Candidate shows up early, listens carefully

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Who knows what the Iowa voter wants these days? It might be Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who is running as a Democrat for President, not saying a whole lot but listening for a message that can take hold.

Merkley stopped by Storm Lake a week ago with an aide who was graduated from Grinnell College. He is trying to get a lay of the land and the temper of 2020 presidential cycle while campaigning for legislative candidates and stopping in The City Beautiful for a cup at Better Day Café.

He is advertised by others as the most liberal candidate in the ill-defined prospective field. That’s because he was a prominent supporter of Bernie Sanders. He is talking about universal health care and some of the Bernie issues. But you could sense he was trying to get a handle on rural issues that will resonate in Iowa.

No candidate is talking rural, and rural is what put Donald Trump in the White House.

Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana may try. He has been in Iowa lately. John Delaney of Maryland tries. But Merkley actually does serve as an appropriator on the Agriculture Committee, is fairly well versed in conservation programs, and realizes the impact that climate change will have on food production.

Nobody, probably not even Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, would have a better handle on rural issues (unless Tom Vilsack runs). Oregon is a major ag state.

Merkley made a name for himself when, in May, he tried to make an appointment to tour a child detention facility in Brownsville, Texas, operated under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security. They would not let him in, and in fact called the police to get rid of him. The video of it went viral. He was told that there were 1,000 immigrant boys inside. In fact, there were 1,500 packed into the former big box store at a shopping mall.

The only candidate who was visiting Iowa articulating a rural message was Jason Kander of Missouri, who opted to run for mayor of Kansas City instead of president.

You do not have to explain to Merkley how climate change is compounding surface water pollution and aquifer depletion. He was especially interested to hear that about 70% of voters, according to the Iowa Poll, realize that we are polluting our rivers and lakes, and believe that regulation of some sort is in order.

He also understands how important immigrants are to dying rural regions in Iowa and Kansas (where his mother fled during the Dust Bowl). He is campaigning against the so-called Tillis bill that would allow detainer of immigrant children and separation from their parents for more than 20 days (co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley). Merkley brings sort of a moral fervor to a growing and important constituency — Latino voters — that is taken for granted and ignored in large part by the Democratic Party.

Merkley made it a point to stop in Storm Lake because of that constituency.

So did John Norris, Democratic candidate for governor. He made rural rejuvenation his central campaign theme and included immigration as an important component. Fred Hubbell blew him out. Democrats want someone who has the resources to win, and they are not so concerned with serving those constituent blocs.

But they should be.

The current model is killing small towns in Iowa. Norris knows it. So did Jason Kander. And so does Merkley.

He does not exude charisma. He describes himself as a policy wonk. But if Merkley can continue to make himself heard, as he did in Brownsville, and emerge as a populist leader for the forgotten people, he can make the Iowa Caucuses what they should be. That is, a process by which someone without a huge national organization can catch a wave by campaigning away from the airports. Iowa Democrats blew it last time around by nominating the preordained Hillary Clinton over a deeply flawed Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden does not lose Wisconsin or Iowa.

It doesn’t appear that the Democrats have anyone who can clear the field. That allows a candidate with a message like Merkley to break through. The question is whether Democrats have the patience to listen later as Merkley is now.