Nineteen presidential candidates made their case to a ballroom packed full of the very Democratic activists who will help determine the next nominee of the party. Despite the lengthy program line-up, the day actually ran decently on-time, and most attendees stuck around for the full three hours.
How do you make your case to be the next President of the United States in a mere five minutes? Every candidate gave it their best shot.
Many contenders simply used a shortened version of their stump speech or pulled well-tested lines straight from their announcement months ago. And for some of the lesser-known candidates, this was the first time that most of the Democrats in this room had seen them.
Others clearly came to Cedar Rapids with the intention of making a splash, both here in Iowa and with the national press who had come out in droves to cover it all. Kamala Harris had one of the best-received speeches, highlighting parts of her prosecutorial past in a way she hadn’t before.
Starting Line had full team coverage of the speeches. Here’s key quotes and brief takeaways from every candidate, in order of speaking appearance:
Key quote: “We are being tested. This is a moral moment in America and we must meet this test. I’m running for president because we can’t take four more years of Donald Trump.”
Summary: Cory Booker kicked off the lineup of 19 presidential candidate speeches with a rowdy welcome from his supporters in the audience.
In his five minutes at the podium, Booker highlighted his family’s connection to Iowa. His grandmother was born and raised in the former mining town of Buxton.
Throughout the speech, Booker wove in themes of the civil rights movement to explain his vision for the United States if elected president.
He mentioned President Donald Trump only to say the 2020 election must not be a “referendum” on his presidency.
“It’s a referendum on who we are and who we must be to each other and for each other,” Booker said.
And in expressing his support for abortion access, he said, “Make no mistake, abortion is health care and health care is a right.”
Key Quote: “For too many people of my generation, we are at risk of being the first generation that does worse than our parents. The only way to change that, the only way to reverse that, is to go big on the issues, be bold with the solutions and do good in the way that we treat each other.”
Eric Swalwell called for setting big goals and not being afraid that they’re too bold.
Swalwell said he understands Iowa voters because he spent part of his childhood growing up in Iowa. A president should be like the people they govern, he argued.
Swalwell noted that he’s gone through the same struggles as everyone else, whether that be carrying large student loan debt, dealing with high pharmaceutical prices or being afraid that one morning he will send his son to school and it will be the last time he sees him.
He mentioned policies like nation-wide background checks, gun buybacks, Medicare being available to anyone who wants it, getting rid of debt on student loans, repealing the Hyde Amendment, and appointing Supreme Court justices who support Roe v. Wade.
Key Quote: “The only way we win is with a Democratic Party that has the courage to take on the powerful special interests who have so much control over the economic and political life of our country, and creates a government and an economy that works for all of us, not just the one percent.”
Summary: Bernie Sanders pointed out disagreements in the Democratic Party and made it clear what he believes needs to happen in order to create an economy that works for all. He leaned in to his argument for the progressive wing of the party in a room full of party leaders.
He said the party will not defeat Trump unless they “bring excitement and energy into this campaign, greatly expand voter turnout, and give millions of working people and young people a reason to vote and a reason to believe that participating in politics will improve their lives.”
Sanders also made a case against a “middle-ground” approach.
“I understand there are some well-intentioned Democrats and candidates who believe that the best way forward is a middle-ground strategy that antagonizes no one, stands up for nobody and that changes nothing,” Sanders said. “In my view, that approach is not just bad public policy, but it is a failed political strategy that I feel would end up with the reelection of Donald Trump.”
Key Quote: “Members of both parties … have been dragging us from one counter-productive regime change war to the next. We’re hyping up a new cold war and nuclear arms race now.”
Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is also a major in the Army National Guard, went more into foreign policy topics than any of the other speakers. She called the current administration a government “of, by, and for the rich and powerful.”
Gabbard laid out a list of actions she would take as president, including joining the ranks of Senator Elizabeth Warren and others to call for a breakup of big tech companies, which she said curtail free speech and violate Americans’ right to privacy.
Additionally, Gabbard called the war on drugs a failed policy and said she’s for the full legalization of marijuana.
The thesis of Gabbard’s remarks, however, is that for all of the domestic policy wishes her and other Democrats running for office have, there’s not enough money to execute them due to one “central issue.”
“That issue is the cost of war,” Gabbard said.
Key Quote: “Our values are on the line, and this season in the life of America’s political development is one to end the idea that American values are property of conservatives and Republicans. Freedom is not a conservative value, it is an American value.”
Summary: Pete Buttigieg, the millennial mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told Democrats that in order to win next year’s election, “normal” politics in America had to be upended.
“We’re not going to win by playing it safe or promising a return to normal,” said Buttigieg. “We are where we are because normal broke.”
Instead, Buttigieg said, Democrats need to “change the channel” on the “whatever you want to call it — reality show, horror show, game show” that has engulfed the Trump presidency, and bring in “something completely different.”
The message of his speech centered on “freedom,” freedom for Americans to marry who they want to, worship as they choose and earn a “living wage.”
He called out the “violent white nationalism” that has escalated since Trump was elected in 2016 and highlighted “climate disruption” as a significant national security concern.
Buttigieg addresses his Christian faith more than most Democratic candidates, telling the audience “God does not belong to any political party.”
Key quote: “I am prepared to make the case for America and to prosecute the case against Donald Trump.”
Summary: Kamala Harris emphasized her background as a prosecutor and said she would make the case for America if she’s elected president.
Harris highlighted her experience prosecuting banks and corporations that prey on innocent people, and she said she would prosecute “the case” against Donald Trump, claiming that his broken promises are examples of him defrauding the American people.
Following that theme, she said his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act was healthcare fraud.
She added that his tax cuts that were meant to help the American people was tax fraud; his putting faith in the leaders of Russia and North Korea over Americans was security fraud; and his claim that he’s the best president in a generation was identity fraud.
Harris also referenced growing up during the civil rights movement and said that gave her the inspiration to fight for what she believes in.
She mentioned the major policy issues she would pursue would be raising teachers’ pay, ensuring reproductive rights, bringing an end to gun violence and establishing healthcare as a right.
Key Quote: “We need to become the party of ideas, the party that embraces debate, the party who wants to build a big tent for progressives who want change, moderates who want solutions, independents who just want their elected officials to put their country first, and even those disowned Republicans, who look at this president and see that he has no moral compass and have turned their back on that party.”
Summary: John Delaney took his time to lay out his healthcare plan and make the case for the Democratic Party to become the ‘big tent’ party in America.
His healthcare policy guarantees universal healthcare as human right, but he said he would work with the private and non-profit sectors to provide the right to coverage as well as give a choice to individuals.
Delaney cited France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany as examples of countries making universal coverage work right now, adding that none of those countries use a single-payer model like Medicare for All, which he has openly opposed.
Delaney started his speech by welcoming the familiar faces he has seen in Cedar Rapids, citing his tour of all 99 Iowa counties, which he has already completed.
He told his personal story, comparing it to the narrative for young Americans today.
“I stand before you as someone who has lived the American Dream,” said Delaney, mentioning that he was the first in his family to go to college.
“But these stories are so much harder for young Americans today. Why?” asked Delaney. “Because we stopped doing our job.”
Key quote: “I will wake up every day and I am pledging this to you today … I will make defeating climate change the first paramount, overwhelming duty of the United States to get this job done.”
Summary: Governor Jay Inslee called for the Democrats to hold a debate surrounding the issue of climate change, which was met with applause from the crowd.
He also noted of the many progressive policy ideas being talked about during the race, he had already accomplished many of them back home. That included passing a gender pay equity bill and securing large pay raises for teachers.
Inslee pushed back against the conservative idea that a higher minimum wage hurts the economy, touting Washington State’s GDP growth. The minimum wage increase they passed (their state has the highest) helped that economic success, not hinder it, he said.
Quote: “Now is not the time to be polite. Now is not the time for small steps. Now is the time to fight like hell.”
Summary: The senator from New York centered her stump speech today on women’s rights and reproductive freedom, telling the audience that Fox News recently described her as impolite because of her demand for “fundamental human rights for women.
“We are rising up and we are demanding our rights and our voices,” said Gillibrand. “Women are on fire in America today.”
She thanked Iowa Congresswomen Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer for their service in Congress as the first women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa.
She emphasized the positive impact female politicians around the world have on the countries they lead, describing women as “more inclusive, tolerant and collaborative.”
Gillibrand said she has voted against President Trump’s appointees more than any of her Senate colleagues, and has “taken on the fights that no else will.”
If elected, Gillibrand said she only will nominate justices and judges who “see Roe v. Wade as a precedent,” codify Roe v. Wade, and repeal the Hyde Amendment.
Key quote: “America has never been knocked down. We are either up or we’re getting up.”
Summary: Tim Ryan focused on the American worker during his speech. As a politician from Ohio, Ryan said he’s seen the struggle of communities who rely on industries and the stagnation of the working and middle class.
Ryan said he’s watched the negative ripple effect of economic issues like trade and tariffs in his community.
He said the candidate who understands worker’s issues is the candidate who will beat Donald Trump by winning areas like Iowa, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania.
“And I will promise you that I understand what they are going through,” Ryan said. “Working hard and playing by the rules should matter in the United States of America.”
He said the 2020 election is about more than beating Donald Trump, though. Ryan said the goal should be building an industrial policy that raises wages for all American workers.
“I will make no promises to you but this,” Ryan said. “Every morning when I walk into the Oval Office, I will use every ounce of power that office holds, I will pull every lever to help rebuild the middle class of the United States of America.”
Key Quote: “The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”
Summary: Andrew Yang started his five minutes calling out Joe Biden for not being in Cedar Rapids Sunday afternoon and to explain his plan to create a universal basic income plan he calls the ‘Freedom Dividend.’
“Joe Biden must really not like to travel,” Yang said, receiving a pretty big laugh from the room. Biden had called Iowa Democratic Chair Troy Price earlier in the day to say he couldn’t make it to the event because he was attending his granddaughter’s commencement.
Yang often asked the crowd questions, including how Trump won Iowa and other blue-collar swing states in 2016.
“When you look at the map, there’s one big reason,” Yang said. “We automated four-million manufacturing jobs in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and forty-thousand right here in Iowa.”
He also explained his proposal for the Freedom Dividend, which would pay Americans one thousand dollars a month, “no questions asked.”
“When you first hear it, it sounds like a gimmick,” Yang said. “But then you dig into our history, Thomas Paine was for it … Martin Luther King championed it in the ‘60s … it passed the U.S. House twice in 1971.”
Yang said this money would stay here in Iowa, grow the consumer economy by 12%, create 40,000 new jobs, revitalize rural areas and ensure that senior citizens can retire with dignity.
Yang closed his speech by saying that Trump was able to get elected because he got the problems right, but that his solutions are the exact opposite of what we need.
Key quote: “Many people think we just need someone tough enough to defeat Donald Trump. But anyone who thinks we just need someone tough enough to take him on is naïve about the nature of the opponent. Something deeper, and more dangerous, is going on here than traditional political toughness knows how to handle.”
Summary: Instead of running on the approach of political toughness or who can best go toe-to-toe with the President, Marianne Williamson emphasized a different focus during her speech.
“Donald Trump has built a career on harnessing fear, and I have built a career inspiring love,” Williamson said. “Last time, we won with hope. This time, we will win with love.”
Williamson urged some introspection from the audience of Democrats.
“Republicans don’t walk their talk – we all know that – but too often, we don’t talk our walk,” Williamson said.
She pointed to the economy as an example.
“People who have passed policies that have created the largest income inequality since 1929 claim to have created a ‘good economy,’” Williamson said.
She also pointed to hypocrisy on issues of war and peace.
“People who have led us into unjustifiable wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people still claim to be stronger on security,” Williamson said.
Quote: “Everything I propose comes to one central question, who does this government work for? Is it going to continue to work just for a better and better slice at the top, or are we going to make this government work for the rest of America?”
Summary: Name any of the prominent policies Democrats are advocating for in 2020, and Elizabeth Warren will tell you she has “a plan for that.”
Warren said her proposed “wealth tax” would be put toward canceling student loan debt, funding childcare and pre-k for all children and create more than a million new manufacturing jobs in the U.S.
“Right now in America there is a real hunger,” she said. “There are people who are ready for big, structural change in this country. Get ready for change, and I got a plan for that.”
An economic populist, many of Warren’s talking points on restoring the middle class received enthusiastic applause from the audience, including a laugh line about taking 30,000 selfies with supporters.
Warren noted how she has sworn off PAC money and contributions from lobbyists, and doesn’t even personally spend time doing high-dollar fundraisers. She highlighted her “grassroots operation” with more than 90 town halls, thousands of questions from voters and visits to 20 states.
“I’m not spending my time with high-dollar donors and with corporate lobbyists, I’m spending my time with you,” she said. “That’s how we build a grassroots movement in America.”
Key quote: “I am the only person running who has actually done what everyone else is talking about.”
Summary: John Hickenlooper made the case that Democrats need a candidate who has big dreams, but also a record of making those dreams come true.
Hickenlooper highlighted his record in Colorado of implementing the policies that many Democratic candidates are advocating for on the campaign trail. He pointed out that Colorado has universal healthcare coverage, broadband internet access, and a strong economy.
Hickenlooper said Colorado cut the rate of abortion and unintended pregnancy by two-thirds because the state funds a woman’s ability to receive long-acting, reversible birth control, like IUDs and implants.
He also said Colorado was the first state to work to eliminate methane gas emissions, the first state to pass universal background checks, and set magazine limits for gun owners.
Hickenlooper also provided a vision for how to achieve those goals.
“I can tell you, we don’t do big things with big government. We do big things by bringing people to the table, by making the table bigger,” he said.
Key Quote: “I know I can win because I’ve done it every place, everywhere, every time.”
Summary: Amy Klobuchar had a warm welcome, receiving a standing ovation followed by an “Amy, Amy, Amy” chant before her speech.
Klobuchar took time to relate to Iowans and other states in the Heartland pointing out, “I can see Iowa from my porch.”
She also took a portion of her speech to mention her Midwestern background and tell the story of how she got into politics when her daughter was sick after she gave birth – inspiring her to go to the legislature and fight for a 48-hour hospital stay for new moms.
Klobuchar said Democrats must stand up against monopoly powers and pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. She also brought up standing up to “big pharma” and their operational power in D.C.
“You know what, you might have two lobbyists for every member of Congress,” said Klobuchar. “You might think that they own Washington, but they don’t own me.”
Klobuchar also mentioned approaching the office with a sense of economic optimism, bridging the rural and urban divide, addressing housing and childcare issues and bringing Midwestern values to the Oval Office.
Key quote: “The path to victory isn’t just through the coasts. It includes places we lost last election …this is about the White House and your state house.”
Summary: Steve Bullock is on the same page as the other 18 candidates who spoke at the Hall of Fame Dinner: they want to defeat Donald Trump. But, Bullock said, Iowa Democrats should go further.
“We’re here to make sure Donald Trump is a one-term president,” Bullock said. “It’s more than just beating him, though. It’s rejecting the behavior he’s normalizing: lies, misstatements, dividing us by race, by gender, by geography.”
Bullock made it clear he wants Washington D.C. to work for Iowans, and in doing so, would again take up the fight against big money in politics as he did in his home state of Montana and the Koch brothers.
“It’s been the fight of my career,” Bullock said. “If we can stop the Koch brothers in Montana, we can stop them in Iowa. We can stop them all across this country.”
Bill de Blasio
Quote: “There’s plenty of money in this world and there’s plenty of money in this country, it’s just in the wrong hands.”
Summary: Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City and a recent entrant to the race for president, began his remarks with a shout-out to his wife as they celebrate 25 years of marriage.
De Blasio brought his wife Chirlane McCray on stage for a hug as he delved into a speech highlighting the need to uplift “working families” in America.
“This was not an accident,” de Blasio said, of the challenges and problems facing the next president. “It was a Republican agenda that made it harder and harder for working people to get their fair share and made it easier and easier for the rich to get richer.”
To the crowd of Iowa activists, he named several policies accomplished in New York City that he wanted to implement nationwide if elected president, including universal pre-k, paid parental leave, and healthcare for all Americans.
“We need to put money back in the hands of working people and I’m here to tell you it can be done because we’ve been doing it in New York,” he said.
Key quote: “Trump is the star of his own three ring circus in Washington but there is no doubt who the ringmaster actually is. And that is Mitch McConnell,” Bennet said.
Summary: Michael Bennet used his place on the stage to denounce the lack of progress in Congress and to place the blame for that on Senator Mitch McConnell.
“On climate change, on healthcare, on all of the issues you have heard about today, he has said ‘no’ and sent it to the legislative graveyard to die,” Bennet said.
Bennet argued if they could only break the Senate logjam, significant progress could finally be made on infrastructure, education, and healthcare.
He proposed that the Democrats build a coalition across the country that unifies all Americans, including Independents and Republicans.
“That all may sound really hard, but it’s always been hard to make this country more democratic, more fair and more free.”
Key Quote: “We must first fix this badly broken democracy, Congress – which is captured and corrupted by special interests and corporations and PACs, and a democracy in which our elections that have shut out too many.”
Summary: Beto O’Rourke was the last to speak at the Hall of Fame Dinner, and used his time to give a few Iowa specific shout-outs while outlining some of his goals for a potential presidential term.
O’Rourke started with a unifying message, reminding those left in the room that the goal is to “beat Trump in 2020 and bring the country back together in 2021.”
He then went into outlining some of his legislative aspirations for dealing with current-day issues, including creating guaranteed universal background checks for gun safety, closing loopholes in the purchasing process, stopping the sale of weapons of war, and to put up ‘Red-Flag Walls.’
O’Rourke also addressed the challenges facing the agricultural industry and rural communities. Farmers should be “placed in the driver’s seat in confronting the greatest challenge we have ever faced: climate change,” he said.
Also mentioned were the steel workers in the Quad Cities, who O’Rourke said should have their work respected. Their pensions, which they have already worked for and paid into, he said, should also be protected.
by Jake Bulling, Josh Cook, Paige Godden, Nikoel Hytrek, Elizabeth Meyer, and Pat Rynard
Photos by Julie Fleming