Small-town Perspectives (Part 1)

Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 23, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we convene a panel of Iowa's small-town journalists to discuss the 2020 election.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times; Ty Rushing, managing editor of the N'West Iowa Review; Doug Burns, co-owner and columnist for the Carroll Times-Herald; and Bob Leonard, news director for KNIA/KLRS radio in Knoxville.

Following the studio recording of this edition of Iowa Press, these same guests will participated in a discussion focusing on small-town journalism in an era of tightening budgets, small staffs and a changing media landscape in Small-town Perspectives (Part 2).

Program support provided by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


Iowans have been voting early and by absentee ballot for weeks now. But what are journalists out in rural Iowa seeing on the campaign trail? We sit down with a roundtable group of them on this edition of Iowa Press. (music) 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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at (music)         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, October 23 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: Election Day in Iowa doesn't just start in over a week, it actually ends on November 3rd. For weeks Iowans have been voting early at polling places and by submitting a record-breaking number of absentee ballots. But many elections across the country, and here in Iowa, will see a deep ideological divide between urban and rural voters. To gather insight from small town Iowa, we've assembled a roundtable of journalists covering rural portions of our state. Yepsen: Doug Burns is Co-Owner of the Carroll Daily Times-Herald. Bob Leonard is News Director for Radio stations KNIA and KRLS in Pella/Knoxville. Ty Rushing is Managing Editor at the N'West Iowa Review. And Art Cullen is Editor of the Storm Lake Times. Gentlemen, thank you all for being here, for making the trek in, appreciate that. Let's just go around the table. I'll start with you, Bob Leonard. Give me your take on the race for President in Iowa. How does it look How does it feel to you? Leonard: Well, it looks like a toss-up, not in Marion County where I call home, it looks closer than it was before but there's still a lot of Trump support. It looks like statewide if you look at the 31 pivot counties that went Obama, Obama, then Trump, most of those are sort of on our eastern shore along the Mississippi and the eastern half of Iowa, the early turnout for democrats there has been very good. I don't want to make too much of it, but it's going to be a close race. Yepsen: Ty Rushing, what do you sense up in Northwest Iowa? Rushing: It's Trump. It's Trump all the way up there in my corner. But I'm seeing more Biden signs than I've ever seen for any sort of democrat running for President up there. So that has been interesting. But yeah, the support is still there, the base is still strong, the Trump train is rolling along. Yepsen: Doug Burns? Burns: Well, like Ty, I do see all the Trump signs in our part of western Iowa. But I'm looking at older voters, the sort of people that live in basic homes, don't have signs out, live in ranch styles homes, older folks that are scared of the coronavirus, that have ties to the ag community that hasn't been doing that well. So, I think with that type of demographic and also older Catholics, when I went to Biden events during the Caucuses I saw a lot of independent and republican older Catholics. So I think Biden has a real chance to improve on what Clinton did in rural Iowa. Yepsen: Art Cullen, what do you sense? Cullen: Well, Storm Lake is a very heavily immigrant community, a lot of Latinos in Storm Lake, and so I think Storm Lake will vote democrat and then the rest of it will be negated by the rest of Buena Vista County. So, Storm Lake is blue, the county is very red, and again like Bob said, so it will be probably a very tight race in Buena Vista County. Yepsen: But isn't that a bit of a victory for democrats, if you've got democratic yard signs in Northwest Iowa that's almost newsworthy too isn't it? Cullen: Yeah, J.D. Scholten I think is very close to Randy Feenstra. Both the Register's Iowa Poll and J.D.'s own internal polls show him within about 5 points. Buena Vista County had state legislators who were democrats in the post-Watergate wave and of course Berkley Bedell was elected and Tom Harkin was elected that year and this could be one of those years. Yepsen: Doug Burns, what do you make of that 4th District race between democrat J.D. Scholten and republican State Senator Randy Feenstra? Burns: There are a lot of republicans in the southern part of that district, which is where I live, the Carroll, Audubon, Greene County area who are, I don't know that they'll cross over and vote for Scholten but they're certainly frustrated with Feenstra who has run something of a witness protection program kind of candidacy. You don’t see him anywhere and J.D. Scholten is out there in Sioux City, he's making the stops, he's within 5 points, based on the numbers in that district it's really hard to see a route for Scholten. But he has a puncher's chance and I just don't understand the strategy of Feenstra just relying on those numbers to run in a William McKinley style campaign where he's just sort of hidden. Yepsen: Ty Rushing, what do you see on that 4th District Congressional race? Rushing: Yeah, J.D. is grinding, he's hitting up every town, which is crazy that he's doing that. But Feenstra is like a creative player for conservatives. He started off at the local level, he's worked for the state, he's worked for the reformed college, he has worked his way up here. And he is like if you can create a perfect Northwest Iowa conservative in my area it would be him. So I can see why he's kind of not going for as much as J.D. is because he thinks he's got in the bag and the support in our area is strong for him because people up there, they know Randy Feenstra. Yepsen: Sure, sure. Bob Leonard, you live in a different area of the state. You get a piece of the 2nd District and the 3rd District. So give me your sense of what those two congressional races look like. Leonard: Well, it looks like the democrats have a slight lead. It's going to see how -- Yepsen: In both of those races? 2nd District -- Leonard: Yeah, Rita Hart has a slight lead, well maybe a little more than slight. And Cindy Axne has a bigger lead than I thought she would have against David Young in the most recent polls that I've seen. We'll see how long President Trump's coattails are. Yepsen: Let's talk about where coattails might be a factor. Bob, I'll start again with you, and let's talk about the U.S. Senate race. What does that race feel like to you? Joni Ernst versus Theresa Greenfield. Leonard: Of course the polls show them tied but the -- people really like, conservatives really like Joni Ernst. Democrats don't like Joni Ernst. But the thing is, the fact of the matter is that Chuck Grassley, Joni Ernst, Kim Reynolds, as hard as they tried they couldn't deliver what we needed, what Iowa needed on ethanol. It's gotten a little better in the last few weeks, but this entire presidency the ethanol industry has been in trouble and as hard as they tried they couldn't do it. And I think that is going to hurt Joni Ernst. Yepsen: Ty Rushing, what do you sense in the Senate race? Rushing: There's still a lot of love and support for Joni up there. You're still seeing her signs everywhere. Theresa Greenfield doesn't really have that much name recognition in my area, besides the YouTube commercials no one has seen her, no one has talked to her, she hasn't come to visit us. We had all the other candidates in the primary come to our area. Kimberly Graham came to my neck of the woods two or three times. So we got to know them during that process, but she never stopped foot up there. So I don't see her having a chance in my area. Yepsen: Doug Burns, what do you sense in that Senate race? Burns: So I spent some time at a Trump parade in Carroll that converged with Senator Ernst's annual bike ride and I just got the sense that Senator Ernst is exhausted and that the energy is more with the Greenfield campaign. Ernst sort of had a three strikes and you're out scenario in my view, her comments on privatizing Social Security, the fact that on health care she was insulting people by suggesting that they were trying to game the system for COVID-19 by identifying illnesses that weren't COVID-19 as that, and then of course in the last debate not being able to come even close, I wrote down the numbers on corn and beans off the top of my head and I don't farm and I was closer than a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who presumably every day would be reading information from her staff in which the price of corn and beans would be laid out day after day after day after day. So for her to not get that is a death blow. Yepsen: What about this thing that Ty mentioned, that Theresa Greenfield isn't moving around, she's not out there in a lot of those rural counties? Do you see her campaigning around Carroll? Burns: So I've covered her in your home county, I've covered her at a Greene County farm and I have covered her in the city of Carroll and Ernst's line that is amplified by Branstad when he's out there with her is that Greenfield doesn't show up, which is a hard argument to make in a COVID-19 era. Yepsen: Art Cullen, what do you make of the Senate race? Cullen: Well, like Doug, I think the comment on not knowing the price of beans is nearly fatal because people in Des Moines have a rough idea what beans are going for, or corn, and you sure as hell ought to know in Storm Lake. So it just played right into Greenfield's central argument that Joni changed when she went to Washington and that she's out of touch with Iowa and that did in John Culver and Dick Clark. And if you're out of touch with the old home town you're in deep trouble and I think she's in deep trouble. Yepsen: What about the republican argument that Theresa Greenfield is not getting around this state, she's not visiting all 99 counties? Cullen: Well, she's in Storm Lake this Saturday I think and she visited a hog farm here a few weeks ago, she was in Storm Lake earlier in the summer when she was in the primary. So I guess obviously she's not going to go to Sioux Center. But she did come to Storm Lake three times. Yepsen: Well, politically, given how polarized we are in this state, as we are around the country, isn't it really a waste of time for democrats to be spending much time in Northwest Iowa? Cullen: Well, in this COVID era if you have to make an appearance you better make it count. And so if you can get 10 votes in Sioux County and you can get 100 votes in Buena Vista County, then you're going to spend your time in Buena Vista County. Yepsen: What do you make of that? Does a candidate for statewide office still have to visit all 99 counties, Bob, or is that a thing of the past? Leonard: I would like to see them visit all 99 counties. The Democratic Party has written off parts of rural Iowa for years and they paid for it in the last presidential election, they've been paying for it for a while, and that legacy hurts. They need to at least dip their toe in the water everywhere I think. Yepsen: Ty Rushing, let's talk more about President Trump. You said he's doing pretty well. What are the pluses and minuses that he's got going in this campaign here in Iowa? Rushing: I just think the base, they're fervent, they love this guy. The passion is unmatched. And I don't know if there's any real positive victories besides the tax cut that he can really taut in our area. But people just love his personality, they love him for him. I've never seen anyone have a flag for a presidential candidate before or any type of politician until him. And so some of these things are flying year round, it's not just for the election. I think it’s just him, his personality, who he is, is what they enjoy and what they care about and what they love. Yepsen: Doug Burns, that trumps, so to speak, concerns about specific issues. You might be mad at him about ethanol but you still vote for him because you like him, he's got that base of support? Burns: Yeah, and Ty's view and your question, that crystalized to me, I was masked, I was at the Trump rally at the Des Moines International Airport and there was one line that really caught me when President Trump said, after the trade and tariff issue I got money to farmers, I got $28 billion to farmers and they like things the way I did better than they like working their asses off. And I just thought, Bruce Braley has to be somewhere in Colorado watching that saying, WTF. Why am I in Denver and the President has a chance to win re-election? But there's definitely a cult-like quality to the fervor behind the President that just defies anything I've seen in my career.  Yepsen: Art Cullen, what do you think? Is that going to be enough for him, for Trump to ride to a big margin up in Northwest Iowa? Or is this race really tight? Cullen: Well, I think Trump will win the 4th District but I think Biden could win Buena Vista County. Again, it just depends on how deep the wave is. And we elected -- like I said earlier, we elected a state rep and state senator, democrats from Buena Vista County in 1974 and they served for probably six, eight years and then we reverted to red. But I personally think that Trump is not very popular. With Steve King out there's a lot of Steve King voters who are frustrated, who are going to sit on the sidelines, and Randy Feenstra, he's popular up there in Dutch country but I don't know how he does in Algona and Fort Dodge and Ames. And so those are all questions in my mind. In Northwest Iowa you have to assume that the republican will win. Yepsen: But is it big enough? That's the question. Republicans have to get a huge margin. Cullen: I think Cedar Rapids is going to blot out, the turnout in Cedar Rapids will blot out the Sioux County advantage. Yepsen: Bob Leonard, speak not about rural Iowa generally. You mentioned Trump has some problems because of ethanol. Is this -- he's got to get a big margin out of rural Iowa to offset what comes out of the 15 or 20 largest counties in the state. Do you think there has been enough of erosion to Trump's support in rural Iowa? Or are you like Doug Burns, it's very popular? Leonard: I think the support has, the erosion of support has come from the independents, the Obama voters that then switched to Trump. Something different, as Ty said, is happening with Trump. I was at a republican event the other day and a man said to another man, loud enough for everybody to hear, I love Jesus and I love Donald Trump and Donald Trump was put on this Earth to be God's warrior. Donald Trump has been sacralized, he has been made sacred amongst the base. And then once that happens, it's like the Bible, it's like the flag, it's like the National Anthem, once that happens there's no scrutiny, anything that he does is accepted and to them he's the perfect wrecking ball to destroy, to break the grip that liberals have on society. And so that is continuing. And some republicans are going to vote for him because they fear the looney libs, it's not so much for Trump, it's the looney libs they're against. But it's going to be, the democrats are going to come out strong and they'll vote for a fence post, they'll vote for anybody but Donald Trump. So it is the independents that are the ones that are moving. Yepsen: Doug Burns, there's a book out, What is the Matter with Kansas? And there's a story of how farm policies and rural policies have hurt rural America but rural Americans still keep voting for republicans. So what is your take on why that is occurring? Burns: I've had that conversation multiple times at events with Tom Vilsack, who still thinks there is an opportunity for rural  voters to be swayed, because of the cultural disconnect I'm not so sure that could happen and it worries me greatly, David, and here's why. If there is an ascendant suburban-urban coalition that takes control of Terrace Hill and the legislature and we don't have any rural people in the democratic caucuses then that really strands up and maroons us on a lot of issues. And if democrats can win without rural Iowa it will be devastating for us because it will be difficult to create third-rail political issues for which need the support of both political parties. Yepsen: Ty Rushing, I want to talk about Latino voters, a lot of Latinos in Northwest Iowa. There's been all kinds of examples of racial discrimination. But is that changing at all? Do you sense a greater acceptance of Latino Americans in Northwest Iowa? Rushing: If they don't talk about being Latino or the struggles that go with that or immigration or their family members back home, then yeah, they're just quiet about it and go about their business then there's n problems. But if they speak out on these issues then it's a problem. We had, somebody wrote a letter to the editor that outlined a bunch of racist incidents that happened in Sioux Center. And a young Latino girl from Sioux Center shared that and I went to check her comments on that and some lady was like, well we wouldn't have these problems if you guys didn't keep talking about it. And that's the problem right there is if you see people talking about the challenges they face and you take an exception with that instead of, we should do something to empower them and help them feel acclimated and welcome to our community more so, they do have a few events like Orange City has a Latino festival, Sioux Center has one, but it's still a problem when you actually talk about the issues that come with being an other in an area that is predominantly white, Christian and conservative. Yepsen: Art Cullen, Storm Lake has always impressed me as a town that sort of gets the racial mix thing right. But maybe I'm wrong. You're there. Tell me, not just about Storm Lake, but all over rural Iowa, we have lots of Latinos who live there, people of Latino ancestry, they work in the meatpacking industries, you've got to have them, but there's still racism, right? Cullen: Yeah, Storm Lake is a little bubble where racism isn't as evident and we do work very hard at trying to embrace diversity in Storm Lake and we've been working on it for 30 years really. But you get 10 miles outside of Storm Lake and there's a lot of racism, our basketball players are called racist names, subjected to taunts, the N word has been used by players from Hull Western Christian against Storm Lake players in basketball games, so it's rampant. And there have been incidents with Spencer students shouting epithets at Latinos from Storm Lake. And it's not just small town rivalries, this is true racism. But in Storm Lake itself it's kind of like being in Iowa City I guess. Yepsen: I want to switch gears, we've got just a few minutes left, to talk about the economy. All of you watch economies in rural Iowa. Ty Rushing, I'll start with you. What are the most important things that Iowa can be doing to help rural economies in small town Iowa? Write me some prescriptions. Rushing: Locally, we've got to continue to shop local, support our own business within our own community. That's a big thing right there. And then we're so dependent on ag so we need those markets to come back up, we need to start getting more stuff back to China because farmers are getting aid instead of trade and we need trade because trade is what goes back into our economy. And so we need to help them out. I think that's the two big things, shopping local and helping out the ag economy. Yepsen: Doug Burns, write me some prescriptions for rural Iowa's economy. Burns: Extending tech wealth and job growth into rural areas is something that Congressman Ro Khanna, who spent some time in Iowa, he's the Representative from Silicon Valley, we've had so much money scooped and segregated from our part of the country, vacuumed out into Austin, Boston and Silicon Valley and we need some of those jobs to river back to our area and so we have some sustainability in places like Carroll. Yepsen: Art, what are your prescriptions? Does the pandemic provide an opportunity for rural Iowa? We're all working at home, a lot of people in New York City are leaving for the suburbs there. Is there an opportunity in rural Iowa? Cullen: Well, I think what has become evident, and Bob Leonard I think would agree with me and might follow up on it, the single most important thing that we can do that the pandemic has made obviously is that we, agriculture is in deep, deep trouble and we need to adopt a resilient agriculture in Iowa that stops the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico, that makes a significant difference in climate change and we can do it by paying farmers for environmental services, we can recreate some of the strength in rural communities by diversifying the ag economy, bringing livestock back to pasture, out of feedlots, by reducing corn acreage, cleaning up the water. If you wake up in the morning and all you smell is hog manure you don't want to live in Storm Lake very bad, St. Paul looks more attractive. Yepsen: Bob Leonard, what is your prescription for rural communities? Leonard: Well, I think Art hit on it that stabilizing our rural economies can happen with some of the programs the democrats have brought forward about paying farmers for environmental services and it's cutting them a check. Now we expect them to do all of this without, and externalizing costs, without any money to do it right. And so it would pay, we could pay farmers, it would cost pennies per meal to start off with what would ultimately save trillions of dollars and countless lives to stabilize our rural economy. IT's the big issue that could do that. And the political media from the coasts didn't see the democratic candidates talking about it. J.D. Scholten is talking about it too. So is Rita Hart, I heard her talking about it the other day. So is Theresa Greenfield. But the message isn't getting across. But that is a big deal. Another thing that has to happen is the tariffs. We've got a good strong manufacturing base and that is hurting our manufacturing companies. One of our manufacturing companies has overseas plants in Chile and Canada and I asked the CEO, well what is happening, are the tariffs hurting you? No, we've just shifted production overseas. I don't think that was the intention. And so the tariffs are a big problem when you've got the manufacturing, but the conservation efforts, the democratic plans, the Biden plan, will stabilize rural economies. Yepsen: We've got just about a minute left. I want to very quickly ask about Governor Reynolds and how she's handling the pandemic. What is her job approval like out there? Bob Leonard? Leonard: It's not good. She is in a tough spot and it's hard for me to criticize her but there's a lot of criticism out there. Yepsen: Ty Rushing? Rushing: The economy is open, people are shopping, people are going out to eat, so people in my area appear to be happy about it. Yepsen: Right. Doug Burns? Burns: She maintains strong support in our part of the state but we have an outbreak right now at a long-term care facility and when you're looking at the numbers in a single county in Iowa maybe approaching the numbers in New Zealand, we'll see. Yepsen: Art, how is the Governor doing? Cullen: I think that it's an abomination. The cynical approach that she and Trump used in forcing immigrant labor back into the meatpacking plants in what could be a certain death from COVID was one of the most cynical, heartless, inhumane things that I've ever witnessed in my life. Yepsen: But does that hurt her popularity? Cullen: Yes. The Iowa Poll says that it does. She is hurting, she is below, under water on handling the pandemic. Yepsen: And I'm hurting for time. Thank you all again for making the trip here, appreciate your insights. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press as we preview Election 2020 on our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today. (music) 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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at