Democracy in Clinton, Iowa, Part V: The Parties
V. President Obama is raising re-election cash at a clip of tens of millions of dollars per quarter, well on his way to an announced goal (one billion dollars) that even as recently as 2004 would have sounded like a comic book villain’s ransom demand. At the same time, Jean Pardee, in her sixties and the long-time chair of the Clinton County Democrats, felt compelled during one of our chats to point out to her treasurer, the retired physics and astronomy professor Dr. Tom Gibbons, that sure, the party could take his advice and purchase a new computer to replace the old, slow one they were always waiting on to load, but doing so would cost them “at least one or two newspaper ads.” It was not a choice to be made lightly.
If the national Democratic Party is whittled down to its most basic, local unit in Clinton, what is left is this office, accessed through a door in a brick wall leading to a rented office space which overlooks a grass and gravel parking lot, then an ugly, utilitarian building, then the ADM plant. The office is a jumble of old furniture, campaign signs, and over-stuffed filing cabinets. Pardee admits the location (far from downtown) isn’t ideal, but the rent is “incredibly low,” and the union guys on the team have fixed up the bathroom, and the paint job was recently re-done by some volunteers after Jean came in early on a Saturday to prepare. I found her moving furniture away from the walls, alone.
What party politics means at the tangible local level is the connection parties have to the public – how effective they are at engaging and educating and coordinating sustained, meaningful political action. Pardee explained the basic structure of the Iowa Democratic apparatus: a representative from every voting precinct (they form the county’s Central Committee) is selected during caucuses. Then regional representatives are elected during regional meetings of those individuals, who in turn pick state-level reps. Finally, the state delegates select the national delegates who you’ll see waving and shouting in the Convention throng in the summer of 2012. Starting at the precinct level, the Clinton County Dems focus on voter registration, on public education through lectures and guest speakers, and on voter persuasion and turnout for Democratic campaigns for local and state office. Larry Kness, who was Co-Chair of the Clinton Democrats from 2004 through 2009, also pointed out that the Central Committee members “are the elected representatives of every registered Democrat in the county,” and are invested with real power, such as the ability to unilaterally nominate the Party’s candidate for office if the popular choice drops out. “I don’t think five percent of the voters know that,” Kness added.
And that’s really the point. On a day-to-day basis, and absent the compelling, coordinating force provided by a campaign (especially a national one), the Clinton Democrats remain the passion project of a few dedicated individuals like Pardee, who seems to run virtually every activity, and likely knows every involved Democrat in the county. Beyond these folks, politically-aware Democrats may show up for occasional events, like the $30-a-plate steak dinner County Party fundraiser I attended along with 61 others, held in a multi-purpose room adjacent to a relatively dim bar, up the stairs from a much darker bar. Outside, the street was also dark, except for the luminous Hardees’ sign to the left and the glowing stoplights to the right, even though there was little traffic to speak of. It was an event Pardee said she “sold on political conversation, not speeches. And cheap drinks.” But besides such showings, many of those in attendance likely won’t engage with the Party on a regular basis.
The monthly Central Committee meetings, where organizational and legislative business is discussed, are open to the public and are intended to be a priority for the Committee members, but Pardee admits to their limited appeal. “You have to be not only a political junkie to be interested,” she says, “but you also have to have the ability to either tolerate or be interested in the kinds of nuts and bolts that go into the Party work.” She mentioned how three months of meetings were needed to edit the County Party’s constitution and bylaws, one of the “drier, dullest things you can do,” but an important one. The meeting I attended, which represents the only group Party activity that is guaranteed to happen with such frequency, drew a crowd of about 30. (Another example of this: the County Dems hold caucuses every year, which means that every other year is an “off-year” caucus where there isn’t a presidential or gubernatorial election to vote in. At these events, the Clinton Democrats write their platform and pick the issues they are going to focus on. Again, the meeting is public, but Pardee told me that the typical attendance from across the entire county – which has a population of nearly 50,000 – is between 75 and 100.)
Democrats like to flaunt their disproportionate popularity with the 18-35 set, but virtually everyone in the room, especially the Committee members, was of retirement age. “We’ve gotta get some new blood,” Pardee told me. “The problem is there’s a gap between the retired and not retired, that we don’t have that much activity from those that are still working, because between family, work, they don’t have that much additional time. So it’s hard to get them to commit to do too much. They may come to the meetings and then say, why did I have to spend two hours doing this? And I don’t know if it’s a fault or a necessity that I’ve taken on a lot of the things that ideally individual precinct people would do because I’m retired.”
Pardee told me that she was actively trying to reach out to connect the Party to a variety of existing groups in the area, including local university students. But Clinton activist Connor Anderson told me that the Clinton County Democrats are suffering under a weight of their own design. “The local Party is dysfunctional in that they don’t run their meetings in a way to encourage youth to be involved, and they don’t find activities for people to do between elections that are interesting,” he said. “They have these fucking staid steak dinners where it’s the same God damn people, and it’s boring.” Anderson, 46, was born in Washington, D.C. and worked on the 1987 Joe Biden presidential campaign out of college. In 1989, he moved to the former Czechoslovakia after the Berlin Wall fell to help organize the country’s first post-Soviet elections. “That was cool,” he said while we sat on a fall night in a beer garden at a north Clinton bar. “I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever done until we got Obama winning the Iowa caucuses.”
Anderson thinks the Central Committee meetings should be changed. The meeting I attended (he was at it, too) featured a Q&A with a slate of local candidates, as well as with Mary Wolfe, the State Representative for the county. But it also gave time to inside-baseball stuff like the treasurer’s report and other organizational matters. Anderson says such things should be dealt with quickly so that the focus could be switched to engaging discussions of how the Party could draw in new supporters. “Did we actually accomplish anything about planning anything?” he told me after the meeting was over. “No. Fucking Party minutie. Let me ask you, does that look like a party that’s building its base?” He brought up the fact that a question about whether a local Occupy Wall Street chapter should be formed (asked by an 85-year-old Committee member) was quickly set aside. “That was, what, 30 seconds?” he said. “That should have been the fucking meeting. And really, I mean, five minutes on whether there’s a thousand bucks left over in the – who gives a fuck? Why is that my problem? I have three kids,” he said, imitating his conception of an average Clinton resident in a way that was jocular but still serious. “Stop wasting my God damn time.”
“Let me guess. I would say that was Connor,” Pardee said when I asked her about these criticisms without telling her who they had come from (and without the expletives). “It just shows how little they understand about Party structure. Connor’s not into Party structure. He’s into campaigning. And those are different aspects. We’re the structure. We provide for anything and everything.” Pardee isn’t against having committees focused on initiatives like OWS, but she doesn’t think the meetings as currently set should be jettisoned. She also raised the question of who is going to step up and take charge of those issue-specific subcommittees. “This is all volunteer,” she reminded me.
Regarding the issue of bodies, Anderson thinks the Party failed to capitalize on a massive recruitment opportunity following the 2007 primary campaign. He spoke about the first Central Committee meeting after caucus day. “There [were] probably 60 people there, fired up, wanting to be active.” Many had been engaged by a presidential campaign and recruited to represent their precincts at caucuses. Anderson said that the Party should have thrown a party. (Someone else described it this way: “There should have been a 15 minute meeting, and as soon as that gavel hit, there should have been a disco ball and a keg in the corner.”) But in spite of the crowd and the energy, Anderson said the meeting was a typical one, focused on party process. “And the next meeting in March we’re back to the same 30 people. They all left.”
I related this story to Erick Van Lancker, the County Auditor and an active local Democrat who was also at the post-caucus meeting. I asked if the depiction was right. He paused and thought about it. “That’s accurate,” he said.
Van Lancker confirmed how packed that first gathering was. “It was not only standing room only, it was standing on top of each other. It was great.” He suggested that new people there for the first time “were probably looking for an opportunity to meet people that had, and were, experiencing the same excitement coming off the caucus, and were probably looking for the opportunity to meet, like a mixer feel, those other people from around the county. What they came to was a sit-down committee meeting,” one that was “a typical business meeting following a caucus, which was filling out the delegates, and regular business.”
“Was there a party-building opportunity missed at that very first Central Committee meeting after ’08? I’ve gotta say obviously,” Van Lancker continued. “I think our county party whiffed on that one.” But he wanted to put the night in context. “Maybe they didn’t even expect what they got that night. You’ve seen our office and how small it is. Maybe they didn’t even anticipate that. So I’m not really criticizing. But in hindsight, [the Party] definitely missed an opportunity.”
You may be wondering how the Clinton County Republicans compare to their Democratic counterparts, and I wish I could tell you. I collected a few anecdotes – one GOP activist told me that around 300 people will turnout out for county-wide fundraisers, while a professor at Clinton Community College said that the McCain staffer responsible for the county during the ‘08 cycle told him she couldn’t get in touch with the local Republicans. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much luck on that front, either. I had just three quick conversations over the phone with the GOP’s long-standing chairwoman, Edith Pfeffer. I was curious to learn what was happening in relation to the presidential primaries, considering how there were numerous Republican candidates vying for an Iowa win. In mid-September, when the caucus was still scheduled for February 6th, Ms. Pfeffer told me that the County Party was prohibited from backing any presidential candidate, and that I would be best served by checking back with her in the ensuing months because things were just getting started. The second time I spoke with her, during the first week of October, she was more blunt, saying that there’s “nothing really going on at this point.” I spoke with her for the last time a week after that. By that point, the state party had moved the caucus date up to some point in early January, though it wasn’t yet set. “I really have nothing to tell you,” Pfeffer told me, clearly frustrated. She said that she had already booked meeting rooms in anticipation of the original caucus date, and now she was trying to make new plans. It sounded stressful.
And that was it. I asked Pfeffer many times for a meeting, but the only opening in her schedule came during a time when I wasn’t available. Seeking an alternate contact, I called her co-chair, Dan Smicker, who was extremely polite during our handful of brief chats. He told me that he would be wiling to meet with me, but during my last week in Clinton, I left him multiple messages and he never called back. I wondered what local GOP activism I was missing. Based on what I learned about the Republican presidential campaigns, I don’t think it was much.
Tomorrow, in Part VI, a ground-level look at the Obama and GOP campaigns in Clinton and beyond.