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MONTICELLO, IOWA — Hillary Clinton made her first official campaign stop in Monticello on Tuesday, meeting with a handful of students and teachers at Kirkwood Community College, whose campus sits at the edge of town, protected by a large field. There, and the following day at Capital City Fruit in Norwalk, just south of Des Moines, Clinton talked the populist talk needed in this Midwestern state, which prides itself on being choosy when it comes to presidential candidates. Iowans want down-home, working-class policies — and people — they can identify with.
“The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top,” Clinton said in her campaign announcement video and throughout her Iowa stops. She claims to be running because she wants to be a champion for America, and specifically America’s middle class, noting, at the Monticello event, “There’s something wrong where CEOs make 300 times the typical worker…when hedge fund managers pay lower taxes than nurses or the truckers I saw on I‑80 when I was driving here over the last two days.” At the event she also said that a key pillar of her campaign is to “fix the dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment.”
All of this should sound good to the people who actually live in middle-class Monticello, which has an estimated median household income of around $45,000. Most in the nearly 4,000 strong-town did not get to meet or see Mrs. Clinton, as the event was closed to the public. But In These Times hit the pavement of Monticello’s aging but pristine downtown to learn about the concerns of local business owners and their employees and patrons.
As Clinton expected, campaign finance reform is at the top of most people’s lists. Michael Jacobs owns Michael’s Clothing, a cavernous shop that he’s operated for decades. He wants term limits for members of Congress, as well as limits on how long candidates can campaign — and how much they can spend. “They spend billions on campaigns. But what I could do with an extra $5,000,” he says. Another local business owner, who asked not to be named because “everybody here knows everybody,” says she’s worried about politicians “being too easily swayed by lobbyists.” She’s generally squeamish about politics these days, saying the negative attacks, against Clinton and others, are “boring. The negativity really gets to me. Don’t tell me what he or she said, tell me what you stand for.”
But despite Clinton saying all the right things on her Iowa road trip about “those at the top,” she’ll still struggle to shake her big city, elitist persona in Monticello. “I wasn’t fond of her being from Arkansas and then going to New York to be a senator,” says Jacobs. “Why not stay in her home state?” (Clinton is actually originally from Illinois).
Others are less skeptical. Candice Drake works two part-time jobs to make ends meet. When she spoke with In These Times she was waiting tables at Darrell’s, a Monticello restaurant. A Texas transplant, Drake also puts overturning Citizens United at the top of her wish list, and thinks Clinton is the woman for the job. “She’s strong, she’s intelligent, she’s got a mind that doesn’t quit.”
Larry William is a long-time Democrat, and a long-time regular at Darrell’s (some of the wall decorations, like a hand-painted plate, are courtesy of him). Over coconut pie, William tells In These Times that during his long life he has met Eisenhower, Bobby Kennedy and JFK, and that he has a framed photo of his mother, Ruby Boots, standing next to Hillary Clinton during a previous visit to Iowa in 2007. “She knows her stuff,” he says. “Plus, she’ll have Bill in there, too. As long as Joe Biden is VP, I’m happy.”
But Drake isn’t sure Clinton will have a shot in Iowa. “I’ve seen discrimination against women all my life. And people here especially are squirrely. They’re very reserved.”
Maria White runs Maria’s Art, a small business producing hand-made pottery and hand-painted ornaments — including, purportedly, one that was sent to the Queen of England. White is skeptical of Clinton. She’s glad she made Monticello her first stop but “wants to hear what both parties have to say” before making up her mind about candidates, noting that despite Clinton being in the limelight for decades, she still doesn’t really know her. But she’s clear about the issues that matter to her. “Small businesses, absolutely,” White says. “I’m a one-person shop. I’m fortunate that I’ve been in business for 38 years, that’s a long time for a woman. But I need help!” White wants any presidential candidate to cut taxes for very small business owners. “I can’t be put in a category with a business that has 50 employees.”
Sandwiched in between Michael’s Clothing and Maria’s Art is Treasured Weddings, run by June Fellinger. She says, “there’s everything to help big businesses, but nothing to help mom and pops. Politicians are more interested in big business these days. I’m concerned about what’s going to happen to these small towns.”
Fellinger’s also worried about cost of, and access to, healthcare. Fellinger battles a lung disease and says she was “in the hospital seven times last year.” Her husband and her pay around $10,000 a year in medical bills. “In ten years, we ate everything up. It’s (their savings) all gone.”
Despite her respiratory system only operating at 30 percent, Fellinger’s insurance company is denying her expensive treatment, which they see as a “luxury,” she says.
“I don’t think an insurance company should have the right to deny something like that.” She continues, “It’s pretty sad when your doctor looks you in the eye and says, ‘I feel so bad, because I could make you better.’” She says she wants “to put the medical care back into the doctors’ hands…not an insurance company down in Georgia.”
Tearing up, she asks, “It’s great that everybody now has healthcare, but what good is it if you can’t actually get care?”
Despite supporting Clinton in the 2007 primary, Fellinger is still waiting “to see what she has to offer” and wishes the candidate had “met with us common folk.” But she does like Clinton because she’s a woman. “I have big hopes for her. I thought it was ironic, her coming to this town, because it’s still so male dominated. It’s a farming community — the husband still provides. It’s a man’s world. I would love to know what Hillary thought of our town,” she smiles.
While more and more women are running businesses on Monticello’s aging main street, Fellinger says that’s because belts are being tightened. “Women work the stores, and men work other jobs so that they can get health insurance and better pay.”
While Fellinger has yet to make up her mind about who she’ll support in 2016, she says, “I just hope whoever gets in changes things. There are a lot of things to change.”
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