Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Following Bernie, falling for Iowa

I felt proud and impressed after three days reporting on Bernie Sanders’ first campaign trip to Iowa.

I’m aware that I just typed a four-letter F word in my lede. A journalist referring to how she “felt” stinks of bias — another dirty word in most J-schools and newsrooms. But this admission comes without reservation because my feelings are for the people of Iowa rather than the 73-year-old Vermont senator.

Iowa corn field somewhere between
Kensett and Cedar Falls on May 30, 2015. 
Though Sanders was the focus of my coverage, it was the Iowans, themselves, that captured my interest. My history with Iowa goes back to the fourth grade when my family moved more than 1,000 miles from Massena, New York, to Cedar Falls. It was January when I first saw Iowa’s snow-covered fields spiked with the remnants of the previous summer’s corn stalks. At school, I stuck out as an olive-skinned East Coaster among my blond, athletic classmates whose names sounded Germanic and Scandinavian.

With time, the snow melted and bright green corn stalks grew again. It took several more seasons for Iowa to become my home and for my classmates and neighbors to become my community. Somehow they did. And I realized while covering Sanders’ campaign that Iowans are still very much my kind of people.

With my grandmother, Christine, outside her home
in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on June 1, 2015.
Though I now live in Vermont, my Iowa roots remain intact through my parents and my 100-year-old grandmother, who moved there to be near her daughter, my mother. They were the whole reason I went to Iowa in the first place. Sanders’ presidential bid provided a fortuitous convergence of my past and present.

In my regular work life, I’m an editor who spends most of my days in the Burlington Free Press newsroom. I’m familiar with politics only to the extent that I read and edit political stories on an almost daily basis.

My stint on the Sanders beat was the result of a friend and fellow journalist’s encouragement of my interest in reporting and writing. The idea was to cover Sanders early in the campaign before many major news outlets began paying attention. It was also a story that I knew would have interest in Burlington, where Bernie — as he is known — is a household name.

After clearing the idea with my boss, I bought my own ticket to Iowa and began contacting Sanders’ campaign organizers along with Iowa Democrats. Two short weeks later, my mother and I waited for Sanders’ delayed plane to land in the nearly empty arrival area of the Quad City International Airport. A camera crew of two from Vice News killed time playing arcade games. They, too, said their purpose was to capitalize on access to Sanders.

When Sanders and his wife Jane finally walked through security, I welcomed them to the state and told them that they’d be seeing a lot of me over the next few days. Then we all jumped in our respective vehicles and sped to the first event at an already packed auditorium in Davenport.

As I waded through the crowd, I realized it would be impossible to find the venue contact that was supposed to provide me with a private Internet password and camera stand. I asked the first person that looked important if he knew the password. Though he didn’t, he said he would find out and disappeared. I jumped into action and began setting up my equipment to video stream Sanders’ speech.

Bernie Sanders speaks and I shoot video in
Davenport on May 28, 2015.
(Photo credit goes to mom, Marie Stigliani)
Ten minutes later, my impromptu helper returned with the password scrawled on scrap of paper and a stand to steady my camera. When I thanked him for his kindness, he replied, “I’m always happy to help a working journalist.”

I smiled. His generosity reminded me of other Iowans who had gone above and beyond so many times over the 20 years since my family settled in Cedar Falls. I thought of the acquaintances (with a truck) that spent an entire day helping my family haul heavy furniture the last time we moved houses. Of the friends and neighbors who will spend hours searching for my parents’ husky-vizsla mutt when he runs away. And of all the people who stop by the house to welcome me home when I visit my parents.

At the podium, Sanders told the audience that he and Jane were celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary that night. Jane sat beside the stage listening to her husband and scanning the crowd. I wondered what she was thinking.

Over the next days, I went everywhere Sanders went. He proved a surprisingly cooperative photo subject. In order to get good images, I tried to put myself directly in his path as he entered full auditoriums. On at least one occasion, he did me the favor of walking almost directly into my camera with a big grin on his face. I got my photo and he veered off before we collided.

Bernie and Jane Sanders head to a meeting with Democrats in
Muscatine, Iowa, on May 29, 2015.
I also got the chance to speak with Jane on their final morning in Iowa. Her husband, now raspy voiced, was speaking to an over-capacity gymnasium in Iowa City. I was taking a photograph of people who were barred from entering due to fire code. A crowd was standing just outside the glass doors listening to Sanders over loudspeakers. Jane came over with her iPhone to take a picture of them too. (Related article: Sanders packs gym, stairwells in Iowa City)

“We have the same idea,” she said to me.

I began to ask her about the campaign. Was it her first time in Iowa? Yes. What did she think of the people? They were warm and generous, like Vermonters. Was she tired? No, energized.

Then she looked out over the crowd and tears came to her eyes. She said that watching her husband campaign in Iowa made her feel the way she did when they first fell in love.

“It’s great to feel proud and impressed by a person you've lived with for 27 years,” she said.

I nodded with understanding. I feel the same way about Iowans.