzle forming Normal Rockwell’s “The Runaway” (I thought he had it hanging as a metaphor for the investigative process, but he explained that his deceased mother just liked puzzles, and made it for the Department, and it represents to him the concept of conscientious public service) sums things up in this fashion: "Clinton has had the carrot dangled in front of it for 20 years. Clinton has always been on the cusp of something new." There have been many big plans here during recent years, and planning made in anticipation of others’ plans, like that related to taxes expected to be paid into city coffers from an ADM expansion project that the company wound up objecting to (it’s still in court), or the Thompson State Prison just across the river in Illinois that was going to serve as Guantanamo North (which wasn’t an issue of national security or Constitutional correctness for people here so much as a potential source of well-paid guards and their families who would live and shop in Clinton) before D.C. politics got in the way, or the development initiatives that weren’t properly budgeted for and that contributed to a $1.44 million deficit as of this past June.
And even beyond the specifics, there’s a general sense of confusion that many share, a failure to understand why there isn’t more to do in Clinton at night even though Ashford (which moved in 5 years ago) has brought thousands of students to the area, and why the city doesn’t have more industry, even though little DeWitt a few miles away (population 5,322) managed to open a successful industrial park not long ago, and why Clinton hasn’t capitalized on its history, as Dubuque to the north did, making itself so desirable that IBM opened up a new facility there that was expected to bring in 1,300 workers. Why not Clinton?
III. A Matter of Trust
All of this formed part of the backdrop to the news of September 14, 2010, when citizens learned for the first time that on top of everything else, the city counsel had agreed to a $4.5 million settlement with federal prosecutors following a lawsuit filed back in 2008, to be paid out in yearly installments each October 1st over the next ten years. At issue was the repeated mis-coding of emergency medical calls, billed to Medicaid and Medicare in a way that made them more expensive than they should have been. Nobody was accused of lining their pockets with the extra money (it had gone into the city’s general fund), and so there wasn’t some corrupt official to target who had gamed the system so they could sail a yacht up and down the Mississippi like Duke Cunningham had done on the Potomac. But people were still angry, angry a year later when I arrived, angry enough that the matter had become a central campaign issue during the run-up to the November, 2011 municipal elections that would select a mayor and a new city council. The case had come to symbolize their worst feelings about their city government: that not only was it making bad calls, but it was making bad calls in secret.
The public didn’t see the settlement coming. They may have been aware of the lawsuit, triggered by a local whistle blower (formerly a paramedic and member of the fire department), but no one knew that the city government was preparing to settle for millions of dollars. The reason was that all of the relevant council hearings had taken place in private hearings off-limits to the press, which is why the September article dropped with such a thud. The whole thing seemed to reek of ineptitude, deliberately hidden until it was too late to do anything but stick taxpayers with the bill for the damages.
This was the interpretation put forth at a well-attended meeting in early October by Ed O’Neil and John Rowland, respective candidates for mayor and council. The theme of the evening, according to an advanced copy of their remarks, was “Transparency and Openness in Clinton City Government.”
“We think this lack of transparency, openness, and the lack of accountability at City Hall are the biggest problems facing our community,” the document read. O’Neil and Rowland outlined a damning case resulting from their own investigation: missed opportunities to argue the city’s case to the Feds; bad advice taken from untrustworthy lawyers; a series of missteps deliberately hidden from public view, but now available for everyone to see for themselves in a thick packet of documentary evidence they had assembled and were distributing to the media. Their pledge that night was that, if elected, they would make sure that a lack of transparency wouldn’t again threaten the fiscal health of the city. I tagged along with O’Neil a few days later during an afternoon canvass that left door hangers up and down a street, each of them asking residents to “Move Ahead with Ed.” He struck familiarly populist tones. “People that get on a council, especially in a medium-sized town, there is the idea that I’m now in control,” he said. “Well, you’re only in control because you’ve gotten the authority to do it from the people who elected you.”
Looking deeper reveals that these lines of attack aren’t quite so clean. All seven members of the Clinton Council voted for the settlement, and two of them, Kearney and 58-year-old, first-termer Jennifer Graf, offered me their take on a decision which they described as regrettable, as the wrong one in hindsight, but that at the time looked entirely reasonable.
To begin with, holding the meetings in private was legal. The relevant rules and regulations stipulate that when handling issues such as internal personnel matters or impending legal or financial dealings, the council must go into “closed session.” Furthermore, while votes can’t be taken in a closed session, what is said there must remain private until the matter is dealt with. This makes sense. If, for example, the city intends to buy a parcel of land, announcing its intentions publicly would artificially drive up the cost of the property. Similarly, the details of a lawsuit shouldn’t be public record, at least until the case is settled. Long-time local radio reporter Dave Vickers, a stickler for rules and the man credited with guaranteeing that the counsel has provided proper public reasoning whenever it decides to talk about things in private, told me that the closed session decision was above board. "By the law, what they did was acceptable,” he explained. “They did not violate any open meetings laws.”
So be it. But how had some billing errors left the city on the hook for millions? According the Kearney, back in 2009, a closed session was approved by the council without the members knowing what was about to be discussed (it was assumed, he said, to be something routine, though he wishes he had asked for more details up front). At that point, the council was informed that the city was being sued, and that a lawyer had been hired to provide counsel. (Kearney now thinks that these initial conversations should have been public.) In future closed sessions, he and Graf say, the council’s members were told that six years of violations were being alleged, and with each one running a maximum fine of $15,000, the city could be facing a liability of a staggering $100 million. Their lawyer advised them to settle, and as Graf put it, doing so was a “no brainer” considering the information they had been given. (The vote to settle was unanimous.) Kearney added that no one thought that the closed meetings were going to shield the Council from accountability. "In fact,” he explained, “I think there was a considerable amount of sentiment that this [was] going to be a bombshell.” But after that initial closed session, going public was no longer an option under city rules.
With hindsight, it is clear that the City was given bad advice. The $100 million figure was absurd, as it would have bankrupted Clinton many times over, and it also seems that a penalty far smaller than $4.5 million could have been arranged with further discussion. The biggest mistake the Council made, according to Graf and Kearney, was trusting legal counsel they were told was trustworthy – something they implied voters could forgive them for. Graf added that she was working with the region’s congressman, Bruce Brailey, in the hope of reducing the settlement, a fact she says O’Neil and Rowland were fully aware of but chose to omit from their campaign. She said their charges were based on “fear and innuendo, and I'm afraid that it may get them elected.”
What matters for our story, though, is that Rowland and O’Neil’s argument struck a chord. Not with everybody – I spoke to some residents who agreed with Graf’s suggestion that they were exploiting public anger unfairly. But it wasn’t hard to find the opposite, people like Jan Hansen, a life-long local, saying things like, “I’m not sure what I see coming out of City Hall is true, and that’s a terrible way to feel about your local government. So much has happened that has been covered up.” Hansen is on the board of the Historical Society, part of a group of retired Clintonians who volunteer their time to preserve the evidence of their county’s history. During one of our conversations, which took place in the basement of an old, disused church the group was restoring in the hope of turning it into a cultural center, Hansen related the story of how during a public gathering of civic groups, all of the city council members had sat together at a table instead of with other organizations to which they belonged. Like a high school cafeteria, I suggested. “Exactly,” she said. Her sentiments were clear: they were off in their own world, disassociated from the public good. “People think every councilperson is inept, that there is not one who should be on the council voting on anything.”
Not every incumbent lost their job on November 8th when Clinton residents went to the polls, but we can certainly argue that Hansen wasn’t alone in her feelings, because Mike Kearney was voted out, and John Rowland was voted in, and Ed O’Neil wound up in a run-off for mayor to be decided the following month.
IV. Four Related Tales of Disenchantment
ONE This theme – a loss of control to unaccountable power – came up repeatedly, in very different contexts. There was, for example, the public comment hearing in October held by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources at the Clinton Public Library. An interpretation of the American flag hung in the room, the stars and stripes formed by children who had dipped their hands in paint and pressed them to the paper, and beneath it stood Julie Ingoli, an environmental engineer with the DNR’s Air Quality Bureau who had driven in from out of town for the meeting and was stating for the record that “section 567 of the Iowa Administrative Code, Chapter 33.3, Section 17 stipulates public participation in this review process.” The review in question concerned a change in the production methods employed by ADM, specifically their associated environmental impact. Those gathered were largely residents of South Clinton, the individuals living closest to the plant.
Because of factories like ADM’s, Clinton can smell. It’s a hard smell to describe. There’s something about it that’s meaty, and something that’s chemical, as if someone is cooking dinner but the recipe is wrong. That smell, though, is seen by some as more than an annoyance. We might not associate processes that produce plastic and turn corn into sugar and syrup, which is some of what ADM does there, as hazardous. But local environmental activists have long claimed that the variety of industry in Clinton has caused cancer in local populations and undermined public health. For years, they have worked with the EPA to address their concerns, and their latest concerns were now being brought up at this meeting.
ADM claimed the changes, involving the substitution of two new solvents for two others, had no negative environmental impact, and the DNR seemed set to approve their plans. Ingoli brought out a tape recorder and opened the floor to statements and questions, all of which would be transcribed and returned with answers in written form to those who had delivered them. This was the system seemingly working: a dedicated government scientist representing an agency charged with protecting the public, here to record the concerns of community members and respond to them in as much detail as she could. And virtually all of the 20 or so residents who showed up, many still dressed in work clothes dirty from the day, were either unconvinced by, or disgusted with, both her and her agency.
A man named Mark Hersh talked about the vile new smells coming from the plant following the switch. “I know what I'm smelling every day. Smells like crap. Our quality of life is gone. And it doesn’t show in there, in all your little facts and figures, loss of quality of life." Another explained how a visiting friend had to "get out of south Clinton, because the smell was burning his eyes. We are the guinea pigs down here that are getting the brunt of all [these] chemicals. Everybody's got sinus problems now, we can't use our yards, we can't leave our windows open on a nice night or anything." The trees were dying, it was said. Another claimed his granddaughter had increased her breathing treatments, and that she “may be dead by the time she's five 'cause of this bullshit.”
Not everyone in town sided with those in South Clinton. There were complicating factors, such as the fact that in years passed, ADM, seeking to expand, had paid some residents an above-market price for their homes. Some said that those who were left were just angry that they hadn’t gotten a similar deal, too.
But it was also true that ADM hadn’t released the names of the new chemicals being used, even to the DNR. Bob Krajnovich, a long-time local environmental activist, raised this point. "How can you discuss all of the chemicals when you don’t even know what their names are? We've only got one name for one chemical, and it's something-something-ketone. And I have no idea what it is. What is all this stuff? And why can't we know what it is by name so we can actually check it out?" Ingoli explained that there was a process by which citizens could force ADM to release the names of the chemicals, one she had already explained at a previous meeting. (Krajnovich told me he is following the process, but as of October had yet to receive the desired information.)
And it was also true that Ingoli didn’t offer an answer to the central complaint made that night: there was no third-party body monitoring air quality in the area. Instead, ADM delivered emissions data to the DNR, and the DNR approved and disapproved their methods based on what was permissible according to established environmental guidelines. What people didn’t understand was why the relevant government agencies were willing to simply trust the company’s data.
“I don’t think anybody in this room or in this city is out to get ADM or wants to see ADM leave,” Krajnovich said at one point. “We realize that ADM has to make a profit. And we realize that they've, over the years, been a pretty good employer, and have employed an awful lot of men and women in this community. The problem as we see it is, at what point do you draw a line? At what point do you take profits over dead people, or sick people, or injured people?”
Hersh got back up. "Quality of life down there is bad. I'm third generation. They moved into our neighborhood. We didn't move into theirs. All we're asking is, ADM, please do the right thing. We know we can’t stop you. You’re going to get your permit. But it's time that you did the thing [that] is right for the people down in South Clinton. It's going to come back to bite you sooner or later. Once we're gone, it will."
"Are there any other comments?” Ingoli asked. As an engineer, she was only permitted to address questions pertaining to her particular jurisdiction, and hence spent most of the meeting sitting quietly while the assembled used her as a target against which they fired their frustrations. "I just have a question,” someone now said to her from the back of the room. “Would you like to live in Clinton?"
TWO Les Schofield lived in Clinton, had lived there for 77 years, and I met him one night while he was holding court in the café of the Hy-Vee supermarket, surrounded by three others, one of whom made sure to refill his cup of soda when it ran low. I had overheard Les mention Herman Cain, and I asked if I could have a few minutes of his time to talk. His faith was a central component of his world view, and he spoke for more than an hour about how the public schools had removed God from the minds of the people and convinced them that their rights were given to them by government rather than the Creator. With that seismic intellectual shift in place, those in government had spent years consolidating their power, replacing democracy with a top-down autocracy, and buying the loyalty of groups through programs by handing out subsidies and support, in the process rending society apart. Les explained that the programs associated with LBJ’s great society have “totally devastated the black community and the black family. We made fatherlessness and illegitimacy pay. We put an incentive on it." Charity could exist, but it should be handled at the local level. It wasn’t the state’s place to decide who got it. "You are your brothers keeper and you want to do well for him , but he has to be part of it. You can't stuff it down his neck." Les talked about the recent death of his wife, who "died two months ago because of a system that had certain treatment methods for what she had, and we found one that was working and yet she wound up back in the corporate system. You have to use certain methods. She got caught up in that, and now she's dead.” (“Well actually, she's more alive then she's ever been,” he clarified quickly with a soft laugh. “Being a Christian, we think that way. Most people nowadays think that is silliness. I guarantee you it is not silliness.") But in his mind, it wasn’t enough to simply blame health care companies. The greatest threat came from the government, because it was setting the terms and providing the perverse incentives under which everyone else operated.
There were contradictions in Les’ understanding. He praised the moon landing as an example of the power the free market had given America, without acknowledging it was an endeavor led by government scientists. And when I asked him if agricultural subsidies should no longer be given to Iowa farmers, he said he had “labored” about the question, and brought up how during the Depression, the State had electrified farms decades before the market would have, resulting in an “economic boon.”
Yet, while government existed to provide for the general welfare, that welfare was at its core the freedom all men were born with, which meant the state needed to stay out of the way and permit the functioning of the “only thing that works: the individual incentive motive.” That, and “God’s love letter to mankind,” the Holy Bible. "And if the Muslims come after me with a shotgun, it'll be no problem, because I'm 77 years old,” Les explained. “What can they do to me at this late date?" I saw him once more after that, in a breakfast place downtown. He reminded me that he was a man of faith, and asked to write my name down, because he felt that we had met for a reason.
THREE While in Clinton, I had the opportunity to speak with two Ron Paul supporters, Gary Galant of Clinton and Dennis Green of nearby Muscatine, both in their 60s. The fun thing about talking to Ron Paul supporters is how their consistency makes it impossible to assign them to either of our leading political parties. At one point during the conversation, you’ll almost inevitably feel like your talking to a real Lefty. Both were angered, for example, by the due process-free killing of Anwar al-Alaki on the president’s orders, a favorite topic of activists like Glenn Greenwald, and something that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich supported during a recent debate. And then, just when you’re ready to march off to a Nader rally, they’ll whipsaw around and agree with Paul’s suggestion that an individual who chose not to purchase insurance and who then suffers life-threatening injuries should, at least in principle, be left to succumb to them. "A person has chosen to be irresponsible, and they have to just pay the consequences," Green said. "I don't think it’s the role of government to deal with the fact that people choose to be irresponsible, to bail them out of their choices, just like I don’t think it’s the role of government to bail banks out of the stupid things they do."
But beyond that, a similar pattern soon emerged. Interestingly, both believed that the 9-11 attacks were executed in conjunction with the U.S. government. They didn’t ascribe such beliefs to Paul, but it spoke to how little faith they had left in established institutions. In Galant's case, he no longer trusted elected officials, and Dennis had ceased believing anything in the mainstream press, which he thought was inexplicably unwilling to seriously investigate the glaring problems with the official story line of the day. This made sense, considering the way they saw the Democrats and Republicans as partners in the same rigged game, eviscerating the constitution, transmuting democracy and capitalism into “corporatism” led by “the banking system” (as Galant put it), turning the highest reaches of the State into a club where Obama and Wall Street were, in Green's words, “giving each other money back and forth.”
“We can’t consider ourselves a democratic republic anymore,” Galant said.
FOUR One more story. On the second Thursday in October, I drove to Marion, Iowa, about 85 miles west of Clinton on the outskirts of Cedar Rapids. It was evening when I arrived, and the small town appeared suddenly out of the darkened landscape spreading around it. I pulled into a strip mall parking lot, and there, next to a dojo called Kang’s Martial Arts in which a mixed-age group of students took turns throwing out a guttural cadence while high-kicking punching bags, was the rented office of the Iowa Conservative Union, marked by a sign in the window and little else. Inside, it was a campaign war room, with area maps on the walls, a large whiteboard covered with notes, and yard signs for local candidates. An additional sign featured a smiling woman holding a giant gun. It read “Congratulations Tiffany Schmidt, Winner of ICU Black Powder Rifle.”
Marion was farther afield than I had intended to travel, but Jim Conklin, 50, co-chair of the ICU, conservative activist, and the former head of the Linn County GOP, had seen a message I posted to a Ron Paul listserve and invited me out. There were around twelve people there, mostly middle-aged, but a few who we younger, including Taylor Nelson, 19, who was running for City Council in Cedar Rapids. They were blue-collar locals representing an amalgamation of local groups, including 9-12 followers and Tea Party members, and over the next two and a half hours, they took me on a tour of the mindset behind a local billboard the ICU had paid for (a photo of which now hung in the office) featuring the words “Transforming America” above a food coupon from the U.S. Department of Agriculture with Barack Obama’s face on it.
If I had to distill it down to a single statement, that mindset was represented by a thought Conklin offered at the end of our meeting. "The Republicans and the Democrats are both afraid of free will,” he began. (Conklin claimed he had been forced out of the Linn GOP leadership because he wouldn’t take orders from the state headquarters.) “They're in it for one of three things. And I was taught these three things as a kid getting into politics. I was asked [by a friend], so, what do you want, money power, or legacy? And they said, if you want money, run for city government. It's cheapest to get into and you'll get rich. If you want power, run for a state level job. You'll get rich and you'll get power. And if you want a legacy, you've gotta go for the federal level. It's the hardest one to go for, but you'll get all three. As a young person, I thought, that sounds like hopelessness. Now I'm 50 years old. I learned a long time ago that my friend was right.”
What Conklin and his compatriots see is a nation whose potential and treasure are being plundered by a government that has ascribed itself a destructive level of power and control over the lives of the citizenry. It’s an outlook that can take unexpected turns. Hence, while Conklin identified himself as a Christian against gay marriage and abortion, he labeled such issues as his “faith” instead of his “cause,” adding that “this government has no God damn business on how I do my sex and what my faith is.” (On the other hand, he said that he didn’t want to have to “pay” for abortions, which would presumably necessitate an end to all taxpayer support to providers.)
Similarly, he saw charity as something that should be handled by churches or other local groups, and rejected George W. Bush’s concept of compassionate conservatism. (“There’s no such thing as compassion that is equal for everybody. I’m much more compassionate for my children than I am for your children.”) If we consider such an outlook to be lacking in empathy, he seemed to expect the same from everyone else. Early on in the conversation, he casually mentioned a high dose of radiation he had received some years earlier while on the job (I believe at Rockwell-Collins, an avionics manufacturer) due to the negligence of a co-worker. He proudly explained why he hadn’t sued the company. "This country isn’t about taking care of people. And people die every day. Is it fair that I was microwaved eleven years ago? Is it fair that I got organ damage? Did I sue anybody? I was God damn pissed. I could have. But I don’t do that. Where was my responsibility for myself?” Later on, I brought the topic up again. “I'm sure I could have [sued],” Conklin continued, “but what's the point? It's done. I'm dying. Who cares? You deal with it and you move on. I cried. I'm sympathetic. Do I need your money? Do I need their money? My family has got damages. OK great, let's figure out how to work around that. I am so sick of this country suing at the drop of a hat for bullshit. I mean, God forbid you trip on your way out of here. We ain't got no money, just in case you do." In disbelief, I asked if this was some sort of metaphor, if he was actually dying. "Yeah, usually microwave victims die of either stomach aneurysm, pancreatic cancer, there's three others, but right now, my betting is on pancreatic cancer. My pancreas shut down this summer. I'm about four years ahead of schedule."
That level (and definition) of personal responsibility is one of the things the ICU thinks the Occupy Wall Street crowd, filled as it is with confused, usurious Robin Hoods, doesn’t understand. “I call these people zombies,” Conklin explained. OWS was a scam. “When they do something, whether it’s for a good thing or not a good thing, the reason it keeps going is because there’s money flowing in there to keep them fed.” And it was an attempt to re-assign the wealth of society in an unjust way. “These people understand the same thing you and I understand about cause and effect. They just want different winners.” Conklin dismissed a protester he had seen interviewed who he said wanted free college tuition. “The American dream is that I can do anything I want to do. It’s not I can do anything you let me do. It’s not, I need your help to realize the American dream.”
I brought up Elizabeth Warren’s explanation of collective success as a justification for collective taxation, and Conklin responded in a way that showed how unwilling he was to entertain the premise of her argument. “She’s going to take credit for the businessmen that were successful? Let’s take credit for the criminals that are successful. She needs to start taking credit for all of these people that rob, steal, rape, run illegal business, using her logic. She’s the God, and she gave us the right to breathe. So don’t we owe all these people for the right to breathe?”
Conklin kept bringing up the proper role of government, which he felt was (at the federal level) nothing more than defending borders and protecting interstate commerce. Instead, officials were injecting themselves into the workings of the free market in ways that had disastrous consequences. Besides running up the debt, they were artificially impacting economic outcomes by subsidizing various kinds of production. (This is what ICU members had in mind when they used the term “crony capitalism.”) They were producing disastrous outcomes threatening the economy. (The mortgage crisis had been caused not by Wall Street – though there were some bad decisions made – but the Fair Housing Act of 1993, which created a market of high-risk homeowners that should never have existed.) And they were crushing independent business through excessive taxation and regulation. A “perfect example” of the latter involved the detasselling of corn, a job which was presented as a time-honored tradition for Iowa teenagers. “You’re learning work ethic, you learn a chain of command, you learn accountability,” an ICU member explained. But new government regulations had mandated that all workers be 18 or older, ostensibly for safety reasons. All that had been accomplished was the ending of a valuable part of life for young Iowans, and the outsourcing of the work to migrant workers, the only adults willing to do it. (I am unsure if this age regulation claim is accurate. For example, see this document, page 11, or this website.) "We sound like we’re anti-government,” a local businessman in attendance explained. “We're not. We just say that it has to be limited." If that happened, jobs and wealth would grow exponentially, another reason why OWS’s fixation on income inequality was so misguided. “You’re assuming that there’s only a pie, and there’s only so many slices,” an attendee stated. “We live in America. You can make your own pie, and have as many slices as you want.” (Just how far in the background the government should be was up for debate. At one point in the conversation, it was suggested that the US should match Chinese regulations on labor and the environment so as to remain competitive in manufacturing. “That’s not a good idea,” someone else replied.)
And then there was the issue of graft, of those entrusted with the public good taking advantage of government funds to benefit the pet projects they cared about. Conklin claimed that there was “trillions” wasted nation-wide at the local level alone. In 2008, Cedar Rapids had been hit with a major flood. “I’ve never seen such a disgraceful waste of tax dollars,” another ICU member said. “As soon as the flood waters receded, the governments around here started to figure out how much money they could extort out of FEMA.” This led to one of the most specific charges made by the group. The Cedar Rapids Public Library was heavily damaged by the flood, and a new once has since been built. The ICU claimed that staffers had deliberately refused to take necessary steps to avoid damage to the collections, part of a plan that would increase the federal reconstruction funds they could apply towards a new library.
"There were groups that offered, at the time of the flood, to move the books out of there,” one of the members stated. “They were turned away at the door.” Taylor Nelson, the City Council candidate, claimed that his family had shown up with a moving truck to help. “And they said, well, there's no need. We can take care of this ourselves." Conklin remarked that there was an experienced corps of volunteers who “had gone to the library 20 times over the last 50 years” whenever the flood waters rose to help with the evacuation of books. “This was a practiced group that was turned away this time." Someone else added that the librarian in charge “should have been held accountable for negligence."
A few weeks later, I sent a transcript of the exchange to Amber Mussman, the Library’s Public Information Officer. She hadn’t been an employee there in 2008, but she spoke with several managers who were there during the flood, including Tamara Glise, who at the time was the library’s Interim Director. Besides saying that “the staff at the CRPL worked furiously to save as much of the collection and resources as possible, as well as to protect the structure itself from damage,” Mussman categorically rejected every claim made by the ICU.
“There has never been a group of volunteers or any kind of organization needed or utilized to move books from the Library prior to the flood of 2008,” she said. “No emergency or event has ever made removing books from the Library necessary.” Furthermore, “There is no record of Taylor Nelson’s family contacting the Cedar Rapids Public Library during the flood.”
Mussman also offered a statement from Bob Pasicznyuk, the library’s current director (another post-2008 hire): “Like most Cedarapidians, the staff and management of the Library were heavily scared by the floods of 2008 and the loss of a book collection that represented their life’s work. The notion that library staff was complicit in the destruction of books is repugnant in the extreme as well as undeniably false when considering the evidence.”
I sent this information to Conklin, and he told me he would read it to the other ICU members and let me know if they wanted to respond. I didn’t hear back from him. And yet, when I left the meeting that night under a sky that was a spread of deep, flat black, I had seen Conklin walking off with three others, their voices and mood animated by the confidence that comes to people who know their cause is right.
V. The Parties
President Obama is raising re-election cash at a clip of tens of millions of dollars per quarter, well on his way to an announced goal (one billion dollars) that even as recently as 2004 would have sounded like a comic book villain’s ransom demand. At the same time, Jean Pardee, in her sixties and the long-time chair of the Clinton County Democrats, felt compelled during one of our chats to point out to her treasurer, the retired physics and astronomy professor Dr. Tom Gibbons, that sure, the party could take his advice and purchase a new computer to replace the old, slow one they were always waiting on to load, but doing so would cost them "at least one or two newspaper adds." It was not a decision to be made lightly.
If you whittle down the national parties to their most basic, local units, you’ll likely find many offices like the Democratic headquarters in Clinton, which is accessed through door in a brick wall leading to a rented office space which overlooks a grass and gravel parking lot, then an ugly, utilitarian building, then the ADM plant. The office is a jumble of old furniture, campaign signs, and over-stuffed filing cabinets. Pardee admits the location (far from downtown) isn’t ideal, but the rent is “incredibly low,” and the union guys on the team have fixed up the bathroom, and the paint job was recently re-done by some volunteers after Jean came in early on a Saturday to prepare, where I found her moving furniture away from the walls, alone.
If you separate out the national news coverage, what party politics comes down to at the tangible local level is the connection local parties are to the public – how effective they are at engaging and educating and coordinating sustained, meaningful political action. Pardee explained the basic structure of the apparatus: a representative from every voting precinct (collectively, they form the county’s Central Committee) selected during caucuses (collectively, then regional representatives elected during regional meetings of those members, then state representatives elected by that regional group, and then national delegates who you’ll see waving and shouting in the Convention throng some time in 2012. Starting at the precinct level, the Clinton County Dems focus on voter registration, on public education through lectures and guest speakers, and on voter persuasion and turnout for Democratic campaigns for local and state office. Larry Kness, who was Co-Chair of the Clinton Democrats from 2004 through 2009, also pointed out that the Central Committee members "are the elected representatives of every registered Democrat in the county,” and are invested with real power, such as the ability to unilaterally nominate the Party’s candidate for office if the popular choice drops out. “I don’t think five percent of the voters know that," Kness adds.
That’s really the point. On a day-to-day basis, and absent the compelling, coordinating force of provided by a campaign (especially a national one), the Clinton Democrats remain the passion project of a few dedicated individuals like Pardee, who seems to run virtually every activity, and likely knows every involved Democrat in the county. Beyond them, politically aware Democrats may show up for occasional events (like the $30 dollar a plate fundraiser I attended along with 61 others held in a multi-purpose room - adjacent to a relatively dim bar, up the stairs from a much darker bar, outside of which was a street that was also dark except for the luminous Hardees’ sign to the left and the glowing stoplights to the right, even though on that Saturday night there was little traffic to speak of - an event Pardee said she “sold on political conversation, not speeches, and cheap drinks”) but they won’t engage with the party on a regular basis.
The monthly Central Committee meetings, where organizational and legislative business is discussed, are open to the public and are intended to be a priority for the committee members, but Pardee admits to their limited appeal. "You have to be not only a political junkie to be interested,” she says, “but you also have to have the ability to either tolerate or be interested in the kinds of nuts and bolts that go into the Party work." She mentioned how three months of meetings were needed to edit the county Party’s constitution and bylaws, one of the "drier, dullest things you can do," but an important one. The meeting I attended, which represents the only group Party activity that is guaranteed to happen with such frequency, drew a crowd of about 30. (Another example: the County Dems hold caucuses every year, which means that every other year is an “off-year” caucus where there isn’t a presidential or gubernatorial election. Each local party writes its platform and picks the issues it is going to focus on. Again, the meeting is public, but Pardee told me that the typical attendance from across the entire county is between 75 and 100.)
Democrats like to flaunt their disproportionate popularity with the 18-35 set, but virtually everyone in the room, especially the committee members, was of retirement age. "We've gotta get some new blood,” Pardee told me. “The problem is there's a gap between the retired and not retired, that we don’t have that much activity from those that are still working, because between family, work, they don't have that much additional time. So it’s hard to get them to commit to do too much. They may come to the meetings and then say, why did I have to spend two hours doing this? And I don’t know if it's a fault or a necessity that I've taken on a lot of the things that ideally individual precinct people would do because I'm retired."
Pardee told me that she was actively trying to reach out to connect the Party to a variety of existing groups in the area, including local university students, but for local activist like Connor Anderson, the Clinton County Democrats are still suffering under a weight of their own design. "The local Party is dysfunctional in that they don't run their meetings in a way to encourage youth to be involved, and they don't find activities for people to do between elections that are interesting,” he said. “They have these fucking staid steake dinners where it's the same God damn people and it's boring.” Anderson, 46, was born in Washington, D.C. and spent years working on the 1987 Joe Biden presidential campaign out of college. In 1989, he moved to the former Czechoslovakia after the Berlin Wall fell to help organize the country’s first post-Soviet elections. “That was cool,” he said while we sat on a fall night in a beer garden at a north Clinton bar. “I thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever done until we got Obama winning the Iowa caucuses."
Anderson thinks the Central Committee meetings should be changed. The meeting I attended (he was at it, too) featured a Q&A with a slate of local candidates as well as Mary Wolfe, the State Representative for the county, but it also gave time to inside baseball stuff like the treasurer’s report and other organizational matters. Anderson says such things should be dealt with quickly so that the focus can be switched to engaging discussions of how the Party can take actions that will draw in new supporters. “Did we actually accomplish anything about planning anything?” he told me after the meeting was over. “No. Fucking party minutia. Let me ask you, does that look like a party that's building its base?" He brought up the fact that a question about whether a local Occupy Wall Street chapter should be formed (asked by an 85-year-old committee member) was quickly set aside. "That was, what, 30 seconds?” he said. “That should have been the fucking meeting. And really, I mean, five minutes on whether there's a thousand bucks left over in the - who gives a fuck? Why is that my problem? I have three kids," he said, imitating his conception of an average Clinton resident that was jocular but still serious. "Stop wasting my God damn time."
"Let me guess. I would say that was Connor," Pardee said when I asked her about these criticisms without telling her who they had come from (and without the expletives). "It just shows how little they understand about party structure. Connor's not into party structure. He's into campaigning. And those are different aspects. We're the structure. We provide for anything and everything.” Pardee isn’t against having committees focused on initiatives like OWS, but she doesn’t think the meetings as currently set should be jettisoned. She also raised the question of who is going to step up and take charge of those issue-specific subcommittees. "This is all volunteer," she reminded me.
Regarding the quest for bodies, Anderson thinks the Party failed to capitalize on a massive recruitment opportunity following the 2007 primary campaign. He spoke about the first Central Committee after caucus day. “There was probably 60 people there, fired up, wanting to be active." Many had been engaged by a presidential campaign and recruited to represent their precincts at caucuses. Anderson said that the Party should have thrown a party. (Someone else described it this way: “There should have been a 15 minute meeting, and as soon as that gavel hit, there should have been a disco ball and a keg in the corner.”) But in spite of the crowd and the energy, Anderson said the meeting was a typical one, focused on party process. "And the next meeting in March we're back to the same 30 people. They all left."
I related this story to Erick Van Lancker, the County Auditor and an active local Democrat who was also at the post-caucus meeting, asking if the depiction was right. He paused and thought about it. "That's accurate,” he said.
Van Lancker confirmed how packed that first gathering was. "It was not only standing room only, it was standing on top of each other. It was great." He suggested that new people there for the first time “were probably looking for an opportunity to meet people that had, and were, experiencing the same excitement coming off the caucus, and were probably looking for the opportunity to meet, like a mixer feel, those other people from around the county. What they came to was a sit-down committee meeting,” one that was “a typical business meeting following a caucus, which was filling out the delegates, and regular business.”
"Was there a party building opportunity missed at that very first Central Committee meeting after '08? I've gotta say obviously,” Van Lancker continued. “I think our county party whiffed on that one." But he wanted to put the night in context. "Maybe they didn't even expect what they got that night. You've seen our office and how small it is. Maybe they didn't even anticipate that. So I'm not really criticizing. But in hindsight, [the Party] definitely missed an opportunity."
You may be wondering how the Clinton County Republicans compare to their Democratic counterparts, and dear readers, I wish I could tell you. I collected a few anecdotes - one GOP activist told me that around 300 people will turnout out for county-wide fundraisers, while a professor at Clinton Community College said that the McCain staffer responsible for the county during the ‘08 cycle told him she couldn’t get in touch with the local Republicans. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much luck on that front, either. I had just three quick conversations over the phone with the GOP’s long-standing chairwoman, Edith Pfeffer. I was curious to learn what was happening in relation to the presidential primaries, considering how there were numerous Republican candidates vying for an Iowa win. In mid-September, when the caucus was still scheduled for February 6th, Ms. Pfeffer told me that the county party was prohibited from backing any presidential candidate, and that I would be best served by checking back with her in the ensuing months because things were just getting started. The second time I spoke with her, during the first week of October, she was more blunt, saying that there’s “nothing really going on at this point.” I spoke with her for the last time a week after that. By that point, the state party had moved the date up to some point in early January, though it wasn’t yet set. “I really have nothing to tell you,” Pfeffer told me, clearly frustrated. She said that she had already booked caucus rooms in anticipation of the original caucus date, and now she was trying to make new plans. It sounded stressful.
And that was it. I asked Pfeffer many times for a meeting, but the only opening in her schedule came during a time when I wasn’t available. Seeking an alternate contact, I called her co-chair, Dan Smicker, who was extremely polite during our handful of brief chats. He told me that he would be wiling to meet with me, but during my last week in Clinton, I left him multiple messages and he never called back. I wondered what local GOP activism I was missing. Based on what I learned about the Republican presidential campaigns, I would guess that it wasn’t much.
VI. The Main Event
Some disclosure is in order. First, Clinton is a predominantly Democratic county. (In 2008, Barack Obama received 15,018 votes there, or 61 percent. In 2004, John Kerry received 13,813 votes, which was 56 percent.) Secondly, as any search of my name will reveal, I have a history of working for Democrats, and I’m also a carrier of the Scarlet O, having worked field for Obama in Iowa during the 2007 primary. These factors mean both that there was a) less likely to be substantial Republican campaign activity in Clinton County than in other parts of the state, and b) that whatever existed would be harder for me, personally, to find, seeing as, despite my (sincere) interest in producing non-partisan work, I was still associated with the other team.
That said, I was in Clinton for 31 days, and I went the first 30 without seeing a single physical manifestation of any Republican presidential campaign (unless we count my interview with Ron Paul supporter Gary Galant). On my last day there, I saw my first two presidential yard signs (both for Paul). Rick Santorum and Herman Cain had made stops in Clinton earlier in the year, and Paul came for a well-attended address a week before I arrived, but no other candidates showed up. There were no campaign offices to be found, and no canvassers walking the streets. The local NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates all informed me that they had yet to sell any political ads.
Jon Huntsman elected to skip Iowa and focus on New Hampshire, as did Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson, the two Republican candidates who have received virtually zero attention from the national press. Mitt Romney decided to approach Iowa cautiously, seeing as his straw poll victory in 2007 hadn’t meant anything (Mike Huckabee won the caucus, and Romney skipped the straw poll this time around), but he wasn’t writing it off entirely, and after a two month break, he started campaigning there again in mid-October. Plus, there were still six Republican upstarts for whom an Iowa victory would be significant. And although there weren’t as many Republican caucus-goers in Clinton County as in other parts of Iowa, a well-developed primary campaign wouldn’t turn its back on thousands of potential votes.
I first took a look at the GOP candidates’ websites on September 16, and it was immediately clear how undeveloped their campaign operations remained. At that time, the caucuses were four months and ten days away. In the world of presidential campaigns, that’s not a lot of time. (When I showed up in Iowa with just over 90 days to go in 2007, the leading Democrats already had a significant staff, offices throughout the state, and were coordinating expansive volunteer operations.)
But besides not listing offices and staffers (as Dan Balz of the Washington Post recently noted, they weren’t listed because in many cases they don’t exist), the websites of the current crop of Republican challengers weren’t effectively designed to facilitate volunteer activity. Romney’s page allowed me to create a “MyMitt” account, which I did using my Clinton address. Logging in brought me to a page that listed my congressional district as “0”, with no apparent way to change it. (It still was, on November 16th.) Only one volunteer action was presented to me: fundraising. Perry’s page was even more inaccessible. The main site had five links, none of them related to volunteering. A small “Contact Us” link at the bottom of the page took me to a form that could be filled out, with “volunteering” as an option. The sites for Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, and Jon Huntsman permitted visitors to sign up to be a volunteer, but offered no campaign activities that supporters could engage in, with the exception of online ones like Facebooking and Tweeting. (It’s important to remember that for years, technology has existed that has allowed individuals to take actions from home, like calling likely supporters or pulling down lists of voters in a specific neighborhood to contact. While several of the campaigns are doing this now, none of it was available on the Republican sites in September.)
The sites for Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were the most likely to foster grassroots activity. Gingrich’s listed a host of volunteer activities that supporters could engage in. They weren’t ones that the campaign could coordinate, instead being things like hosting debate watch parties, writing letters to the editor of local newspapers, and downloading fact-sheets to distribute to others, but at least there was something that a Gingrich supporter could do immediately besides donate money (all of the sites allowed for donations).
Cain’s site contained glaring errors – as of late October, a visitor could still sign up to vote for Cain at the straw poll of August 13th – but it also included a rudimentary online community which enabled supporters to register and connect with one another. That community page was visually unappealing and hard to use – for example, there was no way to sort a list of national volunteer events by your location – but again, at least it was something.
People who possess the initiative to visit a website and sign up to volunteer are invaluable to a field operation. Campaign field staffers spend hours every day churning through lists of possible supporters in the hopes of finding a few folks willing to get involved, and so when someone effectively walks in the front door and asks to help, any campaign with a ground game worth mentioning will be all over them.
In order to test the campaigns’ responsiveness, I signed up to be a volunteer with all of them on that first day (9/16). Twelve days later, I received my first contact, a form email from Zac Moffat, Mitt Romney’s “Digital Director,” claiming that “In the coming days and weeks we'll be rolling out additional volunteer opportunities…” The email noted that if I wanted “to get involved locally,” I should contact Phil Valenziano and provided an Iowa phone number to call, but that led to an answering machine at “Romney for Iowa campaign headquarters.” This was followed in early October by a call from a staffer named Luke who identified himself as a field director for the state. The Romney campaign was trying to find people to make phone calls from their home computer, which was done on October 15th. I am under the impression that it was the first state-wide volunteer activity the campaign had attempted. (I wish I could confirm this, but I played email-tag with Romney’s Iowa press secretary, Sara Craig, before she stopped responding to my interview requests.)
Revealingly, I didn’t receive a volunteer-oriented phone call from any other campaign staffer. I got many emails, but they were almost exclusively of the fundraising and message-dissemination variety. During October, Michelle Bachmann conducted multiple national conference calls that supporters could dial into, but the first Bachmann email to mention volunteering in Iowa that I received was sent on November 8th. (Bachmann’s Iowa State Director, Eric Woolson, emailed me on November 6th about setting up an interview, but he didn’t respond to my subsequent messages.) Signing up that first time yielded no volunteer contacts from Rick Perry, but after I signed up a second time on October 26th, a staffer named Mike Thom (the self-identified Field Director for Iowa), contacted me claiming that “There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer with the campaign.” I wrote him back saying I was a reporter and requesting more information, and he directed me to Matt Gronewald, the State Director, who didn’t respond to my email.
Rick Santorum’s campaign has sent me about a dozen emails since mid-September, and no one responded to messages I left asking for an interview. Ron Paul’s Iowa director, Michael Heath, agreed to talk to me, but then was over-ruled by the national campaign. He regretfully told me that I would have to reach out to James Barcia, the national press secretary. While Barcia didn’t return my emails, I was at least able to speak with a state campaign chair named Drew Ivers who directed me to volunteers like Gary Galant and Dennis Green. (When I spoke with him during the second half of October, Green told me that he had recently been to a volunteer meeting that drew around 10 attendees. Also, in mid-November, I received a phone call from a volunteer at an office in Ankeny which she said was the state’s volunteer headquarters. She was confirming that I lived in Clinton so that I could be encouraged to caucus for Paul. She said that between 20 and 25 people were at that moment in the office, calling people who had voted for Paul in the August straw pole, and added that canvassing and phone calls were targeting voters around the state.) Newt Gingrich’s campaign held a volunteer conference call on October 27th (seemingly its first), but the emphasis at that time was still on things people could do on their own, such as hosting debate watch parties. (The campaign seemed confident that the debates were Newt’s best recruitment tool.) I would have liked to learn more about what the campaign said was the “lean” effort they were running, but press secretary R.C. Hammond didn’t respond to my emails.
Which brings us to Herman Cain. As I mentioned earlier, Cain’s campaign had offered a rudimentary online community that people could join. This was something the other campaigns (with the exception of Buddy Roemer, whose online Iowa group still lists only three members as of this writing) were not doing in October. It was by messaging the Iowa for Cain group that I was connected with Lisa Lockwood, who identified herself as the Communications Director for the state. She, in turn, connected me with Steve Hensler, 22, the Iowa Phone Bank Director. Cain had (and still has, to my knowledge) only one office in the state, located in Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines. However, supporters could make phone calls using the online tools previously mentioned, which was an effort Hensler was coordinating. Hensler was one of only four paid staffers in the state. He told me that he caught the “campaign bug” during Steve Forbes’ run for president in 2000, when he was 12. (“Got the bug young.”) He said he had done political work in Wisconsin and Iowa, and had been with the Cain campaign since July.
Hensler focused on the online activity of Cain’s effort, which he described as being “very grass rootsy” and working “brilliantly.” This included HermanCain.com, where the online community I joined was located, the Herman Cain Express, a second, slicker online community which had been built to replace the original one (it’s still pretty rough, in my humble opinion), and Youth for Cain, a Facebook group designed to find high school supporters, including 100 leaders. "This is a campaign of the people, for the people,” Hensler said. “It's not going to be by a bunch of paid staffers. It's going to be by the people, cause that's the way our country was originally intended."
Hensler was portraying a decentralized effort that was rapidly spawning new groups of Cain activists around the state and nation. He said, for example, that supporters were calling voters in Iowa from states throughout the country, and that he was “getting bombarded” with volunteers around the nation. I tried to get some specifics. I asked how many people were making calls. “Well, I choose to keep that number very close to my chest,” Hensler said. "It's a sufficient amount. You can believe that. It keeps me working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week." The Youth for Cain Facebook page, which Hensler claimed was a new effort hoping to find 100 high school leaders around the state, had been liked by 31 people. “Not too darn bad,” Hensler said. (I did high school outreach for Obama in Iowa during 2007, and our goal was to find 1,500 students who would caucus for him.) I asked about how many active volunteers were in Iowa, and he told me to take note of the Cain for Iowa online community, the biggest one around, which as of early November had 675 members. (It had 753 when last I checked in the second week of November.) I asked how many of those people had taken an action besides signing up. “I'm not going to tell you any numbers,” Hensler said. He told me that “90 percent” of Iowa’s counties had at least one active volunteer, and that an effort was underway to recruit caucus leaders for precincts throughout in the state. On that front, the campaign had a nightly goal “to be able to obtain victory, and we have been achieving or overachieving our goals every night for the past few weeks.”
"I'm a guy who thinks that to win the chess game - I was a chess player - the best way to win chess it to make your enemy, your opponent, think like he's winning,” Hensler told me. “So you don’t want to show him what you have. Let him come to you arrogantly [thinking he can] just wipe you off the board, and then you win. Kind of like the tortoise and the hare strategy. That's the approach I've taken through many campaigns. I'm very tight lipped about the progress I make. I like to keep people wondering. I'll tell you right now, though, we are moving faster than a bullet, I'd say."
Hensler came across like a genuinely nice guy who would be fun to hang out with. He wished me luck with my article several times, inquired as to the economic viability of freelance journalism, and then asked how much I expected to be paid if it ran somewhere. “Throw me a number,” he said.
Lisa Lockwood, the Communications Director, was also friendly, and setting up our interview was easy. Unfortunately, when we spoke in mid-October, she didn’t seem particularly familiar with the campaign she spoke for.
“The difference between this campaign and other campaigns is that it's growing from the ground up,” Lockwood told me, which, if we’re honest, is what every campaign says. “People are coming in our doors, people are giving us calls." I asked for numbers. Lockwood didn’t know how many active volunteers there were. She told me that Hensler had said that Cain was “getting 53 percent of known supporters of other campaigns,” but admitted that she didn’t know what that meant. She said there was a great deal of independent volunteer activity on Facebook, but she wasn’t familiar with how many groups existed.
I asked why she supported Cain, and she said he was “just super personable, very approachable,” as well as being “funny” and “a unique and wonderful human being.” She continued: “I got the sense from him, and he's certainly proved it to be true, that he's not going to be one to get down in the mud. He's above the fray, and he's going to stay that way. I loved that he was not a politician." She also pointed out that he had saved Godfather’s Pizza from bankruptcy, experience that would help him as president. “In the business world, you're in it for a profit. I think in the world of government, you're not in it for a profit, but let's at least not go into debt."
We moved on to the issues, and I asked her to explain Cain’s recent admission on Meet the Press that under his 9-9-9 tax plan, some people would pay higher taxes. "Boy, you're asking the wrong person that question,” Lockwood said. “I pay somebody to do my taxes and they're not that complicated."
"I think,” she said, “there probably are scenarios under which some people's taxes would go up, and I don’t know what those scenarios would be specifically, but I do think that there's far, far, far, more benefit than there is detriment."
I asked about Cain’s comment that his lack of familiarity with foreign leaders was irrelevant, seeing as it had nothing to do with jobs in America. "I haven’t heard anybody be worried about that at all,” Lockwood said, speaking (I think) for Cain supporters. “Not a concern at all among anybody I've spoken with. We've got too much to deal with at home before we start dealing with what's going on in other places." Should the importance of foreign policy be downplayed? "That would be my position. I don’t know that that's an official campaign position.” I asked if there was a correlation between expenditures overseas, such as military activity, and the national economy. "I am not a foreign policy expert either,” Lockwood began, “and I never worked so hard in my life - the first C I ever got in my life was in college economics. I'm sure there is a correlation. The whole budget is tied together. What that correlation might be, I couldn't begin to tell you. I do believe that the government, one of its top priorities is to make sure our nation is secure."
Lockwood noted that government “needs to get out of the way of job creation, and encourage business growth by making sure that taxes are not prohibitive to job creation and growth." I asked for an example of onerous regulations hurting Iowa business. “Um, off the top of my head, I'm looking at a map and trying to think,” Lockwood said. “Well, this is not a real recent example, but it was a huge loss for the state of Iowa when Gateway computers that were originally created and headquartered here moved across the border." Did they do that for tax reasons? "Yeah." When did that happen? "I don’t remember when that happened." (The late 80s, as far as I can discern, though the company later returned.)
I asked if subsidies for Iowa farmers represented an unwarranted government intrusion into the working of the free market. "Well, I think that's a totally mixed bag of answers in that question,” Lockwood began. “Even among farmers who get the subsidies there's mixed feelings. That's a real hot-button issue here in Iowa." Did the campaign have a position? "I don’t know if there's an official position on subsidies in particular." That was the last question I was able to ask before Lockwood had to go. She was scheduled to call a radio station for another interview.
And in this corner, Obama 2012, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the political world in 2008, emerging from the election with a 13 million person email list, 66.9 million supporters at the polls, and the good will of twice as many voters age 18-29 as the other guys, now principally represented at this juncture in Clinton County, Iowa in October, 2011 by Bryant Gilbert, 23, full-time volunteer in addition to his day job as a chemical engineer, and former Obama Summer Fellow where he was provided a crash course in the art of political organizing before being sent off with a list of 180 former volunteers and supporters from the area to call and ask if they were ready to join hands and charge into the breach once more. (I tried to confirm this number, but Pardee wasn't able to generate a list of past volunteers using the state party's database.) Gibert spoke with me about his job, which was to “reassemble the same movement” that existed in Clinton last time around, as well as to encourage Obama supporters to turn out and caucus. After I spoke with him, I moved on to OFA’s Iowa staff, who agreed to speak with me on background only. (I went up and back with a communications staffer about this, but I wasn’t able to get a straight answer about why an on-the-record interview wasn’t an option.) Regardless, I was told the following about Obama’s efforts in Iowa: that it had never stopped after November, 2008. Instead, work had been done for years to keep citizens engaged with the administration’s agenda, advocating it to one another and to their elected representatives, as well as campaigning for local and state-level Democratic candidates. There were currently 8 campaign offices open in Iowa with more to come, and over the summer, 77 members of the Fellows program (like Gilbert) had been trained to get the re-election efforts up and running in their respective communities. (Another fall class was already in session). Outreach to college students was also underway. I was hoping to quantify the work Organizing for America had done over the last few years in Iowa, but the staffer I spoke with was only able or willing to share the following statistical information:
“Since the launch of the re-election campaign in April, OFA Iowa staff and volunteers have held over 700 trainings, planning sessions, house parties, and phone banks. OFA Iowa volunteers have made over 170,000 calls to supporters and held over 2,000 one-on-one conversations.” (One-on-ones means an organizer meeting in person with a potential volunteer.)
What these efforts had resulted in, though, wasn’t discussed. Toward the end of October, I attended the first OFA gathering in Clinton County. It was scheduled for a Saturday, and Gilbert had hoped that 10 or 15 supporters would show up, but the actual number was 9, including 7 seniors, one middle-aged woman, and one young man who was somebody else’s grandson. All seemed to be enthusiastic supporters, and the two I had a chance to interview said that they intended to volunteer for the re-election effort. I would have liked to record the content of the meeting, but I was politely told by the regional OFA staffer who led it, Tom Geraci, that it was off-the-record.
VII. Democracy in Clinton, Iowa
"It’s the carrot that been dangled in front of us to the point where people are just now not believing anything,” Chief Brian Guy of the Clinton Police told me after we had spoken for an hour, offering theoretical ruminations I didn’t expect from a conversation that had also included a discussion of trends pertaining to local meth use (it’s declining). “And I can't emphasize enough that this is not endemic to just our area. It is that same kind of frustration of government and the public that is pervasive throughout this whole country, and I think that was the birth of the Tea Party movement, it’s the birth of the Occupy movements, that people have just had it. I'm tired of being explained to, I'm tired of being condescended to, I'm tired of being lied to by my government. It speaks to the disconnection between the elected officials and the public that they serve, and we have our own microcosm of that going on in Clinton."
Two thoughts on this. The first is that groping toward a way to adequately address that disconnection is one of the central aims of democracy, and perhaps such an effort would be furthered if the increasingly universal sense of victimization at the hands of bad government could serve to bridge the gap between the contemporary Right and Left, could unite both in a collective struggle for a better, more accountable political system from the local level on up. But the likelihood of that happening is diminished by the lack of trust and respect a) the Left has for those sympathetic to, for example, the Tea Party, viewing them as cultural reactionaries at worst, and at best the unwitting stooges of corporate titans who seek only to eviscerate government safeguards so they can pillage everything that’s been kept out of reach, and b) those on the Right have for movements like Occupy Wall Street, seeing them as economically ignorant, amateur anarchists with no decency (the ICU members I talked to mentioned the police car defecation incident and rumours of sex in the park as if they spoke to the soul of the protests) who are blaming the wrong people for the mess the country is in because Michael Moore and George Soros are the maestros conducting their chants. Of course, even if we tackled the respect/trust issue, we’re left with a big question, as Jim Conklin reminded me multiple times during our meeting: what is the proper role of government? And here there are and always have been sharply divergent views that can produce a gap so large that it may just force us to decide which side we’re on.
Second: To address the disconnection at the deep, systemic level where it lives would require tackling one of democracy’s core problems, which is that most people aren’t involved in a system of government that is premised on citizen involvement.
There were indeed plenty of examples on display of citizens in and around Clinton with a community-oriented consciousness, from the environmental activists at the DNR meeting, to the 200 men, women, and children I saw at an anti-poverty 1/3/5k walk, to the handful of dedicated volunteers at the Clinton Democrats headquarters, to the motivated members of the ICU itself.
At the same time, however, I was told again and again that there was a core of involved people in the city, perhaps somewhere between 100 and 200 individuals, who were the ones who sat on the boards and showed up for the council meetings and educated themselves on the issues and agitated and spoke out, and that this group was dwarfed by the tens of thousands who rarely got involved, especially and critically when it came to politics. Sure, there had been exceptions, like 2007-2008, when the ranks of politically active residents swelled to seemingly unprecedented heights. But after that, things had apparently settled back down. Even Connor Anderson dropped out for a while, explaining to me that, “Literally after Obama was inaugurated, I said look, for the first time, I feel like the country is [in] good hands and I can turn my back for five minutes” without it falling apart.
Dean Stone, a political science professor at Clinton Community College, told me that some months earlier, he had attended a regional meeting concerning the impact the 2010 census numbers would have on redistricting. This is an issue that literally affects everyone, as it has a huge impact on the make-up of our elected bodies and the politics they practice. Stone said that perhaps 15 people showed up. "They all have so many irons in the fire that participating in politics is way down their list of priorities," he said of his fellow Iowans. Martha Bonte, a humanities professor at Clinton Community, told me about the off-year caucuses hosted at her house where only 7 or 8 people showed up, even though she made brownies and invitational phone calls to the neighbors.
Mary Wolfe, the area’s first term representative in the Iowa House, said that when she was face to face with voters, they were smart, were interested in issues, and could tell if they were talking to somebody who was making stuff up. She also said with a laugh that 100 politically active people in Clinton might be “pushing it a little bit,” and noted (as did Pardee) that while there was a great deal more activism than usual during the last presidential cycle, the Democratic Party still paid plenty of canvassers, too. And when I asked Dave Keefer, president of the Clinton Labor Congress (one of the area's major labor organizations) about his technique for recruiting volunteers from his membership for political activities, he said this: "You gotta give 'em stuff. You've gotta offer 'em stuff. You gotta feed 'em, give 'em pop, beer, whatever, to get them there."
This reality has causes and consequences, and one of each may be a generalized belief among the average resident that the power to control the future of Clinton lies with somebody else. Besides the questions about why the city couldn’t attract more jobs or develop a better nightlife, and doubts about whether the local government was up to the challenge of doing so, there was also an admission, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, that Clinton’s fate was controlled by its biggest, wealthiest actors, like ADM, Ashford University (which is busy buying up property all over town), or the triumvirate of Target, Wal-Mart, and Kohl’s that had opened up their sprawling shops down on what is un-ironically called “Miracle Mile.”
That could be why when I spoke to Dwayne Larson - the campaign manager for LaMetta Wynn (former Clinton mayor and candidate for the office again this fall) and a theologian by training - about the desirability of having the Thompson prison be a source of local economic growth, he spoke carefully and said, “I personally think that [moving in] the for-profit direction on so many fronts, but especially with respect to incarceration, is a bad move and it only ups the prospect for society to be further compromised from its core. But, we have to make our decisions as judiciously as we can...”
Or maybe why at the DNR meeting, Bob Krajnovich felt compelled to remind anyone listening that the citizens assembled weren’t trying to run ADM out of town, even though he had earlier suggested that the company might be poisoning them. And why Gary Herrity, who feels that local officials are too quick to accommodate the demands of big businesses, said of the city, “We're a small town, babes in the woods. Ashford comes in, ADM comes in, and they just take us apart.”
Herrity is skeptical by nature, but if he was correct in saying that many in Clinton don’t feel they have the power to dictate their own economic reality, then that is likely connected to a final fact that is impossible to avoid if you’re examining the city’s politics: when it comes to local campaigns, most people don’t vote.
As auditor, Eric Van Lancker is responsible for running the elections in Clinton County, and while we talked, he spoke about a striking incongruity in the turnout statistics. "I always ask, OK, in 2008, we had a 74 percent turnout in Clinton County for the general election.” He imagined himself speaking to an assembled group of citizens. “Now I want everyone in here, please raise your hand if you can right now take your cell phone out and call President Obama. And typically no one raises their hand. And then I ask them, alright, I want you to raise your hand if you are able to do this: right now, take out your cell phone and call anyone on your local school board, or anyone on the city council, or even better, raise your hand if you right now can reach over and touch one of those people. And almost the whole room raises their hands. And then I ask them to consider one more thing. Where [do] most of your tax dollars go? If you live in a house, look at your tax bill. The highest percentage of your tax bill goes to your school district.Yet the school elections have awful voter turnout. But the president of the United States, who you have to go through all sorts of people to even get an email to, and then you have to go through a vetting process to even be able to sit down in the same lecture room as him now, everyone comes out for that."
He started to go through papers he had spread out before him on his desk. "I mean, look at these school district numbers. We're lucky to get over 6 percent." (Over the past ten elections, turnout had averaged 6.4 percent for the Clinton school board.) "Look at the city,” Lancker continued, referring to elections for the Council and mayor. Over the last 7 cycles, an average of 15.2 percent of registered voters voted. "We have a population of what, 27,000 in the city of Clinton. The people who select the leaders for the city, everyone who voted, you could put them in the Clinton High football stadium stands. That’s not what our democracy is based on."
"Look at all the countries out there that desire to have this governmental set-up that we have,” Van Lancker said. “Look at the last election in Iraq. People traveled for days to get to a polling location to stand in line for days under obvious tense situation[s] of even physical harm, just to get their thumb” - he pointed at his thumb - “dipped in ink to show that they voted that day. And we have six percent turnout for school elections here."
As an explanation for the gap between the presidential and local numbers, Van Lancker suggested that the news most people consumed was nationally focused, and said, as had Connor Anderson had a few weeks earlier, that the local media no longer did a good enough job of informing the public about local politics. (Dave Vickers, the local radio reporter, disputed this idea, noting that his station did everything it could to educate people about local elections and the issues involved in them, such as by hosting on-air candidate forums.) Beyond that, maybe voters felt that their representatives in Des Moines and here at home didn’t care about them, so why go to the polls? And of course, people were busy, busy working, busy raising children. “My challenge, then, is get involved. Make it a priority. If it is that important to you, find time."
I thought I was seeing Van Lancker’s eyes moisten during this speech, and honestly wondered if he was on the verge of tears. "It's almost like we need to hit the reset button on what we think government is and can do. We need to get back to that citizen-government feel, especially on the local level.” People needed to feel that they, too, could run for office, to see their representatives in a new way. “They are your neighbors. They're us."
Going into the elections of November 8th, a question on peoples’ minds was whether the Counsel’s controversial actions in recent years would heighten engagement. On October 31st, my last night in Clinton, I walked up and down one of the main streets in town, waiting with what looked like thousands of others for the passing of the annual Halloween parade (which for some reason nobody could explain is called the Mardi Gras Parade). The sidewalks were filled with families, the children holding plastic bags to catch candy thrown from the floats, their parents talking to each other nearby. It was the largest gathering of people I had seen in weeks.