Heartland Forum brings Democratic focus to rural America

Dickinson County News | April 2, 2019


Five candidates lay out their vision for bringing the Heartland back into the fold

The Democratic Party seems to know one thing for certain: that the road to winning in 2020 runs through rural America.

Storm Lake’s Buena Vista University became an intersection on that highway in the party’s route to 2020 — in one of five Midwest states that flipped from voting for Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

Five candidates at Saturday’s Heartland Forum took a unique, multi-faceted approach to how society will focus on rural America’s needs again.

“We don’t need plans,” former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, said as he introduced the forum. “We need a vision that will drive and prioritize what an administration does.”

Looking to caucus for a candidate that can “passionately discuss a vision for rural America that’s bright and hopeful,” he posed the forum as the party’s way to see which candidate can help make America a place of opportunity in rural areas, not just urban ones.

“I have twenty-twenty vision,” he said, “and that vision is winning again in this country.”


Photos by Dana Larson

“I want to see an America that works not just of those at the top, but an America that works for everyone,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “We have a problem all the way across, that is, that this government in Washington works better and better for a thinner and thinner slice at the top,” something that is “putting a squeeze” on rural America.

The small-town Oklahoma native came to Storm Lake for the second time this year, after a crowd in January wrapped around the block to pack into Our Place Community Center and see her during her exploration of a presidential bid.

Following the release of policy outlining an emphasis on enforcing anti-trust laws, Warren sees breaking vertical integration in agribusiness as one way to bring relief to farmers again.

With farm income down by half since 2013, farmers losing money collectively for the sixth year in a row and suicides among farmers and rural workers reaching peak levels, she says America needs to provide relief now.

“As Americans, we reach out to all Americans when disaster hits — with relief, immediately,” she said. “That’s number one. Number two is we need to treat this crisis seriously. That means we’ve got to be willing to offer help that’s meaningful now.”

The consumer rights advocate has long been a critic of mergers like Monsanto-Bayer — 26 years ago, the U.S. had about 600 firms selling seed. Now, she says it’s about six.

“For far too long, the folks who are giants in the industry just keep calling the shots. For far too long, our federal government has gone along with it,” Warren said.

Warren advocates for a new 2 percent tax to be applied to the amount of wealth held in excess of $50 million, paid by the wealthiest top-tenth of 1 percent of Americans.

The $2 trillion generated, she says, could be reinvested in rural America through housing, healthcare to bolster failing hospitals and nursing homes and a reduction in student loan debt to stop the “brain drain” of young people to cities as they seek higher wages to cope with student loan debt.

“We’re crushing an entire generation,” with a $1.5 trillion student debt load that is growing $100 billion each year, she says. “It’s affecting every choice young people make, including the choice to go to big cities.”

Her plan to break up agribusiness monopolies also calls for Iowa’s law banning foreign ownership of farm land to be applied to the rest of the country.

More than 27 million acres of farmland are owned by foreign investors, according to a Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. That’s about the size of Virginia, Warren said.


“We are the smartest, healthiest, fairest and most prosperous nation on earth,” said former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. “The basic needs of Americans are largely the same everywhere, but they’re different in different places in terms of emphasis. I want to connect the dots of all those things.”

For rural America, he says that means reinvesting in public education, health care in struggling rural infrastructure and ensuring good job opportunities exist everywhere, not just in urban areas.

The only person of color speaking, Castro foreshadowed the release of his “bold” immigration plan soon “to set us on a better course than with this president.”

“We don’t have to choose between having a secure border,” and recognizing the value of immigration to our communities with compassion, he said.

“I never thought I’d get great Mexican food in Iowa, but I have,” he joked with the moderators. Castro is no stranger to Storm Lake — this is his fourth visit.

In response to audience questions on environmental protection and sustainable farming, Castro says the Environmental Protection Agency and current laws in place would do the job if they were enforced.

“I would appoint people to the EPA that actually believed in environmental protection,” he said, with funding necessary to enforce the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.


Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney took a different, more centrist approach than most candidates who took the stage.

“My campaign is about bringing this country together,” he said, introducing his vision.

Delaney was the first Democratic candidate to declare his candidacy for the 2020 presidential cycle.

His vision focuses on investments, bringing capital to rural America.

“Unless you invest in people and the community, nothing really happens,” he said. “A big piece of the deal is to make sure capital is flowing to rural America.”

Forging a distinct brand that makes a point of favoring free-market capitalism in rejection of the tendencies of leading Democratic candidates who openly call themselves Democratic Socialists, Delaney says capital is leaving rural areas because the owners are no longer located in the region.

Eighty percent of venture capital went to 50 counties — a statistic that has strongly influenced his take on why capitalism needs redirection.

The former congressman says that community banks also need regulatory relief to reinvest in businesses which need it.

He has also posed immigration reform as a top priority to make sure rural America has the legal workforce it needs.

He says the pragmatic, sensible immigration bill passed with bipartisan support by the Senate in 2013 but blocked from a vote in the House was a “missed opportunity” and a similar bill would be a top priority in his first few days as president.

“Half of Iowa’s rural children are born on Medicaid,” said moderator Art Cullen, as rural nursing homes and hospitals go broke under late reimbursements. “How can we stop this war on the working poor, children and elderly?”

“They shouldn’t have privatized Medicaid here,” Delaney said, criticizing the 80 percent reimbursement formula. “That’s the problem with Medicaid.”

He is one of many in the party calling for universal healthcare.

“We can afford it — we’re spending more money (on the current system) than (any other country),”he said.


“A kid that grows up in rural America should be able to live in rural America,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, from Iowa’s neighbor to the north.

To her, that means the Farm Bill should remain a strong safety net, and commodity caps should go to farmers, “not to the 90210 area code.”

Klobuchar echoed Warren’s concerns about how vertical integration and oversized monopolies have squeezed small and medium-size farms from both ends.

“Seventy-eight percent of seed for farmers is controlled by two companies. Railroads are down to the same number as on the Monopoly board,” she said. “We’re entering a new gilded age and need to take on the power of these monopolies.”

The Minnesota senator says investigations into vertical integrations need to be better funded to prevent companies controlling all aspects of their product, from production to market, which leave farmers with little control.

On major mergers, enforcement should flip the burden of proof to companies wanting to merge.

“Make them prove it doesn’t reduce competition,” Klobuchar said.

Dr. Josh Merchant, presient of Buena Vista University, challenged Clobuchar to answer how proposals for free college would be funded and how the candidate would protect private institutions while preserving those like BVU, which he said strengthen the region.

“I don’t think we can afford free college for everyone,” she responded, suggesting that education investments be redirected to the expansion of PELL grants and allowing graduates to refinance student loan debt.

“We should have free two-year community college,” however, she said, to fill the strong need for jobs with limited one to two-year training.

“We have cookie cutter ways of recruiting people, it’s just not a reality for many people,” Klobuchar said.


With high stock market performance and a low unemployment rate, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan says things aren’t looking as good as they should be.

“There is a chronic level of stress today, because of chronic uncertainty,” he said. “I think it’s time for a new way of doing things … to inject some energy into our economy.”

By tying together hollowed-out manufacturing and urban centers to rural America, he says “we need to innovate our way out of this thing,” and build political bonds by forging mutual respect and identifying common needs.

“We need to have public-private partnerships moving in the same direction to drive investment into stressed rural communities,” Ryan said, combatting the loss of these jobs to Mexico and China by embracing artificial intelligence and embracing new technologies.

“The key is: cut the worker in on the deal,” he said.

Alta-Aurelia High School student Phoebe Feis asked what specific steps Ryan would take to address “the epidemic gun violence in America.”

A hunter, Rep. Ryan says America has not done enough to prevent the tragedies, and he said he supports background checks, more research, efforts to close the “Charleston loophole” in background checks that has led to mass shootings and supports preventing terrorist watch list suspects from being able to purchase firearms.

“They’re not mutually exclusive,” he said of being able to hunt and take measures to make children in school feel safe.

On suicides, which have peaked in rural areas under increasing economic duress with wide access to firearms, he says mental health care shortages need to be part of the conversation.

A former NRA member, he says the industry infuriated him after refusing to participate in conversations on gun safety measures.

“How do you watch this on TV and not want to do anything about it?” asked Rep. Ryan. “Here’s a perfect example where they could play a constructive role in society about trying to help prevent suicides and how to store your gun properly and all the rest. They don’t even want to have that conversation.”

The congressman also made clear to Storm Lake school board member Emilia Marroquin that Dreamers need to be protected, saying they “epitomize who we want to come to the United States and contribute to our country.”

“We need to take care of that issue immediately,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult.”

It’s all a start to a long political cycle, but a change in focal points that local Democrats are relishing.

“Showing up really matters to a lot of people,” said Jim Eliason, Chairman of Buena Vista County Democrats.

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