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Community Activists in Des Moines Speak Out on Thursday’s Iowa Caucus

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Hugh Espey and Robin Ghormley of the Citizens for Community Improvement and Deepak Bhargava, executive director of Center for Community Change, discuss Thursday’s caucus. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Iowa today, presidential hopefuls are making their final efforts to get out the vote before Thursday’s caucus, which kicks off the 2008 primary election season.

In the latest campaign news, Congressmember Dennis Kucinich asked his Iowan supporters Tuesday to back Illinois Senator Barack Obama as their second choice. Monday night’s Des Moines Register poll gave Obama a six-point lead over his rivals with support from 32% of likely Democratic caucus-goers. But two other polls released by CNN/Opinion Research and Reuters/Zogby give New York Senator Hillary Clinton a lead of two to four points over Obama.

On the Republican side, two former governors, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, have the lead in Iowa.

With new polls showing both the Democratic and the Republican races to be extremely tight, voter turnout is crucial. At least 130,000 Democrats and 80,000 Republicans are expected to participate in 1,781 neighborhood meetings across Iowa Thursday evening.

Now, a clip of some of the contenders vying for support on the campaign trail.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I feel really good about what’s going happen Thursday night in the caucuses, but I feel good about it because of all of you. So have a great time tonight, and then let’s get back to work, and let’s get everybody to come out to the caucuses on Thursday night.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I promise you we will not just win this caucus, we will win this election. We will remake this country. We will repair this nation, and we will repair the world. We can change it, if you will stand with me on January 3rd and caucus for me. We can change the world.

    JOHN EDWARDS: Can I say something, first of all? We’re not going to have an auction in Iowa. We’re going to have an election. We’re going to decide who the best candidate is, not who the person is who can raise the most money.

    SEN. JOE BIDEN: This is an exciting time. It’s coming down to the finish line. Somebody’s going to get the gold, someone else is going to get the silver, someone else is going to get the bronze. I want the gold, and I want you guys to go get it for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Some of the leading voices in the Democratic and presidential campaign trail in Iowa.

Today, we host a discussion on the race in Iowa and how this crucial first contest will impact presidential nominations in states across the country. The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Community Change co-sponsored a grassroots presidential debate in Des Moines in early December. It was called the Heartland Presidential Forum. It drew nearly 5,000 likely caucus-goers. We’re joined now by two guests in Iowa, Hugh Espey and Robin Ghormley. They’re both members of the group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Hugh Espey, first start out by explaining: how does the caucus system work? Hugh, are you there?

HUGH ESPEY: Pardon? Say that again?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how does the caucus system work?

HUGH ESPEY: Well, there are going to be over 1,700 — basically they’re neighborhood meetings, and people — you have to be a registered Republican or a registered Democrat to participate. You can register on site. Republicans go to a meeting place; Democrats go to another meeting place. And it’s basically people getting together, talking and expressing their opinions about who they want to see nominated. So, in a sense, it’s really a democracy in action. There will be over, you know, 1,700 neighborhood meetings across the state on Thursday night.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Robin Ghormley, Citizens for Community Improvement, explain what exactly this group is and how it supported the Heartland Forum, what you’re trying to accomplish.

ROBIN GHORMLEY: Citizens for Community Improvement is a grassroots organization that pulls people of all ethnic and economic backgrounds together and helps them learn how to fight the unequal or problems that they have in their neighborhoods or with any other situation. We have fought predatory lending and have won some good victories there. We fight factory farms, and we have won some victories there. We have fought drug dealers on the street, and we have won victory there. We even have learned how to work with the city to get abandoned housing torn down, so we can put new homes in our neighborhoods. So it’s a very diverse group, and it has a diverse membership, and we work in all areas of need.

AMY GOODMAN: Hugh Espey, can you explain how Iowa came to be this — well, this precedent-setting state, the first in the primary season? Of course, you’re holding caucuses tomorrow night. And talk about the significance of Iowa. For someone who hasn’t been there, describe your state.

HUGH ESPEY: Well, it’s significant in the sense that this is the first nominating contest that will really help set the tone for what’s to come in the next, you know, four or five weeks, as there’s primaries and caucuses held across the country. So really all of the eyes of the country and, to an extent, around the world are focused on Iowa, because we’re going to be, on Thursday night, you know, probably well over 200,000 — maybe a quarter of a million people here in the state are going to be saying this is who we think should be president of the United States.

So, you know, and I might add, too, sometimes people say, “Well, why Iowa? You know, aren’t you folks kind of just different from everybody else in the country?” And really not, you know. I guess we feel our issues are America’s issues. You know, we’re concerned about quality healthcare. We’re concerned about decent jobs. We’re concerned about the environment. We’re concerned about the war in Iraq. We’re concerned about the direction that this country is going. And really, when you look at it, people are people, meaning that we’re all alike, whether you live in Boston, Massachusetts or Bloomfield, Iowa, or whether you live in Miami, Florida or Maquoketa, Iowa. We all have the same hopes, the same aspirations as anyone else across the country. You know, we want to see people get a fair shake and have opportunity. We want to see government that’s of the people and by the people. We want to see policies that benefit all of us, not just a select few. So, you know, it’s — and we take our job and responsibility to the American people very seriously. You know, we like to get up close with the candidates, check them out, see what they’re saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Hugh Espey, can you talk about Iowa as a farm state?

HUGH ESPEY: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, that’s kind of a misnomer, too, you know. Agriculture obviously is important here. Agriculture is important cross the country, because agriculture is about raising food. Everyone needs food. And so, in that sense, every state is an agricultural state. But we’ve got agriculture, we’ve got manufacturing jobs, we’ve got service jobs, we’ve got insurance jobs, we’ve got banking jobs. And so, you know, for people to think of Iowa as a stalk of corn is really not accurate. And as I said, when you scratch below the surface and you look at who are we, who are we as Iowans, we’re just like everybody else. We have the same hopes, the same aspirations. And, yes, is agriculture were important here? Sure, it is. Agriculture is important everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does — but that — you’re growing — you are an agricultural state. Can you talk about how that affects the politics in the state and the revenue coming into the state?

HUGH ESPEY: Well, you know, it obviously — you know, again, and I’m not sure if I necessarily understand the question, I mean, again, it’s an agricultural state, but the state is much more diverse than just agriculture. Again, agriculture is important across the whole country. So, again, you know, people are people, when you look at it. We’re Americans. It’s whether we’re — and you get below the surface, we have the same hopes, the same aspirations as anybody else across the country, whether you’re in New York, LA or Denver. People are people. We have the same things that we want for our neighborhoods, our kids, our communities, as anyone else.

AMY GOODMAN: And the large farming interests? You’ve done a lot of work around anti-corporate farming.

HUGH ESPEY: Right. I mean, we’ve done — again, it’s — and we’ve seen this in other sectors of the American economy, as well, in terms of, you know, the corporate takeover of — whether it be the manufacturing jobs or agriculture. We’ve done a lot of work on factory farming and environmental issues. And essentially it’s a story that’s being played out across America, and it’s about we, the people, recognizing that we, by uniting and standing up for what’s right, we can make a difference in our communities. So, you know, factory farms and environmental issues are a big issue here, and those are issues that our members have been raising with presidential candidates for well over the past —-

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the big factory farms in Iowa?

HUGH ESPEY: Big factory farms are giant livestock confinement facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: Like pig -—

HUGH ESPEY: I’m sorry, say that again?

AMY GOODMAN: Like pig farms, hog farms.

HUGH ESPEY: Well, we call them hog factories. I mean, we — you know, distinguish them from independent family farm-operated facilities. But these are giant corporate facilities that have thousands and thousands of animals on one site. They produce millions and millions of gallons of raw waste, raw manure and feces every year. And they displace family farmers. The pollute the environment. They tear communities apart. And, you know, generally speaking, they’re not good for our communities, and so our members, family farmers and other rural people and folks like Robin, as well, people who live in the city, recognize that we stand together, that what happens in the rural areas impacts people in urban areas.

AMY GOODMAN: Hugh Espey and Robin Ghormley, we have to break for a minute. Hugh Espey is executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a thirty-two-year-old grassroots group with over 4,000 members. Robin Ghormley works at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. She is a former nurse.


AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from the December 1st Heartland Presidential Forum in Des Moines, Iowa. This is Robin Ghormley, one of our guests today, asking Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama a question.

    ROBIN GHORMLEY: I’m seventy-three years old, and for the last four years I have been working again, not because I want to, but because I need to make ends meet. There are many families in this country that are having to choose between putting food on the table, paying medical bills and paying their mortgage. Even older people, people older than I am, are having to go back to work in order to pay the mortgages that have skyrocketing insurance or interest rates. This holiday season, it is reported that the investment bankers who bought up these subprime mortgages will be giving out $38 billion in bonuses. At the same time, millions of families in this country are facing the prospect of foreclosure. We must close the gap between rich and poor. My question to you, Senator Obama, is what will you do? What are your ideas to help us achieve this goal?

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’ll tell you, it’s an excellent question, and I thank you for sharing your story, and yours, as well. Look, this is one of the reasons I am running for the presidency of the United States of America, because we’ve lost balance in our economy. We have CEOs making more in ten minutes than most people here are making in an entire year. And it’s not right, and it’s not a fair, and it’s not good for America. It’s not good for our economic growth. And part of the reason — part of the reason is because we’ve got special interests who have been driving the agenda in Washington for too long, and part of my job, because I’m not funded by special interests and lobbyists — they are not going to work in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people, when I’m president of the United States of America. That’s why I’m running. That’s why I’m in this race.

    Now, let me tell you specifically what we need to do. Number one, we have to restore fairness in our tax system. So I’ve already said, we are rolling back those tax cuts on the top 1% that Bush gave out, because we need that money to provide healthcare for people who need it. We are going to give tax relief to people who need it. So what I’ve already said is, we’re going to — I’ve put forward a proposal, a tax plan, that says we’re going to close the loopholes to companies that ship jobs overseas or are, you know, setting up tax havens in the Cayman Islands. And as a consequence, we’re going to be able to provide relief. We will take the first $15,000 worth of payroll tax that you’re paying; we’re going to set up an exemption for that. We are going to give homeowners who don’t currently itemize on their tax forms — typically lower-income home owners — we’re going to give them a deduction on their mortgage to help them deal with the foreclosure crisis. And we’re going to say to senior citizens who make less than $50,000 a year, you don’t have to pay income tax, because you’ve got enough problems paying for higher drugs and higher other costs.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Barack Obama answering the question of our guest today, Robin Ghormley, who works at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a seventy-three-year-old former nurse. It is rare that citizens and non-citizens alike get such close contact on a daily basis with all of the presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican. Robin Ghormley, did you get to ask other candidates questions, and were satisfied with Barack Obama’s response?

ROBIN GHORMLEY: I did not get to ask other candidates questions. It was the luck of the draw. I drew Obama’s name, and so I was there to ask him a question.

AMY GOODMAN: Even outside the Heartland Forum?

ROBIN GHORMLEY: I beg your pardon.

AMY GOODMAN: Even have you gotten to meet candidates outside the particular forum where you asked that question?

ROBIN GHORMLEY: Outside of the forum, I have seen all of the candidates, not particularly to speak to, but we have — you know, they have open houses. They are at the schools, they are at the churches. They call you and invite you to this meeting and that meeting. I could go to a meeting practically every day of the week and see a different candidate and speak to him personally, or her.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn now to Deepak Bhargava, who’s executive director of Center for Community Change, which co-sponsored the Heartland Presidential Forum in Des Moines. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C. Deepak, welcome to Democracy Now!

I wanted to start off by asking you about Iowa being so important in the whole primary season, the first state tomorrow night, Thursday night, the Iowa caucuses will be held. This is a state that is 95% white, Deepak.

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: Thank you, Amy. Yes, it’s good to be here today. One of the things that was striking about the Heartland Forum was that we brought together over 2,000 Iowans and also people from around the country, grassroots leaders, to ask the candidates questions. And what we found out was that, as Hugh said, many of the same issues are playing out throughout the country. So immigration reform, which you don’t think of as a big issue, is a huge issue in Iowa, and ICCI and other groups really stood up and said we demand a path to citizenship for immigrants. Criminal justice and the criminalization of people of color, not just an issue in New York and Chicago, but also an issue in Iowa City. So one of the remarkable things about the forum and about the work that’s being done in Iowa is the effort to try to bring new voices into the process to bridge people across race, to fight for things they hold in common. And I think we’re seeing increasingly a convergence.

That said, it is true that Iowa is disproportionately white, and over the long term one would like to see a system evolve where states with more people of color had a greater say earlier in the primary process.

AMY GOODMAN: It is interesting, going from Iowa to New Hampshire, two of the whitest states, I guess, along with Vermont, in the country.

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: Yes, that’s true. The parties did add two additional states to the early process — South Carolina, which, of course, has a very significant African American population, and Nevada, which has a very significant Latino population — to try to address those issues about diversity and inclusion. I think the bigger issue about this process is the extent to which ordinary people of all races are going to be able to directly engage candidates on these issues of corporate power, of inequality, of the home foreclosure crisis, around issues of criminal justice, immigration, the things that really make a difference to American families. And outside of those early states, I think it will be very, very difficult for ordinary people to have that level of engagement in our democracy that we would like to see.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the Heartland Forum, what you were getting at, the whole group of people from Washington to Iowa who sponsored this?

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: We really wanted to get at two main things. The first was to try to lift up this idea that we have to reject the politics of selfishness, of division, of hate, that have come to characterize our politics and embrace this notion of community values, the idea that we’re all in it together, that we can’t rise as a country if we’re leaving anybody out, whether they are immigrants or African Americans or small family farmers, that we share a common destiny and that we need a politics and a set of policies on healthcare, on the economy, on jobs, that really reflects that notion of interconnectedness and interdependence. And so, we wanted to challenge the candidates to respond to those values and to put forward policies that speak to bringing us together and not driving us apart.

The second thing we wanted to accomplish is to get out of the scripted, kind of pundit-driven, who’s on first, who’s ahead, horserace kind of questions that you usually see at these debates and have people who are really experiencing the realities of suffering in America have a chance to engage the candidates directly in their own voice to push them on the things that matter the most, have an authentic moment that really allowed ordinary people to see their concerns and questions answered directly by the candidates. And I think we accomplished both of those goals.

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