The Polk County Steak Fry in Des Moines, Iowa, held last Saturday at Water Works Park in the Greater Southside of Des Moines, attracted 17 presidential candidates and thousands of members of the public. The annual event, formerly known as the Harkin Steak Fry, for its founder, former Iowa senator Tom Harkin, is a meet-and-greet opportunity for Iowan voters and candidates that dates back to 1972. With an easygoing vibe reminiscent of the State Fair in August, it’s an occasion for candidates across the party’s ideological spectrum to address both committed and potential supporters. But it was only at the Iowa People’s Presidential Forum—held on the same day, at the same time, just across Raccoon River—that they were made to answer to them.
The People’s Forum was planned and hosted by Iowa CCI Action Fund, a sister organization of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and a member of the national network People’s Action. Since its founding in 1975, Iowa CCI has been agitating against corporate interests, landlords, and elected officials of any party on behalf of tenants, family farmers, immigrants—people they have long called “everyday Iowans.” The Action Fund has been around since 2011. In the winter of 2018, the group began planning a presidential forum that would focus on the issues and values of deepest concern to its own membership (“No bland stump speeches allowed,” their Facebook invitation read). This spring, CCI Action sent questionnaires to every Democratic presidential candidate who had announced his or her candidacy, a requirement for attending. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Secretary Julián Castro, and Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren returned completed questionnaires; all but Harris agreed to come to the event.
The scheduling conflict with the Steak Fry was not planned, according to organizers, and CCI Action coordinated with Polk County Democrats and all campaigns to ensure that candidates who participated in the People’s Forum could attend both events (all did). But the group didn’t mind an opportunity to hold their vision of movement politics up in contrast to “business as usual” politics, organizers suggested. CCI-led direct actions have forced employers to pay thousands of dollars in back pay to undocumented workers, saved families’ homes from foreclosure, and resulted in local moratoria on payday lenders all over the state. (Full disclosure: I’ve been one of Iowa CCI and CCI Action’s 5,100 members since 2008, and my partner, a former staff member, is on the team that planned the forum—as my Instagram blurrily boasted, he delivered a call to action just before Sanders took the stage.)
The structure of the forum was in line with CCI Action’s member-led ethos. Over 70 people—students and seniors, caregivers, farmers from the United States and Latin America, low-wage workers, and the formerly incarcerated and homeless—took to the stage to get their chance to deliver testimonials and ask questions to the candidates. In her opening invocation to the crowd, which would swell to over 2,500, packing the Grand Ballroom at the Iowa Events Center, pastor Julia Rendon praised the “holy work [of] being a citizen.” “The most ordinary, unremarkable person among us is blessed with exactly the gifts we need to do our work together,” she said.
Senator Elizabeth Warren was the first candidate to take the stage, taking questions on family farms and the environment, racial justice, and workers’ rights, among others. She stressed the importance of activist mobilization, and, true to form, enumerated her many plans. When she outlined her proposed wealth tax—one of many moments in her speech had been met with cheers at Washington Square Park in Manhattan last week—the crowd at the Iowa People’s Presidential Forum was tempered, and there were calls from the audience for the tax to be even higher.
Though attendees seemed impressed with Warren’s performance, the strongest negative reaction to her remarks came during her response to Tiana Caldwell, the executive director of Kansas City Tenants, on the question of guaranteed housing and universal rent control. Warren said that she opposes universal rent control, favoring plans that would give local governing bodies more say in what their rent control policies would look like.
“[That] is essentially enabling discrimination, in my mind,” Aubrey Steinberger, from Ames, Iowa, told me later. “When that happens, communities generally put rent control in one part of town and they try to shuttle people into that area. Essentially, she said no [to Caldwell’s demand for universal rent control]. She talked around it, and I was a little amazed that people were applauding.”
The Sanders campaign has already turned Warren’s answer into a clip they’ve shared on social media to promote his own housing plan, which is closer to the “Homes Guarantee” drafted by People’s Action, which drew from the work of KC Tenants, among other groups. The Homes Guarantee calls for an end to homelessness and real estate speculation as well as the construction of 12 million units of social housing (Sanders is calling for 10 million).
Frances Holmes, a McDonald’s employee from St. Louis who came to Des Moines with Fight for $15—whose members joined striking McDonald’s workers before coming to the Forum—said she was excited by how clearly Warren was with their fight. But like many people I spoke to, Holmes stressed that she had not made up her mind yet as to whom she was supporting. Some pointed to their involvement with issues-based organizations who would not or could not endorse; others said it was simply too early.
While the Iowa People’s Presidential Forum is intended to result in an endorsement from CCI Action, many attendees stressed that they were even more focused on building interconnected movements. Roughly 500 of the attendees were members of partner organizations in eight nearby states, including People’s Lobby, TakeAction Minnesota, and Hoosier Action. More than one speaker declared something to the effect of “No president can save us.”
There was focus, also, on the growing appeal of new, bold ideas, including but not limited to the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and free public college. The aforementioned Homes Guarantee, as well as Universal Family Care, a social insurance program that would make care for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities more affordable while improving the working conditions of caregivers themselves, got a lot of attention. Julián Castro told Reggie Griffin of Jane Addams Seniors in Action that he has endorsed Universal Family Care (he’s the first and to date only candidate to have done so), and noted that many of its planks are in his Working Families First Plan. When asked about Universal Family Care, Warren responded that her wealth tax would cover universal child care for children 5 and under, universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, and raise the wages of every preschool teacher and child care worker in America. She has also released a plan to increase all Social Security and disability checks by $200 per month. Warren said that she is “still working…on the Family Leave part of this” and acknowledged that her wealth tax will have a “couple hundred billion left over” to fund more programs. (Sanders and Buttigieg were asked about Medicare for All, but not specifically about Universal Family Care.)
These discussions were exciting to Tucker Cassidy, of Waterloo, Iowa, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since he was 18. “This is a national conversation we need to be having,” he said. Cassidy has spent years as an activist fighting for disability rights and against the privatization of Medicaid programs in the state. “We don’t have the infrastructure to support [demand for caregivers]. We don’t have health care providers getting a wage that is fair. And that’s now. In the future it’s going to get even worse.” Cassidy has not decided whom he will support—he’d like to meet all of the candidates in person, and he is only up to eight or nine.
Much of the enthusiasm for the second half of the afternoon was reserved for Representative Ilhan Omar, who delivered a keynote, and Senator Bernie Sanders. During Omar’s address, nearly two dozen volunteers stood in front of the stage, a security measure called for in the wake of racist attacks and threats against the congresswoman. Izzy Moreno, a bricklayer and member of BAC Local 13 from Dubuque, Iowa, was one of these volunteers. He had come to the forum primarily to see Senator Sanders. “It’s refreshing to actually see my candidate up there [instead of just] lying in bed watching a YouTube video,” Moreno said. “Especially with Bernie, because he doesn’t have hardly any screen time on television. If you want to research him, you have to Google search it.”
CCI Action estimates that 15,000 people have participated in one of their actions in the past three years. In 2016, only 171,000 people participated in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Organizations like Iowa CCI Action—or Fight for $15, or People’s Action—have spent years building progressive movements around the idea that there is plenty of support to be had if they meet real people where they work and live. “I can tell you from my personal experience knocking on doors—people don’t want to talk about candidates, unless they’re already committed,” said Tom Rendon of Des Moines. “[We’re] talking about issues that affect people’s everyday lives, which they are by definition interested in. You have to frame the choices in front of them in terms of the issues that matter.”
Laural Clinton, a retiree from Des Moines who delivered a testimonial to Warren about her family’s experience with racial profiling, told me that in a sprawling Democratic field, the forum was key to helping her make up her mind. For every candidate who attended this weekend, “their presence moved them up” in her estimation. “If you don’t have the wherewithal to see the people,” Clinton asked, “do I really want to support you and your candidacy?”