It was early Saturday morning, and Jessica Birch didn’t feel like getting out of bed. Hungover and tired, the 21-year-old University of Northern Iowa student could easily have turned off her alarm.
But the night before, she saw a Facebook event for Congressman Steve King’s town hall forum in Grundy County come across her feed, and she felt a civic duty to attend. So, Birch forced herself out of bed and headed 17 miles down the road to the Grundy Center Community Center.
She arrived to peculiar scene: out of the over 12,000 people that live in Grundy County, Birch was the only one to show up to King’s forum.
“It was just odd, because I don’t know what the record was for the world’s smallest town hall is, but one person I think has to be it,” Birch told Starting Line in an interview this morning.
A photo of the near-empty room by a Reuters photographer quickly went viral Saturday afternoon, showing only two people in a room of mostly-empty chairs. However, as Birch explained, the other woman on the left in the photo was an intern for King. Birch, who lives in Dike, Iowa, was the only constituent of King’s not required to attend to show up.
“I was the only person who was not paid to be there,” she said.
The scene at Steve King’s town hall today in Grundy Center, Iowa. Photo by Brenna Norman pic.twitter.com/PEtHkmmaFN
— corinne_perkins (@corinne_perkins) August 17, 2019
When Birch arrived to the parking lot, it was just a few police cars there for security.
“I looked at them, they looked at me,” she said of the four to six police officers who were there as she walked in.
King’s staff opened the door for her as she arrived, and she wrote her name — the only one — on the sign-in sheet. A few staff and one photographer were the only other people on hand.
Birch had planned on just sitting in the back of the room. When King entered, he walked back to her to greet her, then she moved herself up to a closer row as he approached the podium.
“It was very awkward, it was a very weird thing,” Birch explained. “Part of me wanted to leave, but it would be rude to leave, and the Midwestern part of me couldn’t do that. I feel bad for him a bit. But then part of me was really, really angry because other Democrats didn’t show up. I kind of let stuff he said slide, on stuff like abortion and health care, because I don’t want to get in an argument with him. I already know you’re wrong. Let’s talk about things I actually care about.”
King began his one-person forum with a joking reference to Rick Santorum, reminiscing on how Santorum thanked a woman who was once his only attendee at a caucus event.
“I reflect on that when I walked in the room here and saw the attendance today,” King said.
The congressman started with one of his usual updates on trade policies, then asked Birch if she had any questions.
A public administration major who’s working at Cedar Fall’s Section 8 department, Birch’s biggest interests lie with affordable housing issues, so she asked him about housing costs.
King responded by going into an in-depth discussion about Americans in the workforce and his views on people who receive various welfare benefits.
“Our welfare system that we have is a disincentive for them to go to work,” King said. “Employers will come to me about Section 8 housing, and they’ll say we need to do something different, because we have people who live in Section 8 housing and they come to work, once they get a job, they’ll only work three or four days a week, because if they make too much money, they won’t qualify for Section 8 housing.”
King went on to talk about his efforts to reduce various social welfare programs, as well as examples he had of people abusing disabilities benefits and a number of other topics.
“My question really wasn’t about Section 8 people,” Birch politely responded. “The people I’ve dealt with, they’re hardworking.”
“Housing has been an important issue, and it’s just one of those things that’s just never talked about, like ever,” she later told Starting Line. “We talk about health care, we talk about immigration.”
King continued a casual, conversational discussion with Birch, asking her what other topics she cared about and seeking her opinion on a few things.
“The whole hour for me was just a blur of what I was saying. I was hungover, I didn’t have any coffee, I was just there,” Birch said. “If I could go back, I would have been more ready to ask questions.”
They did get into an interesting exchange on reparations for black Americans, something King made clear he wasn’t in favor of.
King, who at one point had a Confederate Flag on his desk, spoke about his family members who were abolitionists and who fought in the Civil War on the Northern side. But he also argued that America should be congratulated for ending the practice of slavery.
“It’s kind of hard to hear the arguments for reparations these days and think about it in terms of some people gained a foundation of wealth prior to 1865 because they used slave labor,” King said. “At the same time, 600,000, maybe 750,000 Americans died putting an end to it. What’s the price for that? There’s no reparations for lost lives, but there is for lost wages? I think it’s a hard argument for them to make, and it’s much better for us to be grateful for both sides.”
He then spoke favorably about the Civil Rights era and the black Americans who led social change in that.
In telling her friends last night about her experience with King, others suggested Birch should have yelled at him.
“It’s so easy to say that, being the only person in the room is different,” Birch noted.
Once the hour-long forum was finished, King’s staff encouraged her to get a photo with the congressman.
“I politely declined, mostly because I plan to run for office and I don’t need a picture of Steve King and I shaking hands in the future,” she said.
On her way out the door, she jokingly apologized to the officers for having to get up early to provide security for someone as rowdy as herself.
“I don’t know if they found it funny; I did,” Birch said.
While she sent out a tweet during the event, Birch didn’t get much response and headed back home for the day.
“I ate breakfast pizza and then I went back to bed,” Birch explained. “I woke up at 4:00 and I pulled up my phone, and I have a dozen notifications.”
The photo of King’s Grundy Center town hall had been bouncing around Twitter for hours. Even Senator Amy Klobuchar had commented on it. While Birch herself wasn’t named anywhere, she said it was odd to see the back of her head and another photo of her face being shared by so many people.
“It was interesting, I don’t think I’ll ever have another experience like that again in my life,” she said.
Plenty more had made jokes about King, though some at Iowans’ expense, which Birch became annoyed with.
“I’m frustrated with people commenting on how all Iowans are racist, dismissing District 4 Iowans because Steve King gets elected,” she said. “I showed up as a 21-year-old person, actually following through. It’s easy to talk stuff online, but showing up is different. I felt like it was an obligation to.”
Birch noted that she’s become more politically engaged in recent years, working at the Black Hawk County elections office during the last election and volunteering for congressional and presidential campaigns. She met J.D. Scholten, King’s Democratic opponent, at an event last year, and is excited to see how he does this time.
No matter what happens with King’s reelection hopes, however, Birch would prefer people who comment online about Iowans keep in mind that there are people here fighting back.
“As a young Democrat who’s trying her best, please don’t dismiss us all,” Birch said. “Some of us care. Some of us show up.”
by Pat Rynard
Photo by Jessica Birch