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Political Brew: The Iowan Tradition

This feature ran in the January/February 2008 issue of The Iowan.

Political Brew

The Iowan Tradition of Coffee, Conversation & Caucusing

Story by Terri Queck-Matzie, photography by Larry Reynolds


At Bon’s Bakehouse in Greenfield the conversation is as liquid as the coffee. On a typical Wednesday morning, the topic du jour is a recap of the weekend’s auction, complete with prices and bidders. Talk turns to high school crushes, childhood teachers, and the price of rum. Before long, the Chrysler strike is steering the exchange, and soon it’s the local hospital expansion.

Most of the crowd is retired — a postmaster, a theater owner, an attorney, a banker, an army lieutenant colonel. A couple of farmers drift in and out. So do the insurance men and the chief of police. The retired school principal is there sporadically, when he isn’t substitute teaching.

Their views and opinions are as varied as the array of available topics. They are Republican, Democrat, Independent, and Green. They’ll tell you they don’t talk politics. Yet in the months leading up to the Iowa caucus, the subject is inevitable.

They gather at a long, rectangular table, set prior to their arrival with white ceramic mugs neatly arranged on a tray and a carafe each of freshly brewed regular and decaf. The tea and Coke drinkers are met at the door with their beverage of choice. Some pick up a pastry as they make their way through the front room past the glass cases filled with delectable delights.

The room is simple and comfortable and filled with the hubbub of preparation for the lunch crowd. Enticing aromas waft from the kitchen, offering a hint of the upcoming feast. It’s a familiar scene played out in coffee shops and cafes across the state. The members of these coffee groups change with time, and so do the daily subjects, but the gathering of citizens to openly converse does not. The tradition is as Iowan as the rhubarb pie just coming out of the oven.


An Enduring Tradition

Alongside corn and common sense, caucuses are an integral part of the Iowa landscape. They began before official statedom. The term likely has American Indian origins, meaning a gathering of the ruling tribal chiefs. Framers of the Iowa Constitution favored the caucus approach over primaries for its grassroots involvement.

The Iowa contest has been termed good for the candidates and even better for the nation. It’s the arena where candidate meets voter — face-to-face, issue to issue. Since 1972, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation electoral event has proved to be the litmus test of presidential campaigns, and “retail politics” is the name of the game.

Just as in days gone by, modern-day campaigning in Iowa still means pavement pounding and handshaking. And coffee drinking. The Iowa caucuses are so much a part of everyday life in the year leading up to a presidential election that they seep into even the most politically benign conversations.

In places like Greenfield, personal participation in the process is taken for granted. It is ingrained in one’s being, the element of existence that comes from keeping one’s finger on the pulse of the community. Interspersed with talk of crops and golf is a discussion about the best available building for the county caucus, the alignment of voting precincts, and the pros and cons of electronic voting.

Like weather, politics is an ever-present interest. Even a conversation about proposed wind turbines takes on a political edge. “Once the election’s over, we won’t have enough wind to power them,” quips Ted Howe. At 93, Howe has been attending the coffee group since “about 1940.” He’s seen a lot of elections — and caucuses — come and go.

“We don’t talk about politics like we used to,” Howe explains. “I’m sorry that’s changed. But this group still has a lot of influence in the community. Every one of these people belongs to other groups like the Legion or Lions, and they take what we talk about here and pass it on.”


Up-Front And Personal

The scene is similar at the Family Table in Emmetsburg. Though the table here is round and the mugs mismatched, the coffee and conversation flow just as strongly. “We’re not changing anyone’s mind here,” says Allen Trelstad of the political conversations that permeate the local topics in the week before the Republican Straw Poll in Ames. The group is split along party lines but agrees on one thing — the campaign is too long and costs too much money.

Emmetsburg is in Palo Alto County, a bellwether region for many years. Politics is a part of life here, and its gathering places are popular stops for candidates. Campaign issues are discussed openly and often. “It keeps us all better informed,” adds Allen.

Carl Repp of Newton sees participation in the morning coffee ritual as a way to not only inform but broaden people’s minds. “If you have a room full of people with different political backgrounds, everyone’s going to learn something,” assures Repp, a Maytag retiree and active political participant.

The coffee klatch in Newton goes a step further and directly credits the town’s plethora of early morning gatherings with the level of caucus participation. “I think our conversations remind people to caucus,” says Repp, as he brags on the number of locals that regularly attend in his precinct. “The talk is in the air. It keeps it on people’s minds.”

Gathered at the Midtown Cafe, a place where a plateful of eggs and hash browns usually accompanies the cup of joe, Repp and his compatriots — a healthy mix of ages, genders, and occupations — openly embrace the political.

More mornings than not, politics is the talk of the day and newcomers are asked to state their political affiliation before their first cup of coffee is poured, with the subtle suggestion that the wrong answer could result in transfer to another table. “Isn’t this really what we’re all about? The freedom to discuss and deliberate?” remarks coffee regular Bill Jensen.

Set kitty-corner across the street, Uncle Nancy’s Coffee House offers a venture into the cyber coffee world. The atmosphere is modern and comfortable, colorful and lively. Patrons gather in clusters of upholstered rattan furniture and tall bistro tables, drinking the latte of the day. Original artwork lines the walls and large plants fill the corners. The crowd is mixed — men and women, young and old, vogue and conventional, loungers and those on the go.

The town’s strong union base has long been a draw for political hopefuls, and Uncle Nancy’s is a popular stop along the campaign trail. Democrat Joe Biden is expected in the coming days. But this morning’s chatter surrounds presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s health insurance plan. Even the nonpolitical clusters can’t resist the issue. Health care is the talk of the hour, with plan comparisons drifting through the air like the hint of hazelnut and raspberry coming from the coffeepots.

The serious groups take a cold, hard look at the practicality of Clinton’s plan amid the recap of Friday night’s high school football game and the latest road construction. The less issue-oriented groups talk of drug co-pays and deductibles. “We’re as good as the politicians,” says regular Glen Brown. “We’ve solved all the problems and tomorrow we’ll come back and do it again.”

Back at the Midtown, Carl Repp puts a more direct spin on the familiar theme. “We’re just like the government,” he jokes. “We fix problems, then create more.”


The Common Touch

At the North Side Cafe in Winterset, the mini cereal boxes are impeccably lined on a shelf behind the counter. The faded green Hamilton Beach malt machine shows its use. A cup of coffee and a refill costs 80 cents, according to the handwritten cardboard sign on the wall. The patrons are a mix of locals and tourists.

The North Side claims its fame from the movie The Bridges of Madison County. People from as far away as Arizona and California come to have their photo taken on the bar stools where Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood sat — the first two on the south side of the counter.

But for local coffee drinkers, the prime spot is the far north stool, near the kitchen and the ashtray. These regulars don’t come to the North Side in groups; they come one by one. They read the paper, order a bite, and chat with the waitresses. Or the person lucky enough to grab the second stool south.

There they linger, soaking up the news of the day and the cherry pie. “You get good cherry pie here,” says Lew Jordan, a Winterset attorney and North Side regular. His pie comes with vanilla soft-serve. His opinions come with many years of observation and political involvement. Jordan’s been listening to his fellow patrons talk about everything imaginable for decades. He doesn’t think the coffee drinkers wield a lot of political influence “or else Bush wouldn’t be President,” he says with a mischievous smile as he admits his devout Democratic affiliation. But he thinks they ought to.

“Candidates don’t talk to real people,” he laments, “and they should. It would do them good to talk to a construction worker.” Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani agrees and sees the personal interaction of the Iowa campaign as a two-way street. At a midsummer campaign stop at the Nodaway Diner in Greenfield, he comments on the advantages of small-group coffee shop conversations.

“This [kind of interaction] is one of the most important things you can do,” he says of his time chatting with those gathered around a dining table near the back of the establishment. “It tells me what people are thinking about. I’d rather find out from the people what the issues are than wait for the pollsters to tell me.”

That’s easy to do in Iowa, according to Giuliani. “Talking with people here is like a Washington, D.C., press conference,” he explains. “I’m always amazed by the quality of questions. It shows how much Iowans care about politics and how informed they are. As someone who loves politics and government, I find that exhilarating.”

If Giuliani — or any other candidate — wants opinions, he has come to the right place. Politics is personal in Iowa, and across town at Bon’s, there are plenty of opinions to share. It’s Friday and the men wear red shirts in support of the troops, even as open criticism of the war in Iraq spills from both sides of the political table.

The talk turns to U of I football and harvest progress and, eventually, to the next candidate slated to come to town. Before long the room fills with ribald laughter as the conversation veers to meeting women at the weekend dance. “We keep our sense of humor,” says Howe with a quick wink and a sly grin.

In the small-town world of politics and coffee, perspective is as important as the news of the day.


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