CLEAR LAKE — Chicken wings and empty chairs.
That sums up the first Iowa Democratic Wing Ding at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. The goal in 2003 was to raise money for local Democratic candidates and county parties. But not much came into the coffers because of, well, those empty chairs.
“I remember people in the party said, ‘You’ll go three years and be done,’ ” Wing Ding Chairman Randy Black remembered.
Sixteen years later, the Wing Ding is set to have its largest slate of guests yet.
Twenty of the Democrats seeking the party’s presidential nomination will be there Friday night for this year’s Wing Ding.
The 1,600 tickets to the event — at $35 each — were sold out by July 29.
“The place is going to be hopping,” Black said.
Part of the initial driver for the event was that some of the county-level Democratic parties were out of sorts, according to original Wing Ding board member John Ralls.
“In 2002, I became chairman of the Winnebago Democrats,” he said. “The party was broke, and I wanted to get together with the chairman of Hancock County to do a fundraiser.”
Hence, the Wing Ding.
Those early years were lean.
High-profile guests were hard to come by, and big state events — such as Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry and the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame dinner — were better known and bigger draws.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the board put some more meat on the bone.
That year, Barack Obama, on his way to the presidential nomination and the White House, was the keynote speaker.
And, if the party’s ascendant star wasn’t enough, it was the year planners opened up the event to more Northern Iowa counties — Butler, Cerro Gordo, Floyd, Franklin, Hancock and Kossuth, with Winnebago as the core.
“We want to help Democrats across the board,” Black said. “That’s why we’re called the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding.”
The money raised this year goes to 25 county parties and local candidates.
Hitting its stride
Things further coalesced for the Wing Ding in 2015.
That year, planners were able to book former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
It was the first time the Wing Ding had all of the major 2016 Democratic presidential hopefuls candidates at the event. And it was the first time Wing Ding planners had to deal with the Secret Service, which meant extensive vetting of people and plans.
Enough people showed up that year that the fire marshal called a halt to any more people, Black said.
For this year’s event, the first emails to candidates and campaigns went out in October 2018.
Catherine Crooks, chairwoman of the Franklin County Democrats, said not everyone is communicative.
“Some of them I talk to daily, some of them say yes and then we don’t hear from them again,” she said.
Black is certain 2019 will surpass 2015.
This year, the doors of the Surf Ballroom open at 5 p.m. Those attending will have their fill of Hy-Vee chicken wings and then listen to candidates, who’ll each get five minutes to make their points.
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Wing Ding organizer Susan Nelson said they’d like to give candidates more time, but that’s not possible.
The order of speakers is carefully determined by the planners. Even that is a lesson learned from past mistakes.
In 2015, the order was randomized.
“We tried doing it out of a hat ... which resulted in Lincoln Chafee going last,” Nelson said. People were headed for the exit before the event had ended.
It’s unlikely that will happen this year, with speakers like Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg waiting in the Wing Ding’s wings.
But Randy Black knows there will be problems of some kind.
“It’s never easy,” he said. “Not even now.”