In Small-Town Iowa, A Mixed Reception As Hillary Kicks Off

In Small-Town Iowa, A Mixed Reception As Hillary Kicks  Off

With visits to the small towns of Monticello and Norwalk, Hillary Clinton kicked off her presidential campaign in Iowa this week. There were no screaming hordes, but only the famous niceness and understated manner of the Hawkeye State. Most of the Iowans who talked with The National Memo had yet to make up their minds about Clinton — and those who had already decided weren’t eager to express strong opinions about her.

“Tell me her background,” said Maria White of Monticello, where Clinton held her first official Iowa event. “I just want to know her background. I want to know more about her. I want to see who else will run on the Democratic side. I need to see all the options. It’s far too early to make any big decisions like this.”

Rather than join a handful of onlookers gathered at the parking lot of Capital City Fruit in Norwalk, an equally lukewarm Colin Hart spent his Wednesday afternoon at a local park a few miles away from the closed event. He considers himself a Democrat, but said: “I’m not fired up about Hillary, okay? She always has too much negative controversy that doesn’t get resolved. It’s always emails or one thing or another.”

Hart, who is most concerned about cybersecurity and growing the economy, recalls that in 2007, he “was more excited about [Barack] Obama.” And like White, he said it’s too early in the campaign to make any decisions. “I don’t know if I’ll vote for her. It’s a long way off. I’m gonna wait and see but right now I’m not convinced.”

Others are not merely convinced, however—they are enthused. Jamie Lakers came from West Des Moines, 10 miles up the road from Norwalk, “to talk to Mrs. Clinton and show my support.” Hoping to catch a glimpse of the former Secretary of State as she attended a private event, Lakers brought snacks, a comfy lawn chair, and a book detailing the history of the Clintons to pass the time. When asked what he hoped to discuss with her, he replied, “Nothing specific. I’d want to go out to coffee or lunch and just visit, ask how her grandbaby is doing.”

Lakers predicted that economic inequality and the influence of money in politics “is going to be a top issue” in Iowa and nationally, along with “immigration politics.” He seems correct on both counts. Of the handful of members of the public who waited hopefully outside of Capital City Fruit, several mentioned immigration as a key issue.

Sylvia Valdez, who is originally from Mexico but now lives in Des Moines, brought two children she babysits along to Norwalk for the chance to see Clinton. When she saw Clinton’s “Scooby van” rush past, she squealed with excitement.

“I was a big supporter of Obama, but he didn’t do much for us Spanish DREAMers,” said Valdez. “I know friends who have been here since they were little. They want jobs, they want to go to school, and they can’t get that. [Obama] promised that if we voted for him, he would fix that, but he didn’t.” Her undocumented brother died while awaiting medical care that he was repeatedly denied, she said, because of his status. Now, her sister is sick and unable to get adequate care.

“I think Hillary will do better,” she said, adding that she intends to galvanize the Spanish-speaking community in Des Moines to campaign for the Democrat. “I hope. You gotta have hope.”

Many voters in Monticello and Norwalk spoke out for campaign finance reform. “More and more campaigns are talking about it, and that’s great,” noted Kevin Rutledge, a 24-year-old from the nearby town of Ottumwa, who held up signs in the parking lot of Capital City Fruit, calling for decreased military spending. “Even Lindsey Graham is speaking out, saying we need to overturn Citizens United. There’s national attention.”

That Clinton is potentially the first female president seems to inspire Iowan women in both Monticello and Norwalk. “Her gender matters to me,” said Linda Garrison, who stood outside of Clinton’s  Norwalk event. “I want my daughter’s children and my son’s children, both the boys and girls, to think they could be president. I don’t want them to think, as my generation has, that the job is for someone else.”

Anne and Maria: Anne Schafer and Maria White of Maria's Art, Monticello, IA. (Mara Kardas-Nelson)

Anne and Maria: Anne Schafer and Maria White of Maria’s Art, Monticello, IA. (Mara Kardas-Nelson)

Energetic 96 year-old Anne Schafer is Maria White’s aunt, and helps her to run a pottery shop in town. “I’d like to see her win. You know why?” asked Schafer. “Women are discriminated [against] all the time! You can’t do this, you can’t be that. I think we need a woman and I think Hillary’s the one. She’s a fighter.”

Even Gary Werninont, an elderly man who breathed uneasily through tubes while sipping black coffee at Darrell’s Eatery in Monticello, said, “We’ve had a black [man] in there, now it’s time to get a woman in there.”

But some younger women seemed less concerned with gender politics. “We’ve got a woman senator, and look at what we’ve got!” cried Erika McCroskey, who stood outside the Norwalk event. She was plainly referring to Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), whose 2014 campaign notoriously highlighted her ability to castrate a pig — and who is considered one of the most conservative elected officials in the state.

“If we’re going to get a woman who votes against everything we want, who wants that?” wondered McCroskey. White agreed that Clinton’s gender doesn’t matter. “It would be great to have a woman president, but that’s not the deciding factor.” But Schafer scolded, “When is a woman ever going to be anything if you can’t make up your mind?”

Even in nice, polite Iowa, the sexist attacks on Clinton have already started. A lone critic named Dallas Richardson stood outside the Norwalk event holding two signs: “We haven’t forgotten Benghazi” and “I bet Monica could handle two email accounts.”

Dallas: Dallas Richardson of Indianola, IA, outside of the Norwalk event

Dallas Richardson of Indianola, IA, outside of the Norwalk event (Mara Kardas-Nelson)

“I’m here to remind potential voters that she’s not the best woman in the world, and what she’s done, or hasn’t done, on Benghazi,” he said. The Monica Lewinsky reference, he explained, “just adds humor to a serious situation.” In Monticello, another lone male stood outside Kirkwood Community College. holding a sign that criticized gay marriage.

If Iowans’ support for Clinton remains low key for now, so does their criticism of her. Even Lakers, the diehard fan, conceded that he’s “a bit pessimistic” about her prospects. “I wonder if any Dem can win, if she can break the stereotype that she’s a political insider, a D.C. elitist. And if she’ll have the stamina to do it; it’s a grueling job! And she’s no spring chicken anymore. I’m concerned about her health.”

Still, when asked whether he’ll campaign for Clinton, he smiled and said, “I’ve already signed up.”

This post has been updated with photos.

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