Gala leaves Iowa Democrats enthused but undecided

For some, Sunday's event made their shortlist get longer

People help themselves to slices of pizza provided Sunday by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke at the Iowa
People help themselves to slices of pizza provided Sunday by Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke at the Iowa Democratic Party’s annual Hall of Fame celebration at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Cedar Rapids Convention Complex. Candidates tried to woo supporters with free pizza, handshakes and autographs, but many Iowa Democrats left the Hall of Fame gathering of 19 candidates just as undecided as when they arrived. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — If there was a Sports Center Top 10 for the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration, it probably wouldn’t include any home runs or strikeouts and few, if any, ejections, according to Democrats who were there this weekend to see, hear and evaluate 19 presidential hopefuls.

The progressives in the Democratic field seemed to be fan favorites. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and California Sen. Kamala Harris frequently were mentioned as people left the party fundraiser Sunday afternoon in downtown Cedar Rapids.

“I think I’m like most Democrats in Iowa that I had maybe three or four that I was listening for — that would be Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, maybe a few others,” said Joelle Brown from Iowa City. “Nobody really surprised me because they all did as well as I expected.”

Nineteen Democratic presidential hopefuls are expected this afternoon at the sold-out Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame, starting at 2 p.m. at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids.

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John Ercig of Cedar Rapids went in looking for a candidate with strong progressive values — “Warren mostly. Also Mayor Pete. Pretty much those two.”

He wasn’t disappointed, saying they stood out among the others.

“And also Beto was actually pretty good for those of us that stuck around for the whole thing,” Ercig said about O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who was the last speaker at nearly 5 p.m. Ercig also liked Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who like him is a military veteran.

If he was disappointed at all it was because “not really a lot of them hit on veteran issues at all.”

The diversity of opinions sounded familiar to Dave Nagle, who has been through a few caucus campaigns. He believes Iowa Democrats are, for the most part, undecided. Polls are showing former Vice President Joe Biden leading the field, followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Warren and Harris with most polling in single digits.


“I think anybody that says it’s anything other than ‘it’s still early yet’ until November is pushing a pencil that won’t write,” the former Eastern Iowa congressman and Iowa Democratic Party chairman said.

Whatever commitments are being made “are more fluid. In other words, they’re subject to change,” Nagle said.

That was reflected in comments from Democrats at the fundraiser and at events candidates held earlier in the day.

At a Buttigieg rally, Robin Jindrich of West Branch said her preference is for him, though she said she “still likes” Sanders and Harris. LGBTQ rights are a priority for her, she said, partly because her son is gay.

Crossing the street after a Harris rally at the DoubleTree, Melinda Tomsic of Cedar Rapids said she, too, is keeping her mind open to most candidates. She went to a Saturday event with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — an unknown candidate to her beforehand — and said she was impressed. Harris is high on her list as well.

“I’m still undecided,” Tomsic said. “We have so many choices. A richness of too many choices.”

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s appeal surprised some attendees. Cody Howell of Iowa City said the senator’s Midwest background resonated with him.

“I need a Midwesterner to really speak to the Midwest,” Howell said. “I’m tired of these coastal senators and congress people telling me what I should care about when I need a Midwestern perspective to tell me the real issues that are affecting me.”

That’s what’s drawn him to Klobuchar, and to Buttigieg of Indiana.


On Mariah Andrews’ wrist, there’s a “She Persisted” tattoo — a rallying cry of Warren. But Andrews, of Mount Vernon, is undecided.

“I have it narrowed down to a top three or four,” she said, noting she arrived and left Sunday’s event with the same candidates in mind: O’Rourke, Warren, Buttigieg and Booker.

But New York Sen. “Kirsten Gillibrand, she would be in my top five. I loved what she had to say. I loved her passion — she was a little less polished, but I think that actually works to some degree. She was the biggest surprise to me.”

Like any others, listening to the speeches didn’t change much for Tom Townsend of Dubuque.

“I still have four or five at the top of the list,” said Townsend, 52, who wore a IBEW 704 polo. But Klobuchar moved to that tier, with Buttigieg, Warren and Booker.

Although his favorite candidate wasn’t in attendance Sunday, John Olsen said he’s “still a Joe Biden guy.”

“His family comes first, and he had a family engagement, so I understand that,” the Ankeny Democrat said. Biden was attending his granddaughter’s graduation.

Sarah Hinzman of Cedar Rapids had somewhat divided loyalties. She was invited to the Hall of Fame by acquaintances affiliated with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’ campaign, but she said she was “still open to all the candidates,”

“I think maybe Biden has more name recognition on a national level, but friends of mine are close family friends of Hickenlooper so I like that personal connection,” she said.


Hinzman hoped listening to rapid-fire speeches would help her narrow her choices to a shortlist of three to five.

That didn’t happen for Iowa City teacher Travis Henderson. Hearing the candidates left him more undecided.

“It’s an exciting problem to have,” he said. High on his list now are Buttigieg and Harris, and he remains somewhat interested in Sanders.

Henderson’s firmest position was a lack of interest in Biden.

“I was a Biden supporter, and I’ve kind of lost faith in Biden,” he said. “I don’t think he can get the base excited.”

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