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08.07.2020

Sara Huddleston on the Latino Vote in Iowa

Last week I spoke with Sara Huddleston, candidate for Iowa state house in district 11 (Storm Lake). A longtime community organizer and three-term city council member, she was the first Latina elected to a city council in the state of Iowa, and would be the first Latina to serve in the state house. She was recently named to Joe Biden's Iowa Latino Steering Committee.

The last time Sara ran, she did so on a shoestring budget. This year, we're supporting Sara and several of her fellow candidates in Iowa and Arizona through a fundraising effort called the State Slate. The Iowa state house race is one of the closest in the country—we need to win four seats to break the Republican trifecta. If you enjoy this interview, I hope you will contribute to the State Slate!

At several points in our conversation, we refer to “J.D.”—this is J.D. Scholten, the candidate for Congress in the district that includes Storm Lake. I did a similar interview with him back in April, which I encourage you to read next!

I'm delighted to meet you. Please, tell us about yourself and your race!

First of all, I really appreciate what you guys are doing. We've been getting a lot of contributions which is really appreciated and needed. You're right—especially in rural areas like Iowa, raising money and then getting people to participate is hard. You have to work hard to get to people here.

I was telling J.D. that one of the things we need to mobilize the Latino vote. I don't know how much you know about me but four years ago I ran for the first time. And we were pretty close, about 3,000 votes short of getting elected. During that time we raised the number of registered Democrats by 10%. I was working to get people registered to vote.

I'm always a strong advocate for exercising your rights. So we were registering them to vote, get absentee ballots, and figure out the place they needed to go. I was out there on the football field, soccer field, the baseball field, church—whatever it was, wherever I needed to be and we increased registration by 10%.

This is my second time trying. I was on City Council for 12 years, serving three terms as the first Latina elected to City Council in the whole state of Iowa. With the highest votes which nobody has been able to beat that number. And you have to understand, this was in 2004.

I was born in Mexico, moved here 30 years ago, married my husband Mac who is from the United States—he's from the East Coast—and three years after I got my citizenship I decided to run for city council. And we made it!

I've done a lot here. I've been involved in so many boards, both at the City Council level and the state level. I sit on the magistrates commission and on the airport commission. This time I decided to run because, like you say, there are so many issues. People are upset because nothing is happening. Things are getting worse and somebody’s got to do something. Somebody's got to step up and help.

And so I decided, why not. Let's do it, let’s try to do something. I called J.D. and said “Hey, we're going to get this done. I'm going to help you, we're going to get it done and I'm going to get more votes and do whatever I can.”

People already know me, I represent two counties. Buena Vista and Sac County, seventeen towns in total. Four years ago I door knocked each town—all seventeen towns. So people are familiar now with my face. I got to door knock in Republican houses and Democrats, whoever was out there, just to get my name and my face out there, for people to get to know me.

When politicians campaign, many times they don't go to little towns and interact with people. Based on my own feelings, I thought that if I had to choose one of these candidates, I would really like to know “who is Sara Huddleston, what is she running for?” So that’s what I did. Now, of course, everything is different with covid. You can't do much, everything is online, calling, phone calls.

You must spend your life on Zoom now

Yes, lots. All my meetings, all my trainings—Zoom. This time I'm getting a lot of things through Zoom. Of course we have a Facebook page, emails, that kind of stuff. If not for covid, we would be doing something else, but we can’t do that. We can’t be close to people.

It's frustrating because in the state races I know you can actually meet most of your voters, if you put in the work.

Yeah, oh yes.

For people who've never been to Western Iowa, can you describe Storm Lake, what the community is like and what life is like out in the western half of the state?

I call Storm Lake the little oasis in the middle of nowhere. We are in a very rural area. I would say we have about 14 to 15,000 people in this town. We have a meat plant, Tyson, and we have an industrial area. We have Rembrandt, which focuses on chickens, and about 45 minutes from here there’s another meat plant. There’s a university, and a high school. It’s a very, very nice town. And of course it has a lake—a lovely green area right out in the middle of nowhere.

In Buena Vista county, we have a high number of Democrats. Sac County is where we have the Republicans. But you never know. We have a majority Republican, some Democrats, and in the middle a big number of independents and people with no party affiliation. That’s a big number that you can grab. We have pretty much everything—these towns are very nice. Even though we are far away from everything, we have everything. There’s a hospital, clinics, tourism—it’s a very nice town.

When I was on city council, we created a hotel, which generates a lot of revenue for the city and is becoming the best spot in the area. Everybody goes to this hotel to enjoy the lakefront park.

The community here in Storm Lake is very diverse. There are something like 40 languages spoken at the high school. The Latino population keeps increasing. The latest arrivals are the Cubans, we had a lot of Cubans moving in, Mexicans, Salvadorans, you name it.

What brings Cubans out to Iowa?

The meat plant! they're all working at this meat plant! The meat plants and other agricultural industries that we have around. And the pay is good, that's one thing.

If you compare the salary of what you make—for instance, I know one Cuban who was working at the airport in Miami, they make double that salary now in the meat plant. So they move here. Once moved, they bring their families. It has increased a lot; we’ve had a lot of Cubans lately.

J.D. told me a bit about the meat plants. First off, they’re huge, they employ thousands of people. Is that mostly immigrant labor?

I would say so, I would say so. It's mostly immigrant labor in Storm Lake, Iowa. Asians, Latinos, a few African-Americans from Chicago, they’ve moved here. These towns are very nice, especially if you want to have a family. You feel safe—they are safe towns for families, for kids. That's one of the things that you find out from people who want to settle down here. You have young people who at their age are going to come see and go back to the cities where they come from, but people who want to establish a family, they stay. That's been very good for the community.

The meat plants—that’s definitely the job where they work. We have a lot of people too working for the schools, the hospital.

One of the things I learned from J.D. early on is there’s very low unemployment in Northwest Iowa. But when you listen to [incumbent IA-4 Congressman] Steve King, his message was always "these people are pouring over the border, invading our country”. He had all this anti-immigrant rhetoric, but at the same time, the economy where you are is heavily dependent on immigrant and migrant labor. Not just the meat plants, but all of agriculture.

Exactly.

So how do white farmers in Iowa balance this in their head between "I don't want my country invaded by foreigners" and “I really need them to do all the work”?

I don't know. This is from my own experience. I worked for the domestic abuse and sexual assault agency for 14 years. And during that time I worked with a lot of battered immigrant women. We’d deal with immigration, I was trying to help with immigration , especially applying for citizenship or any legal status through VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act).

One of the things that we started noticing is that starting in 1996 a big wave of immigrants started coming. But you're right, what is all this rhetoric with King? My personal point of view is that he used that a lot for political purposes, to get elected.

But it’s a two-way street. The farmers-yes, you have a lot of immigrants moving here. And more and more each year, they're getting legalized, gaining some kind of legal status—either a work permit, a legal permanent resident, or U.S. citizenship.

But you need them, especially in these meat plants. This area is 100% agriculture. Farmers bring their animal stock here. Both groups need each other. And more and more, I've been noticing there are immigrants working on the farms, especially the dairy farms, working with hogs, or building buildings on the farms.

I have a few farmer friends who say that they need immigrants, because who else is going to do this kind of job? If they weren’t needed, they wouldn’t be moving here. And every year you see at least two or three new families in town.

My personal point of view is that Steve King uses a lot of that for himself, for his political campaign. People love him when they hear something like that.

But why does it work so well? I can understand it working in a place that’s economically depressed, but a place where you struggle to find farm hands, and at the same time you’re attacking immigrants and people still vote for you. I guess I just don’t understand why it was so effective.

Let me tell you, when I ran the first time for city council, this town used to have more caucasian people here. And I thought “who is going to elect me?” When I ran, there were six people, three seats, two re-elected and one practically open. There were six candidates for these seats. I couldn’t believe that they voted for me. I thought "who's going to vote for me?” All these people [running] had money, they were businessmen, bankers, they were well known. But I heard a lot of people tell me we needed to have a Latino person run to represent that community and have a voice, and I thought, that’s true. And we made it.

I think all these contradictions—if we didn’t have people here, these towns would die. They would die because what are they going to do? You look at the meat plants today, about 90% of the workforce is immigrants. the high school is 75% or more immigrants, Latinos and every other culture, in the high school. Can you imagine the impact if something happened? Would they close the plants? The schools depend on them, the farmers depend on them, everybody—the economy would collapse.

And I don't think this town is going to die soon. In fact, it’s growing more.

You’ve been working hard to mobilize the Latino vote. Why are levels of voting so low among the Hispanic community in rural places?

I believe there's a lot of barriers. Even though they become naturalized US citizens, especially when they’re older foks—you know you can have the naturalization test in your own language when you’re a certain age—the language barrier is real. There needs to be more education, more information on your voting rights. In other countries, and especially in Latin American countries, politics are very corrupt. Many of the politicians do not get that close to citizens. They do not go and shake hands. Only when they're going to do the campaign at the very last minute.

When people come here and become citizens, they don’t know the way politics works. The way that I see it, the vote is your voice. If you want something to change, if you want something to happen, you have to exercise that voice, you have to get out and vote. That's the only way something is going to move, something is going to happen.

So one of the things I always do is inform, educate about the meaning of the vote, and what your participation means for the community. That is the main reason.

But there’s also other reasons. When they do elections, it usually happens on a weekday. I can't speak for the rest of the nation, but I have an idea about here. People work at the meat plants from 8 to 5, 8 to 6. November in Iowa is cold, there's snow, there might be ice. As you're getting out of work, it already looks like the middle of the night. It’s cold and dark, you go straight home. The last thing you want to do is get out and go to vote. You've got your kids, you've got to feed them, you've got to do this and that. You only have a couple of hours because tomorrow, you have to wake up at four in the morning to prepare lunches for the family and then go back to work.

So when they get home and they have a window of time to go vote, they’re tired. The last thing they want to do is change and take a shower and go out to vote.

Vote by mail will really help with this. Now, in the primaries, voting participation was high because people could send in absentee ballots. One of the reporters from the local newspaper told me they were very surprised because turnout was high for the primary election.

The absentee ballot also gives you more time for voter turnout, instead of getting everybody out on one day.

Exactly. So there’s a lot of barriers, the language, many times people don’t understand who they’re voting for. When I ran four years ago, I carried my calling card and other politician’s cards, because they didn’t know who was who. That was very interesting. When I was door knocking, I would ask “are you familiar with these guys?” Let’s say Steve King, I'd ask “have you heard of Steve King?”. And they say “oh yes we know him” but, but they've never seen his face or familiarized themselves with his platform. They only heard bad things about him, and then you show them the posters. “This is him, and this is the guy running against him.”

There was a lot of education. I spent a lot of time educating people, especially the Latino community, about the election and about getting out to vote. But in the end, it raised Democratic registration in the district by 10%.

And it was a lot of work. I went to soccer fields, football fields, I stayed after church, I carried little postcards, I made little handouts to help familiarize people with voting. We had tables everywhere, even the meat plant at the time let me set up a table with no party affiliation, just information about voting, how to ask for an absentee ballot, how to participate.

So that’s what I did. Now that I'm running again, people see me and say "you're running again, that's really good, I'm going to vote for you.”

I went to a Bernie event in Storm Lake, and I also saw Mayor Pete event there. They both had amazing turnout, an overflow crowd. The Sanders campaign especially was working hard to organize the Latino vote for the caucuses. But I also know that the second the presidential primary is over in Iowa, they all leave. So I’m wondering if that has helped you, or if was just done for their campaigns.

You see that especially in Iowa, it's not just Storm Lake. Presidential candidates when they run, they start here in Iowa with the caucuses. After it’s all over, that’s it. Nothing happens. That’s why I’m a true believer that not just for the presidential race or any specific election, that getting out to vote is a continuous education. It’s gotta be continuous, educating people.

Every time I find out that someone has become a US citizen, I try to educate and talk about voting. People need to be voting every year. The Presidential candidates come here, say one thing, show up, and then leave.

Do they leave anything behind? Do they say “hey here’s some lists of people we signed up?” Is there any sort of transfer? Or do they just disappear over the horizon?

Everybody disappeared, practically. They only focus on Iowa during the time they are running. J.D. has been pretty persistent! He’s from Sioux City, so he’s about an hour from here. He’s always been there, moving and contacting people.

Because of coronavirus we haven't done any events, but last year he and I had events. We were having people everywhere.

That’s what happens in these areas.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m glad you guys are doing this because seriously, to run for any position at this level, first of all you have to have guts. And second of all, you have to have a group of people that can support you, of volunteers. In this area, you have Democrats who keep quiet about it, “I’m a Democrat but shhh…” because most people are Republicans.

Once you are in Des Moines, it’s like this half of the state doesn’t exist. So we have to do it ourselves, work hard to get there. And yes, they pay attention here and there, but not as much as they do to candidates who are in Des Moines or on the other side of the state.

We have to prove that we’re working, that we have volunteers. Like I was saying to J.D., we have to work together, get things together, try to get as many people as we can to get out and vote, especially in the Latino community.

Can you talk about the money side of things as a state candidate? You mentioned that you have to hire a team; how do you also go about fundraising during a pandemic?

We have to make phone calls. It’s called phone banking. You have to purchase the “VAN” [the Voter Action Network, a database sold by the Democratic Party], that’s the whole list of voters, all the information is there. You have to call them and ask them are they going to support you, are they willing to donate something.

How much does VAN cost you?

For a state representative at this level, we have to pay $1,200.

That’s a lot of money for a state race.

It is. You have a budget, you get an example of a budget. In my case, the sample budget was for $60,000 (laughs). And they kind of calculate how much you’re going to be spending for media, for signs, all that stuff costs money

When I ran the first time, I did it all by myself. You had to have the money just to buy the minimum—let’s say signs. Signs cost a lot of money, and sometimes they tell you not to spend money on this or that. Say we don’t spend money on t-shirts, buttons—you stil lhave to have the money for radio, media, newspapers.

And four years ago, before covid, you had to do all the parades! When you start counting parades in each county if you want to get your name out there, you have to spend money to go into those parades—your truck, somebody’s going to lend you a truck, carry your signs, buttons, stickers. Because people want that.

Iowans are very spoiled politically, because they’re used to the big-spending national campaigns.

Yes! So it’s a lot. And I’ve done a lot of trainings. In my case, Emily’s List has one training, I’ve done a national democratic training committee that the state provided. This time because of Covid, we’re doing everything on Zoom.

Fundraising is one of the trainings. You’re supposed to call your friends—you start with your friends, your family, then you start outreaching out there. Hopefully people believe in you, like you, and they give you money. That’s the main thing.

It’s a lot of work, and a lot of things. you have to prepare. That’s just the fundraising. Then there’s another period when you have to make phone calls, because it’s getting closer to the election. Then you’re trying to convince them to vote for you, talk them through the process of voting, do they need an absentee ballot… there’s tons of work to do.

If you’re talking to someone who’s not really following the election, what are the top issues you give them that you’re running on?

In my case, because a lot of people know me in the area, since I’ve been on City Council and other boards, I’m well known in this area. When I talk to a friend or somebody that knows me from the school, I’m going to be talking about the school since they want to hear about that. So education is very important.

I'm also very aware that where I live is an agricultural area, and we need to include farmers. We talk about what are we going to be doing with agriculture, the economy, especially right now with covid, a lot of businesses are not having people coming and shopping. I was just in downtown this morning and there were only a few cars. Some of the businesses may be closing or already closed because of covid. There is a big economic impact.

We have education, health—that people can’t afford insurance. One of the reasons I decided to run this time was a personal issue. I have a daughter who goes to college right now, and she didn't have insurance for a year. I couldn't afford it and my husband couldn't afford it. We both had jobs, but if we put her on our insurance, it would have cost about $600/month. That’s a lot of money.

We started looking at what they had to offer. She couldn't qualify for Medicaid. So we have to find ways to make this affordable.

We also talk about jobs, raising the minimum wage, environmental issues. Mostly it’s about health and education.

I know that rural health care has beein in a crisis, and especially rural mental health. You see it driving through Iowa. In the big cities, everything is hospitals and medical care, and in small towns, at most there’s an urgent care clinic.

If you want specialist care or anything that has more resources, you have to go to Minnesota, Des Moines, or Omaha. Des Moines is the closest; Omaha is about two hours away. You’ve seen how rural we are.

So you have your choice of long drives

Once you pass Fort Dodge on Hwy 20, all this area is more isolated than the east part of Iowa. More fields, more corn, more soybeans. And the small towns *are* dying because there’ s not much going on in the little towns. Storm Lake is one of the strong communities in this area in regards to the economy. It’s still growing, people are still coming, the schools are full.

We mentioned it a couple of times already, but Covid is obviously having an impact. Back to school time is coming. Since the Latino community was disproportionately affected through the meat plants, I’m curious how that’s playing out right now?

One, it’s pretty scary, there is no plan. Teachers are going to go back and worry how are they going to deal with this. Families, especially here in Buena Vista county, where there are a high number of covid cases, I don’t know how they’re going to do it. People have died here. But there’s no planning implemented right now for staying safe—there’s nothing.

My daughter goes to college and she says three classes are going to be in person, and two classes online. But how are they going to do it? They don’t know yet. Will it be a few students at different hours? They still don't know, but they're going to start school three weeks from now, in August. It’s very scary.

Anything else you’d like people to know about your race?

Here’s one thing that I have to say, and I’m really proud of this. If I win, and I have to win, I want to win, I will be the first Latina elected to the State House. We do not have representation at the state house level.

Are you kidding me?

No Latinas at all. It would be the first time in history. I was already the first Latina elected to City Council in Iowa, we already made history here. We got that twice.

I know we talk bad about Steve King, but let me tell you—I work with everybody. And I like to get things done. And I don’t like just to pretend. I’m very progressive, I help anyone I can—everyone who knows me will say “Sara helps”.

But something needs to happen. It’s very sad how we are right now. The economy is hurting everyone. Education, you name it, every single area of the government. I would really be proud if you guys can continue to support me. I told JD: I’m going to work hard, we’re going to do something, but we need the fundraising to get things done.

And like I said, if I win, we will make history!

Thank you so much for talking to me!

Again, please help Sara Huddleston and ten of her fellow state house candidates win pivotal elections in November by making a donation, big or small, to the State Slate.

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