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But He Remains a Long Shot : Jackson Candidacy Shows Growing Appeal in Iowa

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Jesse Jackson had just finished another campaign speech in yet another small, predominantly white Iowa town, and now his burgundy mini-van was about to pull away. Before an aide could shut the door, the town’s police chief appeared. The lawman, who was white, thrust his hand through the open door and showed his police badge. Jackson looked at it, dumbfounded.

“Rev. Jackson,” the police chief said. “Would you bless this for me?”

The episode, which occurred on a recent cold, wintry morning, caught Jackson off guard--but only for a minute. After months of campaigning here, the black Democratic presidential candidate is becoming accustomed to receiving from white audiences the kind of enthusiasm and affection that in 1984 he inspired in black constituencies.

He beamed, took the police badge between two hands and gave it a good rubbing. “God bless you,” he said, warmly shaking the chief’s hand.

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The civil rights leader’s presidential candidacy has touched off unexpected excitement in Iowa, stunning outsiders and initially catching Jackson by surprise. Both a celebrity and a novelty in this white, rural state, Jackson draws bigger crowds than any of his presidential rivals and leaves them thinking seriously--if only temporarily--about his candidacy.

No-Lose Situation

For Jackson, it is a no-lose situation. The expectations he must meet are in the South, where black voters are expected to turn out in large numbers for him. A decent showing here would help refute the notion that he cannot expand his appeal beyond blacks. But the demographics of the state are against him, and no one expects him to show at the top.

For the Iowa Democratic Party, Jackson’s position is equally attractive. Party leaders hope his popularity will undermine criticism of Iowa as too white, too rural and too unrepresentative to host the nation’s first presidential contest.

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By the same token, party leaders probably would be less thrilled if Jackson were actually to win Iowa because few believe he could go on to capture the White House. The party, anxious to maintain the state’s pre-eminence in the presidential picking, wants to launch a candidate who can capture the nomination and win a general election.

Blacks compose only 1.4% of Iowa’s population, and minorities less than 3%. Yet Jackson has polled in the high single or low double digits in recent surveys of Democratic caucus-goers. In the most recent Iowa Poll, Jackson captured 11% of the vote. He came in fourth, just 2% behind Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who has spent substantially more money and time in the state, and well ahead of former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.

‘The Second Big Story’

Phillip Roeder, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, says there is a “very strong potential” that Jackson will emerge from the Feb. 8 presidential caucuses with double-digit support, making him “the second big story” out of the caucuses--next to the winner.

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“He makes people feel good,” the party official said. “He gives people a feeling of hope, that somebody wants to solve problems for them. And after what the Iowa economy has been through in the past couple of years, that is attractive.”

In 1984, Jackson spent only one day here. He now attributes the snub to lack of time and planning. This time, he has racked up 40 days in Iowa’s barnyards, union halls, high schools and college campuses--less than most of the other candidates but enough to give him an Iowa presence.

To follow Jackson in this state of cornfields and cow pastures is to watch him amid a sea of white faces. White aides usher him to and from predominantly white audiences. Middle-age men in feed grain caps and overalls come up to shake his hand. Their wives hug him, their youngsters ask for his autograph. Farmers provide their hogs and Holsteins for photo opportunities.

Plates of Ham, Vegetables

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A gray-haired couple chauffeurs him around in their camper, the wife hovering over Jackson with plates of smoked ham and vegetable sticks, her husband at the wheel. At a recent rally for Gephardt in Newton, a farmer in the audience said he hoped Jackson would be Gephardt’s running mate.

The first sign that the civil rights leader might ignite a spark in Iowa came last January. It was Super Bowl Sunday, and the candidate was to speak at a Methodist church in Greenfield, a tiny, not very prosperous, farm town an hour from Des Moines. With the football game on television, organizers expected about 100 people to show--maybe 200 if they were lucky.

Seven-hundred Iowans crammed the church.

“Of course, it blew everyone’s mind that in a rural community like this, Jackson would excite so much interest,” said Dixon Terry, 38, a Greenfield farmer and founder of the influential Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, a farmers’ lobbying group.

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An impassioned orator, Jackson talked about the suffering of family farmers who had lost their land in recent foreclosures. He identified himself with them and with their suffering.

‘People Were Crying’

“It was a very excited crowd,” Terry said. “People were breaking down and crying. . . . The older folks who were there responded to Jackson as a pastor . . . a Christian pastor who was speaking in moral terms and saying this is corrupt, this is wrong. Rural communities like this have deep religious roots.”

Jackson stayed at Terry’s farm that night, donning the farmer’s coveralls over his suit and tie the next morning for a visit to the barn. There, as reporters and photographers looked on, a Jackson aide suggested that the candidate milk a cow. Jackson “wasn’t too eager at first,” Terry recalled. Finally, Jackson relented. “What do I do here?” he asked Dixon. The farmer advised the presidential hopeful to wash the cow’s udders before the milking. Photographers scrambled over one another for pictures of Jesse and the cow.

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One of the photographs was widely published and earned Jackson points in this farming state. It showed Jackson, a bit fearful, about to milk the cow, and the cow, leery at the feel of a novice’s hands, gazing back at Jackson.

“There was a lot of talk in town about Jackson being here after that,” Terry said. “Farmers I was running into the following week were bringing it up . . . saying, ‘At least the guy knows how to tell the truth.’ ”

Jay Howe, a Greenfield attorney whose clients are mostly farmers, said they see Jackson as a fighter. “Jackson is perceived as an individual who came up on the rough side of town and knows how to handle himself,” said Howe, who co-chairs Jackson’s Iowa campaign. “The perception is that he is willing to fight for the little guy.”

All this is very different from 1984. Most farmers back then “distrusted and disliked” Jackson, Terry said. Yet Terry is doubtful that these new-found admirers will stand up for Jackson on caucus night.

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“People around here say, ‘I don’t think he can get the nomination so I’m going to go for (Illinois Sen. Paul) Simon or Gephardt,” Terry said.

Indeed, Jackson is widely seen as unelectable, here as well as elsewhere in the country. Various locally elected officials, including the mayor of Dubuque, have endorsed him. But statewide officeholders have thrown their support to his rivals. Even if the nation were ready to elect a black man, Jackson’s skeptics say, it would not be him, because he has never been elected to public office.

During a recent visit to Iowa, Jackson tried to confront these doubts in speeches across the state.

“If I can win, family farmers can win. . . . If I can win, any American can win. If I cannot win, most Americans cannot win . . . " he tells audiences. “Together, we are the people. Together, we are the majority.”

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Moderates Message

Jackson has moderated his message from 1984. In response to an unfriendly question from an Iowan about communism in Central America, Jackson spoke strongly of the need to “wipe out communism” by improving health care and education in poor countries. Yet he consistently hammers multinational corporations for “raping our economy” and condemns the rich for taking from the poor.

He tells Iowans that he was the only presidential candidate to stand side by side with gays and lesbians during a Washington march, and describes in vivid language how he embraced AIDS sufferers who had “death crawling up their chests.”

Jackson, who often seems surprised by his large Iowa audiences, acknowledged in an interview that they may have more to do with his celebrity status than his attractiveness as a candidate.

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“People come because they’re curious and leave cured,” said the candidate, seated at a table in a camper as volunteers drove him around Iowa. A few minutes later, however, Jackson changed his mind. He was convinced, he said impatiently, that the crowds came to support, not to gape.

“They assume I’m a main candidate,” he said.

His face softens into a wide smile when he talks about his warm Iowa reception. He credits part of this enthusiasm to his ability to reach out. “I have four more years of experience in relating to different constituencies,” he said.

Lacks Money, Big Staff

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Beyond the difficulties of his perceived electability, Jackson is limited by money. He has eight staff members in Iowa. Most of the other candidates have 30 or more. His Iowa campaign budget is one-fifth that of his rivals, and Democratic activists often say that his is the only literature that never comes in their mail. Jackson’s supporters purchase Jackson bumper stickers; other campaigns give theirs away.

Black Iowans, who accounted for 2% of the Democratic caucus attendance in 1984, say that Jackson’s friendly reception among whites here should not be attributed to a lack of racism in the state. A few months ago, there was a cross-burning in Des Moines. Black Iowans often complain of job discrimination.

Jackson, in response to questions, said he has noticed some racial discomfort while campaigning in Iowa. During one visit, Jackson recalled, a young boy began shaking and shivering while listening to him give a speech. Jackson said the boy’s mother had told him a black President would enslave whites. Jackson held and hugged the boy to stop his shudders.

Ray Dial, 32, a black high school history teacher from Waterloo, said if his car ran out of gas on a lonely country road after dark, he would lock the door and remain inside rather than risk approaching an unfriendly farmer. Although blacks comprise 33% of the Waterloo high school where Dial teaches, black cheerleading contestants haven’t been able to make it past the white judges, he said.

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Progressive Tradition

But Iowa also has a progressive tradition. Iowans were active in the underground railroad during slavery. Iowa was the first state in the nation to admit women to the bar to practice law. The University of Iowa, Dial said, was the first university in the country to integrate its swimming pool and dormitories.

A black woman friend from Boston recently visited Dial in Waterloo and discovered at the grocery store that she had no money to pay for $75 worth of groceries. He said she was stunned when the clerk told her to take the groceries home and come back later to pay.

“She kept looking behind her while she was driving home,” Dial said, “to see if anyone was following her.”

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Slayton Thompson, 39, a black union local president in Cedar Rapids, is convinced that Iowans are open enough to give a black candidate a chance. “There’s a lot of heart here,” the Illinois native said.

Max and June Ten Hagen, friendly retired ranchers who live just outside Des Moines, are the kind of Iowans that Thompson has in mind. They are happy to have the opportunity to support a black candidate, particularly one who, as Max says, “has fire in his belly.”

Praises Jackson Virtues

Max, 73, spends afternoons on the telephone calling up neighbors and preaching about Jackson’s virtues.

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After sending the candidate $100, Max was asked by the campaign to pick up Jackson at the airport during one of his Iowa visits. The 6-foot, 4-inch-tall, 240-pound cattleman remembers going out to the garden and picking a large bouquet of multicolored zinnias and thrusting them at Jackson when he got off the plane.

He remembers telling Jackson that the zinnias were “the nearest thing” he could get to a “rainbow coalition” and apologizing to Jackson that there wasn’t “such a thing as a black zinnia.”

Max Ten Hagen’s face glows as he remembers the moment. Jackson, he recalls, laughed a booming laugh and picked him up in a bear hug.


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