A threefer?! Okay, I thought. There was an upcoming event slated to include three candidates I hadn’t seen: Marianne Williamson, Tom Steyer and John Delaney. I hadn’t been to a cattle call yet.
“Cattle call” is the nickname given to events run by groups unaffiliated with campaigns but open to all candidates interested in attending. Some of these occurrences are huge gatherings, like the Iowa Steak Fry, which attracted over 10,000 people this year and must have literally involved a call to cattle, since it required serving enough steaks to prop up the Iowa beef industry for a year. Other cattle calls have been organized around specific issues, like climate change and LGBTQ issues, because during Presidential caucus season if you build it, they will come. At least, some of them will.
It’s not that I had actively avoided cattle calls up to this point, but I suspected these events were not going to be as quirky and unique as many of the one-off gatherings coordinated by campaigns. I mean, sitting in an echoey room at round tables and having people talk at me from a podium? I expected to be paid to go to something like that. But perhaps this one would be different. It was going to be held in Elkader, a rural area not known as a political hub, and though a number of candidates would be there, none of them were in the top half of the polls, so, okay, maybe this one would be unique. I was in.
The day of the event, I had to leave pretty early to get there on time, and it started to look like I had made a mistake. The route to Elkader was all on country roads, and it was a foggy morning where it felt like driving toward the edge of a cliff. I was pretty sure that if I stopped for long, I would be ambushed by the Children of the Corn. But through careful steering and GPS, I arrived on time at a corrugated tin event center behind a restaurant.
This was a “Passport to Victory” event that was part fundraiser and part designed to get big enough crowds into rural location to make it worthwhile for candidates. It was a good idea, as it seemed to accomplish both goals. When I arrived, I was there with about 200 people. Yes, it was an echoey room with round tables facing a podium, but there was a buffet table set up and a bar. And there was a silent auction. On principle, I felt I had to put in a bid on one of the items, all of which had some local or handmade angle. I put a bid in for the Toppling Goliath six pack with an individually designed carrier. However, I worried that billionaire Tom Steyer would swoop in at the last minute and outbid me.
I found a table with a couple other usual suspects who had driven up from Black Hawk County and who I regularly see at such gatherings. I opened up the program for the event and saw that, wow, 17 candidates were on tap to speak with the Presidential candidates sprinkled in throughout the day. Apparently, anyone running for office from President to dog catcher had been invited. This was scheduled to be a four-hour event. Now, I realized that the buffet wasn’t just a nice feature; it was necessary just to keep up endurance.
When things got underway, more or less on time, the first Presidential candidate to speak was Colorado Senator Michael Bennet. I had been to one of his events a few weeks earlier, and found him an interesting addition to the race. He threw a few sharp elbows this time, taking swipes at Sanders’s support for Medicare For All and Buttigieg’s limited governmental experience (there were more students in the Denver Public Schools when Bennet had been superintendent than people in Buttigieg’s hometown of South Bend, Indiana). That was a pretty good line.
There was no backstage to this event, which meant that candidates waiting to speak had to mill around in the crowd listening to the competition. It wasn’t quite Woodstock, but it was different to see Marianne Williamson hanging out at a table while Michael Bennet made the case for a public option as part of an expanded Obamacare program. After Bennet had finished, there was a break in the action, and an announcement was made that the buffet was open. A line of hungry Iowans quickly formed, as did a queue of people looking to meet Marianne Williamson. In fact, I couldn’t tell at first if this was all the same line, I was up for where either was heading, so I kept my spot. As we snaked around the room, I went right by the table where Marianne Williamson was standing, got to take a picture with her, and then got right back in line to grab a plate of chicken, potatoes and green beans.
With a lunch under my belt, I was ready for some serious listening, and best-selling author Marianne Williamson was ready to be listened to. Now, I’m not the first person to say this, but Marianne Williamson is not like other candidates. What stands out is that her speech style has the cadences of slam poetry rather than congressional testimony.
“You see, you need more than a passport. You need the right plane if you’re going to get somewhere. And I feel very strongly about what that passport is. And the passport and the plane is not someone whose whole deal is that they are going to fight Donald Trump.”
Hmm… if you stop to isolate a riff like that, it seems odd, but in the moment, in the flow of Williamson’s speech, her larger concerns become more clear. Her target is anger and the corrosive effect such anger has had on politics and on American society at large. If politics are driven by anger (this is the plane), the candidate (this would be the person with the passport) won’t make much of a difference. We’ll still be an angry country. So, the challenge she sees is to recognize why people are angry but then to find some other motivating force that can animate politics. In the end, she was looking to motivate, and she was the first candidate I’ve seen to end her stump speech with a call for Americans to “get all lit up.”
The day went on. More local candidates spoke. There was a moving presentation about a local county chair who was fighting both cancer and her own health insurer. I may have gone for seconds in the buffet line.
Then Tom Steyer came into the room. He is a former hedge fund manager and current philanthropist who was a late entry into the race. He’s a recognizable face from advertisements calling for action on climate change and then for the impeachment of Donald Trump. Because he is a billionaire and self-funding much of his campaign, I’m pretty sure he could buy every building in Elkader if he wanted.
Again, because there was no backstage at this event, Steyer ended up hanging out in the rear of the hall when other candidates were speaking and during breaks. I saw my moment and went up to talk to him. Somehow the conversation turned to our shared love of kayaking, and he talked about a yearly kayaking trip he goes on. I told him about the excellent river & lake kayak loop in Cedar Falls and Waterloo. He was totally engaging and friendly, down to Earth without working too hard at it. After getting a picture with him, I picked his pocket and came away with a cool 3.5 million.
But Steyer had to wait for a while to take the stage. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whom I saw over the summer, also spoke, though I only caught the end of her remarks. A surrogate for Bernie Sanders, California Rep. Ro Khanna gave a barnburner of a speech supporting Sanders and defending Medicare For All. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in Iowa running his own Presidential campaign in the future.
When Tom Steyer’s turn came, he threw the crowd some red meat by saying that every Deomocaratic candidate running against Trump was more qualified than “the criminal we currently have in the White House.” Much applause followed. Counterintuitively, Steyer is trying to run as a kind of populist who is taking on corporate control of Washington. That’s not usually the go-to position of a billionaire, but Steyer wants to position himself as an outsider and as someone listening to voters.
“The thing that’s the most important thing to me, and what I think has made me feel so strongly about what I’m doing is actually listening to people and actually hearing from you questions about what you care about but also your point of view. To me, I hope I can get through this and get some questions, because I’m very interested in a two-way conversation with people in this room.”
Steyer has a pretty solid stump speech touching on a range of issues from gun violence to health care. It’s a little tricky for a billionaire to make the case for giving power back to the people, but he handles it with some self-deprecation. As some of my friends pointed out when I posted pictures, Steyer was also wearing a memorable multi-colored belt, and he had tweeted about it in the past. “Thanks for noticing my favorite belt! I bought it on a trip to Kenya from female artisans. I wear it as a reminder not to be so formal, and also as a symbol that the world is a better place when we educate women and girls.”
By the time Steyer left the stage, he had plenty of energy to work the crowd, but I was getting pretty loopy. It had been over three hours and I had listened to at least a dozen speeches with more to come. As the last slate of speakers was announced, I noticed that Presidential candidate and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney was not mentioned. Since there was no place to hide in this venue, it looked like he was a no-show. Though disappointed, I had to admit that I was ready to hit the road, and leaving early wasn’t going to bother me. I got in my car and started to drive off. Two out of three ain’t bad.
Suddenly, a huge bus came barreling toward me, racing like its tires were on fire. On the side I saw John Delaney’s name plastered on the side. It looked like he was going to make it after all. I turned off my GPS, pulled a U-turn and went back to the event.
Speeches continued. I made my way over to John Delaney, who was standing by himself in the back of the room and got a picture with him. He was polite if not particularly warm. It had likely been a long day for him as well. My first introduction to John Delaney had come when his campaign ran the first advertisement of the 2020 campaign during Super Bowl LII on February 4, 2018. I remember when I saw the ad, my first response was, “who?” That was quickly followed by the realization that this was going to be a very long election season.
John Delaney served three terms as a U.S. Representative from Delaware after a successful business career. His early advertising had made the case for bridging the divide between Democrats and Republicans, and he had positioned himself as a moderate running against the progressives in the party. I wondered if he might cut into other candidates as he had during the debates.
Delaney began by recognizing the recent passing of Elijah Cummings, his fellow House member and Marylander. However, that soon transitioned into a fairly generic stump speech about how everyone just needed to get along and how we needed a leader who could make that happen.
“And who is the leader that will do the most important thing that we probably need from our elected officials at this moment in time, which is to tell you the truth. Because I believe you deserve the truth, I believe you can handle the truth, and I believe for the last several decades you have not been getting the truth from so many people in Washington. Because the truth is if we want to grow our economy and grow it everywhere for everyone, we have to create the kind of environment where the private sector, the government sector and the nonprofit sector work well together.”
I don’t know. Was I not being fair to Delaney just because he wasn’t one of my top choices? Was I just tired and not giving him the same chance that I gave other candidates? That could be the case, but at the same time I noticed that the moment when his speech got interrupted for applause was when he uncharacteristically called for some type of universal health insurance. That was more the temperature of the room, but overall Delaney didn’t seem to read it well. Still, he should get some credit for exceeding the speed limit to get here for a short talk only to likely zoom back out in his bus-on-fire for another event this day.
Soon after Delaney finished speaking, the event began to wrap up. After 4+ hours, I was pretty burned out, though a call for Trump’s impeachment still garnered several whoops from the crowd. Man, this group was committed! At the very end, they called out the door prize winners, and to my great surprise I heard my name called! Not only did this mean that I was now the owner of a custom-designed and filled six-pack holder, but let the record show that Tom Steyer did not beat me in the silent auction.