Polk County Democrats’ largest Steak Fry in history featured 17 of the 18 serious presidential candidates vying for votes in 2020.
More than 12,000 tickets were sold for the Saturday event at Water Works Park in Des Moines. In keeping with its name, it was a rainy day at the park. But attendees were prepared, seated in lawn chairs with ponchos and umbrellas for protection.
Other than John Delaney, who was attending his daughter’s wedding, guests at the Steak Fry saw every serious Democratic candidate seeking to unseat President Donald Trump.
Here’s the key parts of each speech, in order of candidate appearance.
“This is how we free ourselves from fear. We decide what we believe in and fight like hell to achieve it, and we don’t let anyone, whether it’s the NRA, corporations or the political action committees, or even our fellow Democrats, tell us what is possible and what is not possible. We the people decide what is possible in this country.”
In the wake of the Aug. 3 mass shooting in O’Rourke’s hometown of El Paso, Texas, the former congressman took time off the campaign trail to visit with families, attend memorials and refocus his presidential run. He reemerged with a new focus on gun control.
At the Steak Fry, O’Rourke led a call-and-response “Hell yes!” to his call for a mandatory buyback of AK-47s, a policy proposal recently rolled out and focused on at the debate this month.
His 10-minute speech largely focused on life under President Trump, ticking off a list of injustices from restricted access to abortion and family separation at the southern border to rampant racism and homophobia.
“I would suggest to you that what we need in terms of a winning strategy … is we need leadership that is prepared to unify our country around our common values, our common goals, our common aspirations and experiences.”
Harris’ time at the podium was a condensed version of the story she tells at her campaign rallies, beginning with the lessons she learned from a tough but loving mother, to her election as the first black woman to serve as attorney general of California.
A member of the audience called out, “Dude’s gotta go,” — referring to Harris’ call for Trump to be impeached — launching the senator and former prosecutor into a list of betrayals perpetrated by the president.
Harris briefly hit on her “3AM Agenda,” the everyday concerns of Americans — health care, cost of education, public safety — she would prioritize as president.
“This election, we Democrats have to understand we cannot define ourselves by what we are against or who we’re against. We must define ourselves by who we are and what we are for.”
The New Jersey senator also began his remarks with a personal history, though his was much more in-depth. He traced his family roots from a small mining town in Iowa to the Garden State where he grew up, telling the audience about the racism his parents faced when trying to buy a home.
Booker called for a love between all Americans that would unify the country behind a shared set of values. Despite our imperfections as a nation, Booker said, “We are not a nation of hate and discrimination … that has never defined America.”
Booker, at risk of ending his campaign due to a slump in fundraising, got a bit of a boost Saturday night from Iowa Auditor Rob Sand, who asked his Twitter followers to join him in contributing to Booker’s campaign.
“I got here today because I see an America that isn’t an America of expanding opportunities. I see an America that just keeps working better and better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top.”
The senator from Massachusetts had a great day in Iowa. As her signature song, “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton, blared over the loudspeakers, the crowd rose to its feet. A few hours later, Warren found out she had topped the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll for the first time, earning support from 22% of likely Democratic caucus-goers.
True to form, Warren’s speech was policy-heavy, though she didn’t talk about her position on health care coverage. She told the crowd about her proposed two-cent wealth tax on the top one-tenth of 1% of wage earners in America, explaining how revenue generated from the tax would help fund tuition-free college, investments in historically black universities and provide preschool for all children.
“Whatever issue brought you here today — whether it’s gun violence or climate or health care, whatever brought you here — you’re here because you believe down deep somewhere in your heart that we can make our democracy work not just for a thin slice at the top, we can make it work for everyone,” she said.
“Donald Trump must be defeated. In this unprecedented moment in American history, we need to run an unprecedented campaign. The same old, same old type of politics is not going to work.”
On the stump, the two-time presidential candidate rarely strays from his tried-and-true talking points, and Saturday was no exception.
Following Warren, there was a noticeable drop off in cheers from the crowd — the Register’s poll showed 32% of Sanders’ 2016 supporters now like Warren.
Invoking the words of former South African president Nelson Mandela — “It always seems impossible until it is done.” — Sanders blitzed through the polices he would tackle as president, from Medicare for All and a $15 federal minimum wage to a raise for teachers and reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system.
“Donald Trump is not the cause of all of our problems. He is a symptom, he is a manifestation. We’re in the midst of the greatest economic transformation in the history of our country, what experts are calling the fourth industrial revolution.”
Yang, the California entrepreneur, challenged Americans’ perceptions of why Trump was elected in 2016. The real reason, Yang said, was not because of Russian interference, Hillary Clinton or Facebook, but because of automation. Four million manufacturing jobs were lost in the Midwest, he said, contributing to widespread angst among workers who feel they are left behind in a tech-heavy economy.
His speech hit so many of the same points every time that he often called on the audience to finish his sentences.
Yang’s big idea is the Freedom Dividend, a program to provide every American adult $1,000 per month to spend as they choose.
“We are in a battle for the soul of America. That’s what’s at stake. This country can overcome four years of Donald Trump with great difficulty, but eight years, eight years of Trump I believe will forever change the character and nature of the country we are.”
The former Vice President started out with a straightforward message: “Above all else, we must defeat Donald Trump. Period.”
Largely, however, his speech was focused on policy. He told the crowd he was opposed to anyone who wanted to scrap the Affordable Care Act and substitute Medicare for All. Biden is in favor of a public option, allowing Americans to keep their employer-provided health insurance if they choose, but working toward universal coverage through a mix of Medicare and private plans.
He wants preschool and community college to be free for all Americans; invest billions in research on cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes; and strengthen unions.
“We need to start to reward work, not wealth,” he said.
“We know that when our country needs to rise to meet some of the greatest challenges ever laid at our feet, the leaders that we are counting on have us divided and discouraged and doubtful. What’s at stake in 2020 is whether we can redirect the American project before it’s too late.”
The mayor of South Bend, Indiana, like Sen. Booker, prefers to keep his speeches aspirational. He often is described by voters as a very articulate candidate, impressing voters with his rhetoric and vision for the country.
On Saturday, with 135 days to go until the Iowa Caucuses, Buttigieg told the crowd how government has influenced every aspect of his life, from health insurance that saved family members to a six-figure student loan debt, the war in Afghanistan and the 2015 Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage.
When he did talk policy, in addition to health care, criminal justice reform and public education, Buttigieg said he would implement a national service program to give Americans paid opportunities to give back to their country.
“I can tell you this, Iowa; I am someone that believes in America. I believe in the goodness of America, and that’s why I don’t just want to be president for half of America, I want to be president for all of America. That is how we win.”
The senator from Minnesota began her speech by pumping up Iowa’s Democratic elected officials, noting the races of importance here in 2020.
From there, she talked about her recent “Blue Wall Tour,” where she campaigned in several traditionally Democratic states that supported Trump in 2016. In a field of liberal candidates, Klobuchar has branded herself as the “home” for voters who “are tired of the extremes in politics.”
Despite the setbacks Democrats have faced since Trump’s election, Klobuchar pointed to elections in 2018 and 2019 that were successful for the party and showed there is an appetite for change in 2020.
“When you think about what your responsibility is in this election, you need to think of yourself as a founder. That is the job of a citizen in a Democratic Republic. We were careless with our democracy and we elected Donald Trump. We cannot elect Donald Trump.”
Bennet, a Colorado senator, also has rejected liberals’ proposal to abolish the private health insurance market and make public college and universities tuition-free.
Instead, Bennet believes the United States can achieve universal health care coverage through a mix of private insurance and a public option with Medicare. He wants preschool to be available for free to all children and said he would set a priority on reversing the deadly affects of climate change.
“We need an agenda that’s going to unite Democrats and the 9 million people that voted twice for Barack Obama and once for Donald Trump,” he said.
“We need to create a new, young, diverse coalition of working people who are going to get off the sidelines and into the voting booths to beat Donald Trump on November 3rd. That’s what I’m doing.”
Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, started his speech with a call to House Democrats: “It is time for you to do your job and impeach Donald Trump.”
From there, he told the crowd about how his grandmother came to the United States from Mexico to start a new life, about his upbringing in a working class household with a single mother and twin brother. Now, two generations later, he is running for president and his brother is a member of Congress.
If elected president, Castro said his first executive order would be to reenter the Paris Agreement on combating climate change. He also is a supporter of Medicare for All, universal preschool, a greater investment in mental health care, criminal justice reform and women’s access to abortion.
“I’m running for president to end this insanity. The most important responsibilities that a president has is to serve as commander in chief. And as your commander in chief, I will end these wasteful, wasteful regime change wars.”
A veteran of the Iraq War, Gabbard has centered her campaign on foreign policy and a desire to end America’s pursuit of “regime change wars.”
The congresswoman from Hawaii focused her Steak Fry speech on those themes, but she also told the audience the deeper meaning behind her “Aloha” greeting.
“Aloha is what unites us,” Gabbard said, lamenting the fact our government is “of, by and for the rich and powerful.”
“We the people are left behind as a result,” she said. “We the people end up struggling and suffering as a result. You deserve a president who will fight for you.”
“Let me promise you, when I’ve said I’ll do something, I’ve delivered. And I promise that if you give me your vote, I will deliver every single day.”
The man behind Need to Impeach and the youth voting effort NextGen America wants Iowans to know he is more than a billionaire and former businessman.
Since quitting his corporate career, Steyer said he has pledged to donate his wealth to important causes and has dedicated himself “to take on unchecked corporate power.” If elected president, Steyer said he would work to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on campaign finance, set term limits for politicians and undo Trump’s 2017 tax breaks for the wealthy.
“This is the most successful society in the history of the planet,” he said. “We have real challenges. If we do just these two things — break the corporate stranglehold on government, stabilize the climate — we are in a position that is better than any people in the history of the world.”
“Too many have lost sight that it is always about the people above party, above self, above any special interest no matter the cost.”
A late entrant to the presidential contest, the retired admiral and former Pennsylvania congressman told the Steak Fry crowd about the lessons he has learned over 77 days of campaigning in Iowa. He’s kept it simple, living out of a local Econo Lodge, placing flyers on the windshields of cars in Hy-Vee parking lots and having one-on-one conversations at small events.
Sestak told the Steak Fry audience, “I honestly believe that we must beat Donald Trump above all else.” America’s role as a world leader has been diminished, he said, leaving the next president with a tall task of rebuilding alliances and breaking ties to dictators.
“This country needs to transform, and this country needs a president and this president should emerge from a party that is ready to go deeper, go soulful, get real, do some truth-telling.”
The author and motivational speaker is proud to say she is not a politician and does not run her campaign like one. Instead, Williamson talked about “waging peace” through the Democratic Party and speaking to “the heart of the matter” when it comes to systemic issues Americans face with health care, education, criminal justice, and others.
Rather than focus on getting Democrats to the polls in 2020, Williamson said the party must inspire Americans who don’t vote, those who vote for a third party candidate, and citizens who chose Trump in 2016 but are open to an alternative option.
“We need to defeat an ideology,” she said. “We need to so inspire a new chapter for the Democratic Party, for the United States of America, that they can’t come back in ’22 or ’24.”
“It’s not just Donald Trump who’s on the ballot. It’s not just the 243-year experiment called representative democracy that’s on the ballot. Indeed, the American dream is on the ballot right now.”
Bullock, the governor of Montana, was introduced Saturday by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, his most prominent supporter in the state.
“We need to make this a single-issue election,” said Bullock, who has centered his campaign on campaign finance reform and the fact he won re-election in a state Trump carried by 20 points.
Despite being a “pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat,” Bullock said he continues to appeal to his rural constituency in Montana. His Steak Fry speech didn’t delve too deep policy proposals, but rather his pitch as an electable candidate with bipartisan appeal.
“We’ve got to get away from the left and right divide as a Democratic Party. We have got to be the party of new and better — new and better ways of addressing the issues around the economy, new and better ways of addressing the issues around health care, new and better ways of addressing the issues around climate change.”
The last speaker of the day, Ryan persevered through pouring rain as attendees started running to their cars to avoid getting drenched. Under the cover of a Progress Iowa hat and umbrella, held by Iowa State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, Ryan began his speech talking about the August mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. He called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass a comprehensive gun safety bill.
Ryan, an Ohio congressman, said as president he would appoint a chief manufacturing officer tasked with ensuring more products are made in America again. To address climate change, Ryan suggested putting people back to work on massive infrastructure improvements around electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, car batteries and charging stations.
On the topic of health care, Ryan said, “I want to be the president that shifts the health care system to a system where we reverse chronic disease in the United States of America.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
Candidate photos by Julie Fleming, cover photo by Greg Hauenstein