On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Desmund Adams was on the road again. This day he was headed west, to campaign stops in Adair County and Council Bluffs.
Adams, one of three Democratic candidates in the 3rd District primary, has logged a lot of miles during his campaign across the district’s 16 counties, meeting Democratic organizations, small town reporters, and community leaders for the past year. It’s earned him a number of endorsements from elected officials and local leaders, and gotten his name out to grass-top Democratic activists.
The retail-heavy focus has been an intentional strategy from Adams, but also a necessary one – he heads into the final stretch of the June 7th election with only a little over $2,000 in the bank (and more in debt). But he’s still confident he can go toe-to-toe with his two opponents, and sees some indications in his endorsements that he will.
Adams greets his finance director, Aaron, at his own suburban house in Clive on Sunday. He gets in Aaron’s car and goes over their schedule of the day’s events before heading off.
But first, a coffee stop.
Adams and Aaron pull into a nearby Caribou Coffee. The caffeine break wasn’t without its danger: the day before Adams had spilled coffee on his pants before a full day of eight campaign stops. Today he wore a darker shade of brown slacks.
“I just gotta get over it, gotta get over that phobia,” Adams says.
Adams and Aaron have spent a lot of time together in the car on this campaign.
“You know what I get,” the candidate tells his staffer, and soon he’s handed a medium light roast coffee with a shot of espresso.
For part of the way to Adair, Adams makes calls to Democratic voters. With earbuds connected to his phone, he goes through names and numbers in Polk County on a sheet in his lap. The first one he gets already voted for him.
“The calls drop off on the dips,” he notes to Aaron as they drive through some rolling hills in Adair County.
Adams says he’s learned a lot from his phone conversations with voters, focusing more on asking about their issues than telling them his. He’s even chatted with some Republican city administrators to get feedback on what rural towns need help with. That’s helped him build up a lot of district-specific knowledge that sometimes surprises people – the day before he name-dropped to a farmers market vendor a type of Iowa beef only raised by three farms in Iowa.
“My campaign is not one derived by the DCCC in what I come up what is important,” Adams explains. “That’s come from sitting at people’s kitchen tables across all 16 counties.”
He does the same upon arriving at the community center in Fontanelle, sitting down with some of the local Democrats gathered for their county party fundraiser.
“What should I know, tell me something I should know,” Adams asks a trio of Adair County activists.
“Water quality and its effect on health is a plague on Iowa,” one man starts off with. “Whether it’s the pipeline, the hog confinement, there’s never any double containment. If you’ve got a business, you’ve got hazaradous material, you’ve got to have double containment.”
Adams is the first up to speak to the crowd of about a dozen local activists in this small town. The Adair Democrats have a sign up about them being the first county (alphabetically), and Adams gets a laugh from noting he’s often first in the same way with a name starting with A-d-a.
“Rural Iowa has an asset, a tremendous asset,” he tells the group. “Our family values and our community are incredible … If we leverage that asset in order to repopulate, how can we do that? My thought is have an investment in broadband internet that would be reasonable.”
Rural repopulation is a common talking point for Adams, who says he drew up ideas from the conversations he’d had on the campaign trail. But he also believes that issues alone won’t make the difference in this race.
“At the start I spoke more about issues, but the challenge is how do you differentiate yourself from another candidate unless you plan on being a voice for the negative?” Adams says in an interview on the way to his next stop. “We’re all very similar on the issues, so hence, I have focused on what really matters, which is the general election. Whoever you are supporting, you’re not looking for a popularity contest, a money contest, you’re looking for who can unseat David Young.”
Adams talked a lot more about his personal story early on in the campaign, of being a high school dropout that went on to get his GED and a juris doctorate from Drake Law School. That’s now given way to the more strategic talk of how Adams is working on building up coalitions to win in November.
After heading out from Adair County, they go further west to Council Bluffs. On the drive they pass a house with a confederate flag flying in the front yard, followed shortly by a house with a “Don’t Tread on Me” Gasdsen flag.
“Probably not NAACP,” Adams comments as they drive past.
At his next speech in Council Bluffs his target isn’t Republican David Young, it’s Democrats. Not his fellow Democratic candidates, but Democratic candidates who failed in past years.
“The issues don’t matter if we don’t win,” Adams says in a booming voice at the Pottawattamie County Democrats fundraiser. “The truth is in ’14 we got eviscerated, in ’12 we got eviscerated. So let’s have an honest conversation. In 2014 we had a candidate that raised 2.7 million, but was beat in the general election 148,000 to 119,000, and they had more money than David Young.”
“Where else in what you do every single day can you be wrong for four years in a row, and yet still keep your job? Nowhere. But you know what, political pundits keep their job. Political leaders keep their job,” he says while standing 15 feet from Mike Gronstal. “You wouldn’t be able to keep your job, not even flipping burgers at McDonald’s if you couldn’t do it right for four straight years.”
Adams again turns to his list of endorsements from Des Moines school board members, several leaders in minority communities and a small town mayor as a way to demonstrate the coalition he’s built.
He also adds in a story about a young child he met a few days ago in a Waukee schoolroom.
“He raises his hand and he looks at me and says, ‘Can you give my mommy money?,’” Adams says. “I pause and I waited for him to elaborate. Then he said, ‘Can you give my mommy money, she lives in Fort Dodge and she has no job.’ Now ladies and gentlemen, this happened 48 hours ago, an eight-year-old caucasian boy in the most affluent school district we have.”
By the end of the speech Desmund has dropped the microphone to his side and is practically shouting in the relatively small restaurant.
“I hope I’m not upsetting folks,” he says, emphasizing the importance of Democrats winning.
His performance seemed to impress at least some in the room.
“He’s got my vote and I don’t even live here,” a waitress comments, though she lives in Omaha.
A union leader comes up afterward to thank Adams, and also to point out that his story of the eight-year-old would sadly have been less impactful if it wasn’t about a white child. Adams, who is black and would be Iowa’s first member of Congress of color, has networked into Polk County’s minority communities, but typically doesn’t bring his race up much on the campaign trail.
Many of the activists in Council Bluffs have already signed on with Jim Mowrer, however, including the county chair Linda Nelson. Several note that they like Mike Sherzan as well, but that he got in too late for them. Everyone comments when asked that they’d be happy with any of the three Democrats.
Adams hopes he can win over as many of these key activists as possible given the potential low turnout of the June 7 primary.
“The primary is a game of precision, not a game of mass. Masses don’t come out for primaries. If you have a strategy, and a highly disciplined team and effort, you can make some noise,” Adams says, though he demurs on explaining too deeply their campaign strategy to accomplish that, preferring to keep their tactics close to the vest.
After shaking hands and chatting with the Pottawattamie County activists, Adams and Aaron head out to their car for the drive back on I-80. They stop by a Taco Bell on their way out for the only real meal of the day.
“Tell her we need the receipt for the FEC, she knows,” Adams jokes to his staffer as they pull up to the drive-through window.
“It’s really, really difficult to maintain a decent diet,” Adams laments on the fast food-heavy options while campaigning. “You get out here deep in the woods, man.”
With Adams hoping to pull off an upset win next month for the right to take on David Young in November, he’ll be loading up on a lot more burgers and coffee cups before then. With less than three weeks left to go, Adams still has time to meet a lot more primary-going Democrats – and make sure that the coalitions he’s built turns out the vote.
by Pat Rynard