Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at the People's Presidential Forum in Des Moines, Iowa on Sept. 21. (People’s Action / Iowa CCI)

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and the Working-Class Iowa Test

At the People’s Presidential Forum, bold left-wing policies dominated the debate, as both Sanders and Warren sought to expand their support ahead of Iowa’s critical caucuses.

BY Gavin Aronsen

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DES MOINES—A large “People Before Profit” banner hung over the double doors leading into the Iowa Event Center’s ballroom—the state’s largest—September 21 for the People’s Presidential Forum. The event was hosted by the national grassroots group People’s Action and two of its local member organizations, Iowa Student Action and the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund (CCIAF).

More than 2,300 people, most of them working-class—including groups of fast-food workers and tenant organizers—attended the discussion with four Democratic candidates: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Julián Castro. The candidates shared the stage with workers from Iowa and nearby Midwestern states, but also as far away as Honduras. The workers told stories of how they’d been adversely impacted by corporate greed and anti-union government policies, as refrains of “That ain’t right!” rang out from the audience.

The forum’s theme of “movement politics” presented a striking contrast to the day’s bigger-ticket event, the Polk County Steak Fry, where an estimated 12,000 people turned out to hear 17 Democratic presidential hopefuls give briefer, more conventional stump speeches. The all-important Iowa caucuses—the first voting contest of the primary—stands as a test of candidates’ strength in 2020.  

Brian McLain, 42, a member of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) from the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, appreciated the forum’s focus on universal healthcare, but was unimpressed by Castro and Buttigieg, as both declined to embrace Medicare for All. 

“Medicare for All is a big one for me,” said McLain, who supports Sanders. “It is one of my dealbreakers when it comes to presidential candidates.”

McLain described how he spent a decade of his adulthood in poverty, lacking access to healthcare coverage. That changed, he said, when the union he joined—the APWU—secured benefits for him and his family through collective bargaining.

But with three children now reaching adulthood themselves, McLain worries whether they will be able to access care as Republicans continue their efforts to dismantle what’s left of Obamacare. In Iowa, state Republicans also privatized Medicaid, which has reduced or eliminated coverage for many vulnerable residents, and undermined collective bargaining rights for public-sector unions.

Sanders has made his Medicare for All Act, a single-payer bill that would replace private insurance with a single federal health insurance program, a centerpiece of his campaign. Warren also supports the plan; in response to a questionnaire sent out by CCIAF ahead of the forum, Warren said the country ought to “start treating healthcare like the basic human right that it is.”

During the forum, Sanders said, “I have believed for my entire adult life that healthcare is a human right, not a privilege.” Citing the millions of un- and underinsured Americans across the country, he added, “We have a system today which is not only dysfunctional, it is incredibly cruel.” As of July 2018, more than 176,000 Iowa residents lacked healthcare coverage.

A poll conducted by the Des Moines Register and CNN and released shortly after the forum showed that 41% of likely Iowa caucusgoers support Medicare for All and want candidates to run on the program, while another 28% are “personally comfortable” with the plan but worry it could have adverse electoral consequences. The forum also featured discussion of other hot-button issues defining the Democratic primary, from the Green New Deal to affordable housing and student debt.

”The Green New Deal, if that’s a fad, it’s the last damn fad we’ll have the chance to join,” said Danielle Wirth, 65, a resident of Woodward, Iowa, who teaches courses on ecology at Iowa State University in Ames. “The planet is at risk.”

Wearing a shirt promoting the Green New Deal, a comprehensive plan to combat climate change and transform the economy, Wirth said she and her husband planned to caucus for two of the candidates at the forum—Warren and Sanders, respectively.

“My husband and I would like to see both Bernie and Elizabeth Warren get through the caucuses, because they both represent such fundamental, systemic change,” she explained. “We believe in intergenerational equity.”

Both candidates expressed support for the Green New Deal in the CCIAF questionnaire and were cosponsors of the initial Senate resolution endorsing the plan. Sanders called for moving “away from fossil fuels to 100% energy efficiency and sustainable energy.” Farmers across the state are already feeling the economic impact of climate change as rainier springs and hotter summers threaten crop yields.

The Register-CNN poll showed that nearly half of all likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa support the Green New Deal and want candidates to campaign on it.

“I think Bernie probably set the agenda for all of them,” said Gina Folsom, 69, a retired educator from Ames, referring to the senator’s rivals. “Four years ago, I don’t think any of them were saying these things. She plans to caucus for Sanders for her second time in February 2020.

The Register-CNN poll showed Warren as the top choice of 22% of likely Iowa caucusgoers, overtaking centrist rival Joe Biden for the first time by a 2-point margin. Sanders dropped to third place in the poll at 11%.

Sanders, though, appeared to be the favored candidate among the majority of the forum’s attendees, drawing the biggest audience in the ballroom and receiving the loudest applause. Forum speakers and other attendees recounted helping organize support for him in 2016 ahead of that year’s caucuses, which resulted in a virtual tie with eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.

While Warren’s positions tended to mirror those expressed by Sanders, there was a notable moment that set the two apart. Sanders supports a national rent-control policy, but in a discussion about housing reform, Warren suggested this approach wouldn’t work for all communities. “Writing a rent-control plan in Washington may work for Chicago,” she argued, “but it’s not going to work for Iowa City, or it may not work for Dallas.”

“Warren could be better on this, and we plan to continue engaging her and the rest of the candidates on a national homes guarantee that includes universal rent control,” said Hugh Espey, executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, after the forum. He added that a national standard on rent control “would help states like Iowa and cities like Des Moines protect people against skyrocketing rents.”

In 2016, CCIAF endorsed Sanders for president. The group plans to back a candidate for 2020 in early November, organizer Shawn Sebastian said—but he cautioned against reading too much into a single poll because of the past tendency among Democrats in the state not to settle on a candidate until shortly before they caucus.

CCIAF’s focus will remain on policy issues regardless of its endorsement, Sebastian added.

“What the People’s Forum is trying to show is the enemy is not each other,” he said. “The [enemies are] the big-money corporations and the corrupt politicians who take orders from them, that try to divide us against each other.”


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Gavin Aronsen is the editor of the Iowa Informer, and previously worked at the Ames Tribune and Mother Jones magazine.

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