With barely 900 days to go before the official process of replacing George W. Bush begins with the first presidential caucus, the good Democrats of Newton, Iowa, are anxious. Almost fully recovered from last fall’s bruising battle to carry their state for Al Gore, but still righteously indignant about the Supreme Court ruling that denied him the presidency–folks here prefer the word “theft”–the partisans of the Jasper County Democratic Party are aching to get back into the fight.
Just past 8 on a Saturday morning in July, the parking lot behind the United Auto Workers Local 997 hall is full. Latecomers are parking along the cornfield across the road and scrambling in, with only a few old-timers pausing to sweep bugs off the plaque that reads, “In memory of Solidarity Brother Edris ‘Soapy’ Owens–December 11, 1914-September 23, 1998–He woke up every day seeing the ghost of Walter Reuther, asking himself what can I do to make this world a better place.”
The torchbearers of the Reuther tradition have filled the tables and lined the walls of the hall. The Wallace brothers are among the last to show. “He’s not here yet?” ask the look-alike elders of the local party. “No, no, not yet, but you hurry up and get a seat up front so you can see,” says county party chair Sandy Shaver. That’s good advice. Moments later, the side door opens and in walks the son of a St. Louis milk-truck driver who, as far as these folks are concerned, looks pretty darned presidential.
“I’m a Democrat–in case you haven’t heard. I’ve got strong beliefs,” shouts House minority leader Dick Gephardt over the cheers. “We Democrats believe in labor unions. We believe that you build the economy from the bottom up, not the top down.”
“That’s right,” comes the chorus from the crowd. “Tell ’em, Dick, you tell ’em!”
Technically, Gephardt is in Newton to stump for US Representative Leonard Boswell, who is running for re-election and has just been forced by redistricting into a new district. The talk from the podium is all of “taking back the House”–the task to which Gephardt has devoted himself since the Republican landslide of 1994. But the unionists laugh when they are asked what has brought Gephardt to Newton. Congress is important, they agree. But Gephardt–who began frequenting Iowa as a populist presidential contender in 1988–is here on more serious business. It is the same mission that has drawn Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Senators John Kerry and John Edwards, former Senator Bill Bradley and US Representatives Marcy Kaptur and Jesse Jackson Jr. to Iowa in recent months; the same mission that made Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joseph Biden the featured speaker at the Manchester, New Hampshire, City Democratic Committee’s St. Patrick’s Day breakfast on a frosty New England morning; the same mission that saw Gephardt asking for extra tomato sauce at the Cheshire County Democrats’ annual spaghetti supper in Keene, New Hampshire, in June; and the same mission that prompted Senator Russ Feingold to accept an April invite from the University of New Hampshire’s College Democrats to give a lecture.
“You see,” explains Robert Jones, a Local 997 retiree, in his best Politics 101 tone, “there’s a fellow in the White House that don’t belong there. He got there because his brother fixed it for him down in Florida. Now, we’re getting ready to fix him.”