Last call: Remembering Tim Kraft

From left: State Representative Dick Myers, Chip Carter, and Tim Kraft in December 2003. Photo by Dave Leshtz, published with permission.

Dave Leshtz is the editor of The Prairie Progressive.

The first sentence of Tim Kraft’s obituary in the Albuquerque newspapers last month labeled him as the manager of Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Iowa caucus campaign and, later, “a top aide to President Carter.”

Not a bad legacy for a kid from Noblesville, Indiana. It gives a hint of the extraordinary, suggesting that the deceased man was smart, talented, and deserving of recognition for helping to elevate a nationally unknown politician and farmer from the South to the presidency.

For those of us who have worked the caucuses or on campaigns, we know just how remarkable of a feat that was—and why, almost 50 years later, it’s worth the lede in his obituary. We also know just how far out of the norm it is for the person who orchestrated that win to be so humble and down to earth.

Tim was that and so much more. Three decades after his Iowa win, I met him in a similar capacity when I was working for an unknown governor who was traveling around Iowa looking to make a name for himself.

In the spring of 2003, I quit my job at the University of Iowa and went to work for Howard Dean’s nascent Iowa caucus campaign. The Vermont governor was little more than an asterisk in the polls, but I needed a change after fifteen years of working in a big bureaucracy. Governor Dean had a lot of qualities and policies I admired and had shown leadership on issues that mattered to me, like civil rights and universal health care.

I was given the fancy title of Constituent Outreach Director but, like most caucus jobs, it was mostly schlepping. One night in early October, my boss—Dean’s Iowa State Director Jeani Murray—sent me to the Des Moines airport to pick up someone I had never heard of. Dean was now soaring in the polls, and pols and the press were streaming into Iowa to see if he was for real.

I was not immediately impressed by the rumpled man in his sixties who climbed into my car, and I wondered why I was the staff member assigned to pick up this guy. How wrong I was in that first impression. Tim Kraft turned out to be one of the most impressive, smart, entertaining, yet genuinely humble people I’ve met in all my years of politics.

Tim quickly hit it off with Dean’s older supporters like former Iowa House Democratic Leader Dick Myers. Younger staff, enamored of blogging and the new tech tools that were transforming elections, took longer to warm to him. Tim was unperturbed. Within a week of touching back down in Iowa, he told me that Dean’s staff and volunteers had an unusual degree of camaraderie and commitment.

The entire Dean team grew to respect him, as he respected them. Young and old sought him out for advice. He was quick with compliments, never condescending, and gentle with suggestions. Most importantly, he had no ego about helping. He did any menial or major task asked of him, and he’d enjoy doing it all—a rarity in someone who had a resume like Tim’s. 

When Jimmy Carter’s son Chip came to Iowa to help out, Jeani Murray again summoned me to head to the airport and then to hit the campaign trail. Chip’s old friend Tim joined us. Two people who helped put the Iowa caucuses on the map, and a rookie staffer (me) behind the wheel, spent three cold days in December rolling up hundreds of miles for a series of events in eastern Iowa for Governor Dean.

We traveled the secondary roads and two-lane highways, singing Bob Dylan songs (Chip knew every word of Dylan’s first four albums), sharing campaign stories, and stopping frequently for cigarettes and six-packs. Through ice and blowing snow we hit Dean’s Waterloo headquarters, a gathering of UAW retirees in Cedar Rapids, a coffee shop in Dubuque, a crew of Democrats at Mary Ellen Chamberlain’s home in Davenport, and a meeting of Dean’s Johnson County steering committee in Iowa City.

Listening to Chip and Tim share their memories of the Hawkeye State, discuss the strong legacy of organizing by Iowa Democrats, praise the intellect and passion of Iowa’s Democratic caucus-goers, and hear their keen understanding of what it takes to bounce out of Iowa with a ticket punched to New Hampshire was a highlight of my political career.

The day that Iowa Senator Tom Harkin endorsed Dean, Tim and I were plotting at the Drake Diner in Des Moines. The endorsement by the state’s most popular Democrat came at a much-needed time. Dean had hit it out of the ballpark at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in November but began faltering shortly after. Some stumbles, followed by consistent attacks from outside groups and opponents, started to take their toll. We still thought he could hold on against the steadily rising John Kerry and John Edwards.

Tim had been in this spot before—twice for Jimmy Carter—in 1976 and 1980. He believed that even though the hits were hard, Dean could still pull it off. I appreciated his instincts and optimism, but in the back of my mind I kept hearing the words of former Iowa Congressman Dave Nagle: “The secret of winning the caucuses is to organize, organize, and get hot at the end.” It was January, just days before caucus night, and Kerry and Edwards were getting hot.

Tim continued to be a steadying influence on the Dean team, and he pulled every trick in the book to help the campaign. He even went to Plains, Georgia, to get his old boss Jimmy Carter to endorse Dean. Tim was not a fan of Edwards and thought Kerry couldn’t beat President Bush; he was hoping President Carter felt the same. 

Always the consummate organizer, Tim managed to get a meeting scheduled with Carter. It was a risky calculation so close to the caucuses, but Tim had made a career of fighting for underdogs and pulling rabbits out of hats. Dean got some encouraging signals from the former president but didn’t quite get the endorsement Tim had sought. No rabbit showed up, but Tim returned to Iowa, leaned in, and helped us all get through the coming storm.

After the caucuses were called, with Dean plummeting from front-runner to 20 percent behind Kerry and 14 percent behind Edwards, Tim knew it was over. “You can’t leave Iowa in third place,” he said, even with momentum in the New Hampshire polls. Kerry went on to beat Dean by 12 percent in New Hampshire, with Wesley Clark and Edwards a distant third and fourth.

Hanging out at the 2004 Democratic National Convention was yet another adventure with Tim. Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” was broadcasting from Boston that week, and one of Tim’s many colorful contacts scored tickets for us (Governor Bill Richardson was the guest that day). Afterward, we watched Governor Dean’s speech on the convention floor. A bittersweet day, to say the least.

The friendship that began over our interest in progressive politics, backroads rambling, Dylan songs, and little-known governors with big ideas kept Tim and me connected for twenty years. We last saw each other in 2015, when he came to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch for a C-SPAN special on the Iowa caucuses. A handful of former caucus campaigners like Jeani Murray, and journalists like former Des Moines Register columnist Dave Yepsen, spoke on panels.

Tim gave the featured keynote. In his thirty minutes at the podium, televised nationally, Tim deployed his immense intellect and irreverent quips to weave a story about who we are as Democrats and what Iowa Democrats have meant to the shaping of our nation this past half-century.

Tim was laid to rest the same year the Iowa caucuses were. Iowa’s Democrats live in a much different state today than when he was here last, but our past can be our prologue. We might still have some rabbits to pull out of hats.

History will remember Tim Kraft as an important player in American politics. I will remember him as a great friend and role model who never lost his commitment to democracy, grassroots politics, and a shot of tequila at last call.

About the Author(s)

Dave Leshtz

  • excellent article

    Thank you for printing this excellent article. It was a flashback to the days when Iowa was truly “first in the nation” and had a bonafide caucus. And Iowa had a real Democratic Party. Not the shadow of a caucus that biden and his flunkies provided in 2024.

  • RIP Tim Kraft

    I appreciate being able to read this tribute here. Thank you, Dave Leshtz and Laura Belin.

  • memory lane

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.