Let's not surrender a piece of Iowa

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association Regional Director for 27 years until retiring.

For decades, small town Iowans were enthralled with 6-on-6 high school girls’ basketball, a game mostly played in towns with no stoplights. It was quaint. It was unique. It was fun to watch.

I was a fan.

The 6-on-6 game focused a spotlight on Iowa when many from the coasts couldn’t find the state on a map. We didn’t have mountains, or oceans, but we had a unique game that sparked national interest.

Despite rumblings from the Office of Civil Rights saying the game was discriminatory toward women as early as the mid-1970s, the farm girls shooting at a hoop nailed to the side of a barn, didn’t feel discrimination. They felt empowered as local celebrities. Their games often drew more fans than the boys. Girls' 6-on-6 games continued in Iowa until 1993.

But even now, around some small-town coffee shop tables there are loud debates about the pros and cons of the 6-on-6 game. Some believed it was time to bring Iowa into the next century, while others believe we lost a vital piece of culture.

Currently, another unique piece of Iowa is disappearing at the hands of the Democratic National Committee trying to find the clearest path to the White House. The Rules and Bylaws Committee has recommended bumping Iowa from the early group of presidential nominating states. Instead, the South Carolina primary would go first. Now, within Iowa Democratic circles there's a spirited debate about what needs to happen.

I’m a caucus fan.

Some Iowa Democrats are resigned to eliminating the caucus and losing the coveted first slot. After all, they say, Iowa’s too white, too rural, and we screwed up the last time around. We’ve had a nice run, and all the selfies with wannabe Presidents were cool, but now the caucuses should go the way of dial phones.

But before we bow to, “Those who always know best,” we should take a minute. If caucusing becomes history, Iowa and the Democratic Party will be harmed in four ways.

First, Iowa is a relatively cheap place to campaign. That means unknowns, who are not billionaires or haven’t been running since high school, have a chance. Iowa Democrats helped outsiders like Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg.

Organizing to win a caucus is different from organizing to win a primary. It forces candidates and their staffs to mobilize supporters across the state, not only in the most populous counties. That helps test readiness for the biggest job in the world.

Second, I was an early supporter of Joe Biden for president, but he didn’t get his act together soon enough here, so he lost big.

If a party allows an incumbent president to choose his/her calendar, qualified challengers won’t have a prayer. It’s calendar gerrymandering, and it will weaken any party that allows it. This is not just an Iowa Democratic problem. Republicans could face the same issue.

Third, rural voters already feel gut punched by Democratic candidates. This move could be a death blow for rural Iowa Democrats. Iowa is the place to test a cohesive rural message.

Finally, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. The combination of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina provided different audiences for the Democratic messaging. Candidates must organize for a caucus, be ready to confront independent Democrats, appeal to Hispanic voters, and gain black support. That’s a good combination.

Granted, the caucus format can’t remain mired in the past. The math was too complicated, access was a problem, and reporting needed streamlining. But with the format changes already adopted, we should fight to continue to be first. I know New Hampshire will. So, shouldn’t Iowa?

Top image: Screenshot from Iowa Public Television video of the last six-on-six girls' basketball game at the 1993 state tournament.

  • It is over.

    I question who the first person pronoun "we" represents. Definitely not me or many people I know. This decision was made by the rules committee with only two dissenting votes. The full DNC is likely to follow suit early next year. It's over. Any energy spent on stopping this train is energy that could be devoted to making Iowa more Democratic. The caucuses as we knew them or with the proposed revisions to be more inclusive, are over. That can be a good thing.

    I have no interest in joining the Iowa Republican Party in bucking the DNC, going first anyway, then suffering what consequences may be due. It's over. The proper fight is to find more Iowans to join Democrats and vote for our candidates. That's something that got lost in 2020 caucus cycle yet can be regained.

  • Let's Not Surrender a Piece of Iowa

    You say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But it *IS* broke. It is broken if you lack transportation, lack childcare, work second shift, have disabilities that limit access and/or stamina. Or maybe you simply believe in a secret ballot. Whatever the case, those voters have always been disenfranchised in Iowa. The system has been broken for a long, long time.
    FWIW, I agree with you that there are benefits to beginning in a somewhat less populous state. But there are plenty of places other than Iowa that can do as well as we have done. We have no divine right.
    Also, I loved 6-on-6 too. But you know what? Girl's basketball in Iowa is stronger than ever!

  • Caucus

    Storm Lake’s news editor, Art Cullen (writing in NEW YORK TIMES) is Iowa’s Isaiah, a voice crying in the wilderness. I love his voice and admit he understands the Hawkeye State better than me.

    But I have attended every Democratic caucus, starting in ‘Keokuk in ‘72. He correctly characterizes Keokuk’s decline.

    I was a teacher there and both my daughters were born in St. Joseph Hospital. We left in ‘73 and, as Art says, the whole town went to pot. No hospitals left.

    In ‘20, in our ANKENY Democratic Caucus, we used the much maligned “app.” It worked fine. We were home in time for the 10:00 news that’s wasn’t.

    Apparently, adequate tech training hadn’t made the trip to rural Iowa. Kind of a metaphor for everything else happening in the state.

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