To move Iowa forward, progressives may need to go it alone

Pete D’Alessandro is co-founder of Campaign in a Box, a national consulting firm that specializes in progressive and first-time candidates. He lives in Des Moines and submitted this commentary prior to the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee meeting on January 28.

Two years ago, just after winning a seat on the Democratic National Committee, Jodi Clemens—who is one of the best grassroots organizers I have ever been around—ran for Iowa Democratic Party chair. Through the efforts of some longstanding establishment types, she was denied the position. I came to learn (off the record, of course) the winner’s positive qualities included not being “a Bernie person.” I think “Bernie person” is establishment code for not being “in the club.”

A full election cycle has passed, and we can now look at the results of that choice to bear hug the right-of-center, hide-under-your-desk establishment: total ballot box disaster.

Had Jodi Clemens served as party chair, I have no doubt Iowa Democrats would have built a competent statewide grassroots effort, which would have expanded their base. That would have meant victory for statewide incumbents like Attorney General Tom Miller, State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald, the lone Democratic member of Congress Cindy Axne, and some legislative candidates in close races—at the least.

What we have instead is the distinction of being one of the few states where the mythical corporate-media-invented “Red Wave” actually happened.

It’s important to point out that I am in no way casting aspersions on Iowa Democratic Party staff. Due to work I did for individual candidates, I found myself in the party’s office quite a bit this last cycle. I can say without hesitation, the 2022 staff were as accessible and hardworking as any I have seen in my almost 25 years working in and around the party. But putting in the time and having a strong work ethic is not enough to overcome, to paraphrase the old saying, “a fish rotting from the head down.”

Never was this more evident than in Iowa in 2022.

For the one-half or more of progressive and non-establishment activists who have worked in and around the party, this is a critical moment. The elephant in the room (Or should I say “The other elephant in the room”) is this: The party is an available vehicle to help implement change, but it is incapable of achieving any kind of meaningful success on its own.

Leaders outside the self-appointed liberal establishment elite now have a duty to forge a path on their own.

As Maya Angelou memorably wrote, “When somebody tells you who they are, believe them the first time.” Not all, but many of those who make up the establishment have shown either through their actions or outright words that they would rather lose than turn over any part of their perceived kingdom to anybody not in the club. In 2022 they got their wish, and all Iowans must live with the results.

What follows is a partial list of great progressives, some operating outside the establishment, who made successful use of the IDP “vehicle” in 2022:

Sarah Trone Garriott winning her Iowa Senate seat was one of the few bright spots for the Senate Democrats on election night. Former Bernie Sanders staffer Brittany Ruland was her campaign manager.

Molly Buck and Heather Matson are two incredible leaders who were able to flip Iowa House seats in Ankeny, in the face of a red wave. Both campaigns were run by Kira Barker, one of our state’s great organizers. Kira also ran Megan Srinivas’ successful (and hard-fought) Democratic primary campaign in House District 30. Kira cut her teeth as an organizer working for Bernie Sanders in Iowa as well as other states.

Brian McClain continues to lead the Iowa Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus in a manner that speaks truth to power at every turn, even when uncomfortable for the party.

J.D. Scholten is one of the new faces in the Iowa House Democratic caucus. He first earned prominence in 2018 by running the closest race ever by a Democrat against U.S. Representative Steve King, while campaigning as a progressive, including standing for Medicare for All.

Ex-Bernie Staffer Tavis Hall is set to bring a fresh approach to Black Hawk County government after receiving more votes than any other 2022 Democratic candidate for supervisor.

Another Sanders alumnus, Sami Scheetz, has already been using the bully pulpit provided by winning an Iowa House seat in Linn County seat by more than a 2 to 1 margin, to advocate for the unhoused.

Jon Green, who served as statewide co-chair on the 2020 Sanders campaign, led all county candidates running in contested elections in votes while getting reelected Johnson County supervisor.

Dr. Megan Srinivas is another strong voice in the Iowa House, representing a district on the south side of Des Moines. Although her voice is new, she will carry on a progressive legacy fostered by Bruce Hunter, who retired from that district last year after many years of service in the legislature.

Kimberly Graham has joined the list of progressive champions who have been elected county attorneys throughout the nation, having been sworn in as Polk County attorney early this month.

Although change will come as the wins do, it is important to point out great candidates who will continue to make a difference, even though they did not win in November.

Like Tom Miller, Mike Fitzgerald, and Cindy Axne, state legislative candidates Todd Brady, MacKenzie Bills, and Kay Pence may have had very different outcomes with the support a functional state apparatus would have offered.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention candidates like Glenn Hurst, Jaylen Cavil, and Grace Van Cleave, who dared to take on establishment and corporate power in unsuccessful Democratic primary campaigns. In many ways the future victories will have their seeds in campaigns like these.

The debate underway, often on this website, is about whether and how the Iowa Democratic Party can be turned around. It’s a worthy debate. I humbly suggest progressives who believe it is useful should absolutely take part in that discussion and in the rebuilding of the party, if possible. I also suggest progressives should build around the bright spots I’ve identified here.

And the reason is clear to me: We have too many of our fellow citizens unhoused to wait for the Democratic Party to have an internal discussion about bylaws.

We have too many of our neighbors who are struggling with food insecurity to wait on a Democratic Party review of “what went wrong?”

We have too many Iowans whose life experience makes them fearful of the very public servants who are sworn to protect them to wait on a communication debate on how the issue should be framed.

We have too many people in our state in fear of what the radical GOP agenda will do to their healthcare, their public schools, to their ability to earn a living wage and their right to choose whether it be what they do with their own bodies or by what gender their children identify themselves as to wait on some ad hoc committee, made up of the same people as always, to discuss the future as if we were in a Political Science 105 class at Des Moines Area Community College.

I’ll save you a bunch of time: The report will find we didn’t have adequate resources, we didn’t utilize the resources we had properly, our message didn’t get through to voters, when it did, it wasn’t persuasive to enough of them. Also, some voters rejected our candidates based on issues they weren’t running on.

So, while all the whiteboarding is happening over at the Iowa Democratic Party’s headquarters on Fleur Drive, keep in mind it has been a long time since a big chunk of the people listed above received any meaningful assistance from that building.

My message to progressives is simple: Seize the opportunity. This is the moment to get in, not out. Iowans are absolutely staggered by the losses that result from doing it the establishment’s way.

Contribute to groups like Our Revolution, Progress Iowa, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, or the Iowa Unity Coalition. Join the Progressive Caucus. Every new member adds to the group’s strength.

As the cameras light up to show all the inconsequential speeches given at the start of this year’s policy drubbings under the capitol dome, and the ad hoc committee is writing their after-action report, out in the real world there will be thousands of local elected positions to run for this year. In every part of our state.

Run! I guarantee that if you do, you will find support wherever you live and throughout our state. If you can’t run, recruit others. In any event, decide now what your contribution will be.

Those who know me know that one of my favorite quotes is from Robert Kennedy, who said, “People of good will, working together, can grasp the future and mold it to our will.”

Progressives, let’s put ourselves in the position so that we can say 2023 was the year in Iowa we grasped for the future and started to mold it to our will.

Top photo of Pete D’Alessandro (left) with Bernie Sanders provided by the author and published with permission.

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  • Go left

    The democratic party has been moving right since 1980 trying to re-capture Reagan democrats. They aren’t coming back. Today’s progressive is yesterday’s republican. Move hard left.

  • Define terms

    What is a “progressive?”

    Without reference to a specific issue, can you provide a definition?

    Better yet, can you define, “progressive,” without referring to the Democratic Party?

    All you have provided here is a set of names, most of which have some relationship to some past unsuccessful Bernie Sanders campaign.

    Are you suggesting that only “Bernie people” are “progressive?”

    What do you do with the fact, Bernie Sanders was never a Democrat but used our party name when it suited him, but was at all times a wateres down 2000s-version of a Socialist?

    As long as our Party divides itself into “groups” as nebulous as “Progressive,” it seems to me that we fail.

    And 2016 is the best example of that: the Bernie folks said they’d just assume tear the Party apart if it didn’t elect a Socialist.

    Well, the Party didn’t collapse, but Donald Trump won.

    And the Bernie folks have yet to admit that was their goal all along: “Bernie,” or bust.

    • No, Bill

      I caucused for Bernie in 2016. In Nov I voted for Hillary. Bernie endorsed Hillary. Don’t blame Bernie for Trump’s “win” despite Hillary’s victory of three million votes.

  • After reading this and certain other posts...

    …I would definitely appreciate and be interested in a post that defines and describes what a “progressive” is in Iowa in 2023. It’s now clear to me that I don’t know.

  • Definition of Progressive

    Seems like everyone should think of an elephant, or not. George Lakoff’s seminal book pretty much summarizes the basic principals of progressive values. See Chapter 14, page 135-142 (at least in my 2014 edition of “Don’t think an Elephant”) to get a very succinct list of progressive values and principles .

    But the Republicans have Frank Luntz to thank for their amazing ability to simplify their message via framing the debate in there selfish and hateful vision for America . Democrats need to find common ground, common values and be proactive on framing the debate or our terms. We need to stand for something rather than stand for nothing.

    This not a new battle. It has been going on forever:

    “I am not a member of any organized political party — I am a Democrat. ”
    Will Rogers 1930’s

    There is a temptation that because the Republican have gone so far to the right that we must follow. If you look at what Bernie has promulgated and promoted it is really not any different that many things that FDR promoted in the 1930’s People get hung up on the Democratic socialism term and label. Time for a rebrand. Unfortunately, the republicans have made altruism and empathy basic character flaws.

    • Is it possible for Iowa Democrats to agree to share "progressive values and principles"...

      …while agreeing to disagree on certain specific policies, without accusing each other, in general, of being “too leftist” or “almost a Republican”? From some of what I’ve been reading, that seems to be one question in 2023.