Sally Walker-Jondal was not a fixture in Iowa party politics. But within a year of joining the Louisa County Democrats, she was put in charge of the aging local party in need of new life.
“She started putting a spark back into the party. Frankly, it was getting pretty slow,” said 76-year-old Don Foor, who led the party on and off for 30 years, dating back to his work on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.
On Sunday, at the Iowa Democratic Party’s virtual Hall of Fame event, Walker-Jondal will accept the Bob Creech Award for Outstanding Democratic Party Chair.
“It was a surprise and it is a great honor,” said Walker-Jondal, of Morning Sun. “It does make us down here in this little county in the red zone feel like we are not alone and we’re not forgotten.”
Louisa County has a population of 11,223. Sandwiched in-between Burlington and Muscatine, and bordering Johnson County, the Southeast Iowa bedroom community often is not a stop for Democrats on the caucus campaign trail (This year was an outlier. Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar and John Delaney held events there.) The local Democrats have struggled to field a winning candidate for state representative.
Active Republican voters outnumber the Democrats 2,679 to 1,729.
But under Walker-Jondal’s leadership, local Democrats said, “we’re much more visible.”
“It doesn’t surprise me that she would get an award. She truly deserves it, and more,” said Donna Gerling, of Columbus Junction. “Oh my goodness, she works so hard. I’m just so happy for her. I’m just glad that the party saw that, that they reached out and noticed what she’s done because it’s just amazing for a little county like this.”
About 300 people participated in the Louisa County Democrats’ precinct caucuses this year. Eighty-seven new voters were registered that night, Walker-Jondal said.
Under her leadership, the local party now has a website and active social media accounts. Last year they attended parades, the county fair and farmers market in Wapello to put themselves in front of voters. Increased and more effective outreach to Louisa County’s Hispanic population has grown under Walker-Jondal and is a priority moving forward.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, in-person voter outreach largely has ceased and members are left to check-in with each other and potential new members over the phone.
“She has just gone above and beyond. And it’s so difficult because this is a big Republican county,” Gerling said. “She’s done a really great job bringing out the Hispanic community.
“It’s very difficult” to be a Democrat in Louisa County, she said, “however, if we could continue to bridge that language gap with the Hispanic community, I think we would draw in a lot more people. And of course, when we don’t have the pandemic, we’ve become much more visible. I think that has helped.”
For Walker-Jondal, who was elected chair in 2018, the 2016 election spurred her political activism.
“I’ve always been a Democrat. I’ve always voted,” she said. “But I was never involved in the county party. In 2017, after the 2016 election and what they were doing here in the state, particularly, I got, like, super politically active.”
Foor was a leader in the Louisa County Democrats at the time Donald Trump was elected president.
“Trump took the wind out of our sails for a while,” he said. “It really set us back on our heels, and it was time for someone else to step in and start putting some life back into the party. And that’s what Sally has done. She’s a go-getter, nothing stands in her way. That’s what I was, was a go-getter and nothing stood in my way. But over time, you get soft and complacent. Sally has brought a lot of life to the party.”
Even in a small county party the workload is heavy, particularly when you’re trying to grow.
“She has been a very good leader, very helpful in keeping everyone up-to-date and adjusting to whatever has been thrown our way,” said Jill Forbes, who ran her precinct caucus for the first time this year. “She’s willing to work and not afraid to ask questions.”
Despite the “huge learning curve” and endless phone calls, Walker-Jondal said she has enjoyed her time as chair and wants to “build the county party and get it on solid ground and be able to hand it off to someone else to take it further.”
“We are working hard in Louisa County, and this award, even though it’s got my name on it, it really goes to all of the members of our county party because I didn’t do any of this alone,” she said. “I thank the IDP and whoever voted for me to get this, but I really do thank my Louisa County Dems because they’re the only reason we’ve gotten anything done.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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