Part One: Evolution of Beliefs
A woman’s journey from Republican to Democrat in a changing rural Iowa
By Colleen Gragg with Amanda Malaski
All too often we see think pieces about rural America – how they feel, what they believe – written by coastal city dwellers. Sometimes these pieces even discuss rural Americans as the “rural problem,” as though they are just a monolithic nut to be cracked or an electoral puzzle to be solved and not equal Americans with their own lives and stories.
In this series, I will present progressive, rural Iowan lives and stories unfiltered, with as little of my own commentary as possible.
PVI: As many campaign managers will tell you, Facebook is indispensable for reaching rural Americans. So, it only feels fitting that my first participant, Colleen Gragg, reached out to me through a Facebook post I made in the Iowa Democratic Party Rural Caucus group.
Colleen: I have lived in Allamakee County in extreme Northeast Iowa most of my life. I was born here, went to school here and returned here after my divorce. The only exceptions for my residency are from 1981 to 1985, when I was active duty Air Force, and when I was married to my ex-husband from 1985 to 1988, while he was active duty Air Force. During my active duty phase of service I was stationed in Mississippi, Louisiana and then overseas in the United Kingdom. During my marriage we were stationed in Omaha, NE.
Rural Iowa has changed much in that the small towns are dying. There are many empty storefronts which can be attributed to the growth of the big box stores and the availability of private transportation. The loss of the downtown has led to a loss of jobs and the loss of tax revenue for rural counties. There is not much of a manufacturing base in rural Iowa. The contracting population makes it hard to draw investors. It is not cost effective to invest in infrastructure in rural areas. This makes it hard to recruit young people to fill vital jobs in the medical, legal, or law enforcement professions. Often there is no gainful employment for a spouse and a lack of diverse recreational activities. The shrinking population has led to declining enrollment in our local school district and the aging of our population. Civic/fraternal and other volunteer organizations are having trouble with declining memberships also. We often laugh and say if you volunteer for a civic group it is a life sentence.
I mentioned the availability of automobiles as contributing to the loss of downtown business in rural Iowa. Years ago families often only had the one vehicle and this tended to keep shopping local. People did not have the time or the ability to travel outside their community as frequently. As a kid, a trip to La Crosse, WI, which is only 60 miles away, was a big deal and something we looked at as a grand adventure. Today, most families have two cars and often the young adults within the family have their own vehicles as well. People have more opportunity and are more willing to go farther for an entertainment or shopping experiences.
When I was a young high school graduate Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, had just been elected president. We really looked up to President Reagan. He seemed to lift us from the place of malaise that seemed to have become prevalent during the Carter administration. It seemed that the Republican party at the time was progressive in opening careers for women and improving economic chances, and yet still a party of values. Under Reagan, many military positions were opened up to women that had not been available before. I enlisted in the AF at this time and was trained in an avionic electronic field. Reagan had a way of inspiring listeners and giving them hope. He appeared to have a vision for America and a huge part of it was ending The Cold War. The was a general anxiety growing up during those years of nuclear attack.
After I returned to Iowa, I started to become disillusioned with both political parties as they seemed to be more concerned in running candidates that had paid their dues to party, as opposed to offering a vision for America. These were the years of Dole, Mondale, Gore, Kerry. I did not see much difference between the parties and registered as (no party) Independent here in Iowa as a way of keeping a door open to both sides of the political spectrum.
I moved to the Democratic party prior to 2008 with the advent of Obama. I had watched him speak on TV at the Democratic convention in 2004 and thought this is a man who can inspire people. This is someone I could vote for. I registered as a Democrat so I could support him in the primaries over Hillary Clinton, who I viewed as an establishment candidate. I have remained in the Democratic fold primarily because the Republican party has moved so far to the right that I am no longer comfortable with or feel I can defend their vision for America. However, I started to feel some of the same disillusionment when the Democrats went back to Hillary (establishment) and Sanders (too old) in 2016. There are younger, more viable candidates that could be offered by either party. I feel that the post-WWII generation does not want to relinquish the reins of power. No person of 40 or 50 years of age is immature. These are mature people running business, making decisions and raising families.
My change in affiliation is a result of both the parties changing and my feelings toward the political parties evolving. The feelings of alienation I have I are a result from people who are running the show. It seems they have a preconceived idea of where they want to go. They only need bodies to fall in line with the plan. There does not seem to be room for any true discussion or change. For example, my daughter and I attended a party meeting. She was asked to write a press release about the invited speaker for our local paper, which she duly submitted. When it appeared in print it bore no resemblance to her original submission. In fact, it appeared to be all the talking points of the evening’s guest speaker. I was left questioning the whole charade.
I have written letters to the editor. I enjoy the editorial page. I am interested in what make people get “worked up.” I do not enjoy reading form letters. I have called my congressman a time or two. I have used my own words to express my concerns. I do not like having someone else prepare remarks to recite. I appreciate the importance of staying on message, but it all seems so canned. It seems hollow. I wonder if the person answering the phone even listens. All the human aspect has been removed.
I want to belong to a party that is inclusive of ideas, of people who come from different walks of life, from different cultural or economic experiences. I feel my life is made richer by these interactions. I am a curious person. I have always been curious about people. I want a government that I feel truly represents this variety. I do not want a government that only represents the interests of the folks at the top of the entrenched political spectrum.
PVI: At one point in our Facebook conversation, Colleen mentioned feeling alienated from the party. When I asked why, she referenced a comment she overheard at a party meeting in which someone said all poor rural residents care about is the food on the table and whether their car is running.
The remark about poor people needs to have the scenario set. I got divorced when I was 26 and have never remarried. I had 4 children at the time. They were a newborn infant, 15 month old twins and a 3 1/2 year old. I am 55 now. Many times while I was raising my family, I worried about having enough money to put food on the table and to keep my car running; an important necessity in a rural area. I needed my car to work, to earn the money to provide for my family. However, I still cared about what was going on around me, still watched the news, still read papers and books, still thought about the bigger picture, still voted. I just did not have the time to attend meetings about issues. What I did not have was money for a babysitter. I did not have money to contribute to political campaigns. I worked to avoid being earmarked as a welfare mom with children labelled as coming from a broken home. I was very sensitive to those issues as in a small community reputations are everything.
What I actually heard when that remark was made was this: We do not care about reaching out to low income earners because they have nothing to give us. Low income earners are not curious, are not intelligent, are not informed and not worth our time. They have no money to contribute to our platform and it is a waste of resources to reach out to them. My own personal experience showed this was not true. It hurt to think that my economic position determined my value. It was like being slapped.
I spoke up that night. I explained that I strongly believe this was wrong and why. In a society with income equality of course those on the lower end will be concerned about things high earners take for granted. Or course, they are occupied with these concerns, but it does not mean they do not dream, do not care, do not aspire to a better life. It often appears to those on the lower rungs that those on the upper ones keep moving the goalposts, further and further away. No matter how hard they work to improve their finances or their education that another barrier is erected to hinder them. It looks as if those with success do not encourage the success of others. I feel it is unjust to hinder the opportunity for those coming behind, for young people, for our children and grandchildren.
I have taught my family the value of hard work, effort and education. Now, when they are entering the job market, it appears in the name of increasing profits that employers want to keep wages depressed and limit if not eliminate employee benefits. Employers complain of the lack of employee loyalty however that road runs both ways.
PVI: Colleen shared with me that she is a veteran, so I asked if those experiences had an impact on the change in her political views.
My experiences as a veteran have taught me how much people in other parts of the country and even the world share the same basic dreams. We dream of raising our families and working to that end in safety. We share the the desire to have some leisure time to enjoy our children and grandchildren and a better life for them. We want clean water to drink, clean air to breath and good food to eat. We desire freedom from want.
I believe that we need a global presence, but more as a party at the table than the bouncer at the door. The rise in patriotic nationalism at the present fills me with distaste. I feel it is a mockery of our military. Our military services are filled with good and bad people just like any other career field. The military should not get a free pass just because of the uniform, doing so degrades the stature of the corps. I recently took down my flag pole because I am concerned about an almost cult like fervor of patriotism and I want no part in it.
I am proud of my military service but I tell people I did not drink the kool-aid. I kept my ability to think for myself. When I was active duty there seemed to be an atmosphere of promoting tolerance and equality among the troops, regardless of gender, race, creed or religion. The exception being enlistees who were homosexual.
It did not mean they were not present at the time. It meant they had to serve with this huge secret. That secret made them vulnerable to exploitation by enemy agents. It seemed like such a ridiculous thing to hand those who were opposed to our interests. I know that I and others turned a blind eye to the sexual orientation of fellow service members. Don’t ask, don’t tell was alive within the service. When people were outed and discharged it often appeared as the result of some grudge. I feel my military service taught me tolerance and broadened my horizons.
PVI: When Colleen described her history to me, she mentioned having attended mass regularly for many years. Politics and religion often go hand in hand, so I couldn’t resist asking her if her religious beliefs played a role in the formation of her political beliefs.
Religion has affected my political beliefs in teaching me that we should adhere to the Golden Rule and that intolerance is wrong. This in turn has made my political beliefs evolve and that has now affected how I feel about religion. I do not attend mass because of the evolution of my political beliefs. I am not in communion with the tenets of my faith. I have a hard time reconciling my vision of God with the intolerance I feel some religious organizations encourage. Treating people with respect and dignity because of our common humanity is more important than sharing my particular religious affiliation or political views. God made us all different for a reason and I want to let God be the judge of those matters.
Check back next week for Part Two, which will tell a story of rural health care through a physician’s eyes.