DES MOINES, Iowa — At 5 a.m. Saturday, members of Grass Roots Organizing loaded up on a bus headed for Iowa.
It was the weekend, early and in the freezing rain. But the group took it in stride. At least it wasn’t snowing.
“We’re blessed that this is not you-know-what,” member Judith Frasher said.
A big yellow charter bus took 40 members of GRO on a seven-hour trip to Des Moines for the Heartland Presidential Forum.
The forum, sponsored by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Center for Community Change, was co-sponsored by GRO. The forum brought 5,000 members from grass-roots organizations from every region of the country to question five Democratic presidential candidates about the action they’d take concerning “community values” if elected.
Frasher is a social work associate at University Hospital and a former intern for GRO. Health care was a major issue on Frasher’s mind on Saturday.
“I would like to know what, if anything, the candidates intend to do about the pharmecuticals,” Frasher said before the forum.
GRO was founded seven years ago and has been involved in reform and action in Columbia on the issues of Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and housing issues. The Heartland forum addressed health care, living wages, clean elections, fair housing, immigration reform, farming and the environment.
“What we believe is that what you do to one person affects us all,” GRO Executive Director Robin Acree said. “Let’s really do something and create an America where we take care of one another and know that when one does better, we all do better.”
For the long bus ride to Des Moines the Columbia bus caravanned with the GRO bus from Mexico. The members chatted in the bathroom lines at gas stations along the way. The tight-knit community braved sleet and a rainstorm together, and roll call on the Columbia bus was more like a shout-out to the friends they know than an official reading of names.
“What you see is people grow,” Laura Parker, one of GRO’s founders, said. “They see that they can make a difference, that their voices can be heard.”
Though Parker has gotten busier in the past seven years, she likes to get involved when she can.
“I like the company of these people. These are people who still believe in America,” Parker said. “It energizes your soul. It’s empowering.”
GRO works to protect social-justice issues without a consensus party affiliation.
“We protest Democrats as well as Republicans,” Parker said. “We’re issue-based.”
The forum coordinators invited every presidential hopeful to the forum with a time limit for signing up. Five Democratic candidates responded to the invitation on time: Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.; Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.; former Sen. John Edwards, D-S.C.; Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio; and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Forum coordinators said only one Republican candidate responded, but they dropped him, saying they didn’t want to convey that they were only supporting that candidate.
“I’m just here to get a feel for where the candidates stand on the issue of poverty and what they’d change if elected,” Parker said.
After the drive came a walk through melting snow and sleeting rain to Hy-Vee Hall where GRO saw some familiar faces among the grass-roots crowd, some coming from as far as away as New York and California.
“GRO has a national reputation for the work that we do,” Parker said. “It was kind of exciting just to see the candidates in person and exciting to know there are grass-roots organizations across the country willing to come together.”
GRO helped plan the forum in advance, working with groups in Iowa and Illinois to unite the grass-roots organizations, including the Center for Community Change. Acree would have gone early to set up but wanted to ride with everyone else.
Many groups had a representative on stage to ask the candidates questions. GRO’s representative was Lynette Nickelberry, a graduate student at MU who was in Des Moines for the event Thursday through Sunday.
“She made a big sacrifice, and that’s a big community value right there,” Acree said.
Nickelberry had a prominent role at the beginning of the event when she called out the names of various grass-roots groups in attendance. She did not get to ask one of the candidates a question, but she did get to sit on stage with more than 30 other representatives during the forum.
The forum was classified as more of a conversation than a debate. The candidates were asked not to rebuff previous candidates when it was their turn to take the stage.
The forum coordinators said that Clinton did not attend because of the hostage crisis at her Rochester, N.H., campaign office. She did, however, phone in and answer in the same format as the other candidates.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to discuss two important election issues. When the candidates got on stage, they listened to one personal story and answered two questions about that issue. They were given two minutes to answer each question.
Each candidate heard two stories, some about health care and others about immigration and corporate takeovers. The candidates said the stories were all too common across America.
Frasher remembered one powerful story a woman told about her nephew giving up his personal health insurance in order to provide for his wife and two children. The nephew avoided going to the doctor even though he had horrible back and neck pain, but he eventually gave in and sought treatment. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and — the woman broke into tears when finishing the story — died six weeks later.
Frasher said the forum’s format forced the candidates to deal with the health-care issue and look in the eyes of those affected by adversity.
“They can’t deny it; her nephew’s already dead,” Frasher said.
After the candidates answered all four questions, each was asked if he or she would meet with community-values groups within the first 100 days of being elected.
Obama said yes, Kucinich offered to let them sleep in the Lincoln bedroom, and Edwards and Dodd said they’d meet with them in the first week. Hillary’s less enthusiastic “yes” was met with booing from the crowd when she pointed out that anything she wanted to do would have to be passed by the Senate, this after they had booed her response to an immigration question.
“I was shocked to hear that reaction — that booing — in response to anything Hillary said,” Frasher said. “I’ve been led to believe by the media and TV reports that Hillary was the front-runner.”
The forum ended with a call for grass-roots unity. The message was just what Mayor Douglas Palmer of Trenton, N.J., learned from his “High School Musical”-watching daughter: “We’re all in this together.”
After the forum, GRO waited for the bus home. Acree took the opportunity to fire them up.
“We’re gonna take this back to the streets, and we’re gonna get things done by people and for people,” Acree said enthusiastically.
After the forum, all 108 GRO members ate together at Old Country Buffet, where they tipped the waitress more than $100. She said she’d use the money to buy a Christmas tree.
Discussion on the bus turned to the candidates and on who left the most distinct impression that day.
“I think Edwards would resonate with Midwestern voters,” Frasher said. “There’s some candidates out there that I don’t think can relate to Judy Frasher’s life.”
On the long drive back to Columbia, GRO was even more motivated to take action in Missouri.
“It does make you feel like you can go home and do things again,” Acree said.
With February’s primary nearing, GRO is going to continue its community-voting work. They are also planning to push for health-care reform.
“I think it was worth the danger of riding through the ice storm,” Frasher said.