116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - For decades, the Hamburg Inn diner has been the 'it” spot for politicians hitting this college town.
But lately, Republicans have been choosing another venue for Iowa City appearances. The Airliner, a downtown mainstay for beer, pizza and free popcorn, has hosted GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, presidential surrogates including Jeb Bush Jr. and Iowa Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, as he announced a run for Iowa's 2nd Congressional District.
'I think they've been received pretty well, especially in such a liberal county,” said Dalton Matt, a University of Iowa sophomore from Decorah. An Airliner employee and part of the UI College Republicans, Matt has helped bring the Republican candidates and surrogates to the bar and grill across the street from the UI Pentacrest.
The student organization has a twice-monthly Pitchers & Politics event at the Airliner. About 75 people turned out Thursday night to see the younger Bush, Matt said. It was one of four Iowa college stops last week as Bush campaigned for his father, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is running for president.
Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, hit the bar Oct. 13 after speaking to evangelical Christians at Grace Fellowship Church earlier that night.
Chelgren offered free beer for an hour at the Airliner on Oct. 6 while he announced his bid to replace U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack. Wearing a plaid sports coat and holding a pint, Chelgren stood at the Airliner's hostess-stand-turned-podium to talk with a small gathering.
'Historically, as a Hawkeye fan for years and years, we've always gone there,” Chelgren told The Gazette about why he chose the Iowa City pub. Plus, 'it has a lot of attendance by veterans groups - ROTC, service members - and I just like those kind of guys.”
The Airliner, founded in 1944, wasn't looking to become a political hot spot, said Justin O'Donnell, assistant manager. But when Matt approached management about the restaurant hosting GOP visitors, they wanted to be supportive. Plus, political appearances can bring in customers on what ordinarily aren't huge bar nights.
The Hamburg, which came along just four years after the Airliner, in 1948, has hosted local and national politicians of both parties for decades. Candidates and their supporters cram into the tiny diner for burgers, fries and pie shakes. Former President Ronald Reagan visited the Hamburg in 1992 and former President Bill Clinton in 2003. The restaurant also hosts the Iowa Coffee Bean Caucus, where diners cast their bean for a favorite candidate.
'We're completely nonpartisan,” said General Manager Seth Dudley. 'Johnson County is obviously quite liberal, but it's good to have a place that welcomes both.”
The most recent presidential candidate to visit the Hamburg was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, on July 17.
Dudley said he doesn't begrudge the Airliner a place in Iowa City's political spotlight.
'We don't have a monopoly on it, but for whatever reason, we've been the place to go for the last decade or so,” he said. 'The more the merrier.”