Something wonderful happened on June 4. I got to see democracy work. My co-worker at 1000 Friends of Iowa is State Rep. Ed Fallon. He is a five-term member of the Iowa Legislature. This spring he landed his the toughest reelection bid in ten years.
Fallon may well be Iowa's most unconventional politician. He is a magnet for well-financed opponents with ties to special interests. Fallon's voluntary campaign finance restrictions place him at a competitive disadvantage. He never accepts PAC money, donations from paid lobbyists, "soft money" from political parties or any donation over $100. Many political handlers will tell you a campaign can't be won that way. But Ed has won six elections, some by a 90% margin.
This year's race was a little tighter, with 67% of the votes coming Ed's way. This is exceptional considering all the obstacles. Fallon was redistricted last fall and lost 75% of his former constituents. His opponent raised more money, including two donations of $5,000 each. Most significantly, Fallon committed the cardinal offense of publicly supporting Ralph Nader in 2000.
One of Fallon's obstacles is that he votes his conscience. When Ed noticed that Nader followed the Democratic platform far closer than Al Gore, Ed made no bones about endorsing Nader. That didn't carry well with some die-hard Democrats. Gore won Iowa by a slim margin. The party's leadership wanted vengeance.
Fallon lost his place as ranking Democrat on the House Local Government Committee. The Polk County Democratic Central Committee voted him out of their ranks, and worked against Fallon with gusto during this election. They embarrassed themselves doing it, too. The Central Committee decided it would require all candidates with a primary opponent to sign a unity pledge. They knew Fallon would never sign and they planned to use it against him. Major backfire. Fallon reminded folks that no one knew who all the Democratic nominees would be in the fall election. What if, in good conscience, he couldn't support a Democrat on the ticket?
He then went on to remind voters that unity pledges have been used to squelch dissent and compel blind obedience. As examples he cited the British during the American Revolution, the Nazis during WWII and Joseph McCarthy during the red-baiting of the 1950s. Overwhelmingly, Iowans agreed with Ed.
While Ed doesn't mind being a team player, he has no intention of learning how to goosestep with a political party. So at the Democratic Unity Rally this spring, party officials decided only candidates who had signed the unity pledge would be allowed to speak.
With so many powerful odds against him, how does the guy win? He works for his constituents. He lives in the poorest neighborhood in his district in inner city Des Moines. He knows who elects him to office and he makes sure that they know him and the issues. Fallon sends out an easy to understand and fun to read newsletter twice a year. He door knocks his district thoroughly. He knows that a majority of his constituents have forgotten both Ralph Nader and Al Gore. Instead, they care about their families, jobs, homes, health and environment. Ed cares too.
His favorite campaign story this year is about Mrs. Lee. She has been Ed's neighbor for 9 years. Mrs. Lee is a H'mong immigrant. Two weeks ago she happily announced that she and her husband were going to be sworn in as American citizens. Ed said, "Well if you are an American citizen it is your duty to vote." So Mrs. Lee registered and signed up for an absentee ballot. But she misplaced the ballot. On the evening of the election she was at work at the area hospital. Ed sent his 14-year-old daughter and a volunteer on a mission to both find Mrs. Lee's ballot and Mrs. Lee. After over an hour of effort, the mission was accomplished. Ed took the completed ballot to the election office and Mrs. Lee exercised her right to vote for the first time as an American citizen.
Ed Fallon's triumph over great political and moneyed odds, as well as negative campaigning by his opponent, should be a lesson to us all. As citizens, it is our job to know the issues and determine the truth. Our elected officials need to see success stories where little guys can prevail over special interests and corporate influence. Many fledgling candidates are instructed before they run that it will take huge sums of money to win. They feel they have to scramble to get that money anywhere they can find it. Unfortunately, most take the easy way out.
It may take more work to run a citizen-based, grassroots campaign like Fallon's. But citizens feel they can count on Ed to help them with their problems. In return, the little folks keep Ed Fallon in office --and it doesn't seem there is anything the big guys can do about it.
LaVon Griffieon lives in Ankeny, Iowa, is a farmwife and co-founder and president of 1000 Friends of Iowa. LaVon is also a Food and Society Policy Fellow, a national fellowship program designed to educate consumers, opinion leaders and policymakers on the challenges associated with sustaining family farms and food systems.