The Iowa Caucus

Not quite a week’s worth of mail

Life in the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucus was still regular life. It was just life with wall-to-wall political ads on television, online, and even in the Yahtzee-knockoff app on my phone (where Tom Steyer had blanket coverage in hopes of winning the dice game demographic). We also received enough junk mail to wallpaper a room as well as regular visits from campaign volunteers, so we weren’t lonely. This all seemed like overkill to me, but I knew there were plenty of people who didn’t pay much attention to the campaigns until the eve of the Caucus, and there were no small number of undecideds, particularly with a field this large. It made sense for campaigns to come on strong in the end.

However, because life was still regular life, the night of the Caucus was a busy one for us. I was cooking dinner while Devin was having her piano lesson and Ian was taking a shower after track practice. Julie had to leave early because she was volunteering to help the Warren campaign at the Caucus site, so she was eating in the kitchen and we discovered that one of the cats had thrown up on the stairs while Nic had just gotten back into town for the Caucus and wanted to go early with Julie.  So, yeah, a lot was happening.

But eventually, I was ready to go with Devin by my side. We bundled up and headed outside. As we headed out onto the street, I realized that my neighbors’ garbage cans were lining the street, and I would have to remember to put mine out as well. Devin noted that the route we were taking to the Caucus was the same that she had walked for the first six years of her life as a student, since our Caucus site was, in fact, her old elementary school. It was a place we knew well, having had at least one child in it for 15 years straight. 

When we arrived, we could already see that parking was tight, and I was glad we had walked. At the school, there was as much happening in the lobby as on a student-teacher conference night. We got in the line heading toward the gymnasium, which was for our precinct. A parallel line headed for the cafeteria. I recognized the person behind us in the queue. Like a character from an early chapter of a novel who returns for the climax, it the owner of the local bar where I had earlier gone to see Montana Governor Steve Bullock. I found out that he was still undecided. I noted that he was running out of time to make up his mind. He agreed, but we realized he was also in the wrong line, so he left for the cafeteria.

Another returning figure from an earlier chapter was the t-shirt I had bought when I saw Colorado Senator Michael Bennett at a Raygun store in Cedar Rapids. I had finally found the perfect event to wear it to, though throughout the night a couple of people told me that another version of the shirt had been released crossing out the names of candidates who had dropped out before the Caucus. It is very difficult to keep on top of fashion trends.

The line moved slowly but steadily until we got inside the gymnasium where I had been dozens and dozens of times for music performances, talent shows, and assemblies. In fact, I immediately noticed that the chairs were set up exactly as if this was to be a 3rd grade chorus concert. We snaked our way toward the check-in tables where we were double-sided given Preference cards, which were designed to make things easier this year. I took mine, but I remained skeptical. 

And then we were in, but I knew nothing would be happening for a while. Around the gymnasium, I was surrounded by people from the neighborhood: friends, colleagues, former students and plenty of people I somehow had never seen before in my life even though we all live within walking distance of each other.

I should point out that one of the ways in which caucusing is nothing like voting is that most people were wearing stickers indicating which candidate they supported. I couldn’t help but walk around the room sizing up my neighbor’s decisions— She supports Klobuchar; that makes sense. I can’t believe he’s with Warren; I thought he was a Republican.— I’m sure people thought the same about me. 

This is probably the point at which I should spill the beans as to how our family’s support broke down. There were some twists and turns throughout the process. Nic had been an intern for Harris’s campaign before she dropped out. Julie was a strong Booker supporter, and she was sorry to see him leave the race. They both wound up in the Warren camp, as did Devin who had been leaning her way since the very first political event we attended this season. Conversely (ironically?), I had been in the Warren camp for much of the fall and winter, and then, for reasons not even clear to me, I realized I would be supporting Sanders again, as I did during the 2016 Caucus. There was no epiphany moment for me, and Warren remained my number two, but I felt I had made the right decision, even though it meant I had to gaze across the full length of the gymnasium to see the rest of my caucusing family members. We were a house divided.

How the family divided up

To capture the effect of my forlorn gaze across the room, I should explain how the gym was set up. While the center of the floor had chairs lined up and facing the stage, along the walls each campaign was given a small piece of real estate next to random gym class equipment that had been pushed up along the wall. Here’s a little tour I put together:

By this point, half an hour after the announced start time, I had run out of things and people to photograph, and I realized that all the many hours I had spent waiting for tardy candidates to show up for their events was merely training for this moment. I was in Caucus-shape. When everyone finally was checked in, the doors were closed and the Caucus was ready to begin, as the temporary chair called the event to order. He immediately and without opposition was elected permanent chair because, really, who else would want such a lousy gig for the night? Rules were announced, a letter from the state party was read and a call went out for representatives of each campaign to give a short speech on behalf of candidates.  Though I suspected this was more a measure of organization than viability, six campaigns were represented: Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren and Yang. I was grateful that the speeches were sincere and short.

I thought we were ready to caucus, but no. Now, they had to count how many people were in the room. Why wasn’t this done earlier, say, when people were checking in? Good question. I had estimated there were around 400 people in the room, though I’m not good at judging crowds. After longer than one would think was necessary, we were told that there were 361, which meant that the magic number for viability was 55.

Wait, what, you ask? What does that mean? Ah, now we get into the weeds. To get delegates in this year’s Iowa Caucus, a campaign had to have the support of at least 15% (55 people) of the total number in the room (361). Through some formula that doesn’t fully make sense, we were assigned 15 delegates to the state convention at the start of the night, and we weren’t going home until they were all assigned. If a campaign fell short of 55, it would be considered non-viable, and that candidate’s supporters would have the option of supporting another candidate during a process called realignment. Simple, see?  Just stay with me. It will become more clear as we go along.

The giant game of musical chairs

Once the magic number was announced, the dance began. Attendees were told to take their Preference cards and go to the section of the gym assigned to their chosen candidate.  We stood up out of our chairs and shuffled along the floor, dividing by our allegiances. So, even though we had our Preference cards, we weren’t supposed to fill them out yet (for reasons that will soon become clear). Organizers for each candidate began taking a count. This involved pushing everyone into a corner as close together as possible while someone stood up and tried to count the group.  The Bernie supporters were a large enough group that that wasn’t going to work, and we soon had to all raise our hands and each shout out the next number in the sequence when we were pointed at. It felt like the beginning of a gym class, which means that the setting was appropropriate at least.

Looking around the gym, it soon became clear that the viability threshold of 55 was going to be more than could be met by most campaigns, even those with organizers in the room.  Only the Sanders and Warren groups, stationed kitty corner across the gym from one another looked easily large enough, and the Biden section seemed surprisingly small. Both Yang and Klobuchar seemed short of the number needed as well. It was hard to tell if a mother with a young child standing in front of the Bennet sign was supporting him or just an adjacent Warren supporter trying to give her kid a little room to roam.

Suddenly, there was drama! The count for Buttigieg came up a handful of people short of viability. But because no one had filled out their Preference cards yet, a quick act of negotiation took place and some Klobuchar supporters agreed to cross over to Buttigieg. A cheer went up to greet the converts. Meanwhile, a woman standing next to me in the Sanders group tried to woo members of the Yang gang, who were positioned next to us in the gym. She first made note of the candidates’ shared support for Medicare For All, and then playfully offered hugs.  The Yang organizer scowled at all of this. Even if a candidate was not going to be viable, the initial number of supporters would be recorded, and organizers for three non-viable candidates, Biden, Klobuchar and Yang, were like sheepdogs trying to protect their lambs.

I may not have all the details right in the next part of this because it was pretty confusing. At some point, people were told that now they could fill out the #1 side of their Preference cards. So far, so good. Sanders-supporting parents of young children began asking if they could leave now.  Apparently not, because the initial hand count for viability had to match the number of cards. This was almost impossible to ensure, because we’d been in the gym for over an hour by this point and some people clearly began slipping away, or they just got tired of standing at some point and went back to the middle of the gym.  At one point, a woman with a bright clean Klobuchar shirt handed me a preference card from a Biden supporter and asked me to walk it over. Why me? Why was the card not handed in earlier? I don’t know. Still wearing my Bernie sticker, I walked the card over, doing my part for party unity.

Eventually, the cards got turned in for the official count, and I finally saw the logic of the Preference cards. In the past, even after the first alignment count, people could flip candidates. Now, if your candidate was viable, your written down first preference was official and could not be changed. It also meant that if you were paying for a babysitter and your candidate was viable, you could go home. Plenty of people did as we all milled around waiting for the count. People broke out of their preference groups and began chatting again. I found myself standing with a Political Science professor as we teamed up to try and explain the impending realignment process to a journalist from the Netherlands. We did what we could. Meanwhile, people were getting texts from their friends in the adjacent precinct a room away in the cafeteria. They’d already finished up for the night and awarded their delegates (Sanders 5, Warren 4, Buttigieg 3, Klobuchar 3). It felt like we were in the class that got into trouble and had to stay after school.

Finally, the official first round count was announced.  This was the initial tally of supporters (we weren’t even close to assigning delegates yet) from our precinct: 

Sanders 141
Warren 75
Buttigieg 58
Biden 24
Yang 23
Klobuchar 22
Steyer 4
Uncommitted 3
Gabbard 2
Bennet 0
Bloomberg 0
Patrick 0

Only three candidates had reached the viability threshold (Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg), which meant that they would be the only candidates getting delegates from our precinct tonight. But, that didn’t mean we were done. It just meant it was time for realignment, and the fun was just starting.

For the next 15 minutes, supporters of non-viable candidates could choose to support someone else. Meanwhile, other people began putting away chairs as if the 3rd grade chorus concert was over. As organizers zipped around the gym, I heard a rumor that now-released Biden, Yang and Klobuchar supporters were going to try to join forces and create an Uncommitted group that could be viable, and, if it worked, that they apparently would arm wrestle over who got which delegates later. This was a terrible idea but not an impossible one. If you added up all the round one supporters of those candidates, that came to 69, which would have been enough to reach viability.  However, these weren’t sports teams with uniforms and managers. They were caucus goers that would have to be persuaded rather than ordered. 

Nevertheless, the Uncommitted group made a run at it, while a chant of “make your vote count!” went up to discourage them. In the end, only about 25 people initially joined this action, and when it became clear that it wasn’t going to fly, people began drifting away. My sense was that the Yang and Klobuchar supporters realigned elsewhere, while the Biden supporters were going to take their ball and go home.

Toward the end of realignment, I went back over to the Sanders section and sat next to a friend who started with Klobuchar, came over to Bernie briefly when Klobuchar didn’t appear viable but stuck with Amy through the first count. Then she joined the Uncommitted group as part of that attempt. When it failed, she came back over to Bernie, but mainly she just wanted to sit down by that point.

Now, people who had realigned themselves were able to sign the #2 side of their Preference card, and they could go home as well. I saw the wisdom of this model, as it locked in support without making people wait around through all the counting. However, it also meant that most people went home without knowing the results. All that remained were the organizers (one of whom I was worried about because she hadn’t eaten dinner and was clearly low blood sugar) and “there until the bitter end” folks like me who were going to stick around for the results. 

There until the end

As the realignment card count took place, the tone of the event changed.  The gym had largely emptied out. No one needed to stay with their candidate group any longer.  The time for political allegiances has passed. Now we were just shooting the breeze. The reporter from the Netherlands has been told about every Dutch person living in Cedar Falls. We shared stories of caucuses past. We caught up with neighbors and friends. We talked about our childhoods.

Somehow I failed to record the vote tallies from the second round. I guess maybe I was a little low blood sugar as well. But when the numbers were official, the calculator apps came out and people crowded around a table at the front of the stage to work out the delegate counts. There was some confusion as the coordinator said he couldn’t get the app to work on his phone to report the delegates but he had someone from the state party on speakerphone and they were trying to figure things out (clever readers among you will recognize the foreshadowing in that last sentence).  There was notable tension in the air as it all came down to how the 15 delegates were to be awarded. Similar math was happening or had already happened in every precinct in the state.

When they had finally figured it out and all the organizers agreed with the chair that the rules were being followed correctly, the final results were announced: Sanders 7, Warren 4, Buttigieg 4. It was a good night for Sanders. He held the precinct he had won in 2016 as well. Biden’s lack of viability was somewhat unexpected. But the real surprise was that after just barely hitting the initial threshold, Buttigieg had tied Warren with four delegates each. Through some combination of realignment from the Biden and Klobuchar camps and rounding up, Buttigieg did better in our precinct than I would have expected. 

You’d never guess we’d been here 2 1/2 hours

But don’t leave yet. The organizers went into sheepdog mode and rounded up all the stragglers so that we could officially vote for the delegates and alternates to the county convention where they would vote for delegates to the state convention where they would vote for delegates to the national convention.  We cast our lots again, this time with a small group of hand raisers and unanimous votes. By this point, Julie and Devin had already gone home. Nic and I stuck it out, and I got to take a picture of us in the elementary school gym he had run around in as a little kid. But when they announced to the shrivelled crowd that they would now begin accepting resolutions, even we had had it.  We bundled back up, walked home, and you’ll be glad to know that I remembered to put the garbage can out.

That’s where things were supposed to end, but as you now know, they didn’t. Problems with the vote reporting app were compounded by the failure of the back-up phone reporting system (a secondary failure which was partially due to pro-Trump internet trolls clogging up the phone lines). We stayed up watching and waiting, but there were no results that night. There were no results the next day. And when there were final results, people still had questions about them

What does this all mean? Well, the cliche has always been that there were “three tickets out of Iowa,” and it was less about who won then about narrowing the field. But no one dropped out before the New Hampshire primary. Even though the results could be claimed as a victory by Buttigieg (most delegates) and Sanders (most votes), the results seemed unsettled enough that all candidates were able to spin them. The perennial complaints about the Iowa Caucuses gained traction, and as I write it is by no means impossible that this was the last Caucus. 

In the aftermath of Caucus Night, “Iowa” became a term of derision in the national media, and terms like “chaotic” “meltdown” and “disaster” were tossed around freely. I found myself wondering if that was what it was like to be a Floridian during the “hanging chad” and “butterfly ballot” controversies of the 2000 Presidential election. As I followed my Iowan friends on social media, I noticed that we all got our hackles up a bit. It’s hard to find anyone here who doesn’t think the caucus process is kind of weird, and in this blog I’ve noted some inherent problems in the system.  However, lost in all the hubbub is the fact that a couple of the changes in the system—the Preference cards, and locking in first round support for viable candidates—were big improvements and ensured that there was a reliable record of the vote in a way that didn’t exist before. Sure, the caucus system is screwy, but it makes way more sense than the Electoral College. 

But all that will likely be lost in the shuffle about the malfunctioning app, and it remains to be seen if that app will be the straw that breaks the Caucus’s back. As I write, there is good reason to wonder if this will, in fact, be the Last Caucus in Iowa. If so, I’m glad I had a chance to participate and have this unique experience. As quirky as it was, I took it seriously, as did many of my friends and neighbors.  Of course, that’s not to say a different state, a state with a more diverse population, couldn’t do the same. Iowa Caucus, glad to have known you. If you come back, I’ll be there to greet you.

But let me end by addressing you, my ideal reader who has read to the end of this long blog post. I want to let you know that it doesn’t end here. I will be developing this blog into a book to be published in the summer of 2020 by Ice Cube Press. I’ve got a lot more to say, and hopefully by the time the book comes out, we will know who won the nomination.  Thanks to all of you who have followed me this far. Contact me if you’d like to find out more as the book nears publication.  

21: Andrew Yang

So, unless “Mike” Bloomberg decides to cut out the middleman and start handing out $100 bills to Iowa voters, this post on Andrew Yang may mark the official end of what I set out to do with the 20+ Candidates blog.  But I’ll see what happens over the next month, and I will post about my experience with the Iowa Caucus, so the end isn’t really the end. 

I finally got to see Andrew Yang when his campaign held an event at the Cedar Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, where I’m a member. Though the campaign was just renting the space, it is a location where I had heard plenty of sermons over the years, so I was ready for Yang to preach. It was an appropriately surreal final destination on my candidate tour, happening in the town where I live and in a familiar location that had been repurposed for a campaign. In fact, when I arrived, I immediately saw some familiar UUs who were either helping to stage the event or were in the audience. 

Preach, Andrew, Preach!

It was also appropriate that I ended up sitting next to someone who was attending her first campaign event. As we sat around, waiting for Andrew Yang to arrive, we had plenty of time to chat. The person next to me was a mother with young children who had to get someone to watch the kids so that she could get away for an hour. When she asked me if I had been to many campaign events already, I had to hesitate. That fact that my kids are older and my job has more flexibility than most is what has allowed me to attend as many events as I have. Not everyone is able to do so, and flexibility is even more of an issue when it comes to attending the caucus, which was never designed for the important political role it has come to play. So, yes, I’ve seen a number of them, I meekly told her.

“Is it normal that they start this late?” she very reasonably asked.

Wow, yes, is it ever. 

Evelyn Wu

However, all events must begin eventually, and so, too, did this one. This was officially a “Moms for Yang” gathering, so I was not surprised to see that Andrew Yang was here with his wife, Evelyn Yu, and that she was introduced first. Yu had formerly worked in marketing, and she was notably “on brand” while delivering more than just a “my husband is a nice guy” speech. She mentioned Yang’s signature policy, the “freedom dividend,” which is a form of universal basic income that would ensure Americans each received a monthly $1000 payment to do with what they will. Often, the “freedom dividend” is promoted as both a safety net and as a prime-the-pump kind of incentive that will increase economic activity. However, Yu celebrated it as a formal recognition for the work of unpaid caregivers, such as mothers.

When Andrew Yang joined her at the front of the room, he made a point of acknowledging her efforts as the primary caregiver for their children, including a son with autism, whose special needs require a great detail of attention and patience. He spoke in very personal terms about how unprepared they felt for the demands of responsibility that were thrust upon them.

Yang is difficult to pigeonhole. He’s a businessman who has not previously held elective office, but he’s not running as an anti-government candidate. In fact, he supports progressive programs like paid family leave, though arguing that this big public expenditure would be good for business in the end. His hard-to-categorize quality came out when he was discussing health care. He is a supporter of Medicare for All, the single-payer alternative/expansion to Obamacare. However, he favors a slower rollout than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and he argues that because M4A would be cheaper and more portable than existing employer-based plans, no one would need to be compelled to join. It could be run parallel to the current system, which would wither away over time in the face of an economically more feasible alternative. He made it all sound pretty easy.

Andrew Yang enjoying what he’s doing

It’s worth noting that Andrew Yang was having a great time. He was comfortable in front of a crowd and seemed to enjoy the attention from a group of well wishers who would laugh at his jokes. My favorite was when he noted that each Iowan was worth 10 Califorians, politically speaking. He didn’t speak for long, but when he opened up to the crowd for questions, things got really interesting. It must have been because both he and his wife spoke about the challenges of raising a special needs child in very personal ways. Or maybe it was just the type of people who were drawn to Yang’s candidacy. Either way, people soon began volunteering heartbreaking stories of struggling with mental illness, whether their own or that of a family member. Accounts of the turmoil, both personal and financial, diseases like schizophrenia could bring about quickly came to dominate the discussion.

Yang’s response was surprising to me. On the one hand, he’s an emotionally intelligent guy, and he ended up giving a lot of hugs to people who spoke while clearly feeling for their situations. But, on the other hand, he was more than willing to go off script and riff about something he read regarding the hit-or-miss nature of anti-schizophrenia drugs. While his wife, Evelyn, made sure to stay on message, it didn’t take much to get Yang to meander way off topic. However, eventually he would reel himself back in, noting, for example, that one of the good things about the freedom dividend is that it was not income dependent, which made a difference for any family that was only one tragedy away from having everything come undone. 

The quirkiest moment of the day was when a veteran in the audience chimed in to argue that when he returned home after a deployment and struggled, it was easy to be prescribed antipsychotic drugs that didn’t work. However, on his own, what he found did work was psilocybin mushrooms, and he argued it was wrong that such drugs were considered beyond the pale for used by the VA. Yang was up for this discussion. His policy on marijuana is basically libertarian/legalization, and he was happy to come out as pro-’shrooms as well. Somehow the conversation devolved to a thought experiment about what would happen if the VA did a study involving shamans prescribing mushrooms. Where were we again?

Anyway, I should also note the wonkish moments in the event. Yang has a lot of specific, out-of-the-box policies he supports and details in his speeches. Though the U.S. has never had a value added tax, which is common in Europe, he supported it as a way of capturing revenue which is otherwise too easy for large companies like Amazon (which paid no U.S. federal income taxes in 2018) to avoid. 

Yang is also down on robots. Well, specifically, he is worried that advances in artificial intelligence are likely to eliminate large categories of work in the future. While, historically, it’s been a sucker’s bet to say that new technology will eliminate jobs altogether, there’s no doubt that technological disruptions can have huge impacts on individuals and if, for example, self-driving vehicles led to the elimination of truck driving as an occupation, that would wipe out the single largest category of male employment in the country. Already retail sales jobs, the single largest category of female employment in the country, have suffered under the onslaught of e-retailers like Amazon. Yang noted that he hasn’t spoken to anyone involved in AI research who is not concerned about future implications, and, for Yang, this is yet another reason why a universal basic income program is needed. 

And Andrew Yang makes 21!

Though the woman sitting right next to me needed to dash out before the speech was over to get back and relieve her babysitter, I was able to stick around and get one more candidate picture. It may be my last one of this cycle, so you’d think I’d have a more natural smile by this point. It’s a good thing I’m not the one running for office. 

18, 19, 20: Marianne Williamson, Tom Steyer, John Delaney

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.

Be afraid.

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.

Questions about the belt? Keep reading.

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. 

As the day went on, my ability to smile declined.

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.

Victory is mine!

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.

17: Joe Biden

When I saw that former Vice President Joe Biden was having a town hall event at a nature center in Cedar Rapids, I paused. I’m all for nature centers, but they tend to be, well, in nature, and therefore not that close to people who vote. So, I was not surprised when I drove down to Cedar Rapids and GPS led me far out of downtown into the outskirts of the city where I had never been before. It was a pretty ride along the river, and I saw a cluster of wild turkeys and a gorgeously collapsed barn along the way. But, still, this place was far enough out of the city that I had trouble getting a reliable phone signal. Was this a good idea for a campaign event?

What you see on the way to a Joe Biden event

When I arrived at the Indian Creek Nature Center, cars were already sprawled out along the narrow country road in front of the center. It was a warm day, and chairs had been set up outside the center on an outdoor patio. The scene was pretty, but did I mention that it was warm? The Biden campaign handout doubled as fans for many in the audience, and people felt no shame in using umbrellas as parasols to ward off the sun.

Two other things stood out about the event. The crowd was notably older, which could have spoken to Biden’s support or the fact that this was a midday event, or that you had to know the area pretty well to find this place. I estimated that over 200 people were there, a respectable if not exceptional turnout, but there must have been 100 media folks covering the event as well. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the front runner.

Biden entered the race late and at the top of the polls. He had not been working Iowa as hard as some other candidates, and I had been unable to attend the one event he had had in Waterloo, next to where I live. Biden also had skipped a number of the cattle call-type events (though he was slated to participate in a sold-out LGBTQ forum later that day), so there hadn’t been as many opportunities to see him, which accounts for his being down the list at number 17 of the candidates I’ve seen.

Having initially put the wrong address into my phone (which led me to a remote gravel parking lot), I got to the event too late to get a chair, but that also meant I didn’t have to wait too long for things to begin. The MC was state Rep. Rob Hoag who I’d already seen at least twice before at other candidate events, and he explained why the event was being held here. It was the day of the Global Climate Strike, which I knew, but I hadn’t made the connection with this location (duh!). The Indian Creek Nature Center structure met the “Living Building Challenge,” which is so super-environmental I’m pretty sure it uses sunshine to generate both power and happiness. 

This was my first time seeing Joe Biden in person, though it is hard to remember a time when I didn’t know who he was. He looked…like Joe Biden. In fact, with his mirrored sunglasses and open collared shirt, he seemed to be channelling the Joe Biden of the Onion or of Hope Never Dies. It was a good look. As with a number of other candidates I’ve seen, including Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Joe Sestak, I was struck that someone who seems trim on television is actually rail thin in person. It’s one of those weird TV things. Of course, this date was also right at the beginning of the revelations of Ukraine-gate or whatever this scandal will eventually be termed, so that loomed larger in the moment, and I wondered if Joe Biden would address it during his remarks, but, no, he stayed right on message, focusing on environmental issues for almost all of his speech.

Biden didn’t mince words. Climate change is “the single most important issue” we are facing today, and it is hard to imagine anyone less well equipped to deal with it than Donald Trump. He said of Trump that “everything he has done as President has made things worse.” Biden listed rejoining the Paris Climate Accords as something he would do on Day One, and he pledged to convene an international climate summit within the first one hundred days of a Biden administration.

It was notable that Biden had a lot of details on his fingertips. Shoutouts during the speech included farming and carbon sequestration as well as electric cars and public charging stations, and he had been well prepped for this particular appearance. He was able to reference a lot of environmental legislation that he had previously supported, and he knew specific details about the Cedar River flood that had engulfed much of downtown Cedar Rapids in 2008 (the river crested at over 31 feet, which was ten feet higher than the previous record). 

He argued that making progress would require an ability to work across party lines. “You can’t leave out entire sectors of society and expect that we’re going to get things done. You gotta know how to negotiate. You gotta know how to bring people together, generate consensus… That’s something I’ve spent my whole life doing. And I know everybody says ‘well, you know you can’t cooperate anymore.’ Well, if we can’t cooperate anymore, get ready– get your flippers out and, you know, your wetsuit, because we’d better be able to cooperate.”  It was a laugh line, but one that provoked nervous laughter.

The stump speech part of the event wasn’t too long, but Biden was happy to spend a lot of time answering questions. That doesn’t mean he answered a lot of questions, just that he spent a lot of time answering them. Biden has a reputation for being somewhat long winded, and whenever an explanation evolved into a discussion of his early political career and the DelMaVa peninsula, I knew we were heading down a rabbit hole. But I will say that even when his response seemed to go off in an unexpected direction, he got around to answering the questions asked in the end.

And then apple pies began falling from the sky.

At one point, people got distracted and began looking up into the sky. There was a bald eagle doing a flyover of the event, and someone interrupted to make sure the former Vice President noticed. That was a moment that no campaign could pay for. If there was a low point in the event, it was when the answer to an environmental questions inexplicably veered into a defense of Obamacare. When he began going after Medicare For All proposals and defending private insurance plans, he got pushback from a woman in the audience (whom he dismissed as an Elizabeth Warren supporter). His critique of Medicare For All was later criticized as “bungled” in the Washington Post. Biden was much more effective when keeping his fire focused on Trump.

By the end of the event, I began to worry that people would start passing out from the heat. I made a halfhearted effort to join the scrum for selfies, but it was hard to make any progress in the crowd, and I’ve never seen such media interest in the aftermath of the speech. Two different boom mics were in place to catch any stray bit of conversation that could be deemed newsworthy. 

Looking back, this event would have to have been considered a nice, if hot, oasis in Joe Biden’s day. Though it began with news about Ukraine, he didn’t have to talk about any of that here. Later the same day, he attended an LGBTQ forum and had a tense exchange with the moderator about his record and past statements. I have to think his afternoon at the Indian Creek Nature Center was the nicest part of this trip to Iowa.

16: Michael Bennet

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet

It was a beautiful late summer day in Iowa, and to get to an event in Cedar Rapids with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet I had to skip by all the food offerings at the NewBo City Market, ignore the art fair that had taken over the street, and bypass a busker who was playing Stevie Wonder-inspired harmonica. Missing the harmonica player hurt, but I was a man with a mission, even if my mission was arriving just in time for a town hall event with a presidential candidate.

This was the first event I had attended in a boutique, though Raygun is not a typical clothing store. Over the last decade it has become an iconic Iowa brand known for funny and snarky t-shirts that embrace all things Midwest (well, at least the good things: looking at you, Steve King). Still, it didn’t seem like the kind of location suited to host a candidate.  Would we have to move mannequins to sit down?

Once I got inside the store, I joined a cluster of people milling around the merchandise, and I discovered that Raygun was all in with the whole caucus process. The prime display spot in the store was dedicated to merchandise on the caucus and the candidates from t-shirts and pins to campaign biographies. And, in a touch that Raygun has become known for, some of the humor was hyperlocal. Exhibit 1 below shows what I mean. If you live in Iowa, this is a very funny shirt. However, if you are an out of stater, this t-shirt probably makes as much sense as reading a 12-year-old’s Snapchat feed. Huh? Pizza Ranch? What? But don’t worry, I am here to help. I can dissect the joke to the point where it will both make sense and no longer be funny, but it will take me a few paragraphs:

Exhibit 1, in which an explained joke becomes no longer funny
  1. So, Raygun was run on a shoestring out of Des Moines for a number of years, but from those humble origins, it has become a reliable sign of midwestern millennial hipsterism and new urbanism developments. They now have a handful of stores scattered throughout the Midwest, including here in the post-2012-flood-revitalized New Bohemian section of Cedar Rapids.  
  2. Raygun has always worn its progressive politics on its sleeve (though this is perhaps a poor metaphor for an operation that is centered around short sleeve t-shirts). Alongside slogans celebrating all things Iowa, like “Iowa: 75% vowels, 100% awesome,” you can find t-shirts that say “America! The news is real. The tan is fake.”
  3. When you think of pizza, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Cowboys, right? No, well, then you can see part of the issue with Pizza Ranch. Now, I admittedly bring my bias into the description that follows, since I grew up in an area with a large Italian population and plenty of good Italian food. The Pizza Ranch restaurant chain is based on the idea that people who don’t really know what pizza is supposed to taste like will be satisfied with what they get served, which is doughy, cheesy and with an over-sugared sauce. Pizza Ranch was not designed to survive in a competitive marketplace with real pizzerias. Instead, it has carved out a niche in small, midwestern communities where regulars might not know to question pizza offerings like Texan Taco and Sagebrush.
  4. But, the reason Pizza Ranch matters is that because the chain tends to be omnipresent in small towns (and has prominent Republican ownership), it often serves as a convenient location for GOP presidential candidates looking to hold meet-and-greets in conservative strongholds. Mike Huckabee credited his “Pizza Ranch strategy” with his victory in the 2008 Iowa Caucus. The Pizza Ranch circuit is a real thing in GOP circles.
  5. So, when Raygun opened up its stores to many of the candidates from this cycle’s Democratic race, they were essentially trying to reverse engineer the concept to create the Pizza Ranch circuit for progressives.

See, I told you I could explain the joke to the point where it would no longer be funny, and it only took me five paragraphs.

Flashback time

Anyway, back to the event. Finally, after milling around the store for a while, I realized that there was a second floor. I made my way upstairs and saw that the town hall was going to happen in a large back room that looked as if it doubled as a t-shirt storage and staging area. Chairs had been set up in front of t-shirt cubbies in an section where I imagine freshly snarky lettering would be drying when there weren’t any candidates in town.  The senator would be speaking in front of a bunch of blue and white “Bennet for America” signs which reminded me of the gym uniform I had to wear back in the day when I attended Bennet Jr. High (no relation). When I posted this observation, it provoked friends to share a series of painful adolescent memories of polyester shorts and communal showers. 

It didn’t take long for Senator Bennet to arrive. He was dressed down for the occasion in jeans and an open collar shirt, and his introduction was no fuss as well. When Bennet began speaking he started off with a story about how his father worked for the State Department, and he was born in New Delhi. Normally, that anecdote only came up when he was eating at Indian restaurants, but this was the week when the Trump administration announced it would no longer grant automatic citizenship to children of U.S. government personnel working abroad. By the time you are reading this, I’m sure a more recent outrage has supplanted that one.

Before being appointed to fill as seat as a U. S. Senator from Colorado, Bennet had been a school superintendent in Denver. Some of this education background came through in his speech, which went through a lot more American history than most. He spoke of the role of compromise within the vision of the Founding Fathers, and he discussed the Progressive Era as a model for how to confront wealth inequity. He also returned frequently to his past as a superintendent when talking about issues ranging from health care to incarceration. “Our lack of investment in the future is unconscionable,” he said at one point.  I also realized that if you listen closely to the video I shot, you can hear the harmonica player outside the store.

Bennet is one of the moderates running for the nomination. He has been vocal in his opposition to Medicare for All, calling instead for a public option within Obamacare, which he argued would do more for underfunded rural hospitals that are currently undercompensated by Medicare. That seemed a little too clever by half. It’s unlikely that a Medicare for All system wouldn’t revisit and improve the situation for rural hospitals, so this seemed a cheap shot to me.

There also were a few convoluted and even contradictory claims made by Bennet. On the one hand, he argued “you can’t call yourself a progressive if you can’t make progress,” and he said an ability to reach across the aisle and compromise was essential. However, he also said that Mitch McConnell and the Tea Party cannot be compromised with; they have to be defeated at the ballot box. This raises a question. If you take Mitch McConnell and the Tea Party out of the Senate, who would be left? Susan Collins?  In fact, while Trump got his fair share of lumps in the speech, Bennet’s most impassioned condemnations were directed toward Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he called out almost a dozen times.

In the Q&A, when asked by a woman in the audience about his policy on gun control, Bennet initially tried to discuss some of the challenges to immediate action, and his answer drifted into a call for increased mental health funding. This got him a dressing down from the questioner who reminded him that other countries have equivalent issues surrounding mental health but none have the problem with mass shootings that the U. S. does. “It’s about the guns,” the woman said passionately. Bennet did not disagree, and he made a point of noting his support for universal background checks.

Toward the end, I was able to ask a question. I asked what a President Bennet would do on day one. I’ve found it helpful to draw distinctions between the candidates (who agree on 80-85% of most issues) on the basis of what they think has to be tackled first. This question helps to get to the priorities a candidate has in the midst of the policy smorgasbord of a stump speech. Bennet replied that on day one he would reverse the Trump tax cuts, immediately tackle climate change, and then he cheated and listed about ten other things. No doubt it would be a busy first day.

In the end, though I didn’t agree with Bennet on everything, he seemed knowledgeable and affable. It was nice to hear a candidate who placed educational issues toward the center of his vision, and I didn’t have to wait in a long line afterward to get my picture taken with him. When the event was over, I drifted back downstairs and spent a little time browsing. I ended up buying a t-shirt, and this was one I felt I had earned, now having seen 16 candidates to date.

15: Joe Sestak

So, here is the world we live in right now. When you saw the name “Joe Sestak,” you likely said to yourself, “who?” Sestak is a retired three-star Admiral and a former two-term U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania. But, you are not alone in not knowing that. I had to look that information up on Wikipedia. Now, maybe some of this is Joe Sestak’s fault. He entered the race late, and he has a history of pissing off party officials (more on that later), so perhaps he isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt. But Joe Sestak is running for President and is as qualified, if not more qualified, than many others in the race. That said, he has never cracked the top 20 to make the debate stage, and he is unlikely to meet stricter requirements for future debates.  Yet, still, he runs.

Marie Kondo, forgive us.

Joe Sestak was scheduled to appear at a meeting of our county’s Democratic central committee. A  warm, late-August Sunday night would seem about the worst time to get people together to see a candidate, so I wondered what the turnout would be like. The party headquarters is just what you’d expect: a repurposed downtown building littered with candidate information and folding chairs. Campaign posters are randomly taped to the wall with the apparent purpose of sending Marie Kondo into a seizure. On a good day, someone brings cookies. If you’re a risk taker, you can get a cup of coffee from an urn. This is a place where people do work that has to be done, and it ain’t pretty.

This was also probably the only place where fifty dedicated politicos and activists (along with the organizers from every Presidential campaign with a local presence) could be found on a Sunday night. And there they were, usual suspects I had seen at many other events, the same people who can be counted on to come out to fundraisers, protests, and issue-related events. These were people you want on your side.

As a Presidential candidate, Joe Sestak got to jump the queue and address the crowd at the beginning of the meeting. He was casually dressed so as not to stand out in the come-as-you-are state, and I noticed that like several other candidates (Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren), he was rail thin, which apparently works for you on television.

Some non-award winning camera work

When Sestak was introduced, he hopped right up and began pacing the front of the room delivering his stump speech. I often try to post live video of part of a candidate’s talk, and usually that’s no big deal. But this time, I was sitting in the front row, and it seemed rude to stare at my phone when the candidate was standing directly in front of me. I tried to be polite and watch the candidate rather than my phone, which resulted in some lesser quality footage.

Sestak began with personal detail, speaking of his daughter’s battle with brain cancer. She had a rare form of cancer with a low chance of survival, but she did survive. Sestak acknowledged that experience, both the quality of the medical care she received and the challenges the family faced in making sure she received it, as driving his entry into politics. He spoke about running and winning his House seat in a majority Republican district. While he supported a leadership-by-consensus model, opposing “a President who can only do executive orders,” his policy proposals were more progressive than those from many candidates seeking some kind of middle ground. He also mentioned bucking the establishment to mount a primary challenge in 2010 to the Republican-turned-Democratic Senator Arlen Spector. Sestak described Spector as “the individual who had been permitted to try to humiliate Anita Hill.” Sestak won that primary but lost in the general election to Republican Pat Toomey, who still holds that seat.

On day one of a Sestak presidency, he said he would close the gun show loophole, and he noted his past support of the assault weapons ban. He also supported a path to Medicare For All, but one that allowed for a slow process rather than a rapid transition. Overall, he demonstrated an impressive grasp of details, and he needed to because when he opened up the floor to questions, it was like a Presidential speed dating event. This audience knew issues and had likely seen more Presidential candidates than they could remember. They were not messing around. Gun control! Health care! Police brutality! Education! Answer fast!  You’ve only got three minutes! 

Sestak celebrated his experience in the Navy as a model for what could happen with different leadership in this country. His most animated anecdotes were drawn directly from his military experience, as when he discussed confronting racist graffiti within his ranks. The one disappointing thing was that, unlike Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard, the other veterans in the race, Sestak never spoke about defense spending. That is unfortunate because veterans have a unique ability to raise questions about the military-industrial complex. At a time when the deficit is exploding due to the Trump tax cuts, 54% of all federal discretionary spending goes to the military. Both Buttigieg and Gabbard were able to trumpet their military experience while arguing for reforms in defense spending, but Sestak didn’t go there, and that was a missed opportunity.

Who knows? Maybe if he had had more time, that issue would have come up, and he was an engaging speaker and thinker, so I would have been glad to hear more. But this was an atypical type of event, and Sestak was just the opening act. Normally, I would have tried to get a picture with a candidate, but after he answered a few questions, there was still a meeting that had to happen. Sestak shouted out his email address and made his way out the door. The meeting came to order, and we got down to business.

14: Tulsi Gabbard

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was slated to participate in a “climate conversation” in Cedar Rapids on a day that had featured both scorching sun and torrential rain. Now, I know that weather is not the same thing as climate, but since this was to be an outdoor event, I wasn’t sure what would be in store.

My experience in Iowa with Rep. Gabbard to date had been limited to seeing a “Tulsi 2020” billboard in the most oddly placed location I could imagine, on a state highway through Dyersville, a town of 4,000 best known as the site where Field of Dreams was filmed. Wait—I should be more precise. The billboard is actually on the outskirts of Dyersville, where I’m sure upwards of a dozen people regularly see it.

And I was a little befuddled when the climate conversation was scheduled for 6 p.m., an odd time for an event, and one which likely meant I would have to drive and then catch a late dinner. So, I went in with a series of concerns, but all of them turned out to be unfounded. The weather had turned more comfortable, and the site turned out to be next to a Veterans Memorial Park in an area that I was familiar with, having been there for one of my daughter’s track meets earlier this Spring. In fact, it was a unique location where a 360 degree view would also show an ice arena, grain silos, and a row of suburban houses.

A non-voter in attendance

However, best of all, it was a potluck! Here I was worried I was going to get hangry (not a typo, but that hungry/angry combination known to parents of all toddlers), but the good folks of Cedar Rapids brought a range of vegan-friendly salads, big trays of fried chicken, and a big jug of lemonade.  All was good. I dug in and settled down at a shaded picnic table. By definition, outdoor events are more casual. People bring lawn chairs and pets, and it is understood that it is okay to chat up random strangers, particularly if you want to talk about the weather, which I was glad to do.

The crowd was modest in size, I guessed around 50, and it seemed a group of usual suspects, local politicos and activists who seemed to know one another, as well as members of the local Veterans for Peace chapter. A number of the attendees had also gone to a candidate forum earlier in the day sponsored by AARP. 

Tulsi Gabbard and state senator Rob Hogg

This event may or may not have started on time (having been fed, this seemed a less important issue), but once Rep. Gabbard’s car made its way into the parking lot, things got under way quickly. She was introduced by a local state senator, Rob Hogg, who has published a book on climate change and is holding a series of these climate conversations with candidates. Standing next to an American flag rippling in the breeze, Gabbard began speaking about her concerns that climate change has become a divisive issue, and she detailed how her upbringing in Hawaii (her sister was also in attendance) helped to make her an environmentalist.  

She was concerned that the U.S. has lost its role as a leader in environmental initiatives, particularly regarding climate change. “Let’s talk about how we can collectively take action to address this global crisis because that is what will be required. Yes, reentering the Paris Accords is an important first step, but even those who were signatories then knew and recognized that it wasn’t nearly enough. It wasn’t nearly enough to meet the kinds of targets and the kind of timeline that we need to see in order to stop this threat in its tracks.”

Gabbard’s main environmental initiative is the Off-Fossil Fuel Act, a measure which, if enacted, would put the country on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2035 (for the record, I drove an electric car to the event!). It is one of the most ambitious resource-related bills introduced, though it has many hurdles to climb before becoming reality. 

Though Gabbard spoke a bit about her environmental policies, she spent at least as much time talking about her background as a combat veteran, and it was clear that that experience has shaped her view of government. Along with Pete Buttigieg (one of the other vets in the race) she lamented wasteful military spending, noting at one point that we spend $4 billion a month in Afghanistan but only $3 billion a year for major infrastructure needs.

I was particularly struck by that statistic and posted it out to my Facebook friends. The Facebook robots somehow interpreted that as my attempt to sell a “month” for $4 and turned my post into a classified ad. I wasn’t so much offended by Facebook’s misinterpretation of my post as by their lowballing the cost of a month at $4, only $3,999,999,996 off my asking price. The month remains available for purchase.

Back at the event, Gabbard was eager to discuss the losses of both people and money during the extended wars in Irag and Afghanistan, even when her criticisms of the military-industrial complex led her astray from the topic at hand (though this also got one of the guys in the audience to shout out, “Thanks for talking about Dick Cheney’s Halliburton!”).

When we moved into the Q&A part of the event, my suspicion that this was a crowd of usual suspects was confirmed. Three people initially raised their hands with questions, and moderator Rob Hogg knew each of them by name. When asked, Gabbard made it clear that on day one of her administration she would end family separation on the southern border, a position that won her an eager round of applause. A question on the environmental impact of wars on native populations led her down a rabbit hole, however. Rather than discussing war and/or climate related migration she extensively described the impact of toxic burn pits on soldiers. It’s not that this issue isn’t important, but it was only tangentially related to the question asked.

But that off moment aside, she had a strong stump speech, showing herself to be knowledgable and engaging. She also was willing to stick around for pictures. I worked my way through the crowd and discovered that Tulsi Gabbard was surprisingly tall when she loomed over me as my picture was taken with her. All in all, this was a pretty well organized and efficient event. We were in and out in an hour, with plenty of time to enjoy a pleasant night, climate change notwithstanding.