Iowa's news cycle is often dictated by events in the capital city and the legislature. But what are the issues concerning people on Main Street and in rural areas? We gather a roundtable of journalists covering those places on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, December 21 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: As results for the Iowa Governor's race trickled in on Election Night many democrats felt confident that large margins in metro Des Moines and Cedar Rapids would lead to victory. But Iowa's rural counties voted overwhelmingly for incumbent republican Kim Reynolds. So what are the opinions and issues that define our state outside the metro areas? To dive deeper we have gathered a group of Iowa journalists with firsthand knowledge of small town Iowa.

Yepsen: Art Cullen is co-owner and editor of the Storm Lake Times and was the 2018 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing. He has also got a new book out in time for Christmas titled Storm Lake. So I gave you a plug already. You've got your book out here, right? Everybody get a Christmas present.

Yepsen: Doug Burns is Vice President of News and co-owner of Herald Publishing Company, which has papers in many town, including Carroll and my hometown of Jefferson. Doug, I got my first byline in the Herald.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard is News Director at KNIA & KLRS Radio in Knoxville and Pella. He has written many pieces about Iowa for the New York Times.

Yepsen: And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa covering public affairs for 72 radio stations across the state. She is a proud native of Lennox.

Yepsen: Welcome, everybody. Glad to have you all here to talk about a few issues.

Good to be here.

Thanks for having us.

Yepsen: Let's just go around the table and I'd like you to give me, I'll start with you Art Cullen, an assessment of the mood in your community.

Cullen: Well, I'd say the mood generally in Northwest Iowa right now is fairly sour. Corn and soybean markets are in the tank. We still are in a trade war with China, no resolution for trade issues with China and Mexico yet. I think farmers are very nervous right now, reflected Tuesday in the failed school bond election that was defeated, I presume mainly by rural voters.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard?

Leonard: It depends on who you talk to. Give the results of the election the democrats are pretty disillusioned but they're ready to go, they're looking forward to 2020. If you're in the farm business at all you're nervous, you're very nervous, but that's sort of the normal state for most of the farmers that I know. The Main Street people, most people are just going about their daily lives and still a lot of support for President Trump.

Yepsen: Doug Burns, what is the mood around Carroll?

Burns: I'd say the operative word is anxiety but there is still some optimism among hardcore Trump supporters that his trade gambits will ultimately pay off so there is that steadfast support that he has. On Main Street our big concern I think we'll talk about it later is our remarkable unemployment numbers. There just aren't enough people in rural Iowa and our businesses are starting to make a lot more phone calls to try to poach employees from other people. So that is the big issue we're facing. We just don't have enough people, David.

Yepsen: Kay Henderson, what do you sense out there?

Henderson: I grew up on a family farm, still in the family, and I can tell you that the weather this fall created a lot of anxiety. The Henderson family farm run by my brother and my nephew didn't finish the harvest until the Sunday after Thanksgiving. And also because I grew up in rural Iowa I'm well aware of the rural versus Des Moines dynamic in Iowa. As you learned when you were in Illinois, David, there is a big Chicago versus the entire rest of the state. That exists in Iowa too, to a great extent.

Yepsen: What about farm auctions? Are any of you sensing an increase in the bankruptcy rates or people -- you hear farmers going into their bankers about now.

Henderson: Well, on this program we had Ernie Goss, who is the Creighton University economist who surveys bankers and others in the business community and he is seeing sort of an uptick in bankers indicating that when farmers come in for those cash flow loans that they're asking more questions, they're turning down more than they have in the past, so there's starting to be a little trickle there in terms of things are getting tighter and tighter because prices are not ticking up.

Cullen: And they're also rolling a lot of that short-term debt now, they're restructuring into, tacking it onto their long-term debt, which has echoes of the Farm Crisis.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, do tariffs have an effect on public opinion as you see it? Do people make a connection between high tariffs and our flap with China and low prices?

Leonard: It depends. Republicans, especially if you're not a farmer, they're just optimistic that Trump will win, that something has to be done and they overwhelmingly think that he is going to succeed. If you're a farmer looking at several years of losses, looking at those piles of corn and soybeans, you're more worried. And farm auctions are indeed up. One auction company I was looking at had 30 auctions by this time last year, now there's 90. Bankers tell me that farmers are starting to bank hop, that money is getting tight. There already is the Farm Bureau reported that there has been an increase in bankruptcies. When those notes become due at the first of the year for many of the farmers that's when we're going to know.

Yepsen: Art Cullen, I've always learned growing up that if the farmers weren't making it, nobody else was. Is this situation in the farm community affecting the mood of people on Main Street?

Cullen: Well, sure it does because they don't buy as many new pickups or furniture, so that affects the person at the furniture store, it affects the guy trying to sell a pickup. Yes, even though farming is not, there's 2% of our population actually lives on the farm, its reverberations certainly are felt in town.

Yepsen: Right. Doug Burns mentioned -- I want to stay with you, Art -- mentioned this issue of worker shortages. Are you seeing that around Storm Lake too?

Cullen: Well yeah, absolutely because of the fact that 90% of our elementary school are children of color, mainly immigrants from Latin America, because Tyson Fresh Meats can't find Anglo workers to work in its meat packing plants, hence we bring in immigrants and Storm Lake is one of the few rural counties that is actually seeing population growth.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, how is the immigration issue playing in your area? Are people aware that here is a worker shortage? And do they see immigrants and newcomers as a way to solve that problem? Or is there hostility towards immigrants?

Leonard: There's not a lot of talk about it. There's not a lot of immigrants in Marion County and Warren County and a lot of the other places where the radio stations are. But there's not a lot of talk of it. I'm sure there's more in Storm Lake and Perry, etcetera, but in Marion County there's just not. The only thing they know about a lot of immigrants they learn from Fox News.

Yepsen: Doug Burns, what about it?

Burns: Well, in Carroll we're 25 miles from Denison which is a Latino rich community, a heavy amount of diversity there. As a matter of fact this weekend when they show It's a Wonderful Life at the Donna Reed Theatre it's going to be subtitled in Spanish. So Steve King might resign right away if he sees something like that. But there's a surprising number of businesses in Carroll that have a large number of immigrant employees, Pella Corp. And so on the ground day-to-day when it's not a political issue we understand how vital immigrants are to the daily churn of our economy.

Yepsen: And Art Cullen, you have written a lot about this in your book and other places. Are immigrants more welcome in Storm Lake than they used to be? Are they a way to solve labor shortages in our state?

Cullen: Yes. At first we had refugees from Laos who came in to man the meat packing plant when the Farm Crisis drove out all the young farm boys that used to work in meat packing. And then about 1990 young Latino males started coming to Storm Lake and people got kind of nervous back then about it. They were getting in a lot of bar fights and stuff. They work in a meat packing plant and they're young and single. And then finally, after now 20 years later, people are pretty used to it and embrace immigrants when they realize that were it not for immigrants Storm Lake would be half the size it is.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, I want to switch gears to the drug problem. Are opioids and methamphetamines a growing issue? A diminishing issue?

Leonard: It's a growing issue and it's a concern. It's a concern for law enforcement, everyday people, it's also the manufacturing companies. Marion County has great manufacturing companies and there's, leaders tell me there's a lot of people that come looking for work but can't pass the drug test. It's a real concern.

Yepsen: And in Carroll?

Burns: Yeah, I think the problem is more in southern Iowa than it is, Carroll is a relatively -- not that we don't have the problem but in looking at our police reports and with Jared Strong on our staff we have one of the more aggressive and better courts and crime reporters in the state. We are seeing drug offenses, we are seeing an uptick. But again, the average household income and general prosperity in Carroll is a little bit higher than in much of rural Iowa.

Henderson: One of the things that the state drug czar said recently was that there is a big uptick in the number of Iowans who are seeking treatment because of a meth addiction. There has been so much emphasis on prescription drugs and heroin, the opioid crisis, that people are forgetting that we're now seeing an influx of meth made in Mexico coming up Interstate 35 and being distributed in all parts of the state including rural Iowa. And so there has been that real uptick in when this happened before legislators responded by trying to decrease access to the kinds of ingredients that you need to make meth. This is going to have to be something that is addressed at the national level.

Yepsen: I think a lot of people in Iowa don't associate the drug problem with our labor shortage. And if you could fix the drug problem somehow you'd do a lot to create a lot more workers.

Cullen: And I'd also add that the drug of choice in Northwest Iowa remains Busch Light.


Yepsen: Art Cullen, and I want to ask each of you this, what is the most important thing that the Governor and legislature could be doing to improve the quality of life in the communities around you?

Cullen: Take education off its starvation budget, number one. The key to the future of rural Iowa is young people and we're starving our K-12 system with annual appropriation increases that don't keep up with inflation. The Iowa Tuition Grant that supports private colleges is supposed to, it should be five times the size it is, but they never increase its funding and now we see Iowa Wesleyan is on the rocks, Simpson cut out the art major, Clarke College is cutting its drama major, Buena Vista University, a Presbyterian school, cuts its religion and philosophy major.

Yepsen: But, Art, is that a function of budgets or demographics? There just aren't that many young people around anymore.

Cullen: It's a function of budgets and the Board of Regents decided they were going to raid private colleges for the benefit of Iowa State University and the University of Iowa and they have decreased funding in real terms for the Iowa Tuition Grant program and in actual terms they have, it's a starvation diet for K-12 education and community colleges.

Yepsen: Doug Burns, same question to you. What should the Governor and the state legislature be doing to solve these problems?

Burns: I'd say very specifically first of all Fred Hubbell was right about Medicaid privatization, it has been a disaster for key organizations like New Hope Village in Carroll that serves people with disabilities. So I'd say first that. But also transportation. Those of us in rural Iowa don't want to see all the money to go to build a super six speedway from Illinois to Omaha, we'd like to see Highway 30 4-laned and we're pretty plucky and enterprising in rural Iowa. If you give us 4 lanes through that key part of the state we can do a lot more with that. We've got a lot of businesses that are tied to transportation in the Carroll area. So if I could have a genie pop up and give me three economic development wishes I'd use all of them on Highway 30.

Yepsen: Doug, just be patient. It took 50 years to get Highway 20 done.

Burns: They did just have a ribbon cutting, yeah.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, same question. What do you see as the most important thing the Governor and the legislature could be doing to help rural Iowa?

Leonard: Well, one of the things that they are doing that is good are the jobs training programs. Those are really good and a lot of kids are taking advantage of that. But I'll have to agree with Art that education, funding of public education is absolutely critical. Teachers are asked to do more with less than they have ever done. Kids that are bright, bright, sharp kids that in my generation would have gone to college are now working at Casey's in our neighborhoods and it's just, it's sad and it's tragic, nothing against Casey's, thank God there is a job for them, but there are other better jobs for some of these bright kids that I know.

Yepsen: What about -- switch gears to -- Kay?

Henderson: Yeah, I recently spoke with the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives and this plays into the worker shortage. There is a lack of housing. Businesses can hire somebody but they're going to have to drive 90 minutes or maybe 2 hours to get to and from work. There are some ideas out there, legislators expressed the idea that they're willing to consider things that would perhaps spur some development. There is kind of an innovative idea that would have prisoners at the Newton facility who will eventually be released, they gain job skills by building spec homes inside the prison, then you move that home to a rural community. You cut down on some of the costs that a traditional home builder would have. And viola, you have a home in which somebody who will work in a local community can buy and live.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, switch gears, I want to go to water quality. Does anybody talk about that around your area?

Leonard: Not often. I mean, the democrats --

Yepsen: It's a big deal in urban areas.

Leonard: Well, yeah, and democrats will talk about it but I don't think it's something that people think a lot about in rural areas. The thing is, and farmers get a lot of blame for all of this, the thing is the markets demand farmers deliver us cheap food and that it's dependable, it's good and the farmers that they have to do it in a certain way. They aren't making any money now. If they start putting in all kinds of systems to help improve our water quality they're losing even more money.

Yepsen: Art, any support in your area for raising the sales tax to fund environmental quality work? Some talk about three-eighths of a penny, some talk about a full penny.

Cullen: I don't think there's a whole lot of support for the three-eighths sales tax. There wasn't support in the republican legislature to extend the school sales tax for construction. So no, I just don't sense the support for it. What I do sense is that the practical farmers of Iowa are making, they're profitable. The head of Iowa State Extension said that the average organic farmer is grossing $1000 an acre, the average guy growing number two yellow corn on a chemical base is getting about $600 an acre. There's a $400 difference there and now the practical farmers of Iowa, who 30 years ago were thought of as freaks, now they're getting 1,000 people at their field days to talk about rotational grazing and that's the answer.

Yepsen: Doug Burns?

Burns: We have a challenge getting people to understand the recent national climate assessment showing that climate change is going to be devastating for big sweeps of Iowa including where I'm from. It's hard to get people to dial into that and the only time I can get people to really talk about water quality is when I run a column from Art Cullen in our paper.

Yepsen: Art, let's switch to politics here. Why do we have an urban/rural split in this state? You saw it in the election, as I mentioned in the intro, urban areas voting for Fred Hubbell the democrat, rural areas --

Cullen: In Northwest Iowa we've always felt that we're part of Nebraska or South Dakota and Highway 20, for example, it took 50 years to get it from Interstate 35 to 29. We notice those things. And we notice when the Iowa Finance Authority directs all its tax credits to Ankeny and Storm Lake gets zero to address this rural housing crisis. That's why, because we get screwed constantly by Des Moines.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, you're shaking your head yes?

Leonard: Yeah, there's sort of a joke, we say hear that giant sucking sound? That's Des Moines sucking all the resources from across the state.

Cullen: Right, right.

Burns: Well, when you drive into Des Moines you see this community being ringed by a remarkable amount of growth. When you go over to Omaha and you're in the Council Bluffs area you see that sort of explosive growth. So there is a feeling that we're being left behind in rural Iowa by economic development policies. But I would say that really the answer is it's identity politics and that when you look at Fred Hubbell or Kim Reynolds people aren't really voting for people anymore, they're voting for mascots. And Hubbell is the mascot of the Democratic Party and Reynolds is the mascot of the Republican Party. So you've just got to take, stop talking about politics when it comes to rural and urban in terms of people and candidates and just think of these standard bearers as mascots.

Yepsen: Do you think Trump will carry Iowa again in 2020?

Burns: No, I don't.

Yepsen: Why?

Burns: I think there will be an exhaustion level in rural Iowa with him. I think we will get to a point where desperation will be at play in rural Iowa and I think, as a candidate like Cindy Axne proved, I think some of the suburban areas will go very heavy for a democrat.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, what does your political antenna say? Will Trump carry Iowa again?

Leonard: I didn't think he did carry it last time. But I think that we're on the verge of Iowa potentially flipping, especially as the markets turn south and agriculture is turning south, if that continues unless there is a real resolution to the tariffs very quick. 31 counties in Iowa flipped from voting for Barack Obama twice, they can flip back.

Cullen: Dubuque is coming home. Dubuque came home for Abby Finkenauer, Joe Biden showed up, Dubuque will come home. Waterloo is there. Burlington isn't going to throw out the likes of a Tom Courtney again.

Yepsen: Well, but to people in Jefferson places like Burlington are big cities.

Cullen: J.D. Scholten came within three points of Donald Trump's proxy, Steve King. And if he's smart he'll run against King again and not against Joni Ernst because he could beat him next time just like Berkley Bedell beat Wiley Mayne in 1974 and Tom Harkin knocked off Bill Scherle. We didn't have a blue wave in Iowa, we had a purple ripple. The blue wave is still building in Iowa and Wisconsin.

Henderson: Although I would point out that in the 1980s during the Farm Crisis Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984. People weren't ready to divorce themselves from Ronald Reagan even though David Stockman, the head of the OMB was very anti-farmer, seen by most farmers in Iowa as anti-farmer. They weren't ready to say we're done with republicans yet.

Yepsen: Well, in '84 though it is also true Iowa was one of Walter Mondale's best states and by 1988 Mike Dukakis carried Iowa and got a better percentage in Iowa than he did in Massachusetts. So my point is it takes a while for these Farm Crisis things to ripple through. What I hear you guys saying is, we may have gone for Trump this time, but as those tariffs and economic policies start to bite maybe it'll change. Right, Doug?

Burns: I think so. And I think the big issue right now, in your hometown of Jefferson we had an event over the weekend where Congressman Ro Khanna from California came in with the idea of extending the software revolution to rural areas and it is beginning in your hometown of Jefferson. So I think there will be a sense that a lot of wealth is being scooped and segregated in this country to Seattle, Silicon Valley and certain tech areas and if the democrats are successful in identifying that process as the real culprit in a lot of our problems then I think it will bode well for the democrats.

Yepsen: Art, can we talk about the democrats? Democrats are desperately across American trying to find ways to appeal to rural voters and they've got to because of the Electoral College. The Electoral College has a rural skew to it and states like Iowa have a larger influence in the Electoral College. What do democrats have to do to attract rural voters?

Cullen: Show up. Fred Hubbell didn't show up, that's why he got beat. He got clobbered in Pocahontas County because he never visited Pocahontas County. And you've got to at least get 10% or 20% of the vote in Sioux County up in Northwest Iowa. You've got to show up. J.D. Scholten showed up in Sioux County, Berkley Bedell showed up in Sioux County. Hillary Clinton didn't show up in Storm Lake in the last cycle where there's 2,000 Latinos who are registered to vote. So I think that's what they've got to do is show up.

Yepsen: Bob Leonard, what's your prescription for democrats?

Leonard: Well, I think that they need to build on their base. They also need to attract independents and I think that's the key. Certain people in rural Iowa will never vote for a democrat because of issues like abortion and gun rights, those two things. They are always thinking that democrats are coming for their guns and they'll never vote for a pro-choice party. So it's the independents.

Yepsen: But it's not hopeless for democrats in rural Iowa?

Leonard: No, absolutely not. And again, they have to show up. I talked to Chuck Grassley, once a month, I have talked to him once a month for twelve years and when Tom Harkin was in office I couldn't get him to return my calls, emails. I talked to Tom Harkin twice, once in the week before each election. That is a vacuum that was left.

Yepsen: Doug, your thoughts on what do democrats need to be doing?

Burns: I think shelf some of the identity politics, focus on economic issues. It is going to be challenging, we had some really solid statehouse candidates in our area in Warren Varley and Peter Leo. And these are people that are connected to the community, they check a lot of the boxes and they were getting beat by 30 points. So it is, there's some thinking that it might make sense in certain districts for democrats to stand down and run and let independent candidates come in, in their stead.

Yepsen: That runs contrary to what Art just said, you've got to show up, they've got to show up more, democrats have to show up more.

Burns: I think they definitely have to show up more. In certain House districts where the last two or three election cycles you're getting beat by 30 points and you've got candidates that are touching the right issues and running good campaigns it's hard to encourage them. Encouraging J.D. Scholten to run again makes sense, encouraging Peter Leo to run again after he lost by 30 points is a different thing.

Yepsen: Doug, I've got to leave it there. Thank you all for taking time to come out here to the studios and be with us today.

Thanks for having us.

Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week when we'll gather Statehouse political reporters for a look ahead to 2019. You can catch Iowa Press at 7:30 Friday night on our main Iowa PBS channel and again Sunday at noon with another broadcast Saturday morning at 8:30 on our .3 World channel. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa