Kander wants to talk to rural Iowa

Vet of Afghan war knows how to wow a crowd, sets sights on White House

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Performers never want to follow acts involving dogs or kids on stage. Add to the list Jason Kander, who I had to follow last Monday at the National Farmers Union 116th annual convention in Kansas City.

Kander is the veteran of the Afghan war who ran Missouri Senate ads taking apart and reassembling an AR-15 while blindfolded in less than 30 seconds. The guy who works next to me was unimpressed — I thought it was cool, and so did Missouri voters who put him within a 3.2% whisker of defeating incumbent Sen. Roy Blount, R, Mo.

I was there to pick up the Milton D. Hakel Award for Excellence in Journalism. I spoke for 10 minutes about surface water pollution in Iowa, and how the conversation is starting to change. More than 1,000 people, after all, recently attended the Practical Farmers of Iowa annual meeting. Thirty years ago we thought they were freaks, now they’re mainstream. That message found an appreciate audience among those who do not drink from the Farm Bureau cup. For that I am appreciative.

Kander enthralled the crowd for an hour and had them reaching for their pitchforks.

He was there to talk about his organization, Let America Vote, that targets disenfranchisement like voter ID and gerrymandering. Interesting that Iowa and New Hampshire are among seven states targeted for action. His speech was full-throated for letting every citizen vote unimpeded. But it also had all the sounds of a presidential stump speech.

“We want to save small towns and save rural America. It’s a big part of the progressive movement,” boomed Kander, 36, former Missouri Secretary of State to a standing ovation. The lid nearly blew off the place when he demanded country-of-origin labeling.

He decried corporations and government conspiring to hollow out small towns.

“We want our kids to find success in the communities where they were raised. It’s killing rural communities. Our children say, ‘I want to go home but I can’t afford to because I have $100,000 in debt and the wages aren’t high enough.’”

You should have seen the stream of people follow him out of the banquet hall wanting to touch the cloak. There is a definite sense of electricity.

I caught up to him and asked if he is running for President. He knew my name already, which tells me that he is familiar with Iowa.

“It makes me think about it,” he said of the reception from the farmers.

But right now he is fighting for the right to vote. All his energy is with Let America Vote, whose advisors include former Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer, speechwriter Jon Favreau and press secretary Josh Earnest. That’s a murderer’s row that Joe Biden certainly would covet.

As soon as these huge midterm elections are past, then, Kander told me, “I will reconsider.”

He is a Jew whose best friend and interpreter in Afghanistan was Muslim. Their lives depended on each other. When he talks about transcending race and creed, he has cred.

He knows rural Missouri. Kander told the crowd, to huge applause, that immigrants save small towns.

If it is the white rural voter you’re after, Kander knows the language and how to turn it inside out.

He told a story about his Grandpa Pops, who was elected neighborhood association president in South Kansas City. A bunch of Italians and Jews. His main task, as Pops understood it, was to organize a youth baseball team for the neighborhood. Meantime, a landlord who let a property run down was renting it out by the day and attracting vagrants who didn’t fit in the neighborhood, what with children playing and the like. Pops found out that another part of his job was to confront the landlord and get him to do something.

The landlord threatened to sell to a black family. “Your neighbors won’t like that,” the landlord told Pops.

His reply?

“A black family. Do you think they have a shortstop?”

That’s a hard act to follow. I have no doubt you will have an opportunity to witness it first-hand, just after the midterm elections.