Iowa activist group say they won't back off confrontational style

Members admit they're occasionally rude, but say their tactics garner attention for issues

Jeanette Fonseca of Marshalltown, center, holds a sign during an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement rally at the Io
Jeanette Fonseca of Marshalltown, center, holds a sign during an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement rally at the Iowa Statehouse in January 2009. (Photo by Bob Nandell)

Members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement admit they’re loud, pushy and occasionally rude, but they argue that when officials won’t listen, activists must demand attention that some think goes too far.

The group has a history of confrontational tactics dating to the 1970s, but recent incidents gained more attention, especially when members heckled then-Iowa caucus candidate Mitt Romney at the 2011 state fair.

The interchange prompted Romney to tell protesters that “corporations are people, my friend,” a comment that has helped opponents label the likely GOP nominee as more in tune with big business than average Americans.

Iowa CCI members also shouted during this year’s state fair for Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, to answer whether he intended to cut Medicare. And members of the group also recently interrupted a state ethics panel meeting to read a statement about Iowa Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter, who faced questions about financial disclosures and other matters.

The ethics board dismissed the allegations against Rastetter, a high-profile Republican businessman and GOP fundraiser.

Hugh Espey, the group’s executive director, said Iowa CCI has used confrontational tactics since it began in the mid-1970s.

“Public officials weren’t paying attention,” Espey said. “We were looking for ways to dramatize issues or put pressure on public officials and let them know we had legitimate concerns and needed to be treated fairly and honestly.”

Started in 1975 by four priests who saw the need for a community group to advocate for low to moderate income residents of Waterloo, Iowa CCI has grown to a statewide organization with annual revenue exceeding $930,000. It gets about half of its money from private foundations, with the rest from members and contributions from churches and local businesses, Espey said.

The group has about 3,300 dues-paying members.

Over the years it has expanded from local issues like streets, sidewalks and sewers to fighting the expansion of livestock confinement operations, mortgage foreclosures, and proposed reductions to government safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security.

Increasingly, Iowa CCI has become known for loud protests and shouting down politicians, boards and other government officials. Espey argued the tactics are needed when officials refuse to listen.

That was the case, Espey said, with the exchange with Romney at the state fair. And Espey noted that although it didn’t get as much attention, the group also confronted Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the fair the next day.

The group was angry at congressional Democrats for making a debt ceiling deal that didn’t raise taxes on the wealthy and for considering cuts to Social Security and Medicare, Espey said.

Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida, abruptly ended her speech but was surrounded by CCI members.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky was beside Schultz and said she thought Iowa CCI members had gone too far.

A few weeks later, when group members confronted Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley at a town-hall meeting, Dvorsky publicly blasted the group for behavior she called “unproductive, embarrassing, and has no place in a serious debate.”

Dvorsky said that grass roots activism is deeply ingrained in Democratic Party culture and that political rhetoric has become more aggressive, but she argued there must be limits. She said the incidents in which public officials are surrounded or blocked are especially concerning.

Iowa CCI responded that Dvorsky wasn’t at the Grassley town hall and had mischaracterized the interaction.

Colin Dunn, a Republican Party spokesman, declined to discuss the matter.

University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said groups like Iowa CCI are most effective when they focus attention on specific issues. They can hurt their image when their focus isn’t as sharp and they are seen as simply disruptive.

“When they actually shut down a speaker and keep people from presenting their point of view, then all of sudden people start to look at that and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Maybe this is going too far.’” he said.

Espey said Iowa CCI’s leaders think about the public’s perception of the group and continually try to engage more Iowans.“We don’t fight just for the sake of fighting. We don’t raise our voices or raise a ruckus just for the sake of doing it,” he said.

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