Iowa Caucus-Goer : A Tough Activist to Follow

Times Political Writer

This is the habitat of the fabled activist . You know, the workaday men and women of Iowa who will pull on their boots and mittens and venture out at 7 p.m. on the sure-to-be-frosty night of Feb. 8, 1988, to gather at one of 2,490 political party meetings, or caucuses, across Iowa.

There, they will vote their preference for President.

And because the race for the White House traditionally starts here, the votes of these activists will outweigh everyone else’s in America.

Political lore is richly adorned with tales of the hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars candidates spend in pursuit of these activists. The next President need not necessarily win big here, but neither can he (or she) lose badly, it is thought--as Iowa caucus-goers have the capacity to bring a dark horse out of the shadows or slice a front-runner down a size.


One Such Activist

Kerry Jech is such an activist.

Tall, gangly and with a grin as wide as a cheeseburger, Jech is former chairman of the Marshall County Republican Party; he promises to work his heart out for the candidate of his choice. When he gets around to making a choice.

Meantime, there is his family to raise and church flock to tend. When Vice President George Bush visited Marshalltown for a full Saturday of campaigning recently, the 31-year-old minister of Hillside Church of Christ had only a few minutes to watch and listen.

Insurance man Don Diamond is another activist, caucus-goer, good Republican.

If the vote was today, Diamond would stand up for Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. Probably. But today is not caucus day, and, to tell the truth, Diamond has more immediate things on his mind, topics familiar in coffee shops everywhere in Iowa--the weather and crops and football.

Grass Roots

For Kurt Jackson, politics has to be squeezed between a job more than 100 miles away, a college class load and a new business venture here in Marshalltown. Jackson just recently signed up to work as a volunteer community leader for Bush. His first big chance to help the vice president comes when he is interviewed for this dispatch.

Yes, presidential candidates and the campaign press spend inordinate energy and time in Iowa and have for months. There are more than a dozen presidential campaign headquarters offices in Iowa. The Chamber of Commerce has established a downtown office just to assist visiting reporters. There is talk of incipient rental-car shortages, bumper sticker companies are flourishing and computer lists of would-be supporters now run to 10,000 in some campaigns.

But here in the countryside of Iowa, the stirrings of politics are only now reaching down into the grass roots.


Jech, Diamond and Jackson are residents of a pastel-and-brick, middle-class neighborhood in middle-class, homey Marshalltown, population 27,000, in central Iowa, one hour northeast of Des Moines. The neighborhood is known politically as the 5th Ward, 1st Precinct, or 5/1. It is one of 12 precincts in Marshalltown.

This story is the first of a series of occasional looks at the Republican voters in this heartland precinct in this heartland state, with the aim of charting how some activists view the unfolding of the presidential campaign, and how they make their choice for President, when and why. Separately, The Times will examine how the campaign develops in one of Iowa’s Democratic precinct caucuses.

Like elsewhere in Iowa, a sense of place and community pervades Marshalltown. Corny as it sounds--and, yes, there are cornfields planted on the undeveloped lots of the 5th Ward--people here tend to talk as if what is good for Iowa is good for them; and what is good for Marshalltown is even better for them. For transplanted Californian Buck Dates, the difference between running a candy shop in Marshalltown and being a business executive in Westwood is easy: “Nobody here ever talks about their car.”

There are more than 50 companies in Marshalltown, including firms that manufacture home furnaces and metal die castings. But it is a one-union town. More than half of the businesses are organized by the United Auto Workers.

Some big events of recent years include a decision by Lennox, the furnace company, to move its executives to Texas; a bitter strike at the Swift meatpacking plant; layoffs at Fisher instruments, and a 1986 sweep by Democrats, who ousted two of the county’s three Republican supervisors and elected Democrats to the Legislature and Congress. There also was the 100th anniversary of the sprawling Iowa Veterans Home out on the north side.

Although not so jarring as in America’s urban centers, economic divisions are plain enough in Marshalltown. When Vice President Bush walked through town in the Veterans Home centennial parade, the silk stocking neighborhood applauded him warmly; the blue collar district watched him pass silently.


Young Families

In some parts of Iowa, young men and women have fled in large numbers in search of work, but along the parade route young families predominate, a comfort to those who fear the demise of the small-town wellspring of America’s heritage.

Jech and his Hillside Church of Christ are nondenominational, born-again Christian fundamentalists. But there is no overt partisan politics from the Sunday pulpit here.

Iowa voters are split three ways, over a half-million each for Democrats, Republicans and independents. Jech sees the same partisan divisions in the 270 worshipers who come each Sunday. He cannot risk offending the flock when there are 45 churches competing for members.

But as a religious leader and a young man who fought back from a frightening attack of cancer to lead his church, Jech’s views and energy are respected all over town. His interests in politics are two--morality and economy. Add to that a dose of old-fashioned suspicion about Washington and power.

Jech leans toward supporting fellow minister Pat Robertson, but also is interested in Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), who is campaigning hard in Iowa on the so-called moral questions. Jech also likes the straightforward, get-tough economic message of former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV.

“Those three represent my values more than Bush or Dole . . . particularly on the moral issues--abortion and homosexuality. I haven’t really heard Du Pont on moral issues, but he really gets me in fiscal areas.”


Abortion and homosexuality are “issues” that need no preface or explanation in small town GOP circles in Iowa.

At a recent state party fund-raiser and straw poll conducted at Iowa State University in Ames, Jech arrived wearing a red-white-and-blue boater hat and T-shirt in support of Robertson. “This is not a definite commitment, but I’m leaning that way,” Jech says.


“I guess because I feel it here,” he replies, hitting his gut with clenched fist.

Jech resigned his county GOP chairmanship this summer in his struggle with cancer, from which he has recovered. But his energy for politics remains high. He is anxious to make up his mind between the candidates.

All-Out Effort

“Because I don’t just want to be for someone, I want to help them. And if I waited until the last moment I couldn’t help my candidate. And once I make up my mind, I’m going to do everything in my power to help him.”

Robertson’s much-publicized victory at the straw poll is encouraging to Jech. “It helps erase in my mind this thing that he couldn’t do it, couldn’t be elected.”

Around town, however, word of Kerry Jech’s incipient support for Robertson seems to divide people. Fundamentalist conservatives have become increasingly active, and ideologically strident, in Iowa GOP politics for the last few years. This runs counter to a long tradition of moderate Republican leadership in the state.


“Too bad about young Kerry. I was kinda sad to see that,” says Wendell E. Haupert, the finance chairman of the Marshall County GOP and a beloved Wallace Beery-like figure on the sidewalks of town. Wendy, as they call him, does not take sides, but clearly likes his politics to be more easygoing than what is served up by Robertson.

Diamond, 60, is thin, bespectacled, Midwestern straightforward and, by reputation, a friendly wagerer of local renown.

He is unaware that the Bush campaign organization lists him as a committed supporter of the vice president.

Well, yes, he says, he hears from his son in Texas that “people down there like Bush.” And, yes, “In my own opinion, I think Bush will be our candidate.”

But for now, even though unable to quite put his finger on the reason, Diamond feels more attracted to Dole. “I probably see him more on TV. He usually makes statements that fit in with my way of thinking. I just guess I know a little more about him.”

Within the next two months, Diamond says he will get around to making a firm choice. That will be soon enough to assure him a worthy role in someone’s campaign, an important consideration for the politically minded Republicans of Marshalltown. They are prodded on by a creeping disquiet, expressed by Diamond simply: “It’s going to be tough to beat the Democrats in Iowa in 1988.”


The farm collapse of the early 1980s cost Diamond one-third of his agricultural accounts. Now things are looking up. He is writing a lot of crop-hail coverage this fall, and more growers are paying cash for their premiums.

Slow to Praise GOP

But, having suffered during the Reagan Administration, Iowans are stingy about giving the Republicans credit for the economic rebound.

Glenn Brockett used to represent Marshalltown in the Iowa House of Representatives and is now dean of the local GOP. He explains: “Reagan just isn’t that popular with farmers. They feel he hasn’t been as sympathetic as he could have been.”

Moreover, blue-collar workers in Marshalltown have also turned their backs on the GOP, Brockett adds. When he was in the Legislature in the 1970s, he could count on the votes of nearly everyone at the big Fisher Controls International plant downtown. No more.

“There have been layoffs, big layoffs, at the plant. Workers are blaming the Republicans because all the managers are Republican,” Brockett says.

The Republican economic message still has a firm hold on other Republicans, however. Barbara Thiesen is a 5/1 activist, a petite 34-year-old single mother with a cheery, rosebud smile, an office manager at Marshalltown Aviation, part-time college student and secretary for the Marshall County GOP.


“I really believe in free enterprise. I guess what I think is that the Democrat giveaway programs don’t take into account how to pay for them,” she says.

But over a bowl of three-bean soup on Center Street, Thiesen shows the moderate streak for which Republicans in this state are famous.

On Robertson’s campaign: “It kind of bothers me.” On abortion: “I’m pro-choice.” On paying women the same as men for equal work: “I’m for it, but it is going to take some time.” On the failed candidacy of liberal Democrat Gary Hart: “He was someone who had the potential to be a good President. Too bad he blew it.”

Keep in mind that caucus-goers can face a blizzard or arctic temperatures on the evening of Feb. 7 when they must decide whether to venture out, or whether to stay home around the fire. The caucuses can then become a test not only of the number of supporters but the depth of their commitment. In this regard, Thiesen has early bad news for the crop of 1988 Republican candidates.

‘Not Impressed’

“You know,” she says, glancing around as if she does not want the secret known, “I’m not impressed by any of them, any of them.”

Today, if any Republican has an edge in Marshalltown it is Bush. Partly it is his office and the fact that he ran in Iowa in 1979-80. Folks do not mind telling you they like the familiar. But another reason Bush is seen as formidable five months before the caucuses is Sanny (rhymes with Connie) Thompson.


She is what is meant when the experts talk about building an organization for a candidate.

Dole, Kemp, Robertson and Du Pont all have important supporters in town. But none of the candidates has a Thompson, a housewife eager to devote hours upon hours for weeks on weeks--as close in and determined to push Bush as a Fuller Brush salesman is to see that everyone in town has a broom.

It means hours on the telephone, a willingness to corner friends on the sidewalk, and the unwillingness to accept no for an answer. For the sake of politics, it can even mean putting on an apron and serving a prospect his favorite pork chops, which Thompson calls “working on someone through his stomach.”

In each of Marshalltown’s precincts, Thompson is hunting for someone to be a Bush chairman. In 5/1, she feels lucky to receive a commitment from Kurt Jackson, the 31-year-old gravel-voiced son of Jo Jackson, a woman with a reputation as one of the most determined political activists in town.

Jo, her son explains, is trying to rebuild the party from the ground up by concentrating on recapturing the courthouse, as the county government is called.

“Me, I’m sort of riding on her shirt tails,” laughs Kurt, who helps run the family marina on Lake Rathburn south of here and who is trying to get his own rental property management business off the ground in Marshalltown.

Jackson illustrates as clearly as possible Bush’s strengths and his weaknesses in Iowa.

“The biggest factor in Bush’s favor,” he explains, “is that Reagan has provided a stable reign and economic growth. George Bush would provide a continuation of those policies.”


Supporters Reserved

No matter how well organized, though, Bush supporters like Jackson are unexpectedly reserved about their candidate. “He is not very charismatic, which is a defect he’s going to have to correct if he’s seriously going to run for the presidency,” Jackson says.

Virtually everyone interviewed in Marshalltown and at the candidate-headquarters town of Des Moines agreed the Republican race for the presidency here in 5/1 and across Iowa is a combination of two radically different kinds of campaigning.

There is the national campaign, visible to all, the long endurance test of character and message and fund raising and debating. And then there is the street-by-street, block-by-block campaign for the Jechs and Diamonds and Thiesens and the other activists of Marshalltown, who have a decidedly intimate approach to it all.

“We’re going to hire someone to do a job for us,” Jackson explains. “So we’re going to want to interview that person carefully.”