A guest post from Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker
One of the greatest screenwriters of the modern era developed a political television series called The West Wing. While the series came to an end over a decade ago, it has become required watching not only for students of electoral politics, but for all civic-minded Americans. In one of the more popular episodes entitled “Game On,” the president, played by Martin Sheen, has a revelation in the middle of a televised debate. His opponent gives a canned answer to a complex question. The president fires back highlighting the folly of reducing the complexities of government to poll-tested soundbites. He warns that ten word answers can kill you in political campaigns. “They’re the tip of the sword,” he says. Instead, he challenges his opponent to come up with the next ten words, the substance of the issue.
On Saturday, February 17, I had the opportunity to moderate a forum for candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for Congress in Iowa’s 1st District. The event was sponsored by the Black Caucus of the Democratic Party. There are four candidates running in what will surely be a competitive primary contest. However, only three of the candidates were able to make it: Thomas Heckroth, George Ramsey, and Courtney Rowe.
This forum was unlike any I have ever experienced in that the candidates were not only being asked tough questions, they were giving thoughtful, substantive answers. Typically, these forums serve more as introductory meetings, where candidates speak more about their background and accomplishments than anything else. This one was different, each candidate went well beyond the talking points and gave the next ten words, answering questions ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to conflicts in the Middle East. Below is my summary assessment of the candidate’s performance.
Thomas Heckroth – The candidate with the most – and perhaps only – Washington, D.C., policy experience, his work with Senator Harkin and President Obama’s Labor Department presents an unassailable case for his understanding of federal policy. While at the forum, he talked openly about his privilege being a white middle class male and his responsibility to other groups of people, especially those impacted by bias in our institutions.
When asked about his position on a pathway to peace between Israel and Palestine, he cited his wife’s Jewish heritage and strongly endorsed a “two-state solution,” as did the rest of the candidates. When asked about the recent shootings in American high schools, he began with a forceful soundbite, “we don’t have to choose between the Second Amendment and keeping our children safe,” before laying out three specifics policy positions: 1. Repeal the Dickey Amendment, which bans the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence. 2. Expand background checks 3. Put into place more provisions to prevent individuals with severe mental illness from accessing firearms.
On the issue of LGBTQ+ rights, he advocated stricter penalties for employers who tolerate discriminatory hiring practices, and was the only candidate to mention banning conversion therapy.
George Ramsey – If there was a way to quantify public service and leadership ability, this thirty year military combat veteran would be one of the most highly rated of all political aspirants in the state’s history. He has already served this nation in a way that most of us never will, and has continued his public service with vulnerable populations here in Iowa.
His lived experience as a Black man in America gives him unique insight into the many issues plaguing minority communities – issues that rarely make their way into Iowa’s political discourse, partly because we have so few elected officials of color, but also because Iowans have little appetite for nuanced conversations on race.
He talked about his hope for the next generation of leaders, who are already setting better examples than Rod Blum. He mentioned fair housing and sentencing reform as critical issues for communities of color. He talked about the importance of candidates setting an example, showing up for constituents, attending events, and answering the hard questions. He ended by talking about his vow to never compromise his values, those he learned from his mother; timely remarks given so many of our candidates and politicians seem comfortable trading away their values for campaign contributions.
Courtney Rowe – The candidate who is more than comfortable occupying the left plank of the field showed off her biggest strength for those in attendance, which is a command of the issues, and conversational style that allowed her to articulate her positions with ease and clarity.
She stated upfront her universal healthcare position, more specifically a single-payer system. She talked about passive racism and white privilege. She offered parallel analogies of political debates from other states, and gave the most nuanced answer on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, taking a much more critical position on Israel, and bravely describing the plight and lack of real political power of Palestinians. When asked what issue she found to be most pressing, she said without flinching, campaign finance reform, and restated her commitment to refusing contributions from political action committees.
All of the candidates in attendance very capably articulated the next ten words. This event, although not well attended, was a major victory for minority communities given that many of the questions asked had to do with their future. It was also a major victory for the Democratic Party, because those in attendance were able to hear candidates move beyond soundbites and venture into the world of substantive ideas especially on issues that make political consultants squeamish. All three candidates demonstrated that they are ready to stand on a stage across from Rod Blum and have a real, thoughtful conversation about the future of this state and this country. For the small group assembled on that snowy Saturday, we received a real treat, a debate that we deserved and one that the rest of the country sorely needs.
As a candidate, if this midterm election is personal to you, then you must show up. You must answer the hard questions. You must understand that elevating the voices of hardworking Americans, minorities, and the forgotten is personal to me and many others in this district. Hats off to the candidates who showed up at a forum where issues important to minorities took center stage. It is my hope that a candidate brave enough to answer these questions eventually earns the nomination of my Party.
by Stacey Walker