Gephardt brings populist passion to race

By Art Cullen

Storm Lake, Iowa

No Democratic presidential candidate had visited this Republican Northwest Iowa town of 10,000 for 16 years. Then, in mid-July, the guy who last visited Storm Lake returned: Dick Gephardt, "Iowa's sixth congressman."

It was hot and still at the lakeshore home of Steve and Diane Hamilton, leading local Democrats. They talked up plans to dredge the lake and clean up a century of siltation. Gephardt said he would check with his old buddy, Sen. Tom Harkin, to see if the Army Corps of Engineers might be able to help the project along.

There he sat, honest and sincere and not a hair out of place in a perfectly pressed shirt, trying to convince a dozen people that he is their man for the White House.

In western Iowa, people come by the dozen and not the hundreds. This region of the state, where the Great Plains begin and water drains to the Missouri, has lost people in legions. Farms get bigger, jobs fewer, schools smaller and main streets thinner.

This is where Gephardt is making his stand to win the Iowa caucuses.

The strategy goes something like this: While the other eight duke it out to split cities in eastern Iowa, where two-thirds of the state's population is, Gephardt will sweep rural western Iowa and ride that small delegate count to a victory.

Just last week he worked the byways through small meatpacking towns like Carroll and Denison with a headline stop in Council Bluffs, the second-largest city in the region, to Sioux City, population 70,000 (if you don't count Omaha, Iowa's non-voting second city).

The other candidates were at the State Fair in Des Moines, or making their airport stops.

They say Gephardt lacks passion or charisma. He's trying to change the image. In a Council Bluffs speech last weekend, the former House Democratic leader pounded his fist on the podium so hard that he broke the sound system.

This was not the same guy who visited Storm Lake last month.

To a person, the Democrats here who heard Gephardt liked everything he said. They believed in him. He's damn near one of us, they figured, a sensible Midwesterner to the core.

But they wondered if he had the mojo to make it all happen. Howard Dean trailed through a few weeks later, and what he lacked in hard substance he made up for in vim and vigor and vitriol against President Bush.

In a rural Iowan's gut, you sense that Gephardt knows the tune. You may have heard his: son of a milk truck driver and a secretary, neither of whom graduated from high school. Their son made it through law school by working hard, but not by pulling himself up by the bootstraps.

"I did not do it on my own. I had a lot of help along the way," he said.

This is Gephardt at his best.

He starts talking about his son, Matt, who nearly died when he was two from leukemia. Today, the son campaigns for the father at age 32.

"He is a gift from God," Gephardt says. He talks about the "animal instincts that kick in; you're going to protect your child."

Gephardt says he has met countless people in similar straits who did not share his good fortune to have federal health insurance. He says, in his clear and sober tone, that the stories are heart-rending. You believe that he feels it, even if tempered by a career made of self-discipline.

"I've never forgotten this. To me, it's not only an economic issue, it's a moral issue. It's just something we've got to solve."

It's where he draws his entire economic strategy, indeed his entire platform: Reform health care now.

He has a fairly simple plan that the others assail as too expensive or too risky or too hopeless in Congress. It is: Require every business to offer their employees health insurance. In return, each business gets a 60% tax credit for the cost of the premium.

Slam dunk for The Storm Lake Times, where The Progressive Populist is printed. The little family-owned company that employs a dozen folks offers health insurance through Blue Cross-Blue Shield. The company pays $2,800 per month in premiums. A 60% tax credit would be manna from Washington. It could be used to give loyal employees a raise, or fix a rickety 30-year-old press. And it would mean $1.5 million over three years in direct federal aid to schools and local governments in Buena Vista County (population 20,000) that offer health insurance. Around Northwest Iowa, that's economic development.

"It's the only thing left for employers and employees to talk about anymore," Gephardt said. "Health care is the common denominator. Only half the country votes in the presidential election. If we can get just a few more people to vote, we're going to win the presidency."

The program would be funded by repealing $3 trillion worth of Bush tax cuts.

The uninsured or underinsured impose a tremendous cost-shifting burden to those who provide insurance, Gephardt said. "It's a mindless system we have. It's irrational. It's big-time cost-shifting."

So he offers a big solution to a huge problem. It does not involve a massive health care bureaucracy that killed the Clinton plan. It defies being compared to Canada's system. And, it appeals to small businesses that are trying to go the right way.

But Gephardt voted for the war.

Yes, he did.

"After Sept. 11 I believed that the nation's safety was at stake. Look, we have one president. His first job is to keep our people safe. You cannot have an atomic bomb coming into a major city on a truck. You have to err on the side of caution. ... You never know if you're right. All you can do is your best. This is about people's lives, and you don't play political games with that."

For the cynical, people on the streets of St. Louis and Storm Lake wanted to kick some Arab League ass. As Democratic leader, Gephardt had no choice but to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Gephardt lost the House.

Yes, he did, with lots of help.

Gephardt cannot be held responsible for 435 campaigns, his Iowa press secretary, Bill Burton, said. Running a presidential campaign unshackled from the compromises demanded by the mantle of Congressional leadership in a fractured party is different, Gephardt said.

"There is more freedom to talk about things as you see them," Gephardt told me. "I'm sick of the red map and the blue map. We need a new map. Health care is a problem for Republicans and Democrats."

So, he was there fighting for farmers with Tom Harkin during the farm crisis. He can talk feed grains. Iowans remember. He has helped get tax credits for ethanol production. They remember that. And he railed against NAFTA when the others were all for it, including Clinton. Iowans raising $2 corn at a loss and seeing John Deere tractors being made in maquiladora plants remember that, too.

Gephardt is the only candidate who straddles the Mason-Dixon line.

John Kerry gets his nails done; how does that play with Bubba? Gephardt has represented a city with a large minority population for 27 years; has Dean? Joe Lieberman doesn't know Storm Lake from a storm drain; can a Connecticut Yankee play in King Corn's court? Employers might choke on the 7.7% payroll tax Kucinich proposes for a national health plan to replace the premiums now paid by many employers.

Gephardt has union support from the Teamsters (15,000 members in Iowa), the Steelworkers (12,000), the Machinists (12,000) and the Iron Workers (6,000). No, he does not have Sweeney's AFL-CIO; a decision on whether to endorse comes in October. Gephardt would like it but isn't sweating it, the press guy says. That's a lot of union organizational clout already racked up, in a caucus system that is all about organization and not about money.

The Iowa race is between Dean and Gephardt. Dean has spent up to $400,000 on some great TV ads. As a result, he bumped Gephardt in the latest Iowa Poll conducted by the Des Moines Register. Dean got 23% of likely caucus-goer support while Gephardt got 21%. Kerry is next at 14%.

The caucuses come in mid-January. Gephardt is halfway to his fundraising goal of $20 million this year. Bush is raising $7 million a day, so this race won't be won on cash but on connecting.

The connections between Iowa and Gephardt are clear: He won Iowa in 1988 but lost to Dukakis. Bob Dole, Iowa's third senator, won Iowa but lost to Reagan and Bush. Gephardt is still the leading candidate organizationally in Iowa, and he is the most sensible candidate if he can just get on that passion thing.

Breaking the sound system might be the start. Things get wild in Council Bluffs across the Missouri from Omaha on Saturday nights.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times and managing editor of The Progressive Populist. Email

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