In Iowa, Rashida Tlaib and the Sunrise Movement Push the Green New Deal—and Bernie Sanders

Ahead of the critical Iowa caucus, climate organizers are stumping for bold action and a presidential candidate they believe will get it done.

David Goodner

Sanders and Tlaib turned out 900 people to a Sunday rally in Iowa City centered on combating climate change. (Photo courtesy of Sunrise Movement Cedar Rapids)

IOWA CITY — National progressive leader and Squad” member Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) barnstormed through Iowa over the weekend with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), just three weeks before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus on February 3.

“If Sanders wins the nomination, it’s going to be on the back of the largest grassroots movement in my lifetime and that in itself is going to be paradigm-shifting.”

Together, Sanders and Tlaib turned out hundreds of people to a town hall meeting in Davenport on Saturday and 900 to a Sunday rally in Iowa City centered on combating climate change.

The two stops were the first public appearances in Iowa for Rep. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American lawyer, mother, Muslim and first-term congresswoman from Detroit.

Social justice is love and we are going to create an incredible new America that is about all of us,” Tlaib said at St. Ambrose Catholic University in Davenport. I’m so happy to be here on behalf of our future president of the United States, Bernie Sanders.” 

Sanders returned the praise, telling the Davenport crowd that, unlike the Trump administration, his campaign stands for a government of love and kindness, not hate and divisiveness” — and that he shared these values with Tlaib and the other members of the so-called Squad.” 

I know these guys and they are out there every day standing up for the working families of this country,” Sanders said.

According to the Sierra Club, A Green New Deal is a big, bold transformation of the economy to tackle the twin crises of inequality and climate change.” It’s notable that Sanders and his backers are mobilizing around the plan in Iowa, as such an approach for a novel idea could help increase public support. 

A Data for Progress survey released January 10 found that Iowa voters support a progressive agenda, with 78% of likely caucus-goers saying they strongly or somewhat support Medicare For All, and 83% of likely caucus-goers saying the same of the Green New Deal.

Tlaib made the urgency of the Green New Deal personal during both of her Iowa stops, relating the need for change to the plight of thousands of children and families in her west Detroit district, where working people of color face disproportionately high rates of air and water pollution, asthma and cancer.

If you really want to see what doing nothing truly looks like, come to my district,” she said in Iowa City. Rows and rows and rows of homes have these little white crosses in front of them, representing cancer, survivors of cancer.”

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a Sanders campaign co-chair, also spoke at the Iowa City climate rally. He pointedly criticized the ongoing wars in the Middle East while promoting Sanders’ lifetime of opposition to imperialism, as well as his support for climate initiatives.

I was just in Clinton, Iowa and you know what they told me there?” Rep. Khanna asked in Iowa City. 

They have the highest cancer rate in the state because of the sulfur dioxide emissions. Do you know what Bernie’s Green New Deal means? It means people in Clinton, Iowa shouldn’t have to worry about whether their kids will grow up with cancer. That’s what the Green New Deal is about.”

Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, said that Sanders’ first presidential campaign in 2016 emboldened a new generation of young people to stand up and take action for climate justice. 

Ms. Prakash’s speech in Iowa City was also her first public statement since the Sunrise Movement endorsed Sanders for president a few days earlier. She said in Iowa: Eighty percent of our members endorsed Bernie Sanders because he stands for a Green New Deal… the kind of Green New Deal that ensures black, brown, and indigenous people benefit from a new, sustainable economy, and that the historic injustices that have been perpetrated onto these communities are repaired.”

Other issues addressed at the Sunday rally included Medicare for All, student debt cancellation, free college tuition, a moratorium on deportations, ending wars in the Middle East, combating police brutality, legalizing marijuana, restoring felon voting rights, creating millions of affordable new homes, raising the minimum wage and repealing the Taft-Hartley Act.

Many of these ambitious policy prescriptions could also be part of a strong Green New Deal framework that advances environmental, economic and racial justice all at once. For example, affordable housing could be tackled under a Green New Deal by building 12 million new, environmentally sustainable and affordable homes, as put forward by People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee. Similarly, a Medicare for All bill could include green retrofitting of hospitals and clinics. Such proposals would also help create millions of jobs.

We are fighting to save the planet,” Sanders said in Iowa City. We have already seen the real damage of climate change here in Iowa, where record-breaking rainfalls have led to floods, millions of dollars in damages, and the delayed planting of hundreds of acres of farmland.”

A unifying theme of the rally that Sanders, Tlaib, Prakash and Khanna all touched upon was the idea that the only true vehicle for social change is a mass movement of millions of working people, coming together to take collective action. This Organizer-In-Chief” mantra of co-governance with social movements is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Sanders’ 2020 campaign.

The theory that issue organizing and electoral politics can be mutually beneficial isn’t just lofty campaign rhetoric — it’s actually being tested on the ground in Iowa. 

While Sanders has helped popularize policies like free college tuition, Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, the community organizations he counts on as allies in Iowa and around the country have been on the forefront of these issue campaigns.

It was the Sunrise Movement’s dramatic sit-ins at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s office in Washington D.C. in November and December 2018 that helped launch the Green New Deal framework into the public debate. 

The group began working in Iowa and New Hampshire soon after, according to local organizers. They currently have six paid staff working out of the statewide headquarters of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI) in Des Moines. 

We’re running a field program of base building, getting out the vote, and direct action,” Sayles Kasten, the Iowa state director of Sunrise Movement, told In These Times.

The climate canvassers spend most of their time organizing at local hubs” on college campuses with Iowa Student Action, another CCI-affiliated group that also works on free college tuition and debt cancellation, Kasten said. 

According to organizers, Iowa CCI has more than 15 paid staff and 5,000 dues-paying members. The community organization was an early endorser of Sanders in 2016 and has held dozens of community meetings, panel discussions, workshops and direct actions around Medicare for All. They began doing the same type of work around a Green New Deal last year.

Ms. Prakash, the Sunrise Movement executive director, was a featured speaker at Iowa CCI’s 2019 convention last summer, a role Sanders played in 2017. At least three of Sanders’ top Iowa campaign staff are CCI alumni. 

The group’s presidential forum in September was attended by more than 2,000 people, including four of the top-polling candidates. The event focused on grassroots storytelling about issues facing working people such as immigration, racial profiling, affordable housing, healthcare, factory farming and the environment.
The Sunrise Movement says they hope to move 10,000 Iowans to caucus for climate justice this year, enough to potentially swing the election, based on Sunrise’s Iowa caucus turnout model which predicts 200,000 people will participate.

Sanders is currently leading a number of polls in Iowa and New Hampshire — the first two early voting states — but whether he and his community allies can succeed in actually expanding the electorate remains to be seen. Because candidates spend so much time and money in these states, what happens there is seen as a bellwether test nationally.

No candidate in the modern era of presidential politics has won their party’s nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire (except in 1992 when Iowan Tom Harkin ran for president, which caused other candidates like eventual nominee Bill Clinton to skip Iowa entirely). Winning both states back-to-back can give a candidate considerable momentum going into Super Tuesday.

Regardless of the results in 2020, however, climate organizers plan to continue their efforts in the streets.

Climate protests organized by a coalition of environmental justice organizations, including the Sunrise Movement and the Youth Climate Strike, are scheduled for January 31 and February 1 in Des Moines and in cities across the country. 

The Youth Climate Strike and its allies have organized high school walkouts all across the state, brought Swedish environmental activist and Time magazine’s Person of the Year Greta Thunberg to Iowa last October, and co-sponsored a climate summit in Coralville last November that was headlined by Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

If Sanders wins the nomination, it’s going to be on the back of the largest grassroots movement in my lifetime and that in itself is going to be paradigm-shifting,” Mr. Kasten, the Iowa state director for Sunrise Movement, told In These Times.

But we know that no matter who is in Washington, we still need a Green New Deal. That’s why in 2021 young people will climate strike — we hope on the level of the Women’s March — no matter who is sitting in the White House. To us, it doesn’t matter who is in power, we’re still going to need to have status quo-shifting climate policy.”

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David Goodner is a writer, organizer and Catholic Worker from Iowa City.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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