By Tayla Courage and Sabrina Washington/ Seigenthaler News Service
Tayla Courage and Sabrina Washington were two of six MTSU journalism students who spent four days in Iowa covering the Iowa caucus system. Funding was provided by the Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies.
Newton, Iowa – This town of about 16,000 is 35 miles northeast of Des Moines. It’s a town surrounded by rolling farmland, where the last of the corn crop is now being harvested, where noisy combines mosey along county roads as they move from one field to the next.
Newton is a town of murals, a mixture of pastoral scenes and free-flowing abstracts, all created by high school students. The local newspaper, the Newton Daily News, has one on its building that tells the story of producing a newspaper, but in a pre-digital era.
It’s a town of churches of many denominations, large brick buildings that dominate street corners. Downtown is filled with a variety of small businesses and shops, including what is surely one of the smallest Dairy Queens in the United States. No dine-in here, just drive through.
If anyone in Tennessee knows of Newton, it may be because their washing machine was made here. Rather, was made here. Maytag, a leading employer in the community for decades, closed shop in 2007, putting more than 3,000 out of work. Evidence of the Maytag empire remains downtown, the Maytag Hotel an obvious example. The 93-year-old building has been turned into affordable-living apartments.
And what’s a town without a coffee shop, or in the case of Newton, two coffee shops. Last Friday morning, when the temperatures had dipped into the high 20s, both were doing a brisk business.
At Uncle Nancy’s Coffee House and Eatery on Second Avenue West tables lined the walls on the left and right. The walls were painted the color of egg yolks. Behind the counter in the kitchen, owner Gina Adams mixed a batch of homemade fudge, the spatula producing a rhythmic “ting” as she stirred.
At one table a group of about a dozen women shared photos of their grandchildren and caught up with each other’s news. Across the diner, a smaller group of late middle-aged men huddled around a table, sipping on mugs of steaming coffee. They talked of sports and farming.
There wasn’t a peep about politics from any of them, which seems unusual since the Hawkeye State is under intense scrutiny as the candidates for president are racking up miles crisscrossing the state. Many of them have already made stops in Newton and many will no doubt return.
But half a block over, at Bridgehouse Coffee, politics were on the minds of a younger set.
Newton native Allison Whalen, 33, said she could see how the primary system used in other states could be a more efficient process of gauging the public’s interest in politics than the caucus system employed by Iowa.
“The bother of being an Iowan during this time, I could do without it, personally. Like if it was a different state, it would be okay with me,” said Whalen, sitting in a window-facing sofa. A black planner was on the table in front of her because she was taking a few hours for herself. She is a mother to a boy and girl.
Whalen said she leans more conservative in her values, but she doesn’t feel the need to argue her opinions on social media, or to attend a caucus meeting that can turn raucous.
“Respect each other, and just, like, calm down,” Whalen said of her philosophy.
Whalen admitted that she doesn’t closely follow the candidates who come in and out of Newton but acknowledged if they are truly concerned about Iowa issues they would be seeking out voters like her.
“I would think that just because I’m an Iowan that maybe they would want to talk to me more or try and get my vote more, but I don’t think it necessarily means they’re being ingenuine. It’s just, I mean that’s just priorities,” said Whalen.
“I mean I’m not going to go run for President of the Unites States and go talk to a bunch of unregistered voters. It’s kind of the same thing. You know, I’m not going to go to Chile and campaign for America,” she continued.
She doesn’t watch the news often or scroll on Facebook all day long. Most of her social media news comes from her children relaying the message.
One door down, Paul Mattingly, 67, owner of Mattingly Music, sipped his cup of to-go coffee from Bridgehouse.
Mattingly, who sports a white moustache, is a staunch Democrat. He’s looking for anyone who can be sure to stop President Trump from serving a second term. He doesn’t caucus because he doesn’t like the system. The caucus weeds out candidates that would be good, he contended.
“Steyer is a good man I think but he doesn’t stand a chance,” said Mattingly, referring to Tom Steyer, a billionaire philanthropist who is running. “I would rather just have a list of candidates that I can check a box for,” he added.
Meanwhile, Mattingly said the music store’s days are numbered. Mattingly said retirement is forthcoming, but he holds no visions of someone buying him out.
“No one’s going to buy this and have to work 60 to 70 hours a week for $40,000 a year,” he said.
“It is what it is. Amazon and the internet got me.”
He hopes one of the Democratic candidates will help business owners like him.
At Uncle Nancy’s, it’s not just politics that’s not up for discussion. The loss of Maytag isn’t either.
“People in Newton don’t talk about that,” said Adams. “It was bad—people that worked there for 20, 30-plus years had to start over in a new career after that.”
Adams is one of those former Maytag employees who had to find a new career after the company’s closure. She took over the coffee house several years ago.
“Maytag treated Iowans terribly, for those that did not or was not offered a position to relocate.”
There’s no doubt the economy is high on the mind of Adams and many other Iowa voters as the 2020 election looms. Every candidate speaks to their economic plans at every stop.
Some of the presidential candidates have made their way to Uncle Nancy’s, which got its name from previous owners who had two Aunt Nancy’s in their family. They decided to call one “Uncle Nancy” to distinguish the two and the nickname stuck.
Adams said this political season began in earnest in mid-September.
“Politicians come through and sometimes stay for hours. Recently, we’ve had Bullock, come in,” said Adams, referring to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
Iowa mornings and coffee go together but including politics in the mix appeared to be a generational issue.
Back in Des Moines, Michael Larsen, a barista at Java Joe’s and a native Iowan, offered a theory. “There’s a generation gap when it comes to politics, the older generation did not discuss their beliefs publicly at all, they were even hesitant to sometimes discuss with spouses,” said Larsen, a stocky, maple-haired man wearing cargo shorts despite the freezing temperatures.
Larsen said it is believed that farmers taking time out of their morning for a coffee break made coffee shops a place of socialization. Additionally, the dreary winter weather that Iowa endures also is a factor.
“You have to keep in mind we’re under a five-month overcast and it’s very easy to become depressed. But the coffee shop influence was a carried-on tradition from farmer culture,” said Larsen.
Coffee and chit-chat go together as much as Iowa and presidential politics. Until another state takes over the starting point of the presidential preference primaries, the coffee will percolate and the candidates will be Iowa bound.
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