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:
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.