Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and the Working-Class Iowa Test

At the People’s Presidential Forum, bold left-wing policies dominated the debate, as both Sanders and Warren sought to expand their support ahead of Iowa’s critical caucuses.

Gavin Aronsen October 1, 2019

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at the People's Presidential Forum in Des Moines, Iowa on Sept. 21. (People’s Action / Iowa CCI)

DES MOINES — A large Peo­ple Before Prof­it” ban­ner hung over the dou­ble doors lead­ing into the Iowa Event Center’s ball­room — the state’s largest — Sep­tem­ber 21 for the People’s Pres­i­den­tial Forum. The event was host­ed by the nation­al grass­roots group People’s Action and two of its local mem­ber orga­ni­za­tions, Iowa Stu­dent Action and the Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment Action Fund (CCIAF).

More than 2,300 peo­ple, most of them work­ing-class — includ­ing groups of fast-food work­ers and ten­ant orga­niz­ers — attend­ed the dis­cus­sion with four Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates: Bernie Sanders, Eliz­a­beth War­ren, Pete Buttigieg and Julián Cas­tro. The can­di­dates shared the stage with work­ers from Iowa and near­by Mid­west­ern states, but also as far away as Hon­duras. The work­ers told sto­ries of how they’d been adverse­ly impact­ed by cor­po­rate greed and anti-union gov­ern­ment poli­cies, as refrains of That ain’t right!” rang out from the audience.

The forum’s theme of move­ment pol­i­tics” pre­sent­ed a strik­ing con­trast to the day’s big­ger-tick­et event, the Polk Coun­ty Steak Fry, where an esti­mat­ed 12,000 peo­ple turned out to hear 17 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls give briefer, more con­ven­tion­al stump speech­es. The all-impor­tant Iowa cau­cus­es — the first vot­ing con­test of the pri­ma­ry — stands as a test of can­di­dates’ strength in 2020

Bri­an McLain, 42, a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Postal Work­ers Union (APWU) from the Des Moines sub­urb of Anke­ny, appre­ci­at­ed the forum’s focus on uni­ver­sal health­care, but was unim­pressed by Cas­tro and Buttigieg, as both declined to embrace Medicare for All. 

Medicare for All is a big one for me,” said McLain, who sup­ports Sanders. It is one of my deal­break­ers when it comes to pres­i­den­tial candidates.”

McLain described how he spent a decade of his adult­hood in pover­ty, lack­ing access to health­care cov­er­age. That changed, he said, when the union he joined — the APWU — secured ben­e­fits for him and his fam­i­ly through col­lec­tive bargaining.

But with three chil­dren now reach­ing adult­hood them­selves, McLain wor­ries whether they will be able to access care as Repub­li­cans con­tin­ue their efforts to dis­man­tle what’s left of Oba­macare. In Iowa, state Repub­li­cans also pri­va­tized Med­ic­aid, which has reduced or elim­i­nat­ed cov­er­age for many vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents, and under­mined col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for pub­lic-sec­tor unions.

Sanders has made his Medicare for All Act, a sin­gle-pay­er bill that would replace pri­vate insur­ance with a sin­gle fed­er­al health insur­ance pro­gram, a cen­ter­piece of his cam­paign. War­ren also sup­ports the plan; in response to a ques­tion­naire sent out by CCIAF ahead of the forum, War­ren said the coun­try ought to start treat­ing health­care like the basic human right that it is.”

Dur­ing the forum, Sanders said, I have believed for my entire adult life that health­care is a human right, not a priv­i­lege.” Cit­ing the mil­lions of un- and under­in­sured Amer­i­cans across the coun­try, he added, We have a sys­tem today which is not only dys­func­tion­al, it is incred­i­bly cru­el.” As of July 2018, more than 176,000 Iowa res­i­dents lacked health­care coverage.

A poll con­duct­ed by the Des Moines Reg­is­ter and CNN and released short­ly after the forum showed that 41% of like­ly Iowa cau­cus­go­ers sup­port Medicare for All and want can­di­dates to run on the pro­gram, while anoth­er 28% are per­son­al­ly com­fort­able” with the plan but wor­ry it could have adverse elec­toral con­se­quences. The forum also fea­tured dis­cus­sion of oth­er hot-but­ton issues defin­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, from the Green New Deal to afford­able hous­ing and stu­dent debt.

The Green New Deal, if that’s a fad, it’s the last damn fad we’ll have the chance to join,” said Danielle Wirth, 65, a res­i­dent of Wood­ward, Iowa, who teach­es cours­es on ecol­o­gy at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty in Ames. The plan­et is at risk.”

Wear­ing a shirt pro­mot­ing the Green New Deal, a com­pre­hen­sive plan to com­bat cli­mate change and trans­form the econ­o­my, Wirth said she and her hus­band planned to cau­cus for two of the can­di­dates at the forum — War­ren and Sanders, respectively.

My hus­band and I would like to see both Bernie and Eliz­a­beth War­ren get through the cau­cus­es, because they both rep­re­sent such fun­da­men­tal, sys­temic change,” she explained. We believe in inter­gen­er­a­tional equity.”

Both can­di­dates expressed sup­port for the Green New Deal in the CCIAF ques­tion­naire and were cospon­sors of the ini­tial Sen­ate res­o­lu­tion endors­ing the plan. Sanders called for mov­ing away from fos­sil fuels to 100% ener­gy effi­cien­cy and sus­tain­able ener­gy.” Farm­ers across the state are already feel­ing the eco­nom­ic impact of cli­mate change as rainier springs and hot­ter sum­mers threat­en crop yields.

The Reg­is­ter-CNN poll showed that near­ly half of all like­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic cau­cus­go­ers in Iowa sup­port the Green New Deal and want can­di­dates to cam­paign on it.

I think Bernie prob­a­bly set the agen­da for all of them,” said Gina Fol­som, 69, a retired edu­ca­tor from Ames, refer­ring to the senator’s rivals. Four years ago, I don’t think any of them were say­ing these things. She plans to cau­cus for Sanders for her sec­ond time in Feb­ru­ary 2020.

The Reg­is­ter-CNN poll showed War­ren as the top choice of 22% of like­ly Iowa cau­cus­go­ers, over­tak­ing cen­trist rival Joe Biden for the first time by a 2‑point mar­gin. Sanders dropped to third place in the poll at 11%.

Sanders, though, appeared to be the favored can­di­date among the major­i­ty of the forum’s atten­dees, draw­ing the biggest audi­ence in the ball­room and receiv­ing the loud­est applause. Forum speak­ers and oth­er atten­dees recount­ed help­ing orga­nize sup­port for him in 2016 ahead of that year’s cau­cus­es, which result­ed in a vir­tu­al tie with even­tu­al nom­i­nee Hillary Clinton.

While Warren’s posi­tions tend­ed to mir­ror those expressed by Sanders, there was a notable moment that set the two apart. Sanders sup­ports a nation­al rent-con­trol pol­i­cy, but in a dis­cus­sion about hous­ing reform, War­ren sug­gest­ed this approach wouldn’t work for all com­mu­ni­ties. Writ­ing a rent-con­trol plan in Wash­ing­ton may work for Chica­go,” she argued, but it’s not going to work for Iowa City, or it may not work for Dallas.”

War­ren could be bet­ter on this, and we plan to con­tin­ue engag­ing her and the rest of the can­di­dates on a nation­al homes guar­an­tee that includes uni­ver­sal rent con­trol,” said Hugh Espey, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Iowa Cit­i­zens for Com­mu­ni­ty Improve­ment, after the forum. He added that a nation­al stan­dard on rent con­trol would help states like Iowa and cities like Des Moines pro­tect peo­ple against sky­rock­et­ing rents.”

In 2016, CCIAF endorsed Sanders for pres­i­dent. The group plans to back a can­di­date for 2020 in ear­ly Novem­ber, orga­niz­er Shawn Sebas­t­ian said — but he cau­tioned against read­ing too much into a sin­gle poll because of the past ten­den­cy among Democ­rats in the state not to set­tle on a can­di­date until short­ly before they caucus.

CCIAF’s focus will remain on pol­i­cy issues regard­less of its endorse­ment, Sebas­t­ian added.

What the People’s Forum is try­ing to show is the ene­my is not each oth­er,” he said. The [ene­mies are] the big-mon­ey cor­po­ra­tions and the cor­rupt politi­cians who take orders from them, that try to divide us against each other.”

Gavin Aron­sen is an edi­tor of the Iowa Informer, and pre­vi­ous­ly worked at the Ames Tri­bune and Moth­er Jones magazine.
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