Organize, organize, organize.
That’s been the model of nearly every Democratic candidate waging an outsider run from the left for major office. If you don’t have the connections or the positions to pull in enough money to go toe-to-toe with better-funded opponents on the airwaves, best to even the odds on the ground.
Cathy Glasson’s mantra is no different in her bid to secure the Democratic nomination for governor in June. Promoting a policy agenda of $15/hour minimum wage, universal healthcare, stronger unions and a clean water plan that punishes polluters has gained Glasson, a former ICU nurse and union president, a solid following among Iowa’s far-left crowd. Drawing from former Bernie Sanders caucus-goers, longtime progressive activists and the Citizens for Community Improvement network, her campaign team built up a good volunteer base early on in the primary.
Glasson also has one other advantage in the seven-candidate primary field: she’s the only major contender from Democratic-leaning Eastern Iowa. John Norris, Nate Boulton, Andy McGuire and Fred Hubbell all currently live in Des Moines, and while most of them have some childhood hometown regional support, their campaigns are headquartered out of Polk County. Glasson’s main campaign office is in Cedar Rapids, and her lifetime of involvement in Johnson County politics gives her an edge in the state’s bluest county.
“I’ve known her for years since I was an SEIU member back when Glasson was organizing nurses,” Maria Conzemius, a former social worker, told Starting Line at a Glasson organizing event in Iowa City last month. “Cathy’s always been a go-getter. Came from humble origins … She’s the real deal. She sat in the bleachers of the Democratic Party gala. She didn’t sit down with the fat cats. I like that.”
About 75 supporters like Concemius gathered at an Iowa City bar on a Saturday night back in early December to rally and organize for Glasson’s candidacy. Put together by some of the state’s most-involved progressive activists, the event featured speeches by a half dozen or so Iowans on why their own personal experiences in life drew them to Glasson. A decent amount of the attendees came from places like Cedar Rapids, Ottumwa and Muscatine, but most were from Johnson County.
“She’s a well-known commodity here, she’s been active here,” explained County Supervisor Mike Carberry, who explored a run for Terrace Hill himself for several weeks in 2017. “Cathy is very popular here … From what I’m seeing with the Johnson County Democrats is a lot of support for Cathy, a lot of support for Nate Boulton, a little of support for Norris, a little bit for Fred.”
Building a big base of support in the county so blue that it was the only one in the state that stuck in the Democrats’ column in the lopsided 2014 governor’s race would be key. In the last highly-competitive Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2006, Polk County accounted for the biggest vote total with 28,453. But add up some of the Eastern Iowa counties’ turnouts (Johnson at 11,059, Linn at 10,731, Black Hawk at 6,493 and Scott at 5,514) and you can see how a campaign that over-performs in the union-heavy, working class half of the state east of I-35 can build a winning coalition.
Beyond her geographic roots, Glasson quickly locked down the role of the left-most contender in the race, rolling out sets of policy positions that echoed Bernie Sanders’ candidacy.
“She was right on all the issues that were important to me,” said Paul Wittau, 27, of Iowa City. “Her campaign is really issue-based. It’s less about her herself as a candidate and more about the issues that people in the state are affected by and how she can help. I also think the way her campaign has been run – it’s much more people-powered focused. A lot of volunteers. Getting out, knocking doors and phone banking every week.”
Her passionate delivery of those issues – often through a megaphone – in speeches has helped as well.
“I saw all the gubernatorial candidates and she was the only one who brought me to her feet,” explained Lauri Lumm, who first met Glasson at a Political Party event in Iowa City. “She just nailed it. She was passionate. She had the kind of thing that stirred in me the same kind of emotions I had when I saw Barack Obama. I thought she could lead.”
Glasson’s platform also led to an endorsement from Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, who has seen her run for governor as a logical extension of the progressive movement they work to promote in Iowa. CCI started holding town hall events for Glasson back in October, drawing from their network of activists across the state to come out and see the candidate at eight different forums.
The Glasson campaign has found good turnouts for their own organizing events around the state, seeing crowds of interested voters even in more rural places like Guthrie County. Their operation has invested heavily in a field operation, with organizers working out of Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Dubuque and Iowa City. Their headquarters in Cedar Rapids opened back in June, and their field team has built up an infrastructure of over 800 volunteers.
And with assistance from her national union, SEIU (the healthcare workers organization), Glasson will be better-funded than most left-leaning challengers. Other organizations like National Nurses United, which endorsed Glasson in December, could bring some additional national help as well.
Glasson’s supporters have already put some of that organization to work, helping out other progressive candidates in local races in Eastern Iowa like Ryan Hall, who ran unsuccessfully for an Iowa City council seat.
“Locally, it’s an incredible base,” Hall said while at Glasson’s Iowa City event. “I know of several precinct captains already secured and working on their precincts to turn out for the caucus, and I don’t see that happening from any other campaigns … It’s encouraging to see rooms filled like these to see people who are passionate from the get-go.”
Iowa Caucus preparation will be a big part of most of the Democrats’ gubernatorial campaigns. If no candidate reaches 35% in the primary, the state convention will decide who the nominee is. Delegates for that convention are selected through a multi-stage process that begins with local precinct caucuses on February 5.
“It’s not that early,” Carberry noted of the overall gubernatorial race. “The precinct caucuses are [one] month away. What I see Cathy’s campaign doing is actually trying to identify precinct captains in every precinct in Iowa City. They had a good turnout for a precinct organizing meeting … They realize that come June 5th, they may have to go back to February 5th. How well were you organized four months ago?”
That process benefits candidates with early bases of support willing to turn out to neighborhood caucus meetings on a cold night, which Glasson certainly has at this point.
But the bigger question for her in the primary is just how big this progressive base is in Iowa and how much can she expand beyond her initial support. It’s hard to tell at times. Many progressive activists in the state like to point to Sanders’ showing in the last Iowa Caucus as proof that they make up at least half of the party. But Sanders also had some advantages no gubernatorial candidate ever will: being discussed in the national news, starting with a massive social media following and running against just one major opponent who was deeply unpopular even among much of the Democratic Party.
It’s much, much harder to build up a Sanders-like grassroots movement at a state level, especially when the campaign isn’t in the forefront of many people’s minds in the way a presidential race is. That’s part of the reason Glasson’s campaign has invested in their field program – to reach out to those former Sanders supporters who may have drifted away from politics after the caucus.
Still, candidacies like Glasson have seen some success in the past. Ed Fallon pulled in a perfectly respectable 25% of the gubernatorial primary vote in 2006, even winning Polk County outright. That was a race with four candidates, three of them serious ones. This year, seven people are on the ballot, five of which will have well-funded campaigns. Consolidating that kind of support on the left into something even close to 25% might get you second or even first place, a strong place to be in heading into a contested convention.
Of course, everyone would prefer to simply win the primary outright with 35% or more – that would probably take an expansion of Glasson’s current base given the competition she has in the race. And it might take a surge near the end of the primary to overtake the current front-runners.
“I think she’s going to catch fire late,”Conzemius, Glasson’s old friend, predicted. “Both Fred Hubbell and Nate Boulton are at the edge now, but she’s number three and I think she’s going to catch fire late.”
by Pat Rynard