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.

Republicans Battle Over The Future Of Their Party At CPAC

Republicans Battle Over The Future Of Their Party At CPAC

Short skirts, high heels, and optimism abound at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of thousands of conservatives in Washington, D.C. Right-leaning people from across the country are here to debate a wide range of issues. Some, like bashing President Obama and his health care law, are agreed on by all participants. Others, like gay marriage and marijuana legalization, receive less homogeneous support.

Certain characters stick out from the mostly young, sleek crowd. Take the cowboy hat-sporting older man whose shirt says “Legalize Marijuana! Ask Me About It.” People do, and he spends much of the conference in the hallways, conversing with supporters and debating those in disagreement. The kilt-wearing, round-bellied senior who spent CPAC’s first evening sporadically waving his “Don’t Tread on Me” flag attacts similar attention.

While few African-Americans are present, Kevin Blanchard, author of Black Man with a Gunsticks out, although his pro-gun rights views don’t. There are a handful of veterans, and many young servicemen. “Radio Row,” set up in the conference’s main hall, hosts conservative talk-show hosts. Hasidic Jews find relatively quiet corners to pray in. Booths offer free conservative merchandise like “Amazing America” bags, which promote Sarah Palin’s new show, and pamphlets promoting the power of prayer and healthy eating in battling cancer.

Some of the young participants are here to meet and greet potential employers, and many more making their first inroads into politics. “I just really wanted to get a firsthand perspective of things,” says 19-year-old Mike Jones, a first-time CPAC attendee from Fairfax, Virginia. He’s hopeful about the direction conservatives are moving in. “I think there’s momentum. Especially seeing all these young people come here. I see a lot of enthusiasm.”

University of Michigan law student Jiesi Zhao sees a marked change from last year’s CPAC (this is her fourth time attending the conference). “Last year we were healing our wounds, after the [2012 presidential] defeat. This year it’s much more exciting and forward-looking,” she said.

While there is alignment on some issues, Zhao notes serious debate between libertarians, Tea Partiers, and everyone in between. “There are so many diverse opinions. There are a lot of different ideologies,” she said. “I think it’s great.”

In addition to the usual issues, like lowering the government deficit and strengthening the military, education is quietly integral to many CPAC conversations. Michael Brickman of the Fordham Foundation, a D.C.-based conservative education policy think tank, is at CPAC to gain support for the controversial Common Core State Standards initiative.

“We want higher standards, accountability, and school choice,” he argues, adding that more conservatives support the standardized curriculum program than ever before. “Everybody’s interested in what we can do to make schools better.”

But Jordan Bosstick, a San Diego resident who runs the political website, says the fight is elsewhere. “People want to be able to send kids to charter schools, not public schools,” he says. “They’re fighting for more charter schools. And they’re really, really against Common Core standards.”

Debates aside, participants recognize that a united front is needed in the run-up to the 2016 elections. As such, the CPAC ambiance is one of a high-school dance, in which everyone’s looking to see who will ask the prettiest girl to tango first. Will Rand Paul win CPAC’s support, giving him the momentum to run for president? Has Chris Christie lost his gusto? Is Paul Ryan still a viable candidate? And which faction will hold the biggest sway over the future of the Republican Party, the libertarians or the Tea Partiers?

Bosstick says that while the Tea Party has impacted conservative rhetoric and policies, its activists do not have much of a presence at this year’s conference.

“I see ‘Stand with Rand’ much stronger,” says Bosstick. “I’ve seen a Tea Party guy waving a flag, but I haven’t seen a Tea Party booth. They’ve influenced the movement as a whole, but they’re not a big influence here.”

Brenden Gault, a 21-year-old student at Boise State University, says that libertarians are much more visible. “They are extremely popular, especially among young people. It’s great for the younger generation. It spreads the word. It teaches values to young people.” But he’s worried the libertarian trend may split the party. “Some libertarians, if [a candidate] is too far right, they just won’t vote for them.”

The popularity of libertarianism was seen in Paul’s star turn on Friday. After the first-term senator spoke in the morning, “Stand with Rand” signs and t-shirts scattered the hallways, dominating the sprinkling of “Cruz Crew” stickers, and flyers for the far less viable but still visible “Draft Ben Carson” campaign.

“Rand will stand for what he believes in,” says Bosstick. “Republicans need someone on both sides, and a lot of Democrats like Rand Paul. People like Ted Cruz. People still like Chris Christie, but they’re more cautious about him now. Paul Ryan is not talked about as much because of the budget [deal]. I think he needs to lay low for a while.”

“Based on this conference, [Paul’s] the frontrunner,” says Gault. “I’ve never seen someone get five standing ovations before.”

The candidate is not yet chosen, but the attendees are excited for the coming campaign.”I think people are cautiously optimistic [about 2016],” says Bosstick. “I think they’re excited. In 2012, they thought they could win and people were shellshocked. So now they’re not going to underestimate their opposition. Everyone’s got their eye on the Senate. Everyone’s focused on working hard.”

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

NRA’s LaPierre: America Is Falling Apart, So You Should Get A Gun

NRA’s LaPierre: America Is Falling Apart, So You Should Get A Gun

Be afraid. Be very afraid. They’re coming for your guns, your ideals, your religious freedom, your identity, and your country. Band together in fear.

That’s the message that Wayne LaPierre, Executive VP and CEO of the NRA, gave to attendees of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which started today outside Washington D.C. Speaking to a boisterous crowd in a packed ballroom, LaPierre said that contemporary America was unlike anything he had seen before. No longer are “neighborhood streets filled with bicycles and skateboards and laughter,” because “something in our country has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most in our lives are eroding. The right to free speech, the right to gather…to practice our religion and raise and protect our families the way we see fit. Those aren’t old values, they aren’t new values, they are core freedoms that have always defined us as a nation, and we feel them slipping away.”

LaPierre has a laundry list of what’s eroding America: the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups. Benghazi. President Obama’s executive orders. Obamacare. The NSA. LaPierre also repeatedly bemoaned the “elite” media and pro-gun-reform politicians, who he says “have never been honest about the NRA. They hate us. Just for sticking up and saying what we believe, as if we have no right.”

Gun owners must be careful, LaPierre warns, or Democrats will use the upcoming midterm elections to lay “the groundwork to put another Clinton back in the White House.”

Since the government offers no protection — “We don’t trust government because government itself has proven unworthy of our trust,” he says — “We are on our own. That is a certainty.”

And, he added, “when you’re on your own, the very best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” (LaPierre repeatedly made a very strong distinction between the “good guys” with guns — a group that apparently includes every NRA member and every CPAC attendee — and the bad guys, who seem to be mainly burglars and drug dealers.)

This rhetoric, and the rhetoric of his entire speech, is nearly identical to that which he used when addressing CPAC last year. Then, the country was considering one of the most serious gun control efforts in years. Today, thanks in part to the NRA’s work, those efforts are dead. And yet LaPierre and his supporters still consider themselves the little guys, with their backs up against the wall.

LaPierre’s portrayal of gun supporters as a minority means they need to band together — nay, crusade — to fight for what he views as their rapidly disappearing rights. “Standing with the NRA is a massive declaration of individual rights…There is no nobler cause than saving the Second Amendment.”

“We are good Americans. We all love our country,” he continued. “And we are not about to stand idly by as the dishonest political and media elites try to slip our values away.”

All five million NRA members, and one hundred million gun owners, “will not back down, not now, not ever,” the NRA leader declared. “Freedom has never needed our defense more than now.”

LaPierre received a standing ovation for his speech and loud cries of support throughout his presentation — his session was the best attended of the afternoon. After he finished, scores of CPAC attendees spent the rest of the day sporting pro-NRA stickers, as the sounds of broadcasts from “NRA News” reverberated throughout the conference halls.

Photo: Pete Marovich/MCT

At CPAC, Republicans Grapple With Low Support Among Minorities

At CPAC, Republicans Grapple With Low Support Among Minorities

How should conservatives reach out to “non-traditional” (read: non-white) Republican voters? Just tell them that because they have a lower life expectancy than whites, they should care less about Social Security and vote with the party that cares more about protecting personal wealth than earned benefits.

That’s the advice that Elroy Sailor — CEO of J.C. Watts Companies, a lobbying firm — gave at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the country’s largest gathering of conservative voters, businesses, and leaders in America. Sailor, who’s African-American, did not explore why blacks have a lower life expectancy, and he notably ignored how that’s connected with gun violence (nearly 50 percent of homicide victims are black). Instead, he touted his family’s history of gun ownership, proudly claiming that when he was 13 years old, his father told him to protect his family when he had night shifts. In the ghetto, he said, guns are a necessary part of life.

Sporting cowboy boots and a southern twang, Sailor was one of four speakers addressing the issue of low minority support for Republicans at a panel entitled “Reaching Out: The Rest of the Story.” He was joined by one other African-American panelist: Robert Woodson, president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a Washington, D.C.-based organization built to “help residents of low-income neighborhoods address the problems of their community.” They were two of only a handful of black faces among thousands of overwhelmingly vanilla CPAC attendees.

Republicans are clearly worried about low support among minorities, and they have every reason to be. Speaking on the panel, Senate hopeful Ed Gillespie of Virginia said that in the last election, only 11 percent of black voters supported Republican candidates (up from 9 percent in 2008). Furthermore, the last election had a higher turnout among black voters than white voters.

“We are on an unsustainable path if we don’t correct things,” warned panel moderator Jason Roe, a political consultant.

The question the party is grappling with is whether to change its tactics to court minority voters, or instead try to show these voters that its tactics work for them. Gillespie prefers the latter approach.

“It’s about sticking to our conservative values and showing people that they work for them,” he said. “Everything that [Democrats] do results in lost income, lower take-home pay, higher health care costs. We’ve got to provide a positive alternative.”

Woodson stressed the importance of building a grassroots movement among black voters. “We’ve got to demonstrate that we care, not just tell them that we care or that we share their values… we have got to reach out to them.” He suggested that conservatives should offer financial support for community initiatives, as liberal donors have done through programs like President Obama’s new “My Brother’s Keeper.” 

Woodson also noted that where there’s poverty and discontent, there’s opportunity. Degrading cities like Detroit “are ripe for outreach by the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” he explained. “They are anxious and available, but we need to be available to them, by going into their communities and finding them.”

He also urged his fellow Republicans to demonstrate the importance of overcoming barriers. Find former heroin users, prisoners, woeful women who have had abortions, and youth who have made it against all odds and make them “the symbols of conservative future,” Woodson suggested. “We need to be the movement of redemption. We need to do studies of people who have been redeemed from that bad start.”

The panel was as much about how the right can court minority voters as how minority Republicans can court the right. Sailor pandered to conservative values through statements like “abortion has been worse to the African-American community than the slave trade or Jim Crow” and “As people who love freedom and liberty, we don’t have to abandon our existing friends to make new friends…We’ve allowed the left to somehow to define diversity as their thing.”

For all the panel’s talk of being sympathetic to minority issues, the tone shifted dramatically just moments after its conclusion when Donald Trump took the stage to address the convention. Speaking on immigration, Trump embraced xenophobia, telling the loudly cheering crowd, “We’re either a country or we’re not. We either have borders or we don’t. With immigration, you’d better be smart, and you’d better be tough, and they’re taking your jobs. You’d better be careful.”

He also said he’d rather see schools built in America than Afghanistan because “they keep blowing the schools up.” Trump added, to more applause, “[Afghans] don’t want us, and I don’t want them!”

Both in rhetoric and in action, this waxen conference and the movement it represents clearly have a long way to go to court minority voters.

Photo: Pete Marovich/MCT