Where Are Iowa Democrats’ Rural Leaders?

The next great Republican cattle call is this weekend at GOP mega-donor Bruce Rastetter’s Ag Summit in Des Moines. The event will discuss issues affecting Iowa and the nation’s agriculture with a number of likely Republican presidential candidates and other Iowa politicos. It was not meant to be a Republican affair, but only one Democrat, former Lt. Governor Patty Judge, agreed to the invitation. No doubt the party will get criticized for that, but who can really blame them for skipping out on an event hosted by one of Iowa’s biggest Republican donors?

Still, one wonders if it’s a missed opportunity for a party that lost so badly in Iowa’s rural counties last year to “farm girl” Joni Ernst. Congressman Dave Loebsack at least could have gone. More odd is the Democrats’ planned press conference in response to the event, featuring former Minneapolis mayor and DNC Vice-Chair R.T. Rybak and IDP Chair Dr. Andy McGuire. They plan to highlight how each Republican candidate’s policies would hurt rural communities. If you’re going to criticize Republicans on farming issues, I’m not sure if a past Twin Cities mayor is the best route to go. The DNC couldn’t fly out a rural-state leader?

In the grand scheme of things, one event isn’t that important, but it points to an issue that is really hurting Iowa Democrats. One of the biggest problems Democrats faced in 2014 is that so many of our candidates didn’t look like Iowa. Jack Hatch is a real estate developer. Bruce Braley an attorney. Brad Anderson a political strategist. Pat Murphy a long-time legislator. Dave Loebsack a college professor. Staci Appel a former financial consultant for Merrill Lynch and UBS. Heck, Democrats’ candidate for Secretary of Agriculture was so bad I even split my typically-straight ticket and voted for Bill Northey. Only Jim Mowrer looked like he’d feel natural driving around a small town. Who were regular voters supposed to relate to?

And what of Democrats’ likely future candidates? From Cedar Rapids, Rob Hogg is thinking U.S. Senate in 2016, while Liz Mathis and Tyler Olson may run for governor in 2018. Also in that gubernatorial race will be Andy McGuire, a Des Moines business executive and current IDP chair. Monica Vernon and Ravi Patel, CD 1 candidates, both hail from large cities.  Many of these people will be great in their own rights and several will win, but can Democrats have another ticket with a slate full of metro-area candidates? They don’t all need to be from rural areas or humble professions, but it would be nice to have a few with more relatable backgrounds to Iowa’s farming communities.

When it comes to simply promoting Democrats’ rural agenda, several state legislators could fit the bill. Senator Brian Schoenjahn and Representatives Bruce Bearinger and Nancy Dunkel represent rural districts in Northeast Iowa. Senator Rita Hart co-owns her family farm. Representative Helen Miller is from Fort Dodge, but she does considerable work on a number of renewable fuels and agriculture issues. Todd Prichard could be a rising star in the party, and he represents a rural district around Charles City and New Hampton. You could also bring back the Boz, and put former Congressman Leonard Boswell front and center for the cameras. He and former Senator Jack Kibbie are getting up there in age, but they’re still effective spokespersons on rural affairs. It’s a shame Dusky Terry is largely done with statewide politics, as he was always a go-to person.

Looking ahead, Iowa Democrats would be wise to develop their talent pool of leaders with rural credibility and more relatable life experiences. Bruce Rohwer of the Iowa Corn Growers and Ed Malloy, the mayor of Fairfield, both have those and could someday take on larger roles. Folks like Chaz Allen, Patti Ruff, Scott Ourth and Mowrer fit the Iowa profile better than many of our recent statewide candidates. And there’s certainly plenty of Democratic county supervisors out there that could take their hands-on knowledge of rural county affairs to higher office. There’s opportunities out there. But a real, conscious effort needs to be made. Democrats can’t win over voters in Iowa’s many small towns by only talking to them from Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 3/6/15

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