In Iowa, Small-Town Politics Have Big Sway

Jan 26, 2016

If you’re feeling ignored by presidential candidates, consider moving to Iowa. Caucus-goers in the nation’s first presidential contest have become accustomed to being wooed.

Richard Queener is from Creston, a small city of 8,000 people.

“If you’re not familiar with it,” Queener says, “southwest Iowa is Republican. The big cities are Democratic.”

The town of Creston is bisected by train tracks. On the north side is a downtown with a mix of empty storefronts and small, local stores.

One of them is Adams Street Espresso, the coffee shop that Queener’s daughter, Tara Hanson, owns. On Friday afternoon, he was heading home after a big rush.

“I’m supposed to be sitting on my lawn chair and my rocking chair,” he says. “I come up here a couple days a week … when something like this happens where they need the extra help.”

“Something like this” was the influx of customers that came in when Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson stopped by earlier in the afternoon.

In Vermont, it’d be hard to imagine a presidential campaign stop at a coffee shop in a city the size of Saint Albans.

But in Iowa, face-to-face politics reigns, and many Iowans expect to attend speeches and even have casual encounters with the presidential candidates they might caucus for.

In southwestern Iowa, that means Republican candidates are around often, but that doesn’t necessarily make the decision easy.

Queener still isn’t sure whom he’ll caucus for.

“Longtime Republican," Queener says of himself. "And I’m so confused I don’t know what,” he says of his caucus pick.

Queener’s daughter, Tara Hanson, is another one of the undecided voters candidates are working so hard to win over.

“I am a registered Republican, so I’m leaning toward obviously one of those candidates,” says Hanson. “I’m a little up in the air right now. Just a little. There's two or three of them that I wish I could kind of mash ‘em together.”

Hanson was happy to have Ben Carson in her shop, but she says she’d be just as willing to host a Democratic candidate if one of those campaigns approached her.

“Their money’s green, so yes, I would take their money,” Hanson says with a laugh. "My doors are open to anyone."

Dr. Ben Carson held a campaign event at Tara Hanson's coffee shop on Jan. 22. Hanson's father Richard Queener, a Creston, Iowa resident says he's seen Carson three times this campaign cycle.
Credit Patrick Semansky / AP

She says the town of Creston – with a community college and a lot of farmers – isn’t overwhelmingly conservative.

“It’s probably about half and half,” she says. “We have a large farm community, so a lot of those old farmers remember the farm crisis of the 80s and they’re still staunch Democrats … But with the conservative values of the area I feel like it’s a pretty equal split.”

Hanson says from the talk she’s heard in the coffee shop, local Democrats are leaning toward Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“We hear a lot of political talk, bantering, around, back and forth,” Hanson says. “Most of them that I’ve heard are leaning more toward Bernie, just because Hillary’s been so involved in a lot of scandals and negative media more so than Bernie. But that’s like I said, the old farmers and maybe they’re not ready for a woman, I don’t know.”

Republicans, of course, have more candidates to consider. And Hanson’s father Richard Queener was happy to hear from Ben Carson, even though it wasn't the first time.

“I’ve seen him three times already. He’s super. I like him,” Queener says before thinking aloud about his options. “I’m stuck between him and Cruz, Kasich. He’s way down. It’s either gonna be Cruz or Carson. But I mean, I could vote for any of them except one and I’ll let you figure out which one I couldn’t vote for.”

When asked if that “one” was presidential candidate Donald Trump, Queener said with a laugh, “I’m scared to death of him.”

Queener is plenty conservative, but he doesn’t trust Trump.

“But he’s still better than Hillary. Still better than Hillary,” Queener added with a chuckle.

"We hear a lot of political talk, bantering, around, back and forth. Most of them that I've heard are leaning more toward Bernie, just because Hillary's been so involved in a lot of scandals and negative media more so than Bernie." — Tara Henson, owner of Adams Street Espresso in Creston, Iowa

Queener says he could never help a Democrat because of his religious convictions.

“I’m a pastor,” explained Queener. “I’m a evangelical right-winger all the way.”

To Queener, the Democratic Party’s positions too often contradict the word of God.

“I mean, all right, we’ve killed enough – I don’t know if you ever heard this before – through abortion we’ve killed – if you take west of the Mississippi, take out California, Texas and Washington. That’s how many people we’ve killed.” Queener says. “The people that live in all those other states, that’s how many people have died since we started abortion. That issue alone is enough to make me say I could never vote for a Democrat ... When they brought back partial-birth abortion it sickens me to think we’re killing a nine-month-old baby.”

Outside Adams Street Espresso, a mid-afternoon freight train takes a few minutes to roll west through the center of Creston. A handful of cars wait on the north side of the tracks before heading to the south end of town, where chain restaurants and a Wal-Mart Super Center supplant the small businesses on this side of the tracks.

Around the corner from Adam Street Espresso, on North Elm Street, is the one Bernie Sanders campaign office in this part of Iowa.

In the same building as the Sanders campaign is Amy Jo’s House of Pain, a piercing studio and vape shop.

Inside, heavy metal plays softly in the back room and the store’s owner, Amy Lohoff, works behind the counter.

“I like Creston," she says. "Born and raised. Small town. All my family’s here, that’s what I like about it,” Lohoff says. “Most people, I mean, anybody helps anybody. That’s what I like about small towns.”

Lohoff says she wouldn’t call her hometown especially conservative.

“I don’t know, I think it is definitely split very even here in Creston,” she says.

A Sanders campaign sign hangs in the shop’s window, and there’s a stack of Bernie bumper stickers on top of a case of body jewelry.

Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign office in Creston, Iowa shares a building with Amy Jo's House of Pain, a piercing parlor and vape shop. Owner Amy Lohoff plans to caucus for Sanders and has stacks of his campaign stickers available on the jewelry counter in the shop.
Credit Taylor Dobbs / VPR

Lohoff says she’s only caucused once – for Barack Obama in 2008 – but she’ll caucus this year too, “for Berns.”

She says Sanders’ age worries her, but she likes his progressive ideas.

“A lot of it is the free education,” she says. “Even though I’m fully aware that it’s probably not anything he could get done, I still like the fact that he’s pulling for that, and I think he could at least get the interest rates dropped.”

Lohoff says she doesn’t have any student debt, but she has three kids.

“Well that and I just think it’s important for a society to have a bunch of well-educated people. It just makes sense. In my eyes anyway,” Lohoff says. “I’m not saying all college should be free, but a couple years maybe. Something.”

Plus, she doesn’t like her other options on caucus night, or in November.

“I don’t necessarily like Hillary,” she says, “but I would honestly vote for her over any of the Republican candidates at this point.”

Lohoff says if it came to that, she wouldn’t necessarily feel good about that vote.

“I don’t trust her. I think she’s a liar,” adds Lohoff.

"I don't necessarily like Hillary, but I would honestly vote for her over any of the Republican candidates at this point." — Amy Lohoff, owner of Amy Jo's House Of Pain in Creston, Iowa

She says Clinton’s handling of the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi doesn’t feel right to her.

“And we don’t ever get all the information, you know? But you can tell a lot [about] somebody by just watching how they talk and how they are,” says Lohoff.

And for caucus-goes across the state, there’s no shortage of opportunities to do that.

VPR’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.