Staff Columnist

Not giving up: Campaigning amid the coronavirus

Kayla Koether
Kayla Koether

I met Kayla Koether on March 3, back when we were allowed to meet people. It was Super Tuesday and one of the first days in Iowa where you could finally imagine that spring would be coming — snow was melting into pools in parking lots, the bright winter blue of the sky had softened and the wind had lost its sting.

In 2018, Koether ran for a seat in the Iowa House in the midst of a historic midterm election. The Democrat lost by just nine votes to incumbent Republican Michael Bergan. It was a close race, one that was decided in part by the Iowa GOP’s refusal to count 29 absentee ballots that had been received before the deadline, but hadn’t been postmarked. Iowa code allowed ballots with smart bar codes to be counted, but there was no such provision in Winneshiek County. After a lengthy review by a Republican-led House panel, members refused to count those votes.

On Feb. 26, Koether announced she was running again for the District 55 seat. But three weeks after that announcement, life in Iowa changed. On March 17, Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a statewide emergency. The coronavirus pandemic had reached Iowa, disproportionately affecting the vulnerable Iowans whom Koether wants to reach.

It would be easy to feel demoralized. How do you campaign when you cannot knock on doors and when the people you want to reach often don’t have reliable internet or phones? How do you campaign again when you can’t trust the political system to make sure every vote is counted?

But for Koether, who has seen the loss of rural communities in Iowa, there is only one answer: You don’t quit.

Koether never imagined herself running for office, especially not in rural Iowa, where politicians are overwhelmingly older, white, married men. Or people with money. “People not like me,” she laughed.

Koether was born in Elkader when the hospital there still delivered babies. She grew up in Giard, just outside McGregor. It’s not really a town; it’s a loop off the highway that never got the chance to be anything more once the railroad couldn’t make the grade and didn’t come through. The highway bisects her family farm, and she grew up sliding down gravel piles in the rock quarry, building forts in corncribs and eating raspberries in her backyard.

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Koether is part of the fifth generation to grow up on that farm. Her great-great-grandfather rode the Oregon Trail backward and stopped in Iowa with gold dust he had put in flour sacks so no one would be the wiser. He decided to settle in Iowa because he thought it looked like Ireland.

When he died, the farm transferred to her great-grandmother. It’s a home where memories write over memories.

Koether’s father began farming in the wake of the farm crisis of the 1980s. Farms, churches, schools and hospitals had all been closed. But the couple made it work with her mother being a teacher and then a high school principal.

Farming hasn’t gotten any easier. President Donald Trump’s trade wars with China have begun to bankrupt small farmers. Social safety nets have been systematically dismantled. And now, there is the pandemic and its yet unknown economic devastation.

But Koether is determined. She wants to farm. Not just to farm, she wants to make sure the life she had in the rock quarry and corncrib is there for future generations.

“To me, being successful and making the conditions possible for my generation to have success, not only my dream but any others, that is a prerequisite for me.”

In 2017, Koether signed up for Camp Wellstone, a training program named after the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone that teaches young progressives how to organize political campaigns. And when she came back, she decided to try her best and see what happened.

She and the friends who comprised her campaign organized what they called a barnstorm tour. Essentially, they’d go into towns like Frankville, an unincorporated town with a population of about 400, and have a meeting. In Frankville, they met in a fire station. In other towns they met in libraries, bar patios and American Legions. Koether didn’t send out news releases or rely on social media. She invited people by going door to door. At each event, Koether asked Iowans to tell her how they saw the potential in their communities and the challenges they faced.

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And they told her about loss. Fayette had lost its grocery store, flower shop and hardware store. A woman in her 80s had a reverse mortgage and relied on the food pantry to survive. Another woman was taking care of her granddaughter because her daughter was addicted to meth.

Some people told her things they hadn’t even told their families. Like when a middle-aged man told Koether he thought he was going to lose the family farm.

She went everywhere — Frankville, Castalia, Wadena. And people were wonderful. One family invited her to join them for burgers on the patio. Another time, after she had been door-knocking late, she came back to her car and found a package of graham crackers, a jar of strawberry jam and a note that read: “Take care of yourself. Thanks for everything you’re doing.”

As a 28-year-old Democrat, Koether almost unseated the Republican incumbent in a conservative district. And maybe she did unseat him. We won’t ever know because the final votes were never fully counted.

Koether is the first to point out that she could have lost by more than the nine votes, but again we won’t know. But for her, the loss was devastating because of the voices that weren’t able to be heard: the man who couldn’t go to the polls because he was undergoing cancer treatments; or the elderly man who couldn’t leave his home.

So she decided to run again. Only this time, instead of running a campaign in a historic midterm election cycle, she’s facing a pandemic.

Koether recalls the people she met in Fayette. “They already lost so many of their stores,” she explained. “If it was already hard for you as an elderly person to drive 20 miles and get groceries — especially if you are living on a fixed income or were having trouble making ends meet — this is going to make it harder.”

So there is no door-knocking, no barnstorming. Instead, she’s calling people, checking in, making sure they are OK.

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But her vision for Iowa hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s become more urgent: connect people and rebuild communities and help Iowans help Iowans.

During her 2018 campaign, Koether drove around listening to Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” In the song, Parton sings about feeling like a captured eagle, ready to fly. The song starts slow and builds to a crescendo.

“Everything is gonna be all right,” she sings. “Everything is gonna be OK.” The song is a little sentimental, earnest and absolutely necessary.

Koether still finds herself singing it when she goes outside for walks. For her, it hits home, now more than ever.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; 319-368-8513

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