STORM LAKE, Iowa — Tom Vilsack stepped out in the Schaller Memorial Chapel at Buena Vista University on March 30 and proceeded to set the stage for the five Democratic presidential candidates there for a forum on rural issues.
“I want to know what their vision is for revitalizing rural America,” said the former Iowa governor and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
Democrats, Vilsack said, need to articulate a vision for the country that includes rural America and they need to demonstrate that they aren’t an urban or coastal party.
The event, labeled the Heartland Forum, was sponsored by the Iowa Farmers Union, the Storm Lake Times and HuffPost. The five Democrats who came were: former housing secretary Julian Castro of Texas; Rep. John Delaney of Maryland; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who has not officially declared his candidacy; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
They came out on stage one at a time to answer questions from two panelists from HuffPost and from Art Cullen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Storm Lake Times, as well as from members of the audience.
“It was interesting, but we have to remember that they are still at the beginning of their campaigns,” said John Gilbert, a farmer from Iowa Falls and member of the Iowa Farmers Union. “This is kind of the off-broadway production for these campaigns yet.”
Warren, known for her efforts to rein in large corporations, spoke at a rally sponsored by several agricultural groups before the official event. At the forum, she talked about the fact that farmers are garnering an ever smaller percentage of the dollars spent on food in the United States.
The government today is more responsive to large corporations than it is to the common person, she said. Along with other candidates, she said she would push to enforce anti-trust laws, and she said she would support a roll-back of the recent merger of Bayer and Monsanto.
“We need to stand up and fight back,” she said.
She also stressed that while she lives in Massachusetts, she was born and raised in a small town in Oklahoma.
Castro talked about the fact that as the grandson of a Hispanic immigrant, it was exciting to come to Storm Lake, where there is a large immigrant population.
“I never thought before this campaign that I would get great Mexican food in Iowa, but I have,” he said to laughs from the audience.
He stressed investments in public education, the need to bring good jobs to rural areas and to provide clean air and water. Both the USDA and the Small Business Administration have a role to play in helping rural residents, he said.
He also talked about the opioid crisis and about immigration, saying that the government needs to do a better job at its official ports of entry rather than concentrating on building a long wall.
“We can have a secure border and still recognize the value of immigrant communities,” he said.
He said that can be done through support for the so-called Dreamers — young non-citizens who were raised in this country.
Delaney, a congressman from Maryland, talked about his background as a businessman, saying he believed in “the power of investment” in rural areas. He criticized Iowa’s move to privatize Medicaid, saying it has not led to better or less expensive health care.
Delaney said the federal government should be supporting public education as a way of boosting poor or rural areas.
Klobuchar cited her Midwestern roots.
“I’m the Senator from next door. I can see Iowa from my porch,” she joked.
She said she believes kids who grow up in rural America need to have opportunities that allow them to stay or to return to those rural areas to live. That means good education, healthy rural hospitals, broadband access and better enforcement of anti-trust legislation, she said.
“We are in the new gilded age,” she said of the concentration of business interests in the country, referring to the historical period of the late 1800s before anti-trust laws were enacted.
She also joined all the other candidates in mentioning that climate change is impacting farmers.
And she talked about the trade war with China, saying the Trump administration’s payment to farmers this winter helped, “but it’s not the same as selling things.”
Ryan, an Ohio Congressman who has not officially declared himself to be a candidate for president, certainly sounded like a candidate. He talked about the similarities between rust belt communities that have depended on manufacturing and agricultural communities.
In both cases, he said, the answer to struggling economies is not to try to return to some past time, but to innovate and look to the future.
“The key to a successful economy is to be on the cutting edge,” he said.
As a sitting member of Congress, he was also asked about Iowa’s 4th District Congressman Steve King, a Republican who had his own party strip him of committee assignments after repeated statements regarding race and white supremacists. Ryan said he had supported censuring King, adding “I think he’s playing along with a lot of the race baiting that the president has engaged in.”
At the end of the day, the members of the Iowa Farmers Union and other groups represented in the audience said they welcomed the chance to meet and talk to the candidates.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to have the first of what I’m sure will be many forums be about rural issues,” said IFU President Aaron Lehman. “It allowed our folks to take a good look at them. … It’s a good starting point for the caucus season.”