As the race for the White House begins to heat up on the Democratic side, politically-engaged Iowans’ phones will soon start ringing with calls from potential presidential candidates. Which people are contacted and swayed will go a long way in determining how well each candidate’s Iowa organization develops. Well-known names are nice to put on a press release, but an Iowa Caucus victory is won precinct-by-precinct through the blood, sweat and tears of well-connected local activists who campaign tirelessly for their candidate. Starting Line takes a look today at 15 loyal Iowa Democrats who presidential candidates would love to have on their side. It includes elected officials and old-school caucus veterans, but also some of the under-the-radar activists that can have a big impact at the local level for a caucus campaign.
1. Representative Scott Ourth – Ackworth
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better ally in Iowa with more connections than Scott Ourth, the State Representative from Warren County. During his three decade-long career in government and campaigns, he’s worked for just about everyone. He worked on the Hill in D.C. in the ’90s, came back to Iowa for Vilsack’s 1998 campaign, was the field director and later campaign manager for Congressman Leonard Boswell, spent some time in Michigan for Governor Jennifer Granholm, worked in key roles for both the Iowa House and Senate, and served Chet Culver both in the Secretary of State’s office and on his 2006 campaign. Ourth’s also a hunting buddy of former Senator Harkin. He’s battled and won in some tough campaigns for his Republican-leaning seat, and was the House Democrats’ top fundraiser three cycles in a row.
Ourth is a loyal guy who works hard for his friends, and his endorsement would probably be one of the most valuable ones from the Legislature. Martin O’Malley headlines his fundraiser tonight. It will be a reunion of sorts when the two meet – one of Ourth’s first political jobs was working for U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski’s 1986 campaign in Maryland. Ourth was a field operative working the Eastern Shore while O’Malley was the campaign’s field director.
2. Sue Dvorsky – Coralville
Cheerleader. Strategist. Friend. Sue Dvorsky has been a lot of things during her time in Iowa politics, most notably serving as the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party recently. She’s one of the most effective advocates in the state for the candidates she’s campaigning for, rallying the party’s activists and volunteers at countless events in years past. The Dvorsky clan is one of the main movers and shakers in Johnson County, the state’s most liberal county, home to the University of Iowa. Her husband Bob serves as a State Senator for the Coralville and Iowa City area. She can help a presidential candidate win over delegate-rich precincts in Johnson County, but she’s also beloved by party activists around the state. She would be an ideal statewide co-chair for whichever candidate she might back.
3. Bev Strayhall – Davenport
Considered one of the best, hardest-working Democratic activists in Eastern Iowa, there are few campaigns this retired nurse and social worker hasn’t been a part of. Bev Strayhall worked for Tom Harkin in the Senate and on his campaigns. She’s been the Scott County coordinator for nearly every major Democrat, including for Bruce Braley, Roxanne Conlin and Chet Culver, and works closely with Congressman Dave Loebsack’s people. Strayhall volunteered for Harkin’s caucus campaign in 1992, worked advance for Al Gore in 2000, and was for John Edwards in both 2004 and 2008. She’s served as the Vice Chair for the Scott County Democrats for years and knows everyone big-and-little that you’d ever need to know in the Quad Cities. Her backing would bring a lot of credibility and volunteers with her in Scott County, the state’s third-largest and a key target for any Democrat.
4. Linda Nelson – Council Bluffs
The long-reigning queen bee of Potawattamie County politics, Linda Nelson’s reputation across the state as Western Iowa’s best activist is well-deserved. She’s served multiple terms as the county party chair and is on the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee. Nelson also served in the Iowa House in the ’90s, and was the president of the Iowa State Education Association from 2004 to 2008. She wields important influence with teachers and top party activists around the state, in addition to knowing every single volunteer there is to know in Council Bluffs. The current IDP chair, Dr. Andy McGuire, received crucial support from Nelson in her bid to lead the party back in January, and might not be there without her. Nelson will still have her official duties to carry out as the county party chair, but she can link up a candidate with activists across Western Iowa and lobby other insiders to join as well.
5. Mayor Amy Nielsen – North Liberty
The recently-elected mayor of North Liberty could be an under-the-radar rising star in Johnson County politics. Amy Nielsen has run a number of local campaigns, including ones for school board and county supervisor, and then her own for mayor in 2014, which she won in what was considered an upset. Her work on those races and her volunteer work with local schools has connected her to countless parents and teachers. Obviously being a mayor raises her profile, but she could be one of those key players a presidential campaign might otherwise overlook if they only use lists from 2008. She caucused for Hillary Clinton back then, but wasn’t heavily involved with her campaign. If she’s with Clinton again in 2016, Nielsen could help establish an important beachhead of support for the former Secretary of State in the liberal county Clinton did so poorly in during the last caucus.
6. Ryan Drew – Burlington
Another up-and-comer in Eastern Iowa politics, Ryan Drew works for the Operating Engineers Local 150 and serves as both president of the Southeast Iowa Building Trades and the Des Moines/Henry County Labor Council. He works out of West Burlington and Rock Island, covering Iowa’s eastern border from Clinton to Keokuk. Drew has been involved in campaigns since 2005, recently helping out Dave Loebsack, Sara Sedlecek and Senator Tom Courtney. He’s considered a go-to workhorse who gets things done, and can bring a lot of people with him to a candidate’s cause. Southeast Iowa is home to many union, blue-collar Democrats, but sometimes lacks the large activist base that places like Iowa City or Ames enjoy. Getting people like Drew on your side could make a big difference in this working-class Democratic corner of the state.
7. Jan Bauer – Ames
A mainstay of Iowa Democratic politics, Jan Bauer is a popular figure in Story County. She’s held the position of county party chair for an impressive 20 years and is an at-large member of the DNC. Performing well with students on ISU’s campus is important, but winning over the older activist crowd in Ames is the real key to racking up the delegate count in the Democratic-leaning county north of Des Moines. Bauer knows them all. She’s gotten heavily involved in every Iowa Caucus, supporting Harkin in 1992, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and even originally backed Bruce Babbitt in 1988. Bauer thinks about how to help her candidate 24 hours a day, and is a great get for anyone wanting to sit in the Oval Office.
8. Senator Bill Dotzler – Waterloo
The State Senator from Waterloo has been around in Black Hawk County politics seemingly forever, and is well-loved among local Democrats and UAW members. Bill Dotzler’s bar in town is a popular hangout for Democratic activists and campaign staff alike. He represents the lower-income precincts in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area that perform well for Democrats, but have low turnout. There’s plenty of leaders and activists on the Cedar Falls side of town, but Dotzler owns Democrats’ support in his Waterloo precincts and also those in Evansdale and Gilbertville. His endorsement would bring a lot of delegates along with it. He supported Clinton in 2008.
9. Cindy Pollard – Newton
To give you a sense of how hard Newton Democrat Cindy Pollard works, she single-handedly collected over 700 absentee ballot requests in the last election, the most by any volunteer in the state. That literally equals a full 10% of the votes cast in Newton in 2014. Pollard is passionate about marriage equality and has been fighting for it since she moved to Newton in 1999. She’s canvassed and phone banked for countless Democrats over the years, and during campaign season is at the Jasper County Democrats HQ every single day. She knows every person in town who’s ever so much lifted a finger to help elect Democrats. She was with Gore in 2000, Dean in 2004, and Clinton in 2008, and plans on supporting Clinton again. There’s no absentee ballots in the caucus, but it’s probably safe to assume that Pollard can turn out quite a crowd out for her candidate. (Pollard is pictured on the right)
10. Senator Steve Sodders – State Center
The sheriff’s deputy from Marshall County fights tough for his friends – during the 2014 election he spoke out often for Jack Hatch’s campaign, and has traveled extensively around the state to boost his fellow State Senators. Steve Sodders has extensive networks around the state, and can help a candidate connect with law enforcement leaders and more moderate Democrats. He also has one of the largest social media reaches of any Democrat in the state, and can often be spotted shooting out texts and messages to friends and acquaintances. Sodders is someone you want in your corner – presidential candidates would be wise to try to convince him to endorse this time.
11. Scott County Auditor Roxanna Moritz – Davenport
One of the state’s most competent and respected local officials, Roxanna Moritz is a great resource for Eastern Iowa Democratic politics. She knows every county precinct forward and backwards and would bring with her a wealth of knowledge on Scott County strategies. She may be the head elections official for the county, but the caucus is a party-run affair. Moritz backed Joe Biden in the last caucus for his foreign policy experience. Getting the backing of local elected officials can often prove more useful than some statewide names, and Moritz’s endorsement would be very helpful in this important county.
12. Representative Helen Miller – Fort Dodge
One of the few remaining Democrats in the Statehouse from Northwest Iowa, Helen Miller is a well-liked State Representative serving her 7th term in the Legislature. Webster County is a refuge of Democratic votes in a sea of red counties, and landing Miller’s support can help candidates make inroads to the working-class city of Fort Dodge. She’s well-connected with the state’s farming communities as the House Democrats’ ranking member on agriculture, and could bring credibility to a candidate on rural issues like the Renewable Fuel Standard. Miller also works closely with African American leaders and communities in Iowa. Obama was her candidate in 2008, and her endorsement in 2016 could open a lot of different doors around the state.
13. Dale Todd – Cedar Rapids
Originally from the South Side of Chicago, Dale Todd came to Iowa in 1974 and has found himself involved in local, state and national campaigns for decades. He first got started with former Senator John Culver’s campaign in the ’80s. During the caucuses he backed Bill Clinton’s first run, served as a Bill Bradley state chair in 2000, and helped Wes Clark in 2004. He set up one of Barack Obama’s very first rallies in Iowa during the start of Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007, and still gets shout-outs from the President when they’re at events. Todd’s work on issues like urban renewal and health care has connected him with many local activists in Linn County and even some of Obama’s top advisers before the presidential run. He served on the city council for a time and now works with Jack Hatch’s development company. He met with some of Clinton’s staffers for her 2016 run last week and could help a candidate network through Linn County.
14. Melinda Jones – Ottumwa
The county chair for the Wapello County Democrats, Melinda Jones is a helpful Democratic activist in a part of the state that needs it. Ottumwa is a solidly-Democratic city that sometimes gets overlooked when campaign strategists stare at the big map of Iowa in a campaign headquarters. Jones has been doing this for some time now – she started volunteering in high school and now sits on the IDP’s State Central Committee. She’s a teacher involved in the Ottumwa Education Association, linking her up to many active teachers and the community as a whole. Jones backed John Edwards in the last two caucuses. She must have done something right as Wapello County was one of Edwards’ strongest showings in 2008.
15. Susan Salter – Mt. Vernon
There’s only two precincts in Mt. Vernon, but Susan Salter is exactly the type of local activist presidential candidates need to help them flip precinct delegate totals in their favor on caucus night. She’s been involved in campaigns for over 30 years in Mt. Vernon, often hosting political events and candidates at her home. She organized a strong group of supporters for Monica Vernon in the 2014 congressional primary, and backed Edwards in 2004 and Obama in 2008. Her husband, Ro Foege, was the State Representative for the area not too long ago. Mt. Vernon may be a small town, but it’s a very liberal and active one, home to Cornell College. Salter’s group of women volunteers can make the difference in which candidate carries its delegates.
Obviously 15 is much too small a number to begin to recognize all the great Iowa Democratic activists in the state. Add in who else you think does great work in the comment section below.
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by Pat Rynard