Report from the Heartland: Elections as Opportunities for Unheard Voices

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

I just got back from Des Moines, Iowa, where I watched and listened as low-income people, all too often ignored in elections, took the opportunity to raise issues of concern to them with the leading Democratic Presidential candidates (the Republicans were invited, too, but none accepted before the deadline). I was at the Heartland Presidential Forum, organized by the Center for Community Change, an Atlantic grantee, with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. It was an exhilarating experience, showing democracy at its best.

In an important sense, foundations exist, or should, to help democracy work. Yet many shy away from anything related to elections, for fear of being seen as partisan. What the Center for Community Change and other smart groups understand – another Atlantic grantee, Every Child Matters, was also having a candidate forum in another part of town – is that elections are important not just for who wins, which is the focus of virtually all press coverage, but more importantly for what the winners feel obligated to deal with, and how urgently, after they take office. That’s why our colleague foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad Foundations are supporting Ed ’08, to increase attention to education reform during this election season, and why the Annie E. Casey Foundation is leading a multi-foundation effort, in which Atlantic will join, to use the next year to throw a “Spotlight on Poverty.” (I should note that Atlantic and our grantees are non-partisan and never take positions on political candidates.)

As Rudy Lopez, the dynamic organizer from East Chicago, Illinois who heads CCC’s Community Voting Project, put it at a breakfast before the Heartland Forum, voter work is a tool for advancing both values and issues at a time when you have everyone’s attention. And given America’s crazy primary and caucus system, where Iowa – which is both whiter and more rural than most of the country — plays a hugely disproportionate role in selecting the President, there is enormous value in what the CCC and Iowa CCI did to remind candidates that in Iowa, too, people care about health care and economic security, and treating newcomers with respect and encouragement, not hostility and bigotry.

It was a thrill to be in the hall at the Hy-Vee Center as thousands of low-income community leaders — black, brown and white — filed in from all across the country, particularly the Midwest. About fifty of them took seats on stage. Cathy Hughes, the radio host, moderated, and when each of the candidates came out in turn – John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Christopher Dodd, Hillary Clinton (by phone, stranded by the weather in D.C.) and Barack Obama – they faced a few panels of leaders. The first started off with a story, and the other two asked questions, grouped by theme – race and immigration, the economy and predatory lending, and so on. Every questioner spoke in eloquent and moving personal terms, a few of them choking up as they told stories of family farmers being driven out by polluting agribusinesses in Iowa, racial profiling of Muslims in Chicago, and communities decimated by incarceration in South Carolina.

It hit home for me powerfully, hearing them all speak, that the chief value of a forum like this is not in what the candidates say, and whether they pledge, as all did, to meet with a delegation of community leaders in their first month in office. It is what they are required to listen to, and hopefully hear. We think of elections as events in which candidates work to persuade voters. But if democracy works right, voters persuade candidates – their travels widen their world and experiences, as happened to Robert Kennedy in 1968, and even Pat Buchanan encountering economic misery in New Hampshire in 1992.

Just a few such stories from the forum: Dedra Lewis from Springfield, Massachusetts, with her daughter Alexiana at her side, told Barack Obama about how Alexiana’s eye ailments threatened to blind her, how she lost her job while dealing with it, along with her health insurance too, but how critical the SCHIP child health insurance program (another advocacy effort supported by Atlantic) was to saving Alexiana’s sight. Cathy Hughes took Alexiana by the hand and brought her over to Senator Obama, who leaned his tall lanky self over and talked quietly with her for a minute. And there was, Robin Ghormley, 73, the activist from Des Moines who said she had to go back to work to make ends meet, and now notes that she read about Wall Street investment bankers and the like who will take home $38 billion in bonuses this Christmas, while thousands of low and middle-income people are losing their homes to foreclosures. That pretty stark fact brought home, along with many other questions, the truth of one community leader’s declaration: “Some things aren’t right, and some things ain’t right, and that ain’t right.”

You can learn more about the Heartland Forum, and watch it online – it was also carried live on C-Span, and covered by the New York Times and much of the media at http://www.movementvisionlab.org/

Elections matter everywhere, of course. In Ireland, the spring elections returned Taoseaich Bertie Ahern and his Fianna Fail party to office, and there has been significant new activity in the fields of human rights and ageing, two of Atlantic’s key concerns. The government has also issued a policy in favor of prevention and early intervention in its work with disadvantaged children, an achievement based on the work of three of our grantees, the Northside Preparing for Life, youngballymun, and Tallaght West Childhood Development Initiative. In Australia last week, Labor party leader Kevin Rudd displaced the longtime Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard, and is expected to lead a government more supportive of higher education and biomedical research, two areas where Atlantic is deeply engaged there. And in South Africa there is an unprecedented contest for the leadership of the African National Congress taking place this week, and whoever succeeds two-term President Thabo Mbeki will affect many issues of concern to Atlantic, like the government’s policy toward the HIV-AIDS pandemic, which has too often in the Mbeki years been distorted by denialism based on strange science. And in Bermuda, where Atlantic’s ageing and children’s programmes are active, general elections will be held on December 18.

That’s why Atlantic will continue to support its grantees wherever in the world they are, when they undertake the important work of making democracy real for the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people.

Gara LaMarche

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