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Democrats Campaign In Waterloo, Iowa


This week, the Democratic Party has been through a reckoning over race and representation. Now that Senator Kamala Harris has ended her presidential campaign, Democrats are facing the possibility of a December debate that is all white. The conversation about the party's diversity is playing out in Iowa, the largely white state that is less than two months away from holding the first caucuses. NPR's Juana Summers spent the last few days in Waterloo. That is Iowa's most densely African American city, where several candidates are campaigning this week.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Six months ago, Bridget Saffold of Waterloo had an unusual houseguest.

BRIDGET SAFFOLD: It was kind of awesome (laughter). So we had Elizabeth Warren back in June, on June 9, come over to our home. We hosted...

SUMMERS: So she came here?

SAFFOLD: She was here. She was standing right there - right here in this space, you know, signing pictures and taking photos with my family and my daughter. And it was kind of a big deal for us.

SUMMERS: Warren is the first candidate that Saffold has ever held a house party for. While she hasn't fully committed, she was impressed with the stories Warren shared about her personal struggles. She said they reminded her of her own. But it wasn't just what Warren said. It was where she went.

SAFFOLD: It was just - not just historical for her to be in somebody's home in the black part of Waterloo, in this, you know, area but also that people got to have a first-time experience. And these are people that have been voting for years.

SUMMERS: The enthusiasm of Saffold and the folks who gathered in her home all those months ago could make a difference. Unlike primaries, presidential caucuses only attract the most motivated voters. That means if a candidate can rally more black voters, they could gain an outsized advantage. This year, some of that vote could come from Waterloo.

QUENTIN HART: What's really unique about the city of Waterloo is out of the 70,000, we probably have about 17% African-American, probably about 2,500 residents from the island of Burma, 6,500 from Bosnia and Kosovo area.

SUMMERS: That was Waterloo's mayor, Quentin Hart. He grew up here, and now he's the city's first black mayor. Candidates have been spending a lot of time here. They've held more than 60 events already, according to the Des Moines Register.

Warren was back in Waterloo this week, but she didn't have the town to herself.


SUMMERS: On Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden walked into the Brown Derby, a historic ballroom downtown, as a drumline blared and supporters enjoyed dinner. He told the crowd about his early involvement in the civil rights movement.


JOE BIDEN: Well, I got my education, Reverend Doc, in the black church. Not a joke - because when we used to get organized on Sundays to go out and desegregate movie theaters and things like that, we'd do it through the black church. I got to admit to you I'd go to my Catholic mass at 7:30 first, and then I'd show up in the black church.

SUMMERS: Ras Smith, the Democrat who represents this district in the Iowa House, is backing Biden. When he was deciding who to endorse, one thing was more important than anything else.

RAS SMITH: You know, the main thing was I want to win. I think it's imperative to win this next election, understanding that the current makeup that we have in government right now on the federal level is unacceptable.

SUMMERS: Smith also liked that Biden's support base is diverse. Biden has a strong foothold among black voters, and Smith also says he thinks Biden can attract support from outside the Democratic Party. After Biden's event ended, I met Ruby Abebe. She was a Republican but supported Obama in 2008. She says this is the first event she's attended for a presidential candidate this year.

RUBY ABEBE: I was just curious, what man would go through Iowa using the word malarkey? And then he said, no malarkey. It's like, I just want to see what he was made up of.

SUMMERS: She was referring to the no malarkey slogan on the bus that Biden has been driving across the state. Language aside, the candidate himself seemed to leave an impression on Abebe.

ABEBE: I believed him. I really believe he's for real.

SUMMERS: Abebe wasn't sure whether she'd caucus for Biden yet, but if she's looking for other options, she'll soon get her chance.

Five other candidates are in Waterloo today for a forum focused on local issues. Juana Summers, NPR News, Waterloo, Iowa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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