Scroll through past Iowa Caucus result maps, and you’ll often find a peculiar outlier in the southeast corner of the state. There lies Jefferson County, home to Fairfield, a small town once described by Oprah Winfrey as “America’s most unusual town,” well-known in Iowa for its support of outside-the-box candidates on both sides of the political spectrum.
It is not difficult to notice that Fairfield, which has a population of just under 10,000, is a bit different. Driving though town, you’ll see on the horizon a towering statue labeled the “Maharishi Tower Of Invincibility.” It sits next to one of the town’s golden domes, a part of the Maharishi University of Management’s sprawling campus.
The uniqueness extends to many of the town’s residents, especially their political leanings.
Cindy Ballou supported Ron Paul twice and Bernie Sanders in 2016. This year, she told Starting Line she is considering caucusing for Tulsi Gabbard. In parts of Fairfield, that makes her more the norm than the exception.
Ballou, 65, lives in Fairfield with her husband, David Ballou. She is politically active, volunteering for both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Ballou described herself as an “Independent” who “tends to lean liberal.” David Ballou, however, is more conservative, though he is “much more issues based than party based.”
“Generally speaking, I think you have a population in Fairfield that migrates towards, or is attracted to, things that both Tulsi and Marianne Williamson represent — getting peace and getting out of regime change wars,” said David Ballou, 73.
Though there are more registered Democrats in the county than Republicans, when talking with local voters it quickly becomes apparent there is no one-size-fits-all candidate.
“The Bernie Sanders supporters did a huge amount of organizing in Jefferson County to bring out people who had never gone to the caucus, people who weren’t even Democrats. They signed up and became Democrats on caucus night,” explained Paul Gandy, a 2016 delegate for Hillary Clinton and member of the Jefferson County Democrats.
“We were kind of like — in terms of Bernie Sanders support, even though we are in Southeast Iowa — we were kind of the epicenter of Bernie Sanders-type support in the country,” Gandy said.
In 2016, Sanders won Jefferson County, which includes Fairfield, with 73% of the vote on caucus night.
In 2008, Jefferson County was the only county in the entire state that Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican presidential candidate, carried. In 2012, Paul once again won the Jefferson County Republican caucus with 49% of the vote. Rick Santorum won the Iowa Caucus that year, but received support from only 19% of voters there.
“I voted for Ron Paul,” Cindy Ballou said, “not because I liked his domestic policy, but I’m very much wanting to get out of the war, and he was the only one running on that platform.”
In 2004, left-wing candidate Dennis Kucinich came in second place in Jefferson County with 29% of the vote. Statewide, only 1% of Democratic caucus-goers supported the former Ohio congressman. Howard Dean ended up carrying the county, one of just two Iowa counties that he won.
Those results sometimes carry over to general elections as well. In 2016, Jefferson County had the second-highest percentage of third party votes in Iowa — 8.56%. Jill Stein received 3% of the vote there, much more than her 0.7% statewide.
Gabbard, a congresswoman from Hawaii and one of 18 Democrats running for president, typically polls in the low single digits, but has amassed significant support in this Southeast Iowa town.
“I think what attracted me to Tulsi is that I felt strongly that her record, her history, shows her integrity,” said Cindy Ballou. “And one of the things that I find very maddening about political candidates, is trying to track how much their words are backed up by their actions. I feel good about her on that level, that she has integrity.”
An ‘Unusual Town’
Oprah Winfrey visited Fairfield in 2012 to experience transcendental meditation under one of the city’s two signature golden domes.
“Rush hour traffic in Fairfield, Iowa, is unlike any other town in America,” said Winfrey, narrating a segment for a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. “Twice a day, residents stop what they’re doing and head to these two giant golden domes to meditate.”
The history of Maharishi University of Management begins to explain Fairfield’s unique place not just in Iowa, but in the United States.
Described as the “Home of Consciousness-based Education,” the university was founded in 1973 by an Indian guru known for developing transcendental meditation.
Thanks to the university, the Ballous noted, about 65 countries are represented in the small town.
“There’s every religion under the sun here,” Cindy Ballou said. “Our population tends to be better able to have conversations that transcend the extreme party mainstream dialogue. And that may be why we kind of go for those bottom-line things, like getting out of regime change wars is very big. We know that both Marianne Williamson and Tulsi Gabbard support that.”
A New York Times graphic of financial support for presidential candidates showed some of the highest concentration of donations in the country for Gabbard and Williamson came from in and around Fairfield.
“I have some Republican friends who are definitely supporting her” because of her foreign policy positions,” Cindy Ballou said. “I feel one thing that’s missing in the conversation, and I wish someone would bring it up — Democrats are so gung-ho about beating Trump, but they keep forgetting that the Independent voting bloc is the largest voting bloc in the country. So, if they don’t appeal to a large percentage of the Independent voting bloc, they can’t beat Trump.”
Fairfield was an early destination for Williamson, Gabbard and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan.
It was Gabbard’s second stop in Iowa after her announcement in February. She has returned there twice more, often before visiting other mid-sized Iowa towns.
Williamson has held several house parties in Fairfield, on one trip spending the better part of two days in town for three separate events. She stopped back there once again in September for a Meditate for Peace: Peace and Politics campaign event. At her events elsewhere in the state, Starting Line has often run into volunteers of hers that have drive up from Fairfield.
Early on in the Democratic primary, it seemed like there may be a three-way contest for the transcendental meditation community. Ryan, who wrote a book on mindfulness, was the commencement speaker at the Maharishi University in 2017. He took some early trips to the town, but hasn’t kept up his visits to Iowa in the latter half of the year.
Gabbard’s Oct. 7 Fairfield event was held at Phoenix Rising Hall, a former church turned “multi-purpose holistic events center,” whose past events include “Secrets of the Siddhas: Health, Longevity, Enlightenment” and “An Evening of Ecstatic Love, Bliss, Empowerment, and Freedom with Marabai Devi.”
More than 100 people filled the pews and stood in the back of the hall to see Gabbard, polling at 2% in Iowa.
Most were there for more than 2.5 hours, arriving well before she spoke and sticking around for an hourlong question-and-answer session.
Ed Noyces, the owner of Phoenix Rising Hall, described Fairfield’s “rich history of peace” and introduced Gabbard as “a light among lights.”
Gabbard, 38, greeted the group with “Aloha,” as she does at all events.
“When I greet you with aloha — when we greet each other with aloha — really what we’re saying is, I come to you with respect,” said Gabbard, as the audience murmured in agreement. “I come to you with an open heart and with love and with care, and a recognition that we are all God’s children. We’re all connected. We’re all brothers and sisters.”
After more than 40 minutes laying out her policy beliefs and ideas, the first voter to ask a question was a Libertarian concerned about government surveillance.
A few minutes later, an elderly, “conservative” voter said Gabbard “sounds much more like a conservative than any Democrat I’ve ever heard. What I’m trying to say is, the principles that you’re talking about are conservative principles … you are speaking conservative principles, except for climate change,” he joked.
Williamson, a 67-year-old self-help author and spiritual leader, who also has held events in Fairfield, was brought up at the town hall as a candidate with principles similar to Gabbard.
“This way of speaking is not odd to me,” said Shawn Diddy, of Fairfield, as she described Williamson’s spirituality and lofty aspirations for the world. “This is a way of life to me. And what’s interesting is, I’ve gone from crazy corporate America to someone who meditates regularly. And I’m still in crazy, corporate America, but I don’t feel crazy anymore.”
Diddy, a former Miss Iowa, grew up in New Hampton, but as an actress and television host, lived in major U.S. cities before settling on Fairfield to pursue at Ph.D. at Maharishi University of Management.
“Wouldn’t it be interesting if these people who think this kind of talk sounds so weird started to live it? Maybe we’re not ready for it,” she said, “but it’s coming. We’re seeing meditation in schools. It’s coming. We’re seeing people figuring out what they’re eating and how that’s affecting them. And this has been Marianne Williamson for 30 years.”
Williamson has been one of the only candidates with an extensive section her website and in her stump speech about the kind of foods and chemicals that Americans consume.
The Freshman Legislator
Adding to the quirkiness of Fairfield’s electorate, you will often even see the Republican state representative out at certain Democratic candidate caucus events.
Jeff Shipley, Fairfield’s legislator in the Iowa House, was in the front row for Gabbard’s town hall.
Shipley, a Republican, was an outsider candidate when he snuck up on Democratic Rep. Phil Miller in 2018. He won the seat by a mere 37 votes, one of only two Iowa House seats that Democrats lost in a blue year.
A local sauerkraut salesman and small business owner, Shipley introduced a bill in the state Legislature to legalize psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal use and was the only legislator to vote against a transportation equity bill intended to help rural school districts cover the cost of busing students to and from school.
During Gabbard’s event, he wrote on Twitter, “There was a broad slice of the political spectrum represented at @TulsiGabbard tonight. Only two-ish cringe worthy questions. My fav moment was the interaction with the radical vegan domestic terrorist. Much aloha.”
For Ankita Maheshwari, her support of Gabbard began in 2016 when Gabbard resigned as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee to support Sanders in his presidential bid. At the time, Sanders, an Independent U.S. senator running as a Democrat, was the outsider candidate in a race with Hillary Clinton.
“I was already sold on her as a person, and when I saw her campaign speech I felt a resonance with her because I guess I just could feel that she gets it,” said Maheshwari, 32. “She gets what needs to be done … We need someone that is willing and has the vision to change our country drastically, dramatically and quickly, you know?”
Maheshwari’s father, a professor at Maharishi University of Management, was drawn to Gabbard’s anti-war, “pro-peace” platform.
“For me, it’s not just being anti-war, but pro-peace,” said Anil Maheshwari. “It’s totally different. The absence of war doesn’t mean peace, right? It can just be neutral.”
A resident of Maharishi Vedic City, about two miles north of Fairfield, Maheshwari described his life there as “the closest thing to feeling absolutely blissful.”
Incorporated in 2001, all aspects of the tiny town are centered on the Maharishi Sthapatya Veda design to “promote health, happiness and good fortune.” All buildings face east, feature a “central silent space” and a golden roof ornament called a kalash, according to the town’s website. Driving through the town of 1,300 is like entering a different world.
“I just think from a moral place, from a spiritual place, both of these candidates, Tulsi and Marianne, are very strong,” Ankita Maheshwari said. “And they both have really strong moral centers and spiritual centers that they talk about a lot on the campaign trail, as well. I think that resonates a lot with Fairfielders.”
For those who support other candidates in the race — Pete Buttigieg drew about 500 people to the town square on a weekday afternoon — they are quick to point out that townspeople who have taken a liking to Gabbard and Williamson are not necessarily representative of the town at-large. Some peg the transcendental meditation community at a little under half the town’s population, with the rest resembling more of a usual Iowa small town, if perhaps one with a higher average education level.
Sanders is likely to do well there again, and Elizabeth Warren appears to have a foothold in the community, too.
For Iowa Caucus watchers, Fairfield certainly will be a town to keep an eye on Feb. 3.
“It’s a very different town than any other place,” Anil Maheshwari said. “We are very liberal. We are very about consciousness and about world peace.”
By Elizabeth Meyer