Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Nov 29, 2019 | 27 min

Iowans sat down for turkey and relaxation this week as politics and issues hovered over the Thanksgiving season. We gather insight from journalists covering rural Iowa on this edition of Iowa Press.


Iowans sat down for turkey and relaxation this week as politics and issues hovered over the Thanksgiving season. We gather insight from journalists covering rural Iowa 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. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 29 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. 

Yepsen: As Iowans gathered for Thanksgiving dinner this week, many were likely to pass politics around the table along with the stuffing and green bean casseroles. For more than 10 months we have been in a nonstop presidential caucus campaign. The state is nearly 60 days away from kicking off the 2020 election cycle. But what are the issues driving politics in the rural economy and small town Iowa? To talk about it, we've gathered an all-Iowa reporters' roundtable of individuals covering rural areas. Joining us today are Doug Burns, co-owner of the Carroll Times-Herald.  Bob Leonard of KNIA and KRLS Radio in Knoxville. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Welcome everybody, I'm glad you could be with us. We did this a year ago and we'll update our views for our viewers. Last week the head of the Farm Credit Association said, and I quote, "adjusted for inflation, total farm debt outstanding is nearing the record set almost 40 years ago." That is 1979, the start of the Farm Crisis. Kay, I'll start with you. What is the condition of the rural economy? And what does it mean for politics?

Henderson: Well, on Wednesday of this week John Deere announced its fourth quarter earnings and income was down by $63 million. The new CEO of John Deere, who has by the way only been on the job since November 4th, said it was due to a combination of trade woes and this horrible growing season that Iowa farmers have been living through. And farmers are just reluctant to make those big equipment purchases right now.

Yepsen: Doug?

Burns: Well, we just read a devastating report yesterday about life expectancy in rural Iowa among white rural Iowans. Some of the economic anxiety is starting to manifest itself in some really difficult ways. You mentioned the farm economy. I'm worried about how that affects our retail trade in Carroll. We'll soon have an Amazon fulfillment center in Bondurant and another one in Grimes. So I'm worried about how that affects the shopping in Carroll and Denison and Jefferson and the communities I can serve when people have quicker access to those products that are provided by people that don't really contribute much to our economy in rural America.

Yepsen: Bob, what is your view of the condition of the rural economy?

Leonard: Well, we just read a report from ISU and the Des Moines Register this morning that 44% of Iowa farmers are in trouble with debt. A couple of months ago I spoke with a lender, I was thinking that business wasn't good and I just sort of led the question with that, how's business, thinking it would be down. And he said, oh business is great, lending is great. And so I looked puzzled and he said, oh I only do the high risk loans. And there's problems. I'm seeing equipment by the side of road sides that I haven't seen before. There's trouble on the horizon. More money is just coming out of the Trump administration and that should help a little bit. But bankruptcies are up.

Henderson: What would happen in this economy if already hadn't been injected almost three-quarters of a trillion dollars in those payments that the Trump administration authorized through the USDA to Iowa farmers? Iowa farmers have gotten more of those USDA payments than any other state.

Yepsen: But the Iowa state economists say that's still not enough to make up for what they have lost because of the trade war. Bob, one of the things that people accuse us in the media, we're always too negative. And I've heard politicians say that we run a risk of talking ourselves into a recession. Is there any good news out there? Do you think that we may be focusing too much on the negative?

Leonard: I have a banker friend I go to and interview regularly and I always ask her at the end, any good news? And there's not a lot of good news. Farmers themselves are pretty tight lipped, nobody really wants to talk about it. But when they do and you talk with them about trade and China, the ones that I know are still thinking Trump is doing the right thing.

Burns: Well, let's go to your hometown of Jefferson. I think there is some terrific news in key parts of rural Iowa. Congressman Ro Khanna from Silicon Valley spent a lot of time in Jefferson. We have a Forge, a branch of pillar Accenture that has recently opened to great fanfare. It is an 1880s building near the movie theatre you used to go to and projections are 30 to 40 software development jobs at $60,000 to $80,000 a year and that has led to some other exciting developments there including the construction which is now underway of a career academy from Iowa Central Community College in Jefferson. So your hometown is really kind of a shining star in rural Iowa right now, David.

Yepsen: I didn't ask you to do that plug.

Burns: I know, I know.

Yepsen: Kay, same question. Are we in danger of talking ourselves into a big funk here when we shouldn't have to do that?

Henderson: Well, I think you were right in saying that there are some economists who argue that you sort of talk yourself into that. If you look at state tax revenues they're healthy. If you look at the non-ag sector and going back to the John Deere earnings report from this week, their point was that while things are really questionable in the ag sector, the rest of the economy for John Deere is doing pretty well. They have sold a lot of construction equipment, they have sold a lot of small equipment because people have disposable income to buy things. So I think there are some troubling signs from the aspect of a U.S. Census Bureau report that came out this week that said Americans' mobility is at the lowest level it has ever been since they have been measuring this. And if you're trying to fill those software jobs in Jefferson, getting someone to move across country, or maybe even move from the 319 area code up to Jefferson may be difficult because people are just less mobile. They are sort of married, if you will, to the home in which they live because home values are so hard to manage for many people.

Yepsen: Let's switch the conversation to politics, Doug. We've been seeing a lot of democratic presidential candidates. As you look at the race over there in Western Iowa what is your assessment of the democratic race for President? Who is ahead? Who is behind?

Burns: Well, I'm going to reflect what Ann Selzer saw in the Iowa Poll. Pete Buttigieg did a swing this week through Council Bluffs, through Sioux City, I covered him and had a chance to interview him in Denison. He is pulling big crowds and I think he is pulling people that are with him, the Buttigieg voter is I think decided and I don't see circumstances emerging that are going to pull that support away from him, In Denison at Cronk's Cafe where I know you have covered a lot of events, I had to park farther away at that Buttigieg event and walk farther to that event than for anything I have ever covered there. And I thought maybe I was wrong but I walked in with a bartender from Cronk's. I said, have we ever had to walk this far? And he said, no, this is the farthest we've ever had to walk. So I'm hearing a lot of people say they see echoes of Obama in his inspirational message. The key will be as we get a little closer to the end of the cycle here in Iowa. Buttigieg hasn't performed well in polling with African-American voters in South Carolina and elsewhere and he needs to improve there, although I think he is going to do surprisingly well with Latino voters in Iowa.

Yepsen: But the black voter thing is of concern to Iowa democrats. There aren't that many African-Americans in Iowa, but they do want to get somebody who can win a presidential election, and democrats don't win the White House without a big black vote. So that becomes an electability issue.

Burns: And I think the belief of the Buttigieg camp and most people who are supporting him is that he can follow an Obama, with how Obama handled that situation where Obama wasn't exactly performing very well in South Carolina until he won Iowa.

Yepsen: Bob, what does that democratic race look like to you?

Leonard: Well, I think it's still more open than people think. I think right now it's crabs in a bucket and somebody will rise and the other candidates will pull them back down and the media is going to do it too and we're starting to see a little bit of this with Buttigieg. There was a really tough critique in The Root yesterday. He responded to it. And we'll see how that plays. He had an unforced error with that so-called endorsement of 300 African-Americans that really wasn't an endorsement and that hasn't gotten the media play I thought it would. But yes, people are concerned about the black vote. However, if you were at the Liberty and Justice Dinner, the big event, when that crowd of 1,000, 2,000 people came in with him, when you saw them marching up the street, it was really a big deal. I think one of the key things is excitement. Who is going to have the excitement? And I think it is enthusiasm. I think enthusiasm is more important than sort of the abstract concept of electability because those are going to be your caucus goers.

Yepsen: Kay, nobody moves around this state more than you do, including a lot of small towns covering this campaign. So what is your take on how this democratic race for President looks?

Henderson: Well, you wonder if it's like what happened to republicans in 2016 when there was a flavor of a month candidate and so you had somebody rise and then fall. You wonder about that. And you used the phrase, you don't want to peak too soon. So one wonders if Buttigieg is peaking too soon and becomes the subject of a lot of slings and arrows as he heads down the last 60 days to caucus night. The other thing that we have to keep in mind is Iowans tend to be pragmatic and if you look at the past caucus cycles in this century, let's just limit it to this century, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, they all wound up winning the nomination. So this narrative about Iowa may be sort of out of kilter based on what is happening in other states on the ground, I think Iowans do pay attention to what is happening in other states and I think that may sort of make this a four person race as it heads down to the end of January.

Yepsen: Right, we've got 60 days left so it is possible that Buttigieg would be peaking too early. Has Elizabeth Warren peaked too early? Some of her poll numbers are down.

Henderson: The other interesting aspect about this race is you talk about how many jobs were being added in Jefferson, Iowa, how many jobs have been added by the people that have been hired to be local organizers for these campaigns? If the Governor came out and announced we have 500 people who are being hired by an entity, that would be a big story in Iowa. And you've got all of these local organizers and I think Elizabeth Warren's organizers are the most professional, have the clearest sense of what it takes, along with Cory Booker's and I think Booker's organizers in organization has been sort of a puzzlement to a lot of us who cover this because he hasn't been seeing any polling results based on what is going on in the ground in Iowa.

Yepsen: Some of those young workers, Kay, would tell you those are low wage jobs. Bob, let's switch to the fall election of 2020 a year from now. What is the political fallout from this Farm Crisis? Is Trump in trouble here?

Leonard: It depends. It depends if things are resolved with China, other trading partners. It depends upon impeachment, whether or not there's something will finally turn Fox opinion against him and I think we just don't know.

Yepsen: His rural base is holding for now, though, is it not?

Leonard: In my neck of the woods it is.

Yepsen: Doug, you're shaking your head.

Burns: Yeah, absolutely. Living in Carroll County, which historically was a democratic stronghold and went from that to purple to now decidedly red, most of my friends are republicans and when I spend time with them, a lot of them are military veterans, I say which democrat would be acceptable to you and they aren't moving, they aren't moving. They are sticking with the President.

Yepsen: Kay, what about the fall battle? It's kind of early to ask you for a prediction because we don't know who the democratic candidate is.

Henderson: Number one. Number two, we've seen this sort of riled up ethanol issue in the countryside and I was on a conference call with a group of folks who are very involved in that industry and a fellow who is on the board of directors for one of the ethanol plants in Northwest Iowa said he looked around at the board of his local plant and every one of him had voted for Trump and they were upset but they aren't going to see Pete Buttigieg, they aren't going to see Elizabeth Warren. I think the concern for Trump and his allies is that they would go in the voting booth because they are republican voters year after year after year and they may skip voting on the presidential race. I think that's the concern that Trump has to worry about. I don't think they're going to go and merge and become democratic voters.

Yepsen: So Bob, is there a hidden Trump vote out there? We call it the shy Trump voter. It's not cool to say you're for Donald Trump to a lot of people, to tell pollsters. So there's a feeling that if you look at who doesn't vote in Iowa that demographically there are people who don't vote, who demographically look like a Trump voter. Are you seeing any of that, a hidden Trump vote out there?

Leonard: No, people that I know are pretty proud, they like him blemishes and all, and one person phrased it to me the other day a little bit differently. To him it wasn't about Trump anymore, it's just against the whacky democrats. And so Trump isn't an issue to some people anymore, it's just the democrats are so crazy.

Yepsen: Doug, do you think there is a silent Trump vote in Western Iowa? I ask you specifically that because in 2004 the pollsters all thought John Kerry was going to win this state and George Bush won. Why was that? Well, because there was a really hidden evangelical vote, largely centered in Western Iowa, that showed up and threw those polls out of whack. So your friends, are there a lot of them who don't vote that you can see come roaring into the electorate here?

Burns: Well, the same thing happened to Fred Hubbell in the gubernatorial race where he performed very well in three congressional districts in Iowa and then was clobbered in the fourth district as those numbers came in. I agree with Bob, I think the Trump voters I talk to are proud, they are proud in person when you talk to them and they are unabashed online as well. So I think it's a solid base of support. I don't see it being hidden at all. Although I would agree with what Kay said, I think there may be a number of people, particularly in the ag industry, that do go in and take a pass on that vote and just don't talk about it.

Leonard: The Obama, Obama, Trump people though, they will express their regret in voting for Trump.

Yepsen: So there it's still possible for some democrat to get those people that did that way, we had 31 counties in this state that did that.

Burns: The most of any state in the nation.

Yepsen: Kay, one more political question. Joni Ernst, is she in any trouble? Does she get caught up in this undertow of the Farm Crisis?

Henderson: Well, we don't know yet because we don't know who her opponent will be. And until we know her opponent I don't think it's really, I don't think we can really analyze that race. She might face a female candidate, she might face a retired military officer who grew up in far Northwest Iowa in Sioux Center. So until that shakes out I don't think we'll really know her fate. We also don't know how this whole impeachment scenario may play out and how democrats might seek to characterize her vote in the Senate, should it come to that, and how they prosecute that case in the fall election.

Yepsen: I want to switch gears entirely here, move away from politics, and talk about small towns and small communities. Bob Leonard, what makes a successful small town in Iowa?

Leonard: A manufacturing base, ideally a college, community college, vibrant square, jobs, a sense of home, community pride.

Yepsen: How do we get those things?

Leonard: A lot of towns have them. But as demographics change there's going to be some winners and losers and it's inevitable, consolidation. We just have to decide exactly how it is going to happen. Now, this is something I keep thinking about, it's very Darwinian. We're not really planning who is going to thrive and who isn't because nobody wants to make that hard call, say for example, on what counties are going to consolidate. Because can we have 99 counties forever? I'd say no.

Henderson: Or school districts.

Leonard: School districts, yeah, you've got to have a hospital too and good school district. Without a hospital, and that is going to change. Hospitals are going to -- there are proposals on the ground now where hospitals are not, where you've got only 3 or 4 beds it just isn't economically feasible anymore. And so they're going to maybe offer more emergency services and there's going to be regional centers for the hospitals.

Yepsen: Doug, is it Darwinian? You either adapt or you die out, as Charles Darwin said about species? Is that true for towns too?

Burns: That's probably about all 7 billion of us on the Earth. But I would say what makes a strong rural community, what separates a strong one from one that is maybe struggling, I'd go back to something that Governor Branstad said multiple times, it's the presence of strong locally owned banks that are willing to work with longtime local residents as well as, and it sounds self-serving, but locally owned media and that is a quote from former Governor Branstad. Community colleges, if you're looking what's the best way to really quickly help rural areas, we have a 1.7% unemployment rate in Carroll, we desperately need people, community colleges, their graduates at an 85% to 90% rate stay in Iowa. So anything we can do, as Bob mentioned, to elevate community colleges will quickly meet some urgent needs in our part of the state.

Yepsen: Yeah, if you look at the loan deposit ratio of banks in towns, the communities where the bank makes loans are generally doing pretty well.

Burns: Correct.

Yepsen: Kay, housing. We hear housing is a big issue in many towns. How do they solve that problem?

Henderson: It is a problem because the cost of building a brand new house is often more than the developer can get from the person who buys the house because the materials that go into houses are just too expensive. You've had state policy makers try to address this. There's sort of an innovative program whereby prisoners inside the Newton state prison which is a low security prison, are building spec houses there, they're putting them on a truck and shipping them out and putting them on concrete in some small areas. That is not going to solve the problem. It's sort of what's first, the chicken or the egg, because if you're a small community and you do have a manufacturing plant and they want to hire more people, they can't hire more people because there is no place for them to live in that town.

Yepsen: So, Doug, how do you break this chicken and egg cycle? How does a community break it?

Burns: That's what we struggle with every day. That is the number one question in every economic development meeting that I'm in. I think getting affordable workforce housing is probably the way to do it. And that is, in some communities that has been a struggle because it's hard to get market-based apartments built because there are no existing units with the developers, that are available for the developers to compare to in order to get the loans they need, and then local communities are a little wary of using Section 8 or Section 42 housing because they're concerned about diversity issues that will emerge. And I think personally, I've said this for years, that we really need to embrace immigration. The rural communities that are growing, Denison, Storm Lake, that is the model and I think it is insanity that communities like mine aren't being more embracing of diversity.

Yepsen: Bob, flip this question around. We talked about what makes a growing community. What makes for a dying community? What are the traits, and I'm not asking anybody to name names here, but what are the traits you see in towns that are having a hard time or are maybe dying out? What are the things that are going on there?

Leonard: Well, kids going to the big city, bright lights, big city, no jobs, city leadership that has sort of given up. You see houses falling into disrepair. We see a lot of them.

Yepsen: Kay, what is your answer to that question?

Henderson: Well, I have kind of an interesting anecdote. I was in a nail salon and the person beside me was a doctor who works at a small town, relatively small city community hospital that lives in a town that probably doesn't have a hundred people in it and was driving to Des Moines to get her nails done, which is probably more than an hour's drive one way. And I remember somebody in my home area telling me once that they hoped that Des Moines would be the mecca for people to come to so that these small communities could still survive and people would find services, they'd drive to services in Des Moines.

Yepsen: We've just got a few seconds left. Doug, what is your answer to that question of what do you see that is going bad in a town? I think the naysayers, a lot of them are dying off in towns and you've got younger leadership, as Bob said. Any thoughts?

Burns: That is true. The cemetery can be our friend at times. The most depressing thing I see as a rural Iowan driving to the capital city, and I love the capital city, there's more than 1,000 Kuemper Catholic High School alums from Carroll living here, these are my friends, I love to do business with them. But when I drive in and I see new apartment complexes, new convenience stores, this sprawl, this growth that is just gobbling up farmland, pretty soon Ankeny will be part of Ames almost and that is really troubling. So it's devastating for rural Iowans to drive into our beloved capital city and see all this growth, as much as we like it, because it means those people aren't going to be living in my communities.

Yepsen: Everybody, we're out of time. Thank you very much for being with us today. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again Sunday at Noon and any time at 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.