Five aspirants to the Democratic presidential nomination took the stage on Saturday, March 30, in Storm Lake, Iowa, before a house packed with farmers inundated by flooding and knocked flat by a trade war with China that has tanked some already-weak commodity markets.
Busloads of Farmers Union members had rolled in from across the Great Plains to rally and to press the candidates: former housing and urban development secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio (who has not formally announced) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Antitrust was much in the air at the forum on the campus of Buena Vista University.
Warren described with glee a "rabble-rousing rally" with Family Farm Action and Farm Aid in the morning at a high school where she railed against Washington and Wall Street cronyism. "This is the fight of my life," she said.
Klobuchar cited the Grange, the farmers alliance of the late 19th century, in calling for expanded resources for antitrust enforcement. Seeming intent on positioning herself less as a fighter than as a nuanced and pragmatic candidate, she paid homage to Iowa for having the first antitrust laws on the books, in 1888. Ever since the railroads came through, Iowans have been barking about busting trusts.
"We are now entering what is essentially a new Gilded Age," Klobuchar said, "and we need to take on the power of these monopolies."
But no one really had an answer about what to do to help farm country right now. Net farm income has dropped by half since 2013. Trade disputes and tariffs on products from China, Mexico and Canada have shaved as much as $2 off the price of a bushel of soybeans. The federal checks sent to farmers harmed by the tariffs have been spent. Farm loan delinquencies are at their highest rate in nine years.
Inaction from Washington is the rule. There is no telling when President Donald Trump and China will come to terms. Congress has yet to approve the package to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico - Iowa's two largest export markets in an export-sensitive state. Congress can't even agree on disaster funding to relieve the flooded Midwest because Democrats and Republicans are hung up over the president's opposition to additional aid for Puerto Rico.
Questions from the audience and moderators, including me, offered candidates openings to talk about trade. But none took the bait. The Democratic Party remains of two minds on the issue: the Clinton-Obama wing that tends toward freer trade, and the more-protectionist Sanders-Warren wing.
Delaney, a health care finance entrepreneur, talked about bolstering Medicaid to reduce rural hospital and nursing-home closings by paying the actual cost of patient care, not the typical 80 percent. He suggested expanding federal funding for preschool to include child care, which is in short supply in rural areas.
Ryan said that to know Youngstown, Ohio, is to understand the economic struggles of Appalachia and farm country. The congressman envisions a political coalition of Rust Belt and rural communities that would promote innovation to wrest the Midwest back from Trump in 2020. Ryan touted Iowa and Ohio as potential global leaders in renewable-energy production, and he cited progress in moving digital jobs to rural areas through partnerships with local community colleges. Democrats must show rural Americans that government can work for them, he said, because they are beginning to wake up to the Trump administration's policy toward them: "It's a scam."
When Storm Lakers Jose Ibarra, who is a member of the City Council, and Emilia Marroquin, who sits on the school board, pleaded for immigration reform that embraces refugees and recognizes workforce demands in rural environs, the candidates all jumped to agree. Castro, with strong immigrant roots in Texas, was especially passionate about the need for reform. "The lesson I have is: Don't wait," he said, adding, "We are going to take the targets off the backs" of immigrants.
Nearly 3,000 immigrants work in Storm Lake and depend on Tyson Foods for their jobs slaughtering hogs and turkeys. As it happens, Tyson is the only U.S.-based company among the three big meat processors (the other two being in China and Brazil), and the company is on Warren's shortlist for corporate breakups. Trustbusting can be complicated - how do you make sure workers' families don't get hit by flying debris?
The candidates speaking at the forum were frequently interrupted with applause. But once many of the farmers were back on the buses and rolling home, their thoughts may have turned from political promises to worries that a note from the bank might be awaiting their return.
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This article was written by Art Cullen, special to The Washington Post.
Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, is the author of "Storm Lake: A Chronicle of Change, Resilience, and Hope from a Heartland Newspaper." He moderated the rural forum Saturday.