Which local activists do Democratic presidential campaigns need on their side to win Clinton County? Starting Line presents its first in a new series of in-depth looks into individual important counties around the state.
Main City: Clinton
Population: 49,116 (11th largest county in Iowa)
About the County: Situated on the Mississippi River, the city of Clinton contains a little over half of the county’s residents. The up-and-coming town of DeWitt anchors the rural western portion of the county, and is quickly growing as a bedroom community for the Quad Cities. Clinton County is a reliable Democratic stronghold in Eastern Iowa, delivering over 60% of the vote to President Obama in 2012, his second-best percentage-wise county in the state. Democratic candidates often stop through Clinton after an event in the Quad Cities. Arthur Daniels Midland, Mercy Hospital, and the local schools employ many residents. The county has lost population, businesses and part of its tax base in recent years, but new construction in downtown Clinton gives some hope to a turnaround. Across the river lies the real potential for an economic boom – a supermax prison soon to be reopened by the federal government.
2004: Kerry 54%, Dean 25%, Edwards 14%, Gephardt 7%
2008: Obama 37%, Clinton 34%, Edwards 29%
Hillary Clinton didn’t win the county that bears her name, but she finished a close second to Obama. She’ll start out strong here with no neighboring-state candidate to compete with this time around. Biden also has some important local supporters.
State Senator Rita Hart – Recently reelected, Hart hails from Wheatland, a small town on the western edge of the county. A large family and years of teaching in Clinton’s rural schools have built her a wide and powerful network of support in the farming communities. She also commands a loyal cast of hard-working volunteers in DeWitt and Clinton. An endorsement from Hart could lock up support for a presidential hopeful in the county’s rural precincts.
Jean Pardee – A one-woman institution in Eastern Iowa politics, Pardee leads the Clinton County Democrats and has served on the state party’s central committee for decades. She knows everyone and can help connect presidential candidates to the door-knocking and phone-calling activists they need.
State Representative Mary Wolfe – An attorney in Clinton at her father’s firm, Wolfe has served in the Legislature since 2011. She’s also very active on social media, so an endorsement could help both a candidate’s standing in Iowa’s legal community and its online community.
John and Martha Bonte, Tom Gibbons, Dick Kissack, and Carol McGuire – These five are key county party activists who have helped many campaigns over the years. Kissick and McGuire are retired teachers, Gibbons and the Bontes are former college professors. All could be vital county coordinators or key precinct captains for a presidential campaign.
Sheriff Rick Lincoln and County Auditor Eric Van Lancker – These two elected officials have been key in keeping the Clinton County Democrats strong. They recruit strong candidates for the other county offices and maintain important networks among activists and community leaders.
Dorothy O’Brien – A workers rights attorney in Davenport, O’Brien also owns and operates Wide River Winery on the city of Clinton’s north side. O’Brien often hosts fundraisers and Democratic gatherings at the winery, which overlooks the Mississippi River. (Her winery is Starting Line’s personal favorite in Iowa with its legal-themed wines.)
David Keefer – He’s the president of the Clinton labor federation and a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 25. Candidates appealing to union issues should hit him up.
Scott Knutson – Also from Wheatland, Knutson is one of AFSCME’s hardest-working foot soldiers in the state, and that’s saying something. You want him on your team.
Dianne Prichard – A retired teacher, Prichard ministers at several of the small churches around DeWitt. She’s a tireless campaign volunteer and is very well-connected in DeWitt and the surrounding communities.
Polly Bukta – She served 14 years in the state legislature, eventually becoming Speaker Pro Tempore in the House. She’s a diehard Joe Biden fan.
Dina White and Wanda Wyatt-Hardwick – African Americans make up about 3% of Clinton County’s population, and have a decent-sized community in the city. White and Wyatt-Hardwick can put candidates in touch with black voters in Clinton.
Recent business closings and job losses have many Clinton County residents looking across the river for the region’s economic salvation. The federal government recently purchased the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, a supermax prison, and plan to reopen the facility. The city of Clinton is the largest population center nearby and could supply many of the workers for the prison that’s expected to employ over 1,000 people.
The closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison could have a real impact here. In 2009 the Obama administration decided against using Thomson as a potential relocation site for Guantanamo prisoners. However, if presidential candidates talk seriously about finally closing the overseas detention center, Thomson could find itself back in the spotlight. Some local residents would welcome detainee transfers from Guantanamo, as it could secure the prison’s long-term funding. Others might see the prison’s opening without the detainees as good enough, and not want prisoners with terrorists ties held in a supermax close to town.
Clinton is also home to Ashford University’s campus, one of those controversial online for-profit schools. Democrats might want to temper their criticism of such universities while in Clinton, however, as the school employs many people in town.