Under a hot September sun, progressive activists, Democrats and issue advocates gathered this weekend for the third annual Progress Iowa Corn Feed. Three prominent out-of-state leaders keynoted the event: Center For American Progress president Neera Tanden, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.
Merkley and Buttigieg’s profiles have been on the rise in Democratic politics recently. Merkley has been a leader on a new Medicare-for-all plan in the Senate, and is rumored to be considering a presidential run. Buttigieg, a 35-year-old mayor, unsuccessfully ran for DNC chair and has traveled the country recently to promote his new Hitting Home PAC that’s focused on honing the Democratic message for “everyday” Americans.
Besides Merkley and Buttigieg’s presence in the lead-off caucus state, there were signs that the visit might have a long-term goal in mind. Both men had professional camera equipment on hand covering their Iowa visit, perhaps to be used in ads at a later point. Merkley was running Facebook ads targeted to Iowa Democrats during and after his trip.
Healthcare, immigration and climate change topics dominated most of the day’s speeches. Progress Iowa passed out “Defend DACA” and “Defend Dreamers” placards to the crowd to get a group picture to show solidarity in the face of President Donald Trump’s recent actions to rescind DACA.
Congressman Dave Loebsack, the seven Democratic gubernatorial contenders and Brent Roske, an independent candidate, addressed the crowd for about five minutes each. Much like the party’s Hall of Fame Dinner in July, Nate Boulton and Fred Hubbell had the largest contingent of supporters on hand.
Ross Wilburn, still relatively new to the campaign trail after officially launching his candidacy last month, pitched his vision for a more inclusive, positive state. The former mayor of Iowa City, Wilburn now works as ISU’s community development and diversity outreach officer.
“Let’s be Iowa,” Wilburn said. “Iowans want a healthy Iowa, they want a prosperous Iowa, they want a welcoming and inclusive Iowa … Governor Ray in the 70’s did welcome folks from Southeast Asia, and that was a welcoming thing to do. But it’s not just DACA, it’s folks from around the world who are contributing to our local economies. We need to get back to being a welcoming Iowa. So those messages that we’ve been seeing around the countries, those voices and faces of hate. Imagine having to go and apply for a job with someone, apply for a loan with someone you saw with those messages of hate. My message to Iowa is let’s get back to being Iowa.”
Cathy Glasson was the only one who really strayed from their regular stump speech. She pointed to the hurricanes and forest fires as clear evidence that America needs to do more on climate change, and also connected it to respecting public workers.
“We’ve seen big parts of our country literally getting ripped apart by these storms and climate related-disasters. But our country, torn open by mother nature, we’ve seen America’s heart,” Glasson said, describing several instances of people helping one another during the hurricanes. “Through all of this, we are all reminded why government and public service matters. Fully funding our health and human services saves lives. Let’s face it, folks: you can’t privatize a disaster.”
(As an aside: it might help more of the candidates to switch up their speech at events like these that are attended by the more-engaged activists. They’ve likely heard these introductory pitches several times before. Most of the candidates have enough staff to help type up a couple more topical lines. John Norris has incorporated the recent Apple hand-out into a core section of his stump speech.)
Roske, a California filmmaker living in Iowa since the 2016 caucus to cover state politics, used part of his speech to defend his decision to run as a left-leaning independent, which some fear could set him up as a spoiler that benefits the Republican nominee.
“I’m running as another avenue to get progressive and Democrat and independent ideas into the Statehouse,” Roske said. “If you look at the last couple races in particular, Democrats have had good candidates who ran good races, but for whatever reason didn’t get into office.”
At several points Roske tried to appeal to the party’s activist left, pointing out that two of his priority issues – clean water and single-payer healthcare – were the same that CCI was promoting. His third major issue was getting partisan politics out of government by winning as an independent with no party ties.
“I will not sign a bill if I’m elected governor until a clean water bill hits my desk,” he said. “Single-payer, the time has come. As governor of Iowa, certainly this is a national issue, but I would do everything I can to advocate for single-payer healthcare.”
The three keynote speakers finished out the day.
“From the Women’s March to the Boston march, people are responding to this hate,” said Neera Tanden. “But it’s not enough to resist. We need to build an agenda that answers people’s problems … That’s what the progressive movement is about: it’s actually working for everybody. Struggling, striving, people who don’t have a hand-up, people who haven’t gotten every break in life.”
Buttigieg delivered a well-prepared speech, which seemed aimed at helping craft a national message for Democrats for defeating Trump and offering a better way forward.
“Every day he is in office, Donald Trump yanks out threads from the very fabric of what it means to be an American,” Buttigieg said. “One thread at a time, he is unraveling our republic. And he’ll keep pulling until the American dream is a tangled mess of yarn in his hands.”
He challenged Democrats to retake topics and slogans that Republicans have dominated in recent election cycles.
“They use the word ‘freedom’ all the time,” Buttigieg noted. “But freedom from government is the only freedom they can imagine. They say they’re all about freedom, but I say you’re not free if you can’t change jobs or start a business because you’re afraid of losing your health coverage. You’re not free if a credit card company can stick you with an arbitration clause that means you can’t sue them, even if they get caught ripping you off. And you are most certainly not free if some county clerk you’ve never met can tell you who you ought to marry.”
Merkley, who is helping Senator Bernie Sanders with his Medicare-for-all push, focused a portion of his speech on the matter of healthcare.
“We still have a really complicated healthcare system with drug prices out of control,” he said. “Let’s just start with giving Medicare the ability to negotiate the price of drugs. That would help. Then let’s stop the Trump Administration from sabotaging the insurance marketplace … How about instead a simple, seamless Medicare-for-all that makes sure that by virtue of being an American, you get the care that you need.”
He also referenced several Iowa-specific issues like the recent gutting of collective bargaining laws to the new limitations on early voting. Those hurt the interests of working Americans and families like his, he argued, relating his life of growing up in a union family.
“We have seen four-plus decades in which workers’ wages been flat or declining,” Merkley said, noting he was the first one in his family to go to college. “Have we seen a big leap forward like we did in our parent’s generation? And yet the wealth of this country has continued to grow and grow and grow.”
And Merkley highlighted the looming fight over DACA, expressing optimism that Democrats would have the bargaining power necessary later this year to save the program.
“Let’s pass DACA protection for our Dreamers,” Merkley said. “Here’s my prediction: we’re going to get it done by December. President Trump just signed a bill that means we’ll run out of funds for the federal government by December. President Trump just signed a bill that means we’ll hit the debt ceiling in December. How about we use that leverage for a whole host of things, but certainly freedom for our Dreamers.”
The next major candidate gathering and speech-a-thon comes later this month on September 30 with the Polk County Steak Fry, featuring three up-and-coming members of Congress. After that the major, multi-candidate candidates will die down some as we head into the colder months.
by Pat Rynard