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 both 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 engineering 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 inacted, 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.

13: Kamala Harris

Three events in one day! That’s a lot to attend. Of course, many of the candidates had done the same, only they spoke at the events. I just had to show up and clap, and that I could do, so I was all in to see California Senator Kamala Harris speak at the Union Missionary Baptist Church in Waterloo. In fact, I had the whole family and some friends with me for this one.

Since I started this project, my son, Nic, has started working as an intern for the Harris campaign. In fact, I feel I should give her campaign a special shoutout for walking the talk and paying their interns. There are all kinds of reasons why this is a good development, and at the top of the list is the fact that Nic is now gainfully employed for the summer.

Of course, that creates kind of a weird situation in which I am now writing about an event and campaign that a member of my family is now involved in. So, let me say that that will have no effect on what I write other than to give my son personal credit for everything that went right at the event. For example, though this Town Hall discussion was on a Sunday night, not a time when one would expect great attendance, over 200 people showed up, and the event was unique in that it started almost exactly on time. All of this was clearly due to my son. See, no conflict of interest.

A full house

This continues: it was a packed house and an upbeat crowd, one of the more diverse audiences I’ve seen at a campaign event, and there was a great playlist streaming on the audio system. I noted that the event started on time, which is true, but there was a long wind up that made this possible, with a local speaker followed by five minutes of music, then another speaker and another five minutes of music. However, just when I began to despair that they were just stalling for time and the Senator was still in Cedar Rapids, she appeared on the stage.

Kamala Harris got a warm welcome, and she thanked everyone for coming out and introduced her husband, Doug Emhoff, who was in attendance. Harris is a polished speaker, and her stump speech was interesting in that she rarely addressed Trump directly, but she talked a lot about Trumpism, the beliefs and policies associated with the current administration. She was concerned with both Trumpism’s causes and its impacts. This seemed a savvy way to advance her case without wasting her time persuading a crowd of people of something they already believe.

“This is an inflection moment in the history of our country. This is a moment in time that is requiring us each as individuals, and collectively, to look in the mirror and ask a question, that question being, ‘who are we?’ And I think what we all know is that part of the answer to that question is ‘we are better than this.’”

The speech ranged from inspirational calls to policy details. In rolling out actions that a President Harris would take in her first 100 days (on gun policy and wage discrimination, in particular), she was able both to delve into specific issues and chart out a political path forward. She covered a lot of ground.

In the Q&A, I got to watch Nic run around in the crowd with a microphone. I took several pictures of his back, which are too bad to share here. Harris’s background as a lawyer and prosecutor clearly came to the forefront during this part of the event. When asked about marijuana legalization, she said she supported it in principle but had a series of caveats about the impact on young brains and concerning how to measure impairment of drivers. When asked to sign on to the National Breast Cancer Coalition platform, she was able to speak about the work her mother did as a breast cancer researcher and how influential that had been on her as a girl. She was sure she would support the platform, but still, she wasn’t going to sign anything without reading it. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer.

There was one memorable moment when a young man stood up to ask if he could make a statement rather than asking a question. “Oh, no!” I thought, a self-acknowledged grandstander is the worst at an event like this. I feared a long, indulgent rant. Maybe the Senator did too, but she said, “sure, it’s a Town Hall” with an uncertain laugh. The young man then announced that he was a Republican and didn’t agree with her on a lot of issues, but he appreciated her coming to Waterloo and hoped that as the campaign continued she wouldn’t assume all Republicans supported the nasty tactics of late. That was it: very polite, very concise. Harris hit this one out of the park, thanking him for coming to the event and using it as a reminder of the possibility of unity despite the divisions of the current moment. It was an uplifting conclusion and left everyone in a hopeful mood.

And, of course, then everyone wanted pictures. Plenty of people rushed the stage, phones in hand. Having learned lessons past, I was positioned between the candidate and the exit and got plenty of pictures: my daughter Devin and I with Senator Harris; my younger son, Ian, and I with Doug Emhoff; Nic and the other interns with the Senator. And then there was a sweet moment when Ian re-met Nora, Senator Harris’s Iowa political director, whom Ian had worked with on a previous campaign as a 9-year-old volunteer. Of course, Ian was a foot and a half shorter the last time she saw him. “Is that Ian?” she asked. That’s how we’ve all felt over the past year.

Later, I saw on the campaign’s Instagram feed that even the guy who asked the last question came up for a picture afterwards. All in all, that was a pretty successful event, marking the end of my long weekend of candidates. But, man, they still keep coming.  This is my 13th one, and more people keep announcing. I’m only halfway there!

12: John Hickenlooper

Tall mountains, Colorado, get it?

I approached the “Have a Beer with John Hickenlooper” event with some caution, after having just attended a “Breakfast with Bill de Blasio” at which I did not have breakfast. John Hickenlooper is the governor of Colorado, and before his political career began he ran a very successful brewing company in Denver, so it made sense that he would be having a meet-and-greet at a Cedar Rapids brewpub. I had to hope there would actually be beer involved.

When I arrived, I could see right away that this event had a good set up. Tables were stationed at the door, and no one was getting in without being asked to sign in. But, the benefit of signing it was that you got a ticket for a beer and a beer cozy (or is it koozie?). I have never in my life found a good reason to use a beer cozy. If you are nursing your beer so long that it gets warm, you should have ordered something different. But I was happy to take the ticket and order one of the house specialties, a dark sour beer, which tasted a little thin at first but then grew on me.

Yes, you should be impressed.

This particular brew pub was the Quarter Barrel Arcade and Brewery, and the bar was faced by a row of classic pinball machines, mostly from the 1980s, a period during which I had misspent a fair share of my youth and early adulthood playing pinball. So, with beer in hand and quarters in my pocket, I have to say that I felt I had been demographically pretty well targeted for this event. I put my money into the Ghostbusters machine before I noticed that it had already been loaded up with credits. But after a warm up game (in which I got a credit on match), I played again and tore the machine up with a long multiball session. In fact, I missed Hickenlooper’s entrance because I was doing so well.

But that was okay, because the Governor had decided to work the room before the formal part of the event began. When I finished my game and went over to the seating area, I saw the tall and thin Governor going from table to table, chatting up people who came for the event or who were just there for a beer (I couldn’t tell the random customers from the Hickenlooper supporters). Though this was a nice space in many ways, it was a very loud room and the row of pinball machines only added to the noise, particularly the classic Iron Maiden machine which “featured” the sound effect of a screaming woman. I hoped campaign had a decent sound system in place.

John Hickenlooper is not one of the better known candidates, but I was aware of an intriguing bit of trivia about him because of work I’ve done on Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s last novel was the semi-autobiographical Timequake. In chapter 44, he writes about a 1996 visit to Denver for a gallery opening featuring some of his prints. In honor of the event, a local microbrewery created a special beer, Kurt’s Mile-High Malt. It was Wynkoop, the brewery co-founded by John Hickenlooper. It also turned out that Vonnegut had gone to college with John Hickenlooper’s father, who had died when the future-governor was only seven. In the book, Vonnegut writes about regaling the future-Governor with stories about college days at Cornell, and he reprints a copy of the label of Kurt’s Mile-High Malt.

I say all this because when Hickenlooper made his way around the room to me, we shook hands and I brought up his Kurt Vonnegut connection. Hickenlooper said that it was amazing to have had this coincidence come into his life almost at random. I joked that he and Vonnegut must have been in the same karass. That’s a term from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and it refers to a group of people who, unbeknownst to themselves, are spiritually linked or affiliated (sorry to be the literary geek here, but that’s how it went down). Hickenlooper lit up at the reference. “I use that term all the time!” he exclaimed. Our connection made, I took a selfie and he continued working his way around the room.

Soon, I realized that Hickenlooper was going to individually speak to each of the 50 or so people in the room, taking the term “meet-and-greet” literally. It is not very interesting to watch a politician work a room, particularly when the room is too loud for the conversation to be heard. That said, I’m pretty sure most of the discussions involved Iowans giving Hickenlooper unsolicited advice about how to run his campaign, the dispersal of such pearls of wisdom being the birthright of all Iowans. Anyway, there was still plenty of pinball to play. I made my way over to The Shadow, another movie tie-in machine. Looking at the machine, I recognized that the back of the machine featured the likeness of Alec Baldwin from back in his movie star heartthrob days. That fact that Baldwin was now playing Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live seemed to connect up to my being here for a political event. Alec and I weren’t quite in the same karass, but still, it was something.

Finally, even a pinball wizard such as myself had had enough, and I began to wonder when this event actually would begin. The governor had spoken to everyone he could, and I counted to see that seven people were trying to fix a microphone. Then, for no apparent reason, the microphone began to work and Hickenlooper began addressing the crowd.

The governor started out by playing up to the crowd and praising how nice people in Iowa had been to him. He spoke of his time in Colorado and how in a purple-state he’s been able to pass progressive legislation on guns and greenhouse emissions.I usually try to get video of the first minute or so of a candidate’s speech, but in this case I got footage of almost everything Hickenlooper said. After a couple minutes, he stopped and half-heartedly asked if anyone wanted to ask any questions, before quickly dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. Then he went back for another round of handshaking, even though he’d already met everyone in the room. Really, that was it? I felt like I hadn’t quite earned my free beer. It felt like Hickenlooper just liked meeting new people and was using a presidential campaign as an excuse. Because there were questions to be asked. For example, I wanted to hear him say how he planned to win over Obama-Trump voters, since that the general thrust of the case he was making. Also, during this event, a friend posted a reminder that Hickenlooper once drank a glass of fracking fluid to argue about how safe it was. Meanwhile, Colorado is experiencing an unprecedented number of fracking-related earthquakes. So, there were things we could have discussed.

I drifted over to the pinball machines but couldn’t repeat my prior success on Ghostbusters. Hickenlooper went behind the bar and got himself a beer. That seemed like a good idea. I got an IPA and regressed even further into my childhood, playing a round of Donkey Kong, Jr. When I looked up, the governor was gone, and the crowd that remained had either decided to stick around or hadn’t been here for the meet-and-greet in the first place.

At the bar, a woman came up to order a couple drinks, using one of the free drink tickets for an Old Style. I couldn’t help but note that that seemed a poor choice at a brew pub with a decent range of selections (and, though I didn’t say it, Old Style was really a poor choice at any time). The woman said it was for her husband, and she blamed his being a Cubs fan for his lame taste in beer. None of that made sense to me, but then I realized she was even more confused than I was by all that had happened. Her family had just been driving through from Illinois and stopped here for lunch. They didn’t even realize they were attending a political event.

I took a sip of my beer. Well, I thought, I’m not sure this fully counted as a political event. But that seemed kind of rude to say. Instead, I said I hoped she had a good time in Iowa. She left with her drinks. I gave Ghostbusters one last shot.