A radical event took place a week ago at Hamburg Inn in downtown Iowa City.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, a combat veteran, tucked into a back corner with about dozen more military veterans. The men and women, Democrats and Republicans, sipped coffee, forked eggs and spooned oatmeal sweetened by milk and brown sugar while discussing veteran-related opportunities and challenges.
To my knowledge, no one tweeted. Voices were raised, but only in competition with other diners’ conversations and clang of silverware.
As such, other diners can be forgiven for not immediately recognizing politics was on display. This was the type of politics that fills space on the wainscoted walls of the Burg in the form of signed bumperstickers, photographs and newspaper clippings — similar, although more expansive, than what can be found in other iconic Iowa locations — not the type of politics that has more recently bullied its way onto the national stage and warped even Iowans’ perceptions of the caucus process.
Gabbard’s mild-mannered, bipartisan gathering was a refreshing throwback, a nod to a time when Iowans talked about shared frustrations and future aspirations. It was reminiscent of when Iowa led the nation in more than just the presidential nomination calendar, and a sobering reminder of how much has been lost, locally and nationally, as crowd size has hijacked brain size as a measure of political value.
What value lies in gathering in a public place and having a conversation?
“It’s everything; it’s where we begin,” said state Sen. Jeff Danielson, a Navy veteran and Democrat from Black Hawk County who attended the gathering. “As an Iowa kid, I think it is awesome in every way, and we have a civic duty to participate and encourage folks from around the country to come here. This is how it is supposed to work.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Heidi Warrington, also from Black Hawk County and a Republican, agreed there’s value in bipartisan discussions about vital issues. She served as a medical officer attached to the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and has several current and former military family members, providing rich insight on care for veterans and those on active duty.
“These are important voices that too often get lost,” she told me before leaving the gathering.
Cedar Rapids lawyer Kevin Techau is the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa and served 27 years in the Air Force and Iowa Air National Guard. He told me these types of gatherings “help both sides understand where things stand, and how things can get better” for military veterans.
“When someone is as sincere as the candidate who spoke today — she’s obviously genuinely interested, she has a background as a veteran and she’s speaking with people who come at veterans’ issues from all standpoints — it’s a good opportunity to spark conversation in D.C. and let people know what’s going on here at the ground level,” he said.
Like so many who travel to Iowa, Gabbard is exploring a presidential run. Unlike others, she readily acknowledges testing the waters. Even so, meetings like this one in Iowa City, she says, are about something bigger than 2020.
“As a veteran myself, this is something that is deeply personal to me,” she told me. “But also I recognize the need that still exists, and leaders can’t know what must be done unless we are actually out there on the ground and hearing from veterans ourselves. So, whether it is here, or in any other state, I make it a priority to reach out and see who I can talk to, who can I hear from within the veteran community and leaders in the community about issues that are important to them.”
How does that square with her ongoing exploration of a partisan nomination? Why sit down with Republicans when it’s unlikely they’ll support a caucus run?
“That’s exactly the point: This isn’t about politics,” Gabbard said. “It really is about honoring and respecting those who have sacrificed greatly to serve our country, and making sure our country keeps its promises to serve and deliver for them.”
Later the same day, as I still pondered if Gabbard’s words would match her future actions, I had an opportunity to hear her address a partisan event in West Branch, hosted by Cedar County Democrats. The woman who ate oatmeal at the Burg stood at the lectern.
“If we only sit in rooms with all of our friends, with the people we agree with, that’s not how we win elections,” she told the party faithful.
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“We won’t always agree … but if we begin that conversation and we allow that conversation to happen with respect and love, we then have far more opportunity to come together and make the kind of progress that we all need.”
Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation caucuses, has an opportunity to set a different tone for 2020. Here’s hoping our better angels take a seat at the table. Discussion is required. Oatmeal is optional.
l Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, email@example.com