If Pete D'Alessandro runs in IA-03, it won't be just to win an election

Pete D’Alessandro would be a first-time candidate if he joins the large group of Democrats challenging Representative David Young in Iowa’s third Congressional district. But no one in the field has more Iowa campaign experience than this longtime political operative.

D’Alessandro has been thinking seriously about this race for months. In a recent telephone interview, he told me he has set Saturday, August 26–the date of the Iowa Democratic Party’s third district workshop in Atlantic–as “the day to fish or cut bait.”

He also discussed the points he would raise as a candidate and how Democrats can accomplish “real change,” capitalizing on the activism that fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign.

“THE ENERGY IS THERE”

A native of the Chicagoland suburb of Berwyn, D’Alessandro has lived in Iowa since becoming a field operative on Leonard Boswell’s first Congressional campaign in 1996. He worked on Tom Vilsack’s first gubernatorial campaign in 1998 and recalls a strong turnout in the Des Moines area that year, partly driven by hard-fought races for two Polk County supervisor seats.

D’Alessandro worked for Senator Bill Bradley’s campaign before the 2000 caucuses, and later was political director for Chet Culver as secretary of state and governor. Hundreds of Iowa activists encountered him for the first time in 2015 and 2016, when he was state coordinator for Bernie Sanders. Through his political consulting firm, he has worked with many Democratic candidates outside Iowa as well.

Since forming an exploratory committee in April, D’Alessandro has been attending Democratic events and speaking with activists in at least eight of IA-03’s sixteen counties. How is the mood out there?

I think Democrats and progressives–and I say “and” because I think there are still progressives now getting involved who might not necessarily have the “D” next to their name, or who are new to it–I think there’s an energy, but there’s also an increase in the numbers.

As Culver’s political director, D’Alessandro “went to a lot of these central committee meetings” and local fundraisers between 2006 and 2010, so he has a good sense of typical attendance. Every event he’s gone to this year has had higher attendance than gatherings at the same point in previous election cycles.

A Madison County Central Committee meeting stands out most in his mind. About 35 or 40 people showed up, including some newcomers hoping to get involved as volunteers, or thinking about running for local office.

I’ve seen it in every place I’ve been to, just more people than you would expect to be there, the energy is there, and now it’s just a matter of how we’re going to make sure we harness it, but also that we are standing for the right things, and that we’re doing this the right way, so we can actually take advantage of the fact that a lot of people are ready to get to work.

In recent months, D’Alessandro has declined a few invitations to Democratic events where announced Congressional candidates were speaking. It “didn’t seem right for me to take the time” of people who were already running for the office. But he has continued to talk with activists across the district as he lays the groundwork for a possible campaign.

“WE HAVE TO BE STRONGER ABOUT WINNING AN ELECTION FOR A REASON”

Five Democrats are declared candidates in IA-03: Cindy Axne, Theresa Greenfield, Austin Frerick, Paul Knupp, and Heather Ryan. Eddie Mauro is considering the race too. From what I gather, the Democrats running against Young agree on many public policies.

So I wondered, where does D’Alessandro see a niche for himself in this field? Would he highlight topics others are not talking about, or are there issues he thinks about differently?

D’Alessandro cautioned that what he was about to say was not targeted against any of his potential competitiors–“I’ve only been on the stump with a few of them.” But “unfortunately,” while following events across the country, he has noticed some patterns of Democratic rhetoric and tactics that he considers deeply flawed.

It’s not going to be enough to say, oh, Donald Trump is going to be so unpopular, let’s just keep attacking Donald Trump, let’s make this about Donald Trump, and a wave might bring us in.

The two problems with that, I think, are: a wave can bring you in. But if you only win because the wave brought you in, and you weren’t standing for anything, all you’re going to have is an election victory. You’re not going to have the ability to get anything passed, or as I like to say, to win the future.

However, if we’re standing for the things that are energizing people, if we’re standing for the things that have brought all these new people into the party, and clearly stating, yeah, great, if there’s a wave, I’ll be ready for it. But if I make it, and I’ve been talking about $15 an hour, and I’ve been talking about health care for all, and I’ve been talking about energy independence, and I’ve been talking about these issues, then it’s not just going to be, “Oh, a wave brought me in.”

I’m going to be able to–anyone is going to be able to legislate by saying, “These are the things I talked about. This is what we’re going to try to get accomplished. It wasn’t that we were hiding it. You know, we got elected saying these things.” And then you’re going to have the ability to actually make real change and not just win an election.

And I think that’s the biggest, it’s always the biggest hurdle. You know, a party exists to win elections. But within that structure you have to–we have to be stronger about winning an election for a reason. It can’t just be the sole purpose. Paul Wellstone used to say that, you know. Winning for the sake of winning is not something that makes our politics better.

To clarify, when he says “health care for all,” does he mean Medicare for All, also known as single-payer? D’Alessandro likes the John Conyers bill (House Resolution 676), but he’s not wedded to any one piece of legislation. For all he knows, that bill may not be alive if he is elected to Congress. He’s confident some universal health care bill will be introduced, whether it’s Medicare for All or a “single-payer buy-in,” such as a public option for adults of any age to purchase coverage through Medicare. He’s been struck by “The amazing strides that issue has made just in the last four years.”

If there are races in the Democratic primaries throughout this country where there happens to be a Democrat running who’s for the concept of universal health care and there’s a Democrat running who’s saying, “Ah no, that’s not what I’m about, you know, the current system’s fine,” I really think that that will be a defining issue within the Democratic Party, if there are races run on that issue within the primary.

A recent Pew Research Center national poll showed growing support for single-payer health care, mostly driven by an increasing number of Democrats who favor the approach. D’Alessandro sees the shift as inevitable, in part because the business community will join progressives demanding it.

These big companies are eventually going to say, this has to happen. GM paid more–GM spent more money on health care for their employees last year than they did making cars. So they’re basically a health care provider that makes cars. Well, that’s not what their mission is. […]

What’s going to happen with this particular issue is it’s going to bring folks from different parts of our society together that people wouldn’t think would be part of a coalition. Because it’s becoming so obvious that it’s where we need to go that it’s going to cut through lot of the other stuff. And we’re not quite there yet, but that’s one of the reasons we have to keep talking about it. Because you might not get there this time, but if you don’t start the journey to get there this time, you’re just pushing it off to when we ultimately get there. So that’s why I think you’re just going to see that issue just resonate around the country.

And I think congressmen like [David] Young are going to be even more vulnerable to it, because they never looked at it as an issue that affected real people. And even by his own words, I mean, his quote about, well, I voted against Obamacare all those years because it was symbolic.

You know, you don’t get to Congress as an intellectual exercise. It isn’t a political science project for a class. You’re there to try to affect positively people’s lives, in your district, and really, [if you] have a big enough view, beyond. And for someone to say something like that, to me shows–especially someone who’s been in government for so long–just shows someone to me to have such an opposite view of what I think government should be and can be, that it’s, it’s stunning to me. That’s a way of viewing things, that this is just symbolic, this is just a game. It’s not.

“IT’S NOT A SYMBOLIC POSITION”

Young’s social media feeds often feature pictures of his visits to health fairs or nursing homes, which I find incredible, since he voted for Medicaid cuts that would decimate rural hospitals and assisted-living facilities. D’Alessandro stressed that the “Trumpcare” bill would “disproportionately” hurt rural America and rural Iowa, “which is just amazing to me. You would think that they would have at least tried to encompass the needs of this area of the country that basically voted for them.”

From my perspective, Young’s strategy is well-placed, I told D’Alessandro. The incumbent shows up and gives constituents the impression that he’s on their side. People remember that he showed up at their facility or event and may not be deep enough in the weeds to understand the consequences of policies he supported.

Well, I’ve been an operative long enough to know that’s exactly how you would advise someone. You just took this vote that’s going to hurt a lot of people. You can’t change that. The vote is there. What do we do to maybe see if we can do some smoke and mirrors? You know, let’s show up at a bunch of places that, you know, you can say how much you care for them.

But you know what? It doesn’t work as much as it used to, anymore, that strategy. And I agree with what you’re saying, I think that is what they’re thinking.

First of all, people are getting into the weeds. That’s the one thing I saw throughout this country, definitely throughout this state, when I was working on Bernie[‘s presidential campaign], is that there is an amazing grasp of where people who are involved want to take this thing. Where they want to go, what they believe in. And people are very aware of the things that affect them now, I really do believe that, when it comes to this health care stuff.

And so, he can show up all he wants. The simple fact of the matter is, it’ll be up to us–Democrats, progressives–it’ll be up to us, regardless of whether it’s me or someone else, to get it out of the weeds. And to let the voters know, not just the ones that have been affected directly, but all those other voters that care about this, even if they weren’t the ones directly affected by the situation, to make that a key component. And let them know that people are hurting because of this.

You know, he can–like I said, any of these congressmen can show up with all the pomp and circumstances they want, but the simple fact of the matter is that if they’ve got buildings shutting down because of their vote, eventually, not only are people going to know it, but–again, this goes into that whole thing that we talked about before, this idea that somehow this is a ceremonial position. You know, he votes symbolically. And then he goes to these, to these events to let people know that he knows they exist.

That’s–it’s not enough. It’s not a symbolic position. It’s a totally different view of looking at the world. It really is.

Republican politicians “look at government at something that is to be pontificated about,” a “nebulous thing,” D’Alessandro observed. But reality is “the exact opposite. Government is a place where if you do it correctly, you can make a difference in people’s lives. And they just don’t view it that way. It doesn’t make them bad people, they’re just wrong.” When you say that you make symbolic votes, you’re revealing a Republican “view of what government is supposed to do, can do, and what they expect it to do, that is just diametrically opposed” to what it can be.

Listening to the candidates running for Iowa governor, D’Alessandro noted, you see a similar contrast between how Democrats and Republicans see the potential for government to accomplish things. “So that’s what we’re going to talk about.”

“YOU HAVE TO APPEAL TO PEOPLE ON WHAT MATTERS”

Working on the Sanders campaign, D’Alessandro got a close-up view of the huge surge of activists inspired to caucus for Bernie. Many, especially among the younger set, hadn’t been affiliated with the Democratic Party before. Some see their political independence as a badge of honor, or may feel antagonistic toward the Democratic Party, because of how the presidential race played out. I asked D’Alessandro how he would get those people to identify as Democrats enough to cast a vote for him in a primary.

I think it’s a hell of a lot easier. To say, if you believe in these things, you can–in Iowa, you can show up this day, you know, same-day registration, vote for this person, leave, and then you’re on to the next thing. That’s actually easier than saying hey, we want you to show up at this Democratic Party event, where they’re going to talk about–a lot of things they’re going to talk about is kind of like minutiae. Democratic rules. And we want you to sit there for a couple hours. And then they’re going to vote. And then you’re going to break up into these groups, that they’ve defined how this happens, and there are these rules around that, because it’s a party event.

I think it’s actually easier to talk someone into saying, I really like this person, I really like what they’re talking about, we’ve got to win this race, I’m going to go vote one time, it’s going to take me five minutes, I don’t have to talk to anybody when I do it, and I’m going to go on my merry way. To me, that’s a lot easier sell. The structure part is a lot easier to sell.

The point is you have to appeal to people on what matters. If you do that, once you do that, you’ve won that part of the battle of, “Yeah, this person’s worth standing up for, this person’s worth voting for.” Then you have the question of, “Well, yeah, but do I want to go to caucus on a cold night and sit there for two hours with a bunch of Democrats? I don’t even consider myself a Democrat.”

Now that actually becomes an easier sell once you appeal to them on the issues, to just say, “Yeah, you’ve just got to go vote. You’re going to talk to one person, they’re going to give you the ballot, you’re going to vote, you’re going to leave, and no one’s going to know it.”

I am not one of these people that ever thinks you blame the voter for not wanting to vote for you, the voter for not wanting to be whatever, D, R, not having that next to their name, or the voter voting for an independent or third party. I’ve never been one of those people that blames the voter.

I think it’s up to folks like me to earn the vote. And if I don’t, the question isn’t, “What’s wrong with that voter?” The question becomes, “Could I have earned it? And if I didn’t earn it, why didn’t I earn it?”

What factors will influence his final decision on whether to run for Congress? “You’re part of something bigger when you do something like this,” D’Alessandro believes. He wants to stand for the issues he mentioned, so he’s asking himself, “Can I effectively help this movement move forward?”

I think it would be the height of hubris to run just to run, and then you’re actually hurting these causes you care about.

So part of that is talking to enough people to see if there would be enough energy out there for the race. I feel good about that.

The other piece is, you know, whether–it’s the system we’re in, I wish it was different, we need to make it different eventually–but you know, I also have to see if I can raise the money that it would take to run a serious campaign too. So, we’ve done well, but we feel we still have have a few more questions to answer in that way.

By Labor Day, he’ll be in or out of the race. “I think it would be a lot of fun to do it, I’ll tell you that.”

“WE’RE IN VERY EXCITING TIMES”

Aside from Boswell’s 1996 campaign, D’Alessandro has worked for or consulted for ten to twelve U.S. House candidates. He laughed as he started telling me about the first one, which had “nothing to do with whether I can do this, or whether I’m good at what I do.” As a college student at Illinois State, he took a class on campaigns and elections. Most of the required course work was documenting a certain number of volunteer hours for some campaign. The Bloomington-Normal area of Illinois was in a very Republican Congressional district, and this was the Ronald Reagan landslide year, 1984. So as a student volunteer, D’Alessandro ended up essentially running some Democrat’s hopeless campaign for the U.S. House.

What are some lessons he’s drawn specifically from the House races he’s worked on?

I think the lesson is that we’re in a new world now. A lot of those things–you know, I was joking about the 1984 race having nothing to do with my ability now. I’m not sure that the Bill Foster race [a special election in 2008 …], which wasn’t that long ago, has anything to do with the world that we’re in now.

The rules have changed very quickly, and I think in a good way of what’s needed. One thing that really, really became apparent to me throughout the country with Bernie, was just the amount of people that are waiting to be–they’re already leading, they were there when we got there–but just waiting to be coalesced into making positive change.

So it’s a matter of reaching those people, finding them, and they’re there. And I think that’s a little different than, you know, the last couple decades of this stuff, where it was kind of like, well here’s your numbers, here’s what it’s going to take to win […] I mean, that’s still part of it, but the ability to reach new people is so much more possible than it’s ever been, that it makes it more issue-orientated, and I think that’s a good thing.

D’Alessandro noted how quickly social and political change can take hold. In just a few years, we went from “legitimate, left-of-center Democratic leaders” saying “marriage is between a man and a woman” to majority support for marriage equality among the general public.

Social media, blogs, and e-mail networks let like-minded citizens connect and join forces. Decades ago, organizing a big march was a huge undertaking, and many politicians could ignore the issue after the protest ended. The major civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s was 20 years in the making. “This stuff just moves quicker now, because you know you can reach folks, and you can organize, and you can let the politicians know quicker, because of the online world.”

The movements are easier to sustain as well, in D’Alessandro’s view. In the past, “the status quo was always able to wait it out. Because they were just bigger, and people had to do other things, and you can only fight so long, you get tired.” The ability to keep talking with like-minded people “makes that stalling tactic” less of a sure winner for the establishment.

How does he see the 2018 election cycle shaping up? “I’m looking forward to it. I think we’re in very exciting times.” He doesn’t agree with giving Republicans “the out” by saying President Trump “isn’t normal. We shouldn’t accept this.” D’Alessandro wants to frame the question differently:

We shouldn’t accept it not because it isn’t normal. We shouldn’t accept it because you know what? If you look at what he is doing, he is just a conservative Republican president who got elected.

And by giving them the rope to let some of their people move away–“Well I don’t like his conduct. I agree with you. His conduct is…” But he’s pushing all these programs and putting things into effect that we know, that we don’t believe are good for the country. That’s where the discussion has to be. I don’t care if you like his tweets or not. You’re voting for his policies.

That’s what we have to talk about. If we talk about the issues, we’re going to win. If we make it about personalities, eh, there might be a wave, because his personality is so ugly. But you know what? It is what it is. But if we talk about issues, we’re going to beat him, and we have the ugly personality.

What would be the cornerstone issues for D’Alessandro, aside from those he mentioned earlier ($15 an hour minimum wage and health care for all)? One is climate change: “It’s folly to deny” that we can address the problem, and “it’s folly to deny” that human activity is contributing to the phenomenon. But more broadly,

I think we have to talk about these issues where people understand. It’s not just me, it’s anyone out there. We have to talk about issues where people understand we understand the block they live on. We understand what they’re going through. And that we may not win everything, and we may have to nuance some things every now and then, but we’re going to be fighting for things that are going to make that community that they live in better.

If we connect at that level, we’re going to win throughout the country. Because that’s really ultimately what it’s about. To talk about the things that matter to them every day. How are they going to get their kids to college? And if they get their kids to college, how are their kids not going to be buried for the rest of their lives because they wanted to teach? […]

If you talk about that issue, if you talk about health care, if you talk about a decent wage–I think the discussion starts at $15 an hour–but if you talk about those issues, it cuts through all the other stuff. A guy in rural Iowa, a guy in Madison County, Adams County, cares exactly the same about the fact that he’s trying to figure out how his kid who has earned it and should be going to college is going to be able to go to college. They care just as much about that as some guy on the east side of Des Moines who’s facing the same thing. […]

The health care thing, I think, is really the center of it. It’s that common humanity piece that threads us all together. I’m going to take care of my family. I’m going to take of my neighbor when I can take care of him, too. And I care about my community, I’m going to take care of my community. Well, that’s just a different way of saying, we’re kind of in it together.

“You have to believe in government” and what can be accomplished by government, looking at “something we’re doing together” rather than public service as symbolic acts. “Every time we can help somebody get a little ahead,” it moves us all forward. “Even if we were being totally selfish about it,” we all do better when more people do well and “we have more productive citizens.”

Regarding the insecurity of Iowans who don’t have employer-provided health care, D’Alessandro said he has empathy. “I’m a single person with my own small, little company.” But think of someone who started a business and has to provide for a family and doesn’t know where health insurance is coming from next year. The country benefits from giving people the flexibility to start a new business without worrying about losing their health care. Senator Tom Harkin had the best line, D’Alessandro said: “It’s not a hand out, it’s a hand up.” Why wouldn’t we want to give others a hand up?

Any comments about the IA-03 campaign are welcome in this thread. The district’s sixteen counties contain 162,965 active registered Democrats, 174,881 Republicans, and 166,493 no-party voters, according to the latest figures from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. Trump carried the district last November with 48.5 percent of the vote to 45.0 percent for Hillary Clinton, but the Republican swing here was less pronounced than in Iowa’s two eastern Congressional districts.

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