Manilla Iowa, USA.
The remnants of last years corn harvest reaches up through the dark Iowa earth like three days growth upon firmly set chin. Farmer Mark Segebarts Red Angus cows pick their way through the field looking for what ears of corn was left behind by the harvester. In this small town of 840 people on the far western end of Iowa, corn and cows are the pillars that keep a roof over the heads of nearly every resident. But for many people in this part of the country, there is more in the air than the frost that clings to the cows curly winter coats. It’s politics. The Iowa Caucus is here and through that the set stage for the rest of the 2012 Presidential Campaigns.
The Caucus gives Iowans the important chance for once every four years have a significant impact upon national politics by being instrumental in the process of picking the candidates for the presidential race. Normally places like Iowa are seen to be relatively unimportant to national politics: the population is small, there are no major cities located there and they are physically isolated from much of the rest of the country. This is one of the “fly over” states where people go out of their way not to have to drive through the miles of gently rolling farmland and tiny towns that dot the landscape. This is not the country of big cities and their metropolitan ways. This is the land of hard working, keep your family close, no-nonsense, God fearing folk.
For Segebart who is entering his forty first year as a farmer who took over the land from his father, things are looking good. Due to a combination of subsidies and a high market price for his feed corn has enabled him and other local farmers to put money in the bank. Their success is what is keeping the town barely alive. Everything in towns like Manilla depends on the farmers and the farmers depend on corn.
But the people also depend on each other and they keep their friends and families close, with many generations living only minutes away from each other. This kind of tight knit familiarity and a shared experience produces people who may not think alike but do think very similarly. They hold God and family close, are open and friendly to strangers but are wary of “liberal” ideas and big city ways which they tend to see as wasteful and foolish.
Owner Christy Lingle scrapes the bottom of her skillet to make chicken gravy for the upcoming lunch rush at The Juice, the only restaurant in town, dedicated to her son James “Juice” Justice who died fighting in Afghanistan with the Army. A huge poster of Juice in camouflage fatigues hangs on the all in memorial. Locals who all know each other sip their morning coffee and chat. There is plenty of good-natured laughter but also a fair bit of complaining. Carol Kenkel a local school teacher tells of an expansion of a hospital in Council Bluffs, the largest town in the area, and proclaims it to be typical of city folk. “What do they need with a new hospital? The old one was fine. Seems like they just wanted to spend more money.” Her friends at the table mumble their agreement.
Frank Boeck who owns a small construction company leans over from his table and adds to the sentiment. He tells of his displeasure at how federal monies brought to the state all fall at the feet of the states larger cities for things like a new football stadium and civic projects while the middle and western parts of the state are given only scraps. “That broken bridge over on Route 34 is only half paid for and we can’t get the rest of the money to fix it. What are we supposed to do?”
Despite the open talk about the state of affairs there is surprisingly little direct talk of the Caucus. A likely cause is that although many will directly state that they don’t like Obama or his administration. They are even less happy with their prospects from the Republican side and they are simply waiting for the election in November so that they can just pull the lever for anyone but Obama. Given the overwhelming Republican bias in this town, and state in general, the reasons seem to boil down to none of the supposed hot button issues but an apathy towards politics in general and a distrust of politicians in particular. Kenny Rohe who works at the local grain coop said pointedly “I don’t trust ‘em. Not a one of ‘em. They are going to say whatever they can to get votes and then do what they want after they get elected.” As a result he isn’t sure if he can vote for any candidate be it in the caucus or general election.
This goes against the widely held belief that Iowans are rabid about their politics or that they have high regard for the potential power that the Iowa Caucus wields. Many in Manilla seem to be throwing their hands up to whims of fate. Someone will get the eventual Republican nomination and whoever that is will likely get their vote even if they have to hold their noses while doing it.
What they want to hear from the candidates is how the economy will get better and jobs will be made that are not attached to their fragile lifeline of corn. How that is going to happen is anyone’s guess as those who work the fields of Manilla feel that what is needed is a president and congress with the same kind of work ethic that they do. “When you work on a farm”, said Al Olsen whose farm his great grandfather founded, “you can’t wait around or let someone else make the decisions. When a problem comes up you just do what it takes or the farm fails and your kids starve. That’s what we need right now and I’m pretty certain that we aren’t going to get it.”
When the actual caucus comes it reflects the town nearby .and it’s small insular way of life. It takes place in the living room of long time farmer Art Joens rather than the auditoriums that are common in the larger towns. Five people, a usual turnout, from the precinct that Manilla dominates enter the Joens home and are welcomed as friends with a plate of home made brownies from Arts’ wife Peg. Seated on the couch they begin with a pledge of allegiance and then get to work talking about the candidates. One woman speaks about her feelings about Rick Santorum and then the attention is turned to that of the appeal of Ron Paul. All in attendance speak openly about the strengths and weakness of their preferred candidate. They talk in a way that rarely happens in the larger meetings where although it is possible to hide behind your anonymity tends to tame ones passions when faced with a sea of faces that don’t share your views. With that done, Joens produces a well work hat and passes it around. Each member of the caucus puts a scrap of paper into it with their vote written down. The tally is made and phoned in. With a sigh of relief more cookies are brought out and coffee is warmed. Politics is left behind and talk turns to more pressing issues for small town in Iowa: the weather, the upcoming football game and of course next years corn harvest.
Text by: Jonathan Castner