A civil rights campaign



We were delighted on Saturday to sit for the first time with Leann Jacobsen, a Spencer businesswoman, city council member and Democratic candidate for Congress from the Fourth District. She is passionate, smart, engaging, gracious and sincere. She would make a tremendous representative for Northwest Iowa. Unfortunately for her, perhaps, our leitmotif was race and the decline of rural Iowa. She believes that leadership can unleash opportunity that has been slipping away from forgotten places. She said she is not out to attack Steve King as the core of her campaign but to bring people together around a positive vision for change.

We were hung up on this: Steve King is not the cause but is a symptom of a disease called racism. Jacobsen maintains that King makes permissible the blatant expression of racism from the very few. Yet, immigration and fear of others has always been at the core of his appeal. He talks about other colors and cultures all the time. He stirs up resentment of Mexicans and Muslims that is already there.

Misunderstanding, if not fear, has many poor brown families in Alta living on the edge of eviction from their homes in a trailer court. It has us talking about a state sanctuary cities bill because immigrants are equated with criminals. It has our student athletes suffering racist taunts during games with Spencer and other Lakes Conference rivals. It makes rural communities squeeze people out and foreclose their futures.

We think that is the basic problem confronting our district today, and Storm Lake is at the dead center of it: Will we be a community that condemns insularity and fear, or will we be a community that runs right over it and moves into the future?

We recall sitting with friends from Pocahontas before the 2016 general election. They talked about depopulation, not knowing quite what to do or how to sort it out, and how they could accept a certain number of Latinos. Everybody was comfortable with that. Twenty percent immigrant, maybe. But they were not comfortable with the numbers seen in Storm Lake. When Pocahontas was majority Czech, nobody had much of a problem with that. Fonda is firming up with new Latino families. So is Early. Small manufacturers everywhere in Iowa complain of a lack of good help. Immigrants stand ready. We have to ask ourselves just who the problem is.

So we flat-out asked Jacobsen: What’s the deal? It’s hard to understand from our vantage point. Why do others view Storm Lake and its change as something to fear?

“I don’t hear people jeering Storm Lake. I hear them cheering,” Jacobsen said.

But she did acknowledge that many people who should know better are plenty smug. We asked when our friends in other communities will stand up and condemn it. She does but does not find a lot of company. But she says that King creates the perception that builds the walls. At what point do we admit to ourselves that we are the ones building the walls that keep people out, drain rural communities and douse spirits?

Steve King has won by double digits without spending much money or effort. He has a natural appeal in our 39 counties built around wanting to drive out Latin Americans. To undo it, someone must attack the candidate and scorch the values that give him succor. Nobody has done that. Jacobsen is trying to spread the word through her coffeehouse and wine bar, and through her work on the city council and now her campaign for the nomination against three other good people, men all. God bless her.

But that is not enough. We should call it out for what it is: racism abundant among us, articulated and given power by our congressman.

We invited — we recruited, while Gov. Branstad and Sen. Grassley looked the other way — the poor and dispossessed from Latin America to do the work from which the Anglos had been driven by new corporate economic models. Those people of Northwest Iowa see their prospects dim, as Clay County slowly drains of people, and think that somehow a poor Mexican at Tyson has something to do with it. So let’s drive them out, along with their children who are attending Buena Vista University. How does any of this make sense?

This is about civil rights, human rights. It is about deplorable housing, and people with legal papers living in fear, and Latino citizens of the USA being denied the opportunity to bring an ailing mother in from Honduras. It is about keeping rural white citizens fearing for their livelihoods and their futures. It tears down rural Iowa. That is a wrong that must be confronted head-on and denounced with all our breath.