Ed Fallon for Congress?: The Evolution of a Grassroots Activist

February 1st, 2008 · 4 Comments

April 11, 2005. The day seemed like any ordinary Monday as a senior at Ankeny High School. I stumbled half-asleep through the crowded halls from class to class on autopilot, Pavlovian-conditioned to the muffled chimes of the artificial bell heard all-too infrequently over the PA. There was that inescapable fog of mild depression hovering about me that came with the realization that I still had another four days to go before the sweet, if short-lived, relief of the weekend. Graduation was just a month away, but that only made the agony of classroom clock-watching all the more aggravating.

When I reflect back upon that particular Monday, though, I can’t help but think that had I not made a free-period pit stop to the media center and seen Tyler Schipper’s bold blue “Fallon for Governor” button pinned proudly to the strap of his backpack, I might not have become the journalist-in-training sitting here writing this story today.

Ed Fallon, I was vaguely aware, was a Democratic state representative from Des Moines with a penchant for bucking the status quo. Tyler had chosen to spend his final semester working as a page at the capitol, where he had regular access to Fallon and his colleagues in the Statehouse. He ate lunch with Fallon one day with a fellow AHS page, and the man left a strong enough impression that Tyler attended his gubernatorial announcement rally on April 9 at the capitol.

After school I headed home and crashed on a kitchen chair, momentarily lacking the motivation to ascend the staircase to my room for the usual post-class nap. In front of me on the dinner table sat a copy of the day’s Des Moines Register. An article in the Metro section, penned by the late Rob Borsellino, caught my eye: “Who supports Fallon? It takes all kinds.”

“It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon and I’m standing in line at the State Capitol security desk, hoping I can get clearance to see and hear Ed Fallon,” the article began. “He’s running for governor and a lot of folks are energized by Fallon.

“But others aren’t taking Fallon seriously. The argument is that – after 13 years in the Statehouse – he’s too left-wing, kind of flaky and he’ll remind some of the moderates why they’re no longer Democrats.”

It’s the sort of criticism that has dogged Fallon since he entered electoral politics by unseating Democratic State Representative Gary Sherzan in 1992. Fallon, the uncompromising contrarian, the out-of-touch idealist every bit as much at odds with his own party as its Republican counterpart.

Borsellino went on to describe the eclectic gathering at Fallon’s rally: “folks in tired old Howard Dean T-shirts getting out of cars with Kucinich stickers … [a] gray-haired guy with a long beard tied in a braid … [a] grandfatherly type wearing a ‘Veterans for Peace’ button standing next to a woman wearing a rainbow-colored peace symbol … [a] guy who used to be a woman standing near a woman waving a hand-made, smiley-face Fallon poster.”

Then there were the establishment types – “[State Senator] Jack Hatch came by to check things out” – but the impression I drew from the article was that they attended more out of curiosity than anything else.

In many respects, 2005 was a major turning point in my life, and Fallon’s campaign became a key part of it. It was George W. Bush’s war in 2003 that jarred me out of blissful apathy, but it wasn’t until after John Kerry’s loss in 2004 and the months following – the sleepless nights spent trying to understand why anyone would vote for a man like Bush and an escalating sense of unease with my plans to go into computer science – that I felt compelled to act.

And, after reading Borsellino’s article, I had a notion that I’d finally found in Fallon an outlet for this unfulfilled call to action. Fallon, a politician who gave a damn, a man of the people with an interest not in gamesmanship and ego-flaunting but rather a genuine conviction to give a voice to the voiceless.

A few days later, I drove to Des Moines to see if my initial impressions had any grounds in reality. I took the turn from University Avenue onto 10th Street where his campaign was headquartered and knew immediately that they did.

Headquarters was a house previously inhabited by Iowa State University graduate Pam Pearson, who handed over the reigns to Team Fallon when she left to pursue a teaching opportunity in the northeast African nation of Djibouti. It was the authenticity and character of the place that sold me so swiftly. Musty wallpapered and creaky-floorboarded, the cozy two-story abode invoked warm memories of my grandparents’ home in northern Iowa. It was politics, sure, but it was real.

Later in the campaign, the place would be bursting from its framework with energy. Volunteers would frantically dial potential voters and hammer on keyboards adding database entries while staffers would carry out their own duties with an exhaustive commitment to the cause.

But when I first arrived, I never imagined such potential. Conventional wisdom at the time said that Fallon – who has never accepted money from the political action committees and lobbyists that have become the staples of our perverted electoral process – would be a blip on the radar, attracting perhaps five or 10 percent of the vote, primarily from the left-wing grassroots activist base of the party. And, as much as I hate to admit it now, I agreed, though I kept the opinion to myself.

Suffice to say, Fallon proved a lot of people wrong. After more than a year of volunteering – I came to be known as the Unpaid Staffer for my refusal to accept a paid position on the campaign – the day of the primary arrived on June 6, 2006.

Fallon lost the bid for the nomination, but he claimed 26 percent of the vote. He won Story County and not only his own Polk County but his entire 3rd Congressional District, finishing just 13 points shy statewide of Chet Culver, the man who would coast to a comfortable win in the general election against then-1st district Representative Jim Nussle.

I would later learn through the grapevine that Fallon had been considering a gubernatorial bid since the death of his political idol Senator Paul Wellstone, the progressive champion hailing from Minnesota who in 2002 met his tragic end in a plane crash that took with him his wife and daughter.

And although Fallon’s frequent invocations of Wellstone irritated at least one would-be supporter and Wellstone admirer I knew, in me it instilled a sense of the continuation of a desperately needed progressive movement in America, if only microcosmically.

And, trite though it may sound, I began to see in Fallon what Fallon likely saw in Wellstone. Not an out-of-touch, stubborn leftist, but instead a true progressive, a populist Democrat of the FDR brand, uncompromising only in his refusal to sell out the disenfranchised masses he so labored to serve.

After Fallon’s run for governor, he maintained his visibility in Iowa politics. He campaigned for a number of Democrats, including Culver. Democrats considering presidential bids, among them Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh, approached him in hopes of tapping into his grassroots support base, but Fallon chose to endorse and campaign for John Edwards in December 2006. In January 2007, Fallon announced his formation of a new political organization, An Independence Movement for Iowa (I’M for Iowa, in short form).

Both during his gubernatorial campaign and after, I overheard suggestions that Fallon should consider a primary bid to oust 3rd district Representative Leonard Boswell, a Democrat who has disappointed many of his progressive constituents over the years due to his conservative voting record and lobbyist connections that typify most Washington politicians.

For a long time, Fallon told supporters that he had no desire to run for Congress, insisting that he wished to continue focusing his efforts on activism in Iowa. But on November 21 of last year, as Iowa Independent’s Chase Martyn reported in December, “the domain names FallonForCongress.com, FallonForCongress.net, and FallonForCongress.org were registered to an organization called ‘Fallon for Congress.’”

And sure enough, on January 3, Fallon supporters circulated Fallon for Congress petitions at Iowa presidential caucus sites througout the district. On January 16, Fallon held a press conference to officially confirm that he would challenge Boswell in the June 3 Democratic primary.

Fallon held the conference at his new headquarters, a house – bigger this go-around, but still possessing that certain Fallon charm – on Cottage Grove Avenue in Des Moines. “We didn’t like the warehouse type of housing a lot of campaigns tend to be in,” Campaign Manager Lynn Heuss later told me over the phone. “[Our headquarters] is a healthier place to be.” So healthy, it would seem, that Heuss said the campaign has outgrown the house and rented a second on 26th Street, where an organizing team will soon relocate.

Fallon’s announcement rally attracted a healthy amalgamation of reporters, including a half-asleep Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen. Yepsen and The Register political reporters, during Fallon’s gubernatorial bid, focused most of their attention on painting Fallon as a quirky, out-of-the-mainstream liberal, reminding their readers ad nauseam about how little he had fundraised in contrast to his PAC-funded rivals.

True to form, in his January 20 column, Yepsen wrote that “at first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Ed Fallon’s challenge of Leonard Boswell in central Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District as just another one of quirky Ed’s quixotic crusades.”

But even Yepsen has come to acknowledge that Fallon’s appeal is far broader than conventional wisdom once dictated. “In his 2006 race for governor, Fallon built a formidable grass-roots infrastructure, and he’s spent time since then fine-tuning it,” he wrote. “Fallon’s 2006 race made him a better candidate. It seasoned him and made him less quirky and sanctimonious about his positions. He is a hard worker.”

Yepsen was right on the money. I returned to Fallon Campaign Central on January 28 to sit down for a one-on-one with the candidate. Cool and collected, Fallon possessed the self-confidence of a seasoned politician and a keen sense of what 3rd district voters want in their representative that is anything but sanctimonious.

We began our conversation by discussing his decision to make the leap from state to national politics. “There’s nothing I relish about being in Washington, D.C.,” he told me. “But I think it’s where I’m most needed; I think it’s where I can have the biggest effect.”

I asked him how he intended to respond to supporters who are worried that in seeking federal office he might abandon his commitment to the causes he has so steadfastly advocated since 1992.

“Yeah, the focus of my work is going to be shifting to national politics,” he replied. “But even as we speak … Lynn and I are both still managing I’M for Iowa, and I’M for Iowa’s focus is on clean elections in Iowa, on regulating hog confinements, [and] on what we can do in our local communities at the state level to address climate change.”

But if there were ever any doubts about the seriousness of Fallon’s latest endeavor, they should quickly be dismissed.

“One of the first things I want to do when I get elected to Congress is to make it clear that I’m going to do everything I can in that position to help assure that this war in Iraq comes to an end as quickly and expeditiously as possible,” he said, shifting the focus to his new campaign. “That’s very important to me. And maybe it’ll be resolved by then, but the way things are going, I’m not optimistic.

“But beyond that,” he added, “[there are] five issues I really want to take some leadership on.”

Global climate change: “There are a lot of ideas being generated in Washington, but … the leadership has been very loath to jump on board and really understand the gravity of addressing [the] issue.”

Campaign finance reform: “There’s a good bill in the Senate – the Durbin-Specter bill – and I want to do everything I can to help push companion legislation in the U.S. House.”

Fiscal responsibility: “You cannot run a budget Congress is running right now…. Back in 1996, we had somewhere around 950 earmarks that were included in budget bills; in 2007, 11,000 earmarks were included in budget bills.”

Poverty: “It’s a big part of why I supported John Edwards. This nation needs to be doing more to address poverty.”

Finally, on health care, a topic he continued to expound upon for some time with a tone of urgency: “It’s time for universal health care. What we have isn’t working very well. We have great care if you can get to it. If you can’t access that care, you’re in big trouble.”

Fallon’s rhetoric, appropriately enough, sounds much like that of Edwards, a top-tier presidential contender until the ubiquitous mainstream media cast him aside in its obsessive focus on the novelty of a very real chance of seeing a woman or black man as America’s next chief executive.

And Fallon’s party-line-transcending populism doesn’t end there. He showed a hint of Mike Huckabee’s sensible side – “the most important part of health care is the preventive part, the maintenance part, the early detection of possible problems” – and even a touch of libertarianism: “Look at my voting record. I’m socially progressive but I’m fiscally very, very responsible. I’ve got one of the most conservative voting records on money matters at the Statehouse. I’m a staunch defender of the importance of keeping the government from meddling in the free market.”

Still, the media loves to dwell on Fallon’s past. In 2000, he endorsed Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader over Al Gore, causing angered Statehouse leaders to revoke his status as a ranking member of the Local Government Committee.

“Well, they can [continue to label me] if they want to be disingenuous,” Fallon said. “But the Nader thing is about as old and tired a piece of news as you can get. And again, it ignores the fact that over the years I’ve helped more than 30 Democratic legislative candidates. I’ve even run the campaign of one Democratic candidate.”

Mainstreamed or not, Fallon’s challenge to Boswell is a challenge to the status quo, which has naturally aroused anxiety among Democratic leaders who had viewed Boswell as a shoo-in for reelection. Furthermore, it has motivated the Republican Party to search for a general election contender in its hope that, should Fallon win, he would be more vulnerable to defeat than Boswell.

As a result, on the day of Fallon’s official announcement, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin announced his endorsement of Boswell. More recently, Iowa’s progressive 2nd district Representative Dave Loebsack followed suit. I asked Fallon what he thought of this, reading my question off the notes I had taken prior to our chat on notepad paper that read “HARKIN: U.S. SENATE.”

Fallon shrugged it off. “Harkin and I have a lot more in common on the issues than Harkin and Boswell do,” he said. “But Harkin’s very comfortable in the establishment even though he’s progressive. He’s not going to buck that ship. It doesn’t bother me. I kind of expect it. It kind of helps show you, though, which one of us is the change candidate and which one is the status quo candidate.”

And Fallon may be onto something. Although his party may be doing him few favors, he’s quick to note that not only did he win the 3rd district in his gubernatorial campaign, but also that either Edwards or Barack Obama won every county in the district on caucus night, with Hillary Clinton – Boswell’s candidate of choice – finishing no higher than third.

“There are a lot of people who are very, very dissatisfied with Leonard Boswell,” Fallon explained. “They don’t like his voting record; they don’t like where he stands on the war [or] on the Patriot Act. He supported No Child Left Behind; he supported the $14 billion for the tax breaks and incentives for the oil and gas companies; he supported repealing the estate tax….

“I think [Boswell is] an honorable man who has served with integrity and dignity, and he’s done some good things,” Fallon continued. “Certainly he’s done some great things for veterans. But I hear a real, strong sense that people want somebody who votes differently, [and] they want more energy; they want more passion, more engagement.”

In short, said Fallon, that passion rests with “the folks who really are the Democratic Party” who have long been hungry for change. “It’s rank-and-file voters who are fed up with the status quo. To me, it’s exciting to have been on the cutting edge of that and now to see it finally really coming into fruition.”

Listening to Fallon, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Borsellino’s article that still rings true more than two years later. It concluded with a series of personal voter testimonials that commended Fallon for his inclusive brand of politics that brought together such a diverse spectrum of individuals.

“I heard all that,” wrote Borsellino, “and I got to thinking about how Ed Fallon is also reminding a lot of Democrats why they’re still Democrats.”

Tags: 2008 · AP Issues · Features · February 2008 · Gavin Aronsen

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Holly Fuchs // Feb 7, 2008 at 12:08 am

    I’m delighted Gavin writes about Ed Fallon’s race in the Democratic primary for Congress from Iowa’s 3rd district. A new president will only be as effective as members of Congress allow. I hope everyone realizes the importance of supporting local as well as national candidates who represent our views. Ed Fallon represents mine.

    I also liked hearing again about Rob Borsellino. Gavin’s words bring back memories of seeing Rob at Ed’s rally at the Capitol. Thanks for writing about them, Gavin. Individuals like them are so important.

  • 2 Dean Porter // Feb 7, 2008 at 11:44 pm

    This is an excellent article.

    It brings back memories of Fallon’s campaign for governor. I really enjoyed reading it.
    Thanks for writing.
    Dean

  • 3 Greg Swanson // Feb 8, 2008 at 2:00 am

    The more publicity that Fallon gets the better. This campaign needs to start now and it needs to start fast and hard.

    … I would shy away from labeling Obama as a product of the media though. But I guess that is only because I am a big supporter.

  • 4 Adam Smith // Mar 19, 2008 at 8:37 am

    Holly you are exactly right! Going on the national blogs all I hear is Clinton this Obama that, etc.
    You dont hear much about the congressional races, but if we are able to widen our lead, while boosting our party on the local level, we can be able to get things done and win bigger on the national level.

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