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It isn’t often that I hear a reference to my home state that includes a certain expletive not suited for printing in a family publication like this one.
But there it was on Monday night as results from the Iowa caucuses lit up my computer screen and I relayed the news to my household.
“F—ing Iowa!” my housemate yelled from the kitchen. After I hollered back a “shut up!” — more offensive to my bystanding partner’s ears than even the F-word — I calmed down. I know what Chris meant. Besides, I couldn’t take it too seriously that she reacted like that to high-profile election news in my home state; after all, she hails from Florida.
Also, in recent weeks, the household had begun to lean heavily toward Howard Dean, and the severity of his upset in the highly hyped Iowa contest surprised and concerned us.
I was slow to warm up to Dean, based on my suspicion that his stance on gay marriage is disingenuous — as much as I appreciate his role in the gay movement’s strides in Vermont, I don’t believe him when he says that he opposes full marriage rights for us. While that might be the politically smart thing for him to do, it’s frustrating to me as someone who’s eager to see the movement keep moving forward.
But when my friend Al Gore and my even closer friend Tom Harkin stepped forward to publicly endorse Dean, I decided to put my semantic grudge aside and give Dean my support. I’m not sure why I thought it mattered; I’ve never been one to erect yard signs and by the time Maryland gets a say, it’ll be a different ballgame anyway.
I did get two last-minute queries from friends in Iowa, both wondering who I thought they should support in the caucus. One of them sat unread in my e-mail in-box until it was too late to advise. I suppose I could have been spending the recent weeks urging all of my friends and loved ones in the state to go out and support Dean, but did I really want to take responsibility for all of that risked frostbite as they ventured out into the brisk January night?
Before this week’s turn of events, I had a nagging feeling in my gut that I owed Dick Gephardt a little more love than he was getting from me. Gephardt was, after all, my first “celebrity” interview as a fledgling journalist, and a fledgling lesbian, when I was in high school.
I’d developed a fledgling crush on one of his female campaign staffers, whom I met through my father, a good Democratic activist, and decided to do a profile about her for my school paper. It was a handy way to get to know her better and to feed my fledgling fantasies. I attended one of his campaign appearances with her for the story; she was a go-getter, and suggested that I get a quote or two from him.
So I asked the candidate for a minute of his time and he sweetly obliged, sitting down with me and talking slowly to accommodate my underdeveloped note-taking methods. I don’t think I’d even discovered reporter’s notebooks yet, and was probably writing his words down on a legal pad or one of those uncomfortable large spiral-bound things.
We had a minute or two to ourselves before other reporters (yes, there are media outlets in Iowa beyond Burlington High School’s Purple & Gray) noticed he was vulnerable. A couple of them swooped in, obnoxiously interrupting whatever I was saying to him at the time. I remember clearly how considerate he was in turning his attention back to me before he left that day, asking if there was anything else I needed.
Because of that, and because of his Corn Belt sensibilities, I’ve always mostly admired Gephardt. But even if he did have his spiky-haired, out lesbian daughter proclaiming his firm support on gay issues, I figured he didn’t have the political force — or the eyebrow strength — to pull off this race. Apparently most of Iowa agreed with me.
Amid all of the attention on Iowa’s prominent role in the party nomination process, I’ve been asked several times about whether I ever attended the caucuses there. I did, but only once, as I remember. I moved to Maryland in the fall of 1992, late enough to vote for Bill Clinton by absentee ballot from Iowa.
I don’t remember attending the caucuses earlier that year, when Tom Harkin stole the show, but I do remember being a 17-year-old in 1988 and attending the caucuses then, which I was allowed to do since my 18th birthday would arrive before the general election. I don’t remember who I caucused for. It may well have been Gephardt; he won the Iowa caucuses that year, and I don’t remember the feeling of my candidate losing.
I remember the thrill of participating in the process, although having it all out in the open like that is a little cut-throat for someone who tends to be too competitive. I remember trying to get my good friend Carolyn and the other people who were — foolishly, I was certain — aligning with Jesse Jackson or Paul Simon or someone to join us (whomever I’d aligned with).
The details, somehow, are vague to me — maybe because I was a freshman in college and, after sitting through that long event on a cold night in February, I was about to put my mind back where it had been, which was decidedly not on either my studies or politics.
I do remember the room, how crowded and hectic it was. I remember not being as issues-oriented as I should have been, and not thinking a bit about how gay civil rights might factor into each candidate’s platform and record. I wasn’t convinced yet that gay civil rights would matter to me on any sort of personal level; I still thought I could beat down what felt like the devil within.
Sixteen years later, I’m surviving the day-after effect as a relocated Iowan surrounded by political observers, like my Dean loyalist friend Will, who started in with the goading right away, calling Iowa “a cold, corny enigma.”
OK, but it’s my cold, corny enigma. It’s my f—ing Iowa. If the Iowans want John Kerry, there must be a reason for that, in spite of his long teeth and his hair style that, as my friend Lyn says, “looks like it was made with a Play-Doh mold.”
Anyway, I’m legally a Marylander now, ready to vote in my first Super Tuesday primary in March. (Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in 1996 and 2000, didn’t require any effort during the primary.) It won’t be as contentious or as hypertensive as the Iowa caucuses in 1988, but I’ll do my civic duty. Maybe by then I’ll have a yard sign, whatever name it bears.
Kristina Campbell’s column appears biweekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.