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In Iowa cornfields, a left-tilting tradition

Residents point to a progressive core, which has shaped history on desegregation, women's rights and other issues.

December 30, 2007|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — The two young men in neat oxford shirts stand on the shady front lawn and hug. Brand-new wedding bands gleam on their ring fingers. Cameras click. They are oblivious. Happy. And legally married.

"This is it," Sean Fritz told Tim McQuillan in August, after the rapid-fire ceremony in a Unitarian minister's yard here in the middle of middle America. "I love you."

As Iowans ponder whom to support in the Jan. 3 caucuses, their state is the first in the heartland to even consider legalizing same-sex marriage -- placing Iowa again in the vanguard and reminding the Democratic presidential hopefuls that progressives here help shape history.

Much of coastal blue-state America has long dismissed the Hawkeye State as it has the rest of "flyover country" -- all conservatives, cornfields and clapboard churches -- ignoring a succession of cultural and legal firsts and liberal politicians who made their way to Washington.

The tradition includes Henry A. Wallace, the vice president whom Franklin D. Roosevelt jettisoned because of the Iowan's extreme left leanings, and Sen. Tom Harkin, who bragged in a recent campaign e-mail that "in the Congress, there is no one who has stood stronger against President Bush than I have."

Iowa public schools were desegregated nearly a century ahead of 1954's Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. The state was the first to admit a woman to the bar, in 1869 -- three years before the Supreme Court ruled that states could deny women the right to practice law. Iowa City, with its renowned writing program, became a nuclear-free zone even before Berkeley. And there is no death penalty in the state.

"I spend a lot of time talking to people about how Iowa is not like the states that surround it," said Lisa Hardaway, spokeswoman for Lambda Legal, a gay-rights group that brought the lawsuit that led to the Fritz-McQuillan nuptials. "It's not like Nebraska."

Iowa's long-standing progressive tradition regularly makes its mark on politics. As often as not, caucusgoers deny victory to the perceived centrist running for the Democratic nomination and give their nod to more-liberal contenders. Think 1984, when Walter F. Mondale beat John Glenn, or 1988, when Richard A. Gephardt bested Michael S. Dukakis.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the national front-runner in polls, is struggling here in a tight race against rivals Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who are both perceived to be more liberal.

And as the campaign heats up, "the Democratic candidates are generally tilting to the left," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political science professor. But "Clinton is trying to resist it as much as possible, to position herself for the general election."

In a purely political sense, Iowa is actually two states. The rural west of Republican Rep. Steve King -- who is referred to by some as "Iowa's own Pat Buchanan" -- has a strong social-conservative element, while the "liberal core" is urban and eastern.

The state also is currently "ascendant," said David Redlawsk, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, who notes that for the first time in 40 years Democrats control both the governor's office and the statehouse.

So how did a liberal streak take root amid the cornfields and silos, broad blue skies and small, neat cities?

Progressive Democrat Ed Fallon -- who served in the state General Assembly for 14 years and makes his way on foot or bicycle as often as possible for Mother Earth's sake -- believes that dirt is destiny.

The land, he says, helps mold the people. Iowa is rich, fertile and the basis for an agricultural economy that thrived because of farmers' interdependence. Though "the rest of the world can't replicate the Iowa landscape," he said, "it can replicate the tight-knit communities that foster tolerance."

That tolerance was written into Article 1 of the Iowa Constitution, ratified in 1857, which says:

"All men and women are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness."

For Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, the proudest product of his state's tradition of tolerance is the very first decision reached by the Iowa Supreme Court.

In 1839, the court "abolished slavery" in the Iowa Territory, he said, a generation before the federal 13th Amendment. The case was called In Re the Matter of Ralph; Fischer called it an "incredibly bold" step.

Ralph was a Missouri slave whose master allowed him to travel to Dubuque so he could earn enough to purchase his freedom. Five years later, the master tried to bring Ralph back by force.

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