Iowa Democrats have their eyes on the Corridor, and are betting on the rise of the “Fab Five.”
With a majority of races up and down the ballot mostly set, Democrats gathered in Marion Thursday night to preview the 2016 coordinated campaign with an initiative led by Hillary Clinton’s state team, “Iowa Women Win.”
The focus is, of course, on the fact that two women — Hillary Clinton and Patty Judge — earned the Democratic Party’s nomination in races at the top of statewide ballot for the first time in Iowa history. The “amazing women of Iowa’s past, present and future” is a theme the campaign hopes will energize those drawn by the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy as well as those who have been turned off by Republican nominee Donald Trump’s sexist rhetoric.
“For a long time we didn’t talk about Hillary Clinton being the first woman president because we didn’t want people to think we were voting for her for that reason,” Sue Dvorsky, women’s outreach director for the Iowa Coordinated Campaign, told the audience gathered in Campbell Steele Gallery.
“She is the most qualified, she is the grittiest, she is the most compassionate and she is the most ready candidate that has ever run for president. She is, coincidentally, a woman.”
Also embedded in the message is broader application of the kitchen table and social justice issues that impact all families, but are too often dismissed as “women’s issues.”
Cue the “Fab Five.”
“We have a record number of women running on the Democratic ballot in this state in 2016 and Marion is ground zero,” Dvorsky said.
The local ballot not only includes Clinton and Judge, who is competing against Republican Chuck Grassley for U.S. Senate, but has U.S. House 1st District challenger Monica Vernon, incumbent Iowa Sen. Liz Mathis, and Iowa House District 68 challenger Molly Donahue.
“I’m running because of kids. I’m running because of schools. I’m running because of families,” Donahue, a local teacher, said.
Mathis, who represents District 34 and was elected as only the 34th woman to serve in the Senate, said more women in state government means more emphasis on “some of the things that really need to be focused on like health care, children, early literacy, early learning and supporting our teachers.”
“We really do turn the lens and look at things a bit differently,” Mathis said.
Vernon says it was in the “phoenix rising” process after massive 2008 flooding that she decided to run for Congress.
“When I looked into the eyes of the people impacted on multiple levels by the flood and I began to talk to them, ‘at risk’ took on a whole new meaning,” she said. “I realized we have got to have an economy here in northeast Iowa and throughout the state that works for everyone. When you look at the unfairness that exists out there, it is just incredible. And I, of course, view the economy through the eyes of a working mom.”
For those who have been paying attention, none of these statements are breaking news. Mathis has remained heavily involved in the state’s transition to privatized Medicaid, Vernon’s work on behalf of veterans, women and flood survivors is well documented and Donahue hinged her primary campaign on the state’s delayed and minimalistic support of education.
What has changed is that women politicians are owning their gender and, perhaps for the first time in state history, not treating it as a potential liability that needs to be regulated to the sidelines except when speaking before women-friendly audiences.
Watching as female political candidates square their shoulders and walk into rooms as whole people — not merely as business owners, mothers, teachers, nurses, wives or journalists — but as a full person, ready to offer the full spectrum of their life experience to a public service job is inspiring. Listening as women realize the value and necessity of their voices in the public square, as they take ownership of how they approach public policy discussions with a different perspective than their male counterparts, it is hard not to get excited about the more intricate future they promise.
But this is also an election year, and these conversations are steeped within one of the most unusual national election cycles in state and national history.
Politicians look for ways to draw contrast, and that hasn’t been difficult in this cycle. By any measure, Trump has been reckless and ignorant. It is difficult to find a single demographic he hasn’t insulted and offended. That plays in Clinton’s favor, especially among often “trumpitized” women, and her campaign hopes to capitalize by emphasizing steadfastness and experience.
Yet the controversy surrounding the Democratic National Committee hacked emails that plagued the party’s national convention showed that not everything is rosy in the red tent.
The ouster of Debbie Wasserman Schultz from the DNC and onto a pillow provided by the Clinton campaign raises the specter of a “good ol’ girls network.” Maybe it shouldn’t. Face-saving deals are commonplace in politics. There also hasn’t been talk of Wasserman Schultz actually touring as a surrogate. She may remain a volunteer spokeswoman in name only, never to grace the stage of a fundraiser or rally.
Still, who among us can weigh the evidence of collusion between the DNC and Clinton’s campaign and not see Wasserman Schultz’s soft landing as tipping the scales? Even if it came without a Clinton campaign paycheck or if it never translates to public appearances, it is difficult to view the appointment as anything other than political favoritism in exchange for a job well done.
I asked Dvorsky, who served as Iowa party chair during a portion of the time Wasserman Schultz led the national effort, if the situation reflected badly on the campaign’s emphasis on women. She politely reminded me that what happened at the DNC was “so much inside baseball” and that she was not part of the Clinton campaign’s decision to bring Wasserman Schultz on board.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t step down because she wasn’t supporting Hillary Clinton, but because, as a CEO, you have a standard you have to set. Whether you are sending the emails or not, internal corporate communications have to meet and standard and these didn’t. So the right thing happened,” she said, noting that the logistical success of the national convention despite the last-minute ouster of the chairwoman spoke to the overall strength of the DNC.
Will Wasserman Schultz be put out as a Clinton surrogate in Iowa or elsewhere?
“If she is sent to Iowa, we are going to welcome her in the same way we would any surrogate sent by the campaign,” Dvorsky said, adding her praise for the DNC’s selection of Donna Brazile as interim party chairwoman.
Putting Dvorsky on the spot, especially when I knew these national issues are outside of her sphere, wasn’t completely fair. Still, and to her credit, she didn’t merely ignore the questions.
But this situation with Wasserman Schultz has been on my mind since leaving Philadelphia, and it remains one of the most common questions readers, especially women, ask me about the experience. “How can the campaign think that is a good idea?” one asked before Thursday’s event.
Even as we all nod to the history being made, and respond to the calls for gender equality, we just can’t stop glancing at the double-standard in the distance.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 14, 2016. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette