Pass the casserole – Iowans and activists bond over politics

Why We Wrote This

For many Iowans, hospitality extends beyond ideology. Not only do they welcome the chance to have new voices in their communities, but they also see it as their patriotic duty.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Alex Neumann (right), a recent college graduate from California, refers to Art Tellin, an octogenarian from North Liberty, Iowa, as one of his best friends. "I hope Iowa has been good to Alex," says Mr. Tellin. "You can't help but like the kid."

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If it weren’t for Dana Van Abbema, says Alex Neumann, a young activist with Pete Buttigieg’s campaign, he’d never eat dinner. She and other Iowans text him almost daily asking what he would like, and then drop the meal off at the local field office.

“I always used to joke that I don’t know what it’s like to live with a mom because I have gay dads,” says Mr. Neumann, who is from San Francisco, laughing. “But now I know.”

Every four years, young activists descend upon Iowa to help their candidate win the country’s first nominating contest. For scores of young people, this means moving to a place where they have likely never been – a state that has more pigs than people. 

The nature of their jobs requires them to integrate themselves into their new communities. This results in some surprising, yet endearing, friendships between people who find themselves working together for the same cause.

Ms. Van Abbema says she feels “mom-like” toward Mr. Neumann, and talks about how much he has grown over the past few months.

“Me becoming close with Dana brings the country together in its own small way,” says Mr. Neumann.

Alex Neumann runs up and down the snaking line of Iowans, doling out high-fives and hugs. Greg, Daphne, Becky, and dozens more: He greets them all by name. A little girl gasps and points, saying “Mommy look! It’s Alex!”

A few months ago, Mr. Neumann was a stranger to all of these people. In fact, he was a stranger to the state of Iowa. Now he finds himself working the hallways of Liberty High School in North Liberty cheerfully directing volunteers and greeting friends.

Every four years, young activists and field organizers descend upon the state to help their candidate win the country’s first nominating contest. For scores of young people, many of them from the coasts, this means moving to a place where they have likely never been – to a state that has more pigs than people. 

The nature of their jobs – organizing local support for their candidate – requires them to integrate themselves into their new communities. This results in some surprising, yet endearing, friendships between people who are otherwise very different from one another but find themselves working together for the same cause.

“We have nothing in common. I’m a middle-aged woman in HR,” says Dana Van Abbema, a local volunteer with the Pete Buttigieg campaign and friend of Alex. Then she motions around the room. “But we have this one thing.”

Ms. Van Abbema follows Mr. Neumann’s orders, greeting arrivals and directing them to the back of the line. She says she feels “mom-like” toward Mr. Neumann, and talks about how much he has grown over the past few months. At first he was shy and hesitant about approaching strangers, says Ms. Van Abbema, proudly watching him work the line.

“Me becoming close with Dana brings the country together in its own small way,” says Mr. Neumann.

“You’ve made a girl from New York feel at home”

At rallies across Iowa, many candidates are introduced by the local field organizer. At Mr. Buttigieg’s North Liberty event, a young woman named Ruby takes the stage.

“You’ve made a girl from New York feel at home in a place that once felt very far away,” says Ruby, to cheers from the crowd.

For many Iowans, their hospitality extends beyond ideology. Although they plan to caucus for a particular candidate, they befriend local organizers across campaigns. Not only do they welcome the chance to have new voices in their communities, but they also see it as their duty.

At a house party for Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Newton, Iowa, on Friday, three women trade stories about the young staffers they have hosted and befriended over the years. Although local Newtonians Fran Henderson, Jenni Patty, and Joan Tyler are planning to caucus for Senator Klobuchar, they’ve formed relationships with young staffers across several campaigns.

Ms. Henderson, a retired pharmacy owner, hosted “a group of kids” from Chicago with the Buttigieg campaign. Ms. Patty, an instructor at the community college, hosted a staffer with Sen. Cory Booker’s campaign this summer.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
At a house party for Sen. Amy Klobuchar in Newton, Iowa, Joan Tyler (far left), Jenni Patty (center), and Fran Henderson share stories about the young field organizers they have befriended. “They’re all just such good kids," says Ms. Tyler, a retired teacher, "so polite and ambitious.”

Even Jim Pryke, the host of the house party, is currently hosting an organizer for the Tom Steyer campaign.

“I was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to make this a good thing,’” says Mr. Pryke, referring to the big field of candidates. “To have so many candidates saying similar things, and to have so many people listening – I just went into this knowing there was a larger Democratic message to spread.”

Mr. Pryke invited all of the local staffers for Sen. Elizabeth Warren over for a cookout after the Fourth of July parade. Some of the Warren staffers asked if their friends and roommates could come. Soon enough the party ballooned to almost two dozen people, with organizers for Ms. Warren, Ms. Klobuchar, Mr. Booker, Mr. Buttigieg, and Sen. Kamala Harris all at his house eating hamburgers. Since then, he has invited all of the local organizers over every couple of weeks for a big country breakfast. The final one is planned for Wednesday, he says, to get together one last time before the caucus.

Bev Clark yells into the living room, telling a volunteer named Chris to come get himself some of Senator Klobuchar’s famous meat-and-Tater Tots hotdish before it’s gone.

“Bev, I’ve told you this,” says Chris Kingsby, who moved to Newton from Arkansas to work for Senator Klobuchar’s campaign. “I’m a pescatarian.”

Mr. Kingsby laughs as he explains to Ms. Clark, again, what that means. He tells me later that Ms. Clark is his best friend in Newton, and sometimes calls him at 10 p.m. to give him advice on how to reach more Iowans.

Ms. Clark, proudly watching Mr. Kingsby work the crowd, says she knew as soon as he arrived that he didn’t bring warm enough clothes for an Iowa winter. She gave him an old coat of her husband’s and directions to the farm store – where, she told him, you buy everything in Iowa, from clothes to food to car scrapers.

“Our communities around here are so old; we need young people,” says Ms. Clark. “Aging Iowa is a big problem.”

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Chris Kingsby (right), who moved from Arkansas to Newton, Iowa, to work for Sen. Amy Klobuchar's campaign, says his best friend in town is Bev Clark. “We’re like parents to these kids,” says Ms. Clark. “They’re always hungry.”

According to the Iowa Department on Aging, Iowa ranks 18th for its share of elderly population: Almost 17% are over age 65. Almost 45% of those Iowans live alone – making these newfound relationships even more valuable. 

“As an older person, you get used to being disregarded by younger people,” says Ms. Tyler, a retired teacher. “But these kids really care about intergenerational relationships. Now we get to have conversations, and they talk to us like we’re people.”

“I want to tell you about your son”

Mr. Neumann, who grew up outside San Francisco with two gay dads, never thought he’d be doing something like this.

But in 2008, California’s Proposition 8 (an amendment banning same-sex marriage that was eventually overturned), “tore his family apart.” So as soon as an openly gay candidate, a small-town Indiana mayor, announced his exploratory committee, Mr. Neumann says he had to get involved.

He graduated a year early from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, to work for Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign in Iowa in October. But it wasn’t until his fathers were driving him from California, and he watched the miles of Nebraska cornfields speed past on Interstate 80, that it hit him.

“I was like, ‘Uh-oh. What am I doing?’” he says, laughing.

But the hesitation faded as soon as he arrived at the home of his host family. It’s just supposed to be a bed to sleep in at night, but he says the couple always offers to feed him, and makes sure he has a car scraper for snow.

He says he’s hardly home, often working until 11 p.m. If it weren’t for Ms. Van Abbema and other local women, says Mr. Neumann, he’d never eat dinner. They text him almost daily asking what he would like, and then drop the meal off at the local field office. For Christmas, Ms. Van Abbema gave Mr. Neumann a bobblehead replica of himself, complete with the two Buttigieg campaign bracelets he wears every day.

“I always used to joke that I don’t know what it’s like to live with a mom because I have gay dads,” says Mr. Neumann, laughing. “But now I know.”

Mr. Neumann’s fathers – Dan Neumann and David Richardson – are visiting from California. One wears a yellow Buttigieg T-shirt; the other is decorated with Pete stickers. Locals come up and hug them, saying they must be Alex’s fathers. One woman tears up meeting Mr. Richardson, saying she first bonded with Alex about how much he loves his parents. 

Alex excitedly drags Mr. Richardson over to meet his best friend, octogenarian Art Tellin.

“I want to tell you about your son,” says Mr. Tellin, pulling Mr. Richardson close to his walker. “He is an extraordinary man.”

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